It’s No Cannes or Venice, but Gettysburg Just Had a Sold Out Film Festival

Michael E. Ruane/The Washington Post
The Majestic Theater in Gettysburg, Pa., where films by Ken Burns were shown during the Gettysburg Film Festival this month.

GETTYSBURG, Pa. – Filmmaker Ken Burns was sitting in the research room of the Adams County Historical Society talking about the sadness of his early life and the power of movies.

“My family … had lots of illness in it,” he said. “My mom was dying.” Yet his father never seemed to cry. “He never cried when she was sick or when she died, or at the funeral.”

His mother, Lyla, died in 1965 at age 42. Not long after, he and his father, Robert, were watching the 1947 movie “Odd Man Out” on TV. A tragic story about the Troubles in Northern Ireland, it made his father cry.

Burns was 12. He said he realized that the film gave his father “a safe haven” for his emotions. “I knew how much I loved movies,” he said. “I knew how much I loved seeing movies with him. I knew how much they moved me.”

The award-winning filmmaker, now 70, was in town last weekend for the Gettysburg Film Festival. A version of the event began last year, on a smaller scale, and organizers hope it will grow into a regular celebration of movies and documentaries with a connection to history.

“It’s all a little bit of an evolution,” said festival director Jake Boritt. “And we don’t want to overstretch ourselves or over promise. But … it’s kind of crazy, the enthusiasm for it the past few days, which is wonderful.”

The festival featured screenings of Burns’s films at Gettysburg’s venerable Majestic Theater, and conversations with Burns, actors Martin Sheen and Sam Waterston, and author Susan Eisenhower, granddaughter of President Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Burns brought along his 13-year-old daughter, Willa.

Waterston was the voice of Abraham Lincoln in Burns’s 1990 blockbuster documentary “The Civil War.” Sheen played Confederate General Robert E. Lee in the 1993 movie “Gettysburg.”

All events were sold out, said Andrew Dalton, festival producer and executive director of the Adams County Historical Society.

“There doesn’t appear to be another American history film festival in the United States,” he said. “It’s a large opportunity for Gettysburg to become a place that’s known, not just for a battlefield and a speech, but also for a film festival.”

He said in an email later that an object of the festival was to increase the interest in history.

“It’s also to bring Americans together through storytelling,” he added. “There’s so much emphasis on division and disagreement. I hope what we’re doing can remind people of what we have in common.”

Burns has helped make films on World War II, baseball, jazz, the Holocaust, the Vietnam War and Muhammad Ali, among many others.

During the Civil War, Gettysburg was where the Union army defeated Confederate forces in July 1863, and where, four months later, Lincoln delivered his famous address calling for a new birth of freedom for all Americans.

“This town … is central to the whole United States,” Burns said in a media briefing last Friday. “Everything kind of led up to this in the Civil War, and everything comes out of it.”

Many big film festivals are held in exotic locales such as Cannes, in France, Venice, and Telluride, in Colorado. Gettysburg is in the rural apple-growing country of southern Pennsylvania.

“I go to the Telluride Film Festival every year,” Burns said later in an interview. “It’s in the middle of the San Juan Mountains. Spectacularly beautiful. But it’s pretty lovely here, too. This is sacred ground. It’s perfectly appropriate.”

“Why wouldn’t this be a perfect place for a festival?” he said. “So much history has happened here. … We drop a pebble in the pond of Gettysburg, and it ripples out.”

Sheen, who starred in the 1979 Vietnam War film, “Apocalypse Now,” and the TV series “The West Wing,” said: “I think it is a great place, and a great time. And there’s enough films to keep to it going, and some really important ones. So yeah have at it.”

Festival director Boritt said: “It’s a great place to look back at the worst moment in American history. But it’s also the moment that Lincoln comes here in the middle of all that and says, ‘a new birth of freedom.’ And it’s hopeful.”

“The power of the place adds to the power of the film,” he said. And “more people get their history from the screen … the television screen, the movie screen, the device screen.”

A similar event featuring Burns’s films was held here last year – “a one-off,” as Boritt termed it.

But it was very popular, and “a lot of people … were enthusiastic about the idea of a history film festival,” he said.

“So it’s really the second film festival but it’s the first one we’ve called the Gettysburg Film Festival,” he said. “And the intent is that there could be more.”

Sixty-nine percent of Americans, when asked by the American Historical Association how they learn about history, said they learn it from documentary films, said Katherine Malone-France, president of the Better Angels Society, who attended the festival.

The society is a Washington-based nonprofit that helps raise funds for documentaries. Gettysburg is “a place where we contemplate what it is to be Americans,” she said, “what it is to be one country. And what that looks like in the future.”

Last Friday, amid gray, blustery weather, Sheen and Waterston went to Gettysburg’s Evergreen Cemetery, where experts believe Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address, according to a video posted online by the American Battlefield Trust.

Most people who heard the historic speech on Nov. 19, 1863, were from Adams County, where Gettysburg is the county seat, Timothy H. Smith, director of education at the Adams County Historical Society, told the actors.

“And a lot of the people who heard the Gettysburg Address are buried here,” he said, as he stood among the tombstones. “For the rest of their lives they remembered this moment.”

Sheen had asked to visit the cemetery and hear Waterston, who portrayed the president in the 1988 TV series “Lincoln” read the speech, Dalton, the festival producer, said.

Waterston, 83, wearing a windbreaker and sweater, held a copy of the address.

“I’m just going to read it very quietly,” he said, as a police siren wailed in the distance. “Four score and seven years ago …”