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The Novak Zone: Interview With Robert Duvall

Aired February 15, 2003 - 09:33   ET


HEIDI COLLINS, CNN ANCHOR: Before some U.S. troops were deployed to the Persian Gulf, they had a chance to watch a new movie about America's bloodiest battle, the Civil War. Actor Robert Duvall stepped into "The Novak Zone" to discuss his role as General Robert E. Lee in "Gods and Generals."

ROBERT NOVAK, HOST: Welcome to "The Novak Zone."

We're at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in downtown Washington, and our guest is award-winning actor Robert Duvall. And I have just seen a three-and-a-half-hour movie, Mr. Duvall's 92nd film, "Gods and Generals," and it's terrific.

Mr. Duvall, you were at the Baltimore airport last Saturday showing a half hour...

ROBERT DUVALL, ACTOR: Saturday afternoon, that's right.

NOVAK: ... Saturday afternoon showing a half-hour excerpt of this movie to troops about to go out to the Persian Gulf and maybe be in combat.


NOVAK: What's the message of this Civil War movie for young men and women who may be in harm's way in the Persian Gulf?

DUVALL: Well, I think to those who want to see it and be patriotic, that -- what they can take away is a good thing. There are many people in this country that will see it and won't be patriotic. We won't have to get into that. You know that better than I.

But, you know, to see this, and -- it is probably the worst war we've ever gone through and will go through. And Robert E. Lee's words in his will that war is so terrible that we shouldn't grow too fond of it.

The fact that we show movies about war, we eulogize these guys, we put them on pedestals, these generals, and show good action scenes. But in a way, that's a touch maybe even romanticizing war. But if we dig, war is a horrible thing.

NOVAK: What's the reaction...

DUVALL: But there'll always be wars, unfortunately.

NOVAK: What was the reaction of the troops who saw your movie?

DUVALL: When you say goodbye to these kids, some of them were, like, bewildered, and some weren't. And four young ladies from Kentucky in the Army Reserve said, Well, we have our backs for each other. You know, it was, like, they're going to survive. You know, it is pretty poignant, pretty poignant. And I think they reacted to it.

NOVAK: The great Civil War historian Shelby Foote says that you had always wanted to play Robert E. Lee. Why did you want to play him?

DUVALL: I always kind of wanted to play him. They approached me way back in the first of this -- the trilogy, and, well, I thought I -- feel I could do it. I'm -- you know, I feel that there's a kinship, (UNINTELLIGIBLE) on my mother's side I'm related.

But I think the main part is, it's in -- something that's in the blood, you can't get out of books of research, is that my father's side of the family was -- they were farmers from northern Virginia. My father went to the Naval Academy at 16 years old. He was a Virginia gentleman. He had that Virginia speech, that there are 12 major dialects in Virginia, and this is one.

And Robert E. Lee went to high school in Alexandria, Virginia, where my father went. So that I -- there's a comfort thing in the blood that I can rely upon to play this part, and I feel I can do it, that it's a part of me that I can do that, you know, as an actor, and to try to do it right, and to give the guy great respect. It's not under pressure, but under a sense of responsibility and honor to do a good job, because he's a -- it's a privilege to play him.

NOVAK: "Gods and Generals" is mostly from the Southern point of view, not entirely...

DUVALL: Right, right.

NOVAK: ... but mostly from the -- And -- although it's critical of the slavery and so on. It indicates that the South, these people felt deeply, they were principled people. South's been -- the Confederacy's been getting a bad press lately, big attack on the old Confederate battle flag.

DUVALL: Right, right, right.

NOVAK: Even people saying memorials to Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson should be removed.

DUVALL: No, they shouldn't be removed.

NOVAK: Yours, yours, you're kind of going against the political correctness...

DUVALL: Well, but see, that's why... NOVAK: ... (UNINTELLIGIBLE).

DUVALL: ... if you're going to make a film like this, you know, so many Hollywood movies rewrite history for political correct reasons, and that's -- to me is -- that's wrong. Show a film, and let the people decide whether it's good or bad from their own inferences, rather than trying to delete history. Show it as it is. And, you know, it's a -- once again, it's a patriotic thing, but I know exactly what you're -- where you're coming from on that. I know what you mean by that. It's like...

NOVAK: These people really did feel they were fighting for a cause, for patriot -- they were patriotic, that they were fighting for their homeland.

