Part II: My Experience on the set of "Gettysburg"
Editor’s note: As part of our free Classic Film Festival featuring four Civil War movies, you can see Gettysburg (1993) at the museum on Saturday, October 20, 2012. Inspired by the film festival, we’re taking you behind the scenes of Gettysburg with guest blogger Brian James Egen. He is the program development officer at The Henry Ford. You can find Part I of his blog post here.
"CUT!" "CUT, CUT, CUT," echoed through the woods of the Little Round Top set. Assistant director Skip Copser's amplified bull-horn voice ended the down hill bayonet charge of the 20th Maine against the 15th Alabama. The momentum of the charge started to diminish and eventually came to a halt. "Back to one," was the next and anticipated directive from assistant director Cosper, causing everyone on set to return to their starting point for another take. Filming this triumphant and climatic scene for the movie Gettysburg, led by Jeff Daniels as Colonel Joshua Chamberlain, was an exhilarating rush of adrenaline and excitement.
For the Civil War enthusiast familiar with 20th Maine’s unconventional and successful counter-attack that ultimately saved the Union army at Gettysburg on July 2, 1863, this was equivalent to hitting a walk-off homerun to win the World Series. Portraying a junior officer of the 20th Maine, I was ecstatic about what I had just experienced and participated. As I turned back up the hill for another take, I saw a group of soldiers and production assistants calling for the medic as they clustered around a soldier lying on the ground.
Filming combat scenes for movies, even with blank rounds and safety measures in place, can be dangerous, especially those involving hand-to-hand combat. My euphoria turned to complete terror as someone saw me and called out, "Brian, I think it is your brother." My heart sank as I steadily and directly went to where my younger brother and only sibling, Bradley, was lying. I did not want to outwardly show panic, although a combination of complete fear and utter anger raged through my veins. My heart pounded as I didn’t know if he had been accidentally bayoneted, fell, or was shot by something inadvertently left in the barrel of a musket.
As I approached I could see his eyes blinking but he was not moving. I quickly scanned his torso and face for blood, but found nothing as I knelt down beside him terrified that he was paralyzed. "Brad?" He did not respond. More direct now, "Bradley, can you move your legs?" He mumbled something as I took his one hand and placed my other on his chest. Emphatic, but quietly stern, I said, "Bradley, move your legs!" After what seemed like an eternity, I saw his legs shuffle the earth and flora underneath. Initial relief came over me that he was not paralyzed. "Can you see," was the next question I asked. He responded in the affirmative as the set medics arrived and started to analyze the situation.
He still wasn't coherent as the medics started asking questions. I remained by his side providing as much information about him as necessary. One of the other extras said they thought he was clubbed in the face with a musket by a Confederate re-enactor. The bridge of his nose and forehead was reddish and started to swell, but there was no blood. Although I am sure it was an accident, my impulse was to find this individual and give him a piece of my mind about being more careful and how I didn't take too kindly to an injured kid brother.
In the smoke, noise and confusion during the momentum of the charge, I had become separated from Bradley. He was directly behind me when action was called and Jeff Daniels yelled "CHARGE!" leading the 20th Maine attack down hill as the Confederate soldier extras were coming up the hill. My brother and Uncle Roy Adkins, Jr., also from Monroe, Michigan, came to Gettysburg for several days to participate in the filming as 20th Maine soldiers. By now the medics were putting him on a back board, stabilizing his head and extremities. When he was satisfactorily strapped to the board, the medics and a couple other stout re-enactors carefully carried him out of the woods to a waiting ambulance.
Although there were many more scenes to film that day, including one of the three scenes where I was to deliver lines in my speaking role as the "Cocky Lieutenant," I got in the ambulance and away we went to Gettysburg Hospital. Although we were both newly minted adults, we were a long way from home—and I was not going to leave my brother’s side until I knew he was alright.
As it turned out, Bradley suffered a mild concussion. He was able to return to the set the next day on limited duty. He remained on set for another couple of days portraying a "shell shocked" wounded soldier not moving around a lot. The production postponed the scene where I had my second set of lines until the next day. Whether or not it was intentional because I left with my brother, or just a matter of a re-arranged schedule, I was grateful for the chance to deliver my lines in spite of the circumstances that transpired the previous day.
It was a surreal experience as we were all wearing period uniforms, reenacting a famous Civil War battle charge and my brother was truly wounded—to what extent and how serious, we did not know. In the confusion of battle and being momentarily knocked out, he doesn't recall exactly what happened but remembers seeing the stock of a musket swing up toward his face. No one came forward taking responsibility of the accident and apparently was just off camera so it will forever be a mystery of exactly how Bradley was wounded on the Little Round Top set.
There is a particular camera shot of that scene where Bradley is clearly visible charging down the hill behind Captain Ellis Spear. Every time I watch that scene in the movie and see my younger brother charging down that hill, I think that moments afterwards he was struck down. Although it produced a few very scary moments for the Egen family, it was a truly memorable experience for two brothers from Michigan fighting in defense of Little Round Top.
Brian James Egen is the Program Development Officer at The Henry Ford. In August 2011, he was appointed by Michigan Governor Rick Snyder to the Michigan Historical Commission and recently appointed chairman of Michigan’s Civil War Sesquicentennial Committee.