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HomeAmerican HistoryJoshua Chamberlain and Me | HistoryNet

Joshua Chamberlain and Me | HistoryNet

In the Autumn 2022 challenge of America’s Civil War, Thomas A. Desjardin, Ph.D. — former historian and archivist at Gettysburg National Military Park — writes about how common tradition and trendy Battle of Gettysburg histories have dramatically reworked the true story of the twentieth Maine Infantry’s heroic bayonet cost on Little Round Top on July 2, 1863. Desjardin, who’s at the moment engaged on two books specializing in the lifetime of Medal of Honor winner Joshua L. Chamberlain, units the report straight in our article. Among Desjardin’s spectacular bona fides is that he was actor Jeff Daniels’ historic adviser on the 1993 film “Gettysburg.” Here, he shares his experiences working then with Daniels and the friendship they proceed to take pleasure in practically 30 years later.

Watching passengers disembark from the small airplane out on the runway of the Portland International Jetport, I scanned every one, questioning who amongst them is perhaps the personification of Civil War hero Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain. Was he tall? Did he have a profoundly overblown mustache? Would I do know him by his upright navy bearing? In a second or two, I might meet the person who would turn out to be for all to see the famed Col. Chamberlain.

I had recognized of the actor Jeff Daniels as a result of, a number of years earlier whereas a scholar at Florida State University, I had learn the newspapers a few film being filmed on the town wherein Daniels starred. Tallahassee was nonetheless sufficiently small then that even a comparatively modest movie manufacturing made the each day papers, and one may observe alongside the place they’d shot on a given day. Seven years later, I had been in correspondence with a producer in Hollywood who was intent on bringing to movie a largely unknown novel, Michael Shaara’s “The Killer Angels,” that gave Mainers like me motive for nice satisfaction. The star of this manufacturing, as with Shaara’s novel, can be the man I had been learning since I used to be 10 years previous, having grown up 19 miles from his dwelling practically on the campus of Bowdoin College, my father’s alma mater.


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Meeting Jeff Daniels

Per week or so earlier than the airplane arrived in Portland, my cellphone rang and upon answering I heard a voice say, “Hi, I’m Jeff Daniels and I have just been cast as Joshua Chamberlain.” I briefly recalled the Tallahassee filming and questioned if he was the man in that spider film “Arachnophobia.” I couldn’t fairly conjure the picture of his face, however we chatted for some time, and he requested if I might present him round one of the best Chamberlain websites in Maine and assist him put together for his function.

Somewhere in the course of the passengers strolling throughout the tarmac he got here into view. He was tall, no mustache, and wore plain tan khakis, a ball cap, and a type of loud, Hawaiian, flowered print shirts. We had some work to do.

From the Portland International Jetport — so named due to the one flight to Canada every week — we drove the 30 or so miles to the Bowdoin campus, the epicenter of most of Chamberlain’s life. Our first cease was on the former dwelling of Harriet Beecher Stowe, a block or two from campus, which was then an inn and restaurant. Since it was lunchtime, I figured I might make him purchase me a sandwich.


But I had different motives. For one, I wished to make “Hawaiian shirt” man perceive that the character he was enjoying and knew little about was greater than only a native legend, little recognized exterior the Pine Tree State. On the drive, I had dropped just a few hints about Chamberlain’s relationships with Mark Twain; the time Abraham Lincoln admired his horse; or how Teddy Roosevelt, with Chamberlain subsequent to him on the platform, as soon as advised a crowd how envious he was of the Maine hero who had obtained his Medal of Honor in fight, whereas Roosevelt all the time thought-about his personal Medal of Honor extra of a symbolic gesture.

“I was greeted here by you, General,” Roosevelt had stated. “[T]o him it was given, at the supreme moment of the warm to win the supreme reward of a soldier. All honor to the man and may we keep ourselves envying because to whom came the supreme good fortune of winning the medal of honor for mighty deeds done in the mightiest battle that the nineteenth century saw — Gettysburg.”

“Wait. He won a Medal of Honor?” Daniels requested. To which I replied: “Well, you don’t ‘earn’ them, they are awarded, but yes he did, and you’re going to play him doing it.”

In July 1992, actor Jeff Daniels flew to Maine to go to historian Desjardin for his function as Joshua Chamberlain in “Gettysburg,” The subsequent month, the 2 met once more in Pennsylvania for filming — and to take this image. (Credit: Ned Smith)

As his expression grew extra and extra involved with the problem forward, we stopped on the parlor simply contained in the Stowe House so I may lay it on a bit of thicker. In the small room, the house owners had positioned just a few antiques to depict its significance.

“In this room, as a scholar at Bowdoin, Chamberlain sat cross-legged on this flooring along with his classmates and listened whereas the spouse of their professor, Calvin Stowe, learn aloud from the e-book she was writing on this room.

“You probably know it as ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin,’” I stated. “Chamberlain heard the author read it right in this room before it was published. Let’s get some lunch.”

Hearing a “Wait, what?” as we moved towards the eating room, I spotted I had set the hook. This was not simply one other paying gig. He was getting ready to play a really vital historic determine and in his first-ever try at portraying somebody who had really existed.

