Gods and Generals- 2003 Ted Turner Pictures; Directed by Ronald Maxwell
Somewhere between Ben-Hur and All the President’s Men… historical movies got preachy. Movie executives fearing negative publicity and filmmakers with political axes to grind have turned history-based cinema into a civics lesson. Entertainment value is disregarded in favor of political correctness and modern historical consensus. Gods and Generals is that rare film which disregards all movie making conventions to reach some lofty principle that is ultimately lost on the viewer.
A prequel to 1993’s Gettysburg… Gods and Generals is likewise based on historical fiction by a Shaara. The previous film was inspired by Pulitzer Prize winning novel, “The Killer Angels” by Michael Shaara. His son, Jeff, carried on the tradition of first-person historical fiction with Gods and Generals. Gettysburg has become a favorite of Civil War buffs for its use of reenactors to provide historical authenticity. The narrative flaws in the film are rescued by spirited performances provided by Jeff Daniels, Sam Elliot, and Tom Berrenger. The television and video market success led to Maxwell’s decision to adapt the prequel- Ted Turner provided the entire budget for both films. The missteps of Gettysburg are repeated and magnified in the second film nearly to the point of rendering it unwatchable.
Less a prequel than biopic… of Confederate general Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson, Gods and Generals wants to be a history lesson, redemptive character study, and war epic all in 3 hours, 39 minutes. The results are cinematic porridge. Instead of dialogue, the two-dimensional characters speak in soliloquies- rationalizing southern secession or denouncing southern slavery. Maxwell bludgeons viewers with speech after speech, all declaring the same thing, “The Yankees started the war!” Gone are the definitive political arguments against secession made by Lincoln in his first inaugural address; we learn only of Union volunteers fighting to free slaves and Confederate patriots “fatting fir rats.” An annoying pattern emerges as the minutes sluggishly pass; speech, backdrop, battle, speech- speech, backdrop, battle, speech… and so on. Maxwell gleefully thumbs his nose at the last 30 years of Civil War scholarship, producing a movie only someone south of the Mason-Dixon line could love.
The strength of this movie… should have been its battle sequences. Thousands of living historians were utilized, yet the battles lack the authentic ferocity of Civil War combat. Poor CGI effects attempt to display the proper scale of the epic battles, but Maxwell’s clumsy direction gives the feel of a History Channel production. Confederate troops are introduced by subtitle, as if every viewer were a Civil War buff anxiously awaiting the arrival of an ancestor’s unit. It is this assumption by Maxwell, that viewers will have at least seen Ken Burns’ Civil War series, that betrays all of his efforts. An audience with a basic understanding of Civil War history will find this interpretation curious; those with no interest in the war will be bored out of their skulls.
Stephen Lang has an unenviable task… make Stonewall Jackson a sympathetic figure. Lang, who portrayed a playful George Pickett in Gettysburg, is a pious, deeply caring Jackson. What the performance lacks is the zealotry and casual disregard for human life that made Jackson such a disturbing character. Robert Duvall’s turn as Robert E. Lee is wasted in the little screen time he is given. Curious editing decisions abound- singing two entire Christmas carols after the bloody battle of Fredericksburg, a pep rally for Confederate officers(complete with glee squad), and a death sequence so long, many viewers wished to accompany Jackson to the other side.
Many people with an interest in the Civil War… are still waiting for a worthy historical epic about the conflict; A movie that accurately portrays the experience of the men who fought it- not another history lesson or politically correct screed. Hollywood has decided that Civil War movies must address slavery, regardless of scope, script, or narrative. Why does the Civil War not have its “Private Ryan” ? Let’s hope Gods and Generals is not the best Hollywood can do. Are you listening, Mr. Spielberg?