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Part travelogue, part political statement, part coming-of-age drama —Marty Mapes (review...)

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Gods and Generals is the prequel to the four-hour 1993 Civil War epic Gettysburg. Gods and Generals is almost as long, clocking in at 3:40, with no intermission. The film is made by the same director (Ron Maxwell), the same producer (Ted Turner), and some of the same cast (most notably Jeff Daniels as Joshua Chamberlain).

There are tons of details packed into the three and a half hours. The film is a Civil War re-creationist’s dream. It’s a movie made by, and for, that particular subculture, which I confess I don’t entirely understand.

Gods and Generals isn’t completely satisfying, but its larger-than-life ambitions earn it a recommendation.

The Call to War

Stonewall Jackson and General Lee focus on the details of battle
Stonewall Jackson and General Lee focus on the details of battle

Gods and Generals starts at the outbreak of the Civil War. General Robert E. Lee (Robert Duvall, himself a real-life descendant of Lee) is offered the command of U.S. forces, but he postpones the decision until he hears whether Virginia will vote to secede or not. If Virginia secedes, Lee will go with her and fight for the Confederates, which is just what happens.

The film shows several other key figures entering the war. Thomas Jackson (later known as “Stonewall”), is teaching cadets — badly — when he gets the call. Like Lee, he feels a greater loyalty for his state, Virginia, than for the federal government.

On the Northern side, Chamberlain (Daniels) is also teaching, although his curriculum is philosophy, not tactics.

Choose Your Battles

After the important introductions, Gods and Generals presents the First Battle of Bull Run. This is the battle where Stonewall Jackson gets his nickname. Two other battles are presented. Union troops try to break into Virginia at Fredericksbug, where geography and time conspire to make it a bloodbath and a rout of the North. Finally, there is the chaotic battle at Chancellorsville, during which Jackson is mortally wounded by friendly fire.

The best of the three big battle scenes is the Fredericksburg battle, because Maxwell spends time explaining its importance to both the North and the South and the tactics involved in taking or holding the ground.

As with Gettysburg, the battle scenes are some of the best reasons to see the film. The re-creation of the battles is impeccable, from the costumes to the weapons and artillery. Civil War re-enactors contributed to the film as expert extras, most bringing their own costumes, equipment, and historical expertise.

Unlike Gettysburg, the actual battlefields weren’t used. Perhaps they don’t exist anymore. In any case, the terrain was carefully chosen to be accurate and appropriate to the strategies and challenges of the battles, lending to the movie’s real-world feel.

Dates and Facts

Gods and Generals is obsessed with the details. It’s a movie that couldn’t be made without the re-creationist culture that exists in the United States.

But there is more to history than details. History teaches us what we’ve done so that we can avoid the mistakes of the past. It provides us with heroes and villains and morals and lessons.

But Gods and Generals doesn’t tap into any of those possibilities. It doesn’t offer any perspective. It doesn’t draw any conclusions. It allows its characters to offer their own perspective, but the movie itself doesn’t have a voice. It is a recitation of dates and facts.

This neutrality toward the subject matter is somewhat suspect. After all, at its core, the Civil War was about ending slavery, and that’s an issue with a clear right and wrong. Are Civil War recreationists too willing to overlook slavery?

If Gods and Generals is any indication, the answer is yes. Although slavery is discussed in the movie, it’s very un-representative. Then again, from the point of view of the film’s characters — mostly white military leaders, perhaps slavery really was an abstract concept.

A Lose-Lose Situation

Granted, Gods & Generals is not a movie about slavery. It’s a movie about the commanders and their battles of the early Civil War. Choosing to tell that story, slavery doesn’t have a chance to make an appearance. But to ignore slavery in order to focus on the battles is to miss the whole point of the Civil War. Why focus on the generals and the battles, when the real issue is the abolitionists and anti-abolitionists?

Perhaps that’s why I don’t “get” the re-creationist culture. It focuses obsessively on the details, instead of taking in the big picture. It’s sort of a sidewise denial of the crime against humanity that caused the war to start in the first place.

There’s just no good way to make a movie that focuses so intently on the battles. Ignore slavery altogether and you whitewash the issue. Show some of the slaves that enter the realm of the most powerful white men of the war, and they are bound to look like mere tokens. The very choice of material is a lose-lose situation.

Pompous Circumstance

If the movie has one major flaw, it is that its characters are allowed to make long-winded, pompous speeches. Stonewall Jackson has a long conversation with Jim, his free, black cook. Both appeal to God about the plight of the South, using verbose and self-important speech (and again, the issue of slavery is only danced around, never tackled head-on).

Jeff Daniels gets the film’s one speech on the subject of slavery. “Don’t call negroes ‘darkies,’” he tells one of his underlings, and he launches into a long tirade about Liberty that’s so calculatedly dramatic that it’s embarrassing.

The worst, longest-drawn-out scene is right at the end. After nearly four hours of sitting in a theater, it moves incredibly slow. It’s a deathbed speech by Stonewall Jackson on God and the Republic, probably. I stopped paying attention and started worrying about my four-hour parking validation.

Praise the Gods

In spite of the speeches and the potentially thoughtless neutrality, the film has some amazing visuals. Sweeping vistas of battlefields bring some of the feel of the Civil War to life. The movie also has a great understanding of the dates and facts of the war.

There are also some very good performances, in spite of the overwritten dialogue. Duvall plays Lee as cautious and calculating, and always a little sad. Daniels plays the reluctant hero of Maine as if overwhelmed by events, but willing to soldier on.

Stephen Lang in particular deserves praise for playing Stonewall Jackson. He is a character I wouldn’t like and couldn’t relate to, but the portrayal is outstanding. He is a hard-shelled, humorless, God-fearing, man who worships the idea of family. He speaks and presents himself like a real person raised in an entirely different era.

Four Hours

Any film that asks its audience for 4 hours of its time needs to be more careful how it is spent than Gods and Generals is. Nevertheless, the grand scope is something to behold, especially if you make it to a real theater. It’s nothing you’re likely to see anywhere else, at least until the third film in this trilogy is released.