Gods and Generals Review
Gods and Generals is the second in a proposed trilogy of films covering the entirety of the American Civil War. Made by director Ronald F Maxwell (with the financial help of Ted Turner) it is a prequel to the first film Maxwell made, Gettysburg, and follows events from Virginia’s secession from the Union (in effect the beginning of hostilities) right through to the Battle of Chancellorsville, the last major battle before Gettysburg itself. Eschewing the earlier film’s attempt to show the war from both Union and Confederate sides, Gods and Generals focuses almost entirely on the latter, in particular the Southern army’s famous General, Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson and his career in the army. We follow his service from the moment he leaves the military academy at Lexington through the battles of Bull Run and Fredericksburg and onto his ultimate destiny at Chancellorsville. Along the way we are shown vignettes of how the war affected ordinary people as well as take brief glances over to the Union camp, in particular at how an officer of the 20th Maine, Joshua Chamberlain, is doing.
As the main character, a lot of the film’s success or otherwise rests on the portrayal of Jackson, and unfortunately the screenplay here disappoints. Although Stephen Lang (who, in Gettysburg, played General Pickett) does his best with the material, the presentation of the character is never more than two dimensional. I hