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Why Gettysburg still resonates

"Gettysburg" director on historical reenactors

As an America divided over race, government power, individual rights and the essence of its democracy hurtles toward another presidential election, what possible relevance can be found in a 1974 book about an 1863 Civll War battle that became a 1993 feature-length film?

Plenty.

"The Takeout" traveled to Flint Hill, Virginia for a conversation with Ron Maxwell, writer and director of the critically acclaimed movie "Gettysburg" to discuss the film, the Civil War and how three bloody days of battle in southeastern Pennsylvania proved pivotal in that war and the future of the United States.

"It permeates our society in terms of the lives we lead, in terms of our politics, in terms of our art and culture, in terms of our language and literature," Maxwell said of the Civil War. "It lives with us."

The episode highlighted Gettysburg but also touched on Maxwell's other Civil War movies, "Copperhead" and "Gods and Generals." It was recorded in Maxwell's library.

Listen to this episode on Stitcher

"Gettysburg" is built around the novel "The Killer Angels," written by Michael Sharaa. The novel won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1975, and Maxwell spent more than 15 years trying to bring the story of Gettysburg and the rich array of Civil War commanders to life on film. The movie was a bestseller in VHS and DVD formats and is used in history lessons in classrooms throughout the country.

"The Civil War is such an emotional, devastating event in our history," Maxwell said. "When you consider 700,000 men who were killed outright, another million-and-half wounded terribly wounded, you must approach this with some sense of humility and understanding (of) the tremendous loss that was suffered, the tremendous sacrifice that that generation suffered. Our ancestors, paid a horrific price to sort things out because prior generations couldn't figure out how to sort things out nonviolently."

A century and a half later, the war between the states still resonates as a cautionary tale of what happens when political leaders give up on trying to reconcile their differences.

"There is a profound lesson there for us. We have to solve our problems with civility," he continued. "When we stop listening to one another, when we start dehumanizing one another, this is the hell that can result."

Maxwell noted the Civil War preserved the Union and led to the abolition of slavery — settling two of the biggest issues at the heart of the conflict. But it didn't end all the nation's conflicts, and President Lincoln's Gettysburg address remains a startling reminder of what else was at stake in the Civil War — the very existence of our government. The war, Lincoln said, was a test of a nation "conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal" and would prove whether "that nation, or any nation so conceived, and so dedicated, can long endure."

"All the underlying issues are still there," Maxwell said. "Does sovereignty lie in the state or in the national government? Does sovereignty lie with the individual or with the government? 

"Every single debate we've had about the size of government, what government should do, what it shouldn't do, what it should leave to the states are still there. We're still debating all those things in the present moment. The other issue of race is very much part of the discussion in America. It is with us. How do we resolve this question? We're still working on that. All these issues that came to a violent confrontation in the Civil War are still with us and still part of the American character."

For more of Major's conversation with Ron Maxwell, download "The Takeout" podcast on Apple PodcastsGoogle PlayStitcher or Spotify. New episodes are available every Friday morning. Also, you can watch "The Takeout" on CBSN Friday at 5 p.m., 9 p.m. and 12 a.m. ET, and Saturday at 1 p.m., 9 p.m. and 12 a.m. ET. For a full archive of "The Takeout" episodes, visit www.takeoutpodcast.com. And you can listen to "The Takeout" on select CBS News Radio affiliates (check your local listings).

Producers: Arden Farhi, Katiana Krawchenko, Jamie Benson, Sara Cook and Ellee Watson
CBSN Production: Alex Zuckerman, Eric Soussanin and Grace Segers
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