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Ted Turner's badge of courage

The intrepid TV mogul brings his civil war miniseries, “Gettysburg,” to the wide screen

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How to address the new film Gettysburg:

Four hours and eight minutes ago, Ted Turner brought forth on this screen a new Civil War movie dedicated to the proposition that a made-for-TV miniseries could succeed as a theatrical release. Now we are engaged in a great question: Can anyone endure a film this long?

Based on Michael Shaara’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1974 novel, The Killer Angels, the battlefield epic, which opened at 120 theaters on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line on Oct. 8, reportedly cost $20 million, and stars Martin Sheen, Tom Berenger, Jeff Daniels, and enough extras to make Gone With the Wind‘s cast look puny. Turner planned Gettysburg as a six-hour, three-part series to run on his TNT cable channel (it’ll air there sometime next year). But after editing was finished in April, the Southern-born media mogul and hard-core Civil War buff decided to stitch together a 248-minute version for the big screen. The folks at New Line Cinema signed to release Gettysburg theatrically; Turner liked them so much, he bought the company (in a deal including Castle Rock Entertainment, for over $650 million).

Not surprisingly, director Ron Maxwell (Little Darlings) feels the change of venue is altogether fitting and proper. ”I always wanted to do it as a feature film,” he says. ”Historical subjects like this are usually turned into soap operas on television. And I really wanted to tell this story in the semisacred atmosphere of a movie theater, where the lights go down and everybody is watching and listening.”

There’s certainly plenty to see and hear. Shot over 64 days at the Gettysburg battlefield in central Pennsylvania, the movie features 5,000 extras (including Turner, in a cameo as a soldier who gets killed in action), 150 horses, 60 authentic cannons, and more explosions than even Ah-nuld could dream of. Still, it’s hard to imagine anyone but the most ardent Civil War-ophiles marching into theaters to see one of the longest American-made movies since Andy Warhol’s 61 2-hour somnia a-go-go, Sleep. ”Time is relative,” Maxwell says, shrugging off the concerns. ”It’s not an MTV-style movie. It’s not razzle-dazzle editing. The whole tone and pace is very 19th century. We’re just hoping people will get caught up in the story and forget that it’s four hours long.”

Will the world little note or long remember Turner’s latest charge? History—and the box office—will be the judge.