DUVALL: Exactly. Exactly. For instance, my father's people, they were Southerners. But they were pro-Union. There were pockets all over the South that stayed pro-Union and didn't believe in secession, and that's a wonderful thing too. My father was -- grandfather's name was Abraham Lincoln Duvall, but then they were behind enemy lines, so they were in a precarious position.

But on the other hand, there were hundreds and thousands of basic white farmers in the South that had little plots of soil. All they were fighting for was the soil, because they were being invaded by people who were going to take that away. Because only something like 8 percent of every state owned slaves anyway.

So from their point of view, they were fighting for a noble cause of land. And, you know, until we become socialistic, and which we never will, hopefully, to own a piece of land is a wonderful thing. And they were protecting that.

O'BRIEN: Where do the gods in the title of "Gods and Generals," what is the "gods" a reference to?

DUVALL: Well, I didn't know that till the other day when Maxwell told me that the author told him the gods are the Southern generals, the generals are the Northern generals. And probably so, because they were pretty much superior to the generals of the North, I think.

NOVAK: Because a lot of -- people could, in the last -- in the 19th century, Americans could cite Scripture, quote Scripture a lot easier than we can. There is a lot of invoking -- both sides in the movie invoke the Lord and read from the Bible, don't they?

DUVALL: Right, yes. And I think they each thought the Lord was on their side, so maybe it's just a human perception of the divine. But at least things were black and white then, and people had great faith in religious things and were not afraid to show that publicly or whatever, you know, and weren't necessarily political nuts.

If you talk about Jesus in everyday conversation, you're perceived as a nut in New York City. In the South, it's just everyday conversation, you can talk about Jesus. So it's that thing, it's like two different parts of the country. NOVAK: In the opening scene of the movie, Robert E. Lee, played by you, is -- was a captain in the federal army, and (UNINTELLIGIBLE) he is interviewed by old Frank Blair...


NOVAK: ... who was close to Lincoln, and offered the commander in the chief in the Union army and commander of the Union army. And Robert E. Lee turns it down because he has to stick with his country, Virginia. It seems to me that nobody thinks of a state as his country any more. That's one thing the Civil War changed, didn't it?

DUVALL: Your home soil, turf, nest. That was -- Virginia was the -- he didn't believe in succession. He didn't want to secede. He didn't agree with the deep Southern point of view, and they didn't agree with his. But he knew that if they -- if the -- if the Northern troops went -- had to go punish those people, they had to cross Virginia soil, and he wasn't about to allow that to happen.

So, you know, when he left, he could have been tried for treason at the end of the war, really. And he was going to be, but General Grant helped that not happen, because he committed treason. But, you know, under great duress. I mean, he didn't take that lightly.

NOVAK: You mention General Grant. The last part of this trilogy, "Last Full Measure," I think it's going to be called...

DUVALL: Right.

NOVAK: ... "Gettysburg" was the first...

DUVALL: Right.

NOVAK: ... I assume they'll have that, one of the great scenes in American history, when Ulysses Grant meets Robert E. Lee at the Appomattox Courthouse. Do you think you'd like to play Lee in that movie too?

DUVALL: Perhaps. It's a lot of work, though. It's a lot of work. I -- who knows? It has to clear so much money before they'll do it, you know. I don't know if they're even going to do a third one.

NOVAK: Oh, really?

DUVALL: I mean, you know, if they would continue to where he starts Washington and Lee, and he -- there's one scene where he insists on kneeling and praying with a black man, and different things to show the idiosyncrasies and the contradictions in Lee, and then his final death, that would interest me, but not just more and more battle scenes where they just surrender and it's over.

But it's still a lot of work, 18-hour days.

NOVAK: And, now, the big question for Robert Duvall. I -- you and I were both born in the year 1931. DUVALL: Exactly.

NOVAK: You were born about six weeks before I was born. And I just signed a new three-year contract with CNN.


NOVAK: Are you going to keep going, too?

DUVALL: I just signed a three -- a 10-year contract with myself. Absolutely. Yes, I get offered more parts now than -- I worked four films in the last year and a half, each different. And I took a little time off, but I -- you know, I get offered almost better parts now than I did 20 years ago.

NOVAK: Thank you very much, Robert Duvall.

DUVALL: Thank you, sir. You bet.

NOVAK: And thank you for being in "The Novak Zone."



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