Over lunch, I bear in mind sizing Jeff up and snickering a bit of.

“What?” he requested, virtually a bit aggravated. “Well,” I replied, providing my first actual evaluation, “You’re about a foot too tall. Chamberlain was 5 foot 7, perfectly average for his time.”

He didn’t hesitate earlier than taking pictures again, “Well, he’s gonna be 6-3. Some things even Hollywood can’t fix.”

This was an vital second as a result of it helped me perceive that Jeff was not getting ready to create the true, traditionally excellent depiction of Chamberlain, however moderately the bigger than life — actually — character that existed solely within the pages of a novel. The function he had been employed to play was blonde-haired, blue-eyed, 6-foot-3, and good-looking as a result of that’s what the typical reader conjures of their thoughts after they learn “The Killer Angels.”

Chamberlain’s flaws

Over lunch, Jeff defined that he was the fifth “guy we always wanted” for the function, and that the earlier 5 included the newest common names like Tom Selleck, Don Johnson, even Kevin Costner earlier than he wore the identical uniform and mustache in a film about wolves that received seven Academy Awards simply two years prior. That movie had priced Costner out of the “Killer Angels” market.

In quite a few conversations and letters over the following a number of months, together with a while on the set close to the battlefield in Pennsylvania, Jeff and I attempted to merge my ideas concerning the historic Chamberlain along with his information of performing and filmmaking. During his journey to Maine, for instance, the one individuals he had met had been those that adored Chamberlain, however as an actor he wanted some type of flaw in his character to deal with, one thing that made him human. To this, I supplied some background on the very sophisticated relationship between Chamberlain and his spouse.

Chamberlain had grown up with a stammering downside that had badly affected his character. Well into his 50s, he wrote an autobiography that included an outline of how the stammer created “nervous anxiety” in him that he by no means utterly shed at the same time as he mastered a number of overseas languages and taught speech as a school professor. His spouse, Fanny, however had primarily been deserted by her mother and father and despatched to be raised by her uncle in Maine, distant from the humanities and music she liked in her native Boston. The merger of those two troubled and needy personalities was certain to have its difficulties.

“The two would have been great guests on Oprah together,” I advised Jeff. “Talk about issues.”

Soldiers posing in a scene from the movie ‘Gettysburg,’ 1993. (Photo by New Line Cinema/Getty Images)

HOllywood vs. broadway

While he formulated a technique for his function, I realized loads about filmmaking. There had been New York stage actors, he defined, and there have been Hollywood movie actors — two very completely different strategies. Also, he was taking a danger shifting from function movies to a tv manufacturing, as a result of “The Killer Angels” was shot as a miniseries. In tv, he defined, you get two, possibly three probabilities at getting a scene proper, then the price range says it’s on to the following scene. If you’ve gotten just a few unhealthy moments and the takes aren’t excellent, you don’t get a do-over and it stays within the last product, not on the chopping room flooring. In making movies, the price range typically permits as many takes as are wanted to get a shot excellent. This four-hour epic had a price range smaller for the entire manufacturing that was about what a single main actor will get for a lead function, so the stress was on. He must nail each take.

This combination of my historic analysis and Jeff’s skilled background and strategy appeared to stream — virtually fully due to the latter — particularly once I was cautious to not reveal sure realisms about Chamberlain that may by no means fly with audiences searching for the novelized hero. For instance, it was most likely twenty years after the movie aired that I lastly revealed to Jeff that the true Chamberlain most probably suffered from malarial fever and dysentery at Gettysburg, as did a lot of his males. The main symptom of the latter illness was violent diarrhea, one thing audiences simply weren’t prepared for of their heroes in 1993. The following yr, nevertheless, Jeff starred within the movie “Dumb and Dumber” which included the scene for which he’s now most likely most well-known — and he’s OK with that — “the bathroom scene” the place his character endured an explosive assault of diarrhea.

After lastly revealing Chamberlain’s real-life Gettysburg sickness, I advised him, “You played the right scene, just two movies later.”

New Line Cinema

CHamberlain Stayed with him

Always appreciative of the possibility to painting Maine’s most heroic character, Jeff didn’t merely transfer on to the following function and overlook about his expertise. When the film aired in theaters in 1993, he organized for a duplicate of it to be despatched to Brunswick, Maine, to be proven to native audiences the night time earlier than the precise premiere in Washington, D.C. At his personal expense, he flew to Brunswick and appeared at a fundraising reception between airings. The cash raised that night time paid for the restoration of the two-story glassed-in porch on the facet of Chamberlain’s historic dwelling, now a museum.

Jeff’s expertise as an actor shined within the last lower of the film, and his portrayal is probably probably the most memorable and well-liked of any among the many massive solid over 4 hours. The Academy of Motion Pictures didn’t give him an Oscar nod for the function, however he did get one thing shut: Roger Ebert, one-half of the famed Siskel & Ebert duo who made reviewing motion pictures common, beneficial him for a nomination. With a troublesome function to play, “Hawaiian shirt guy” did a pleasant job.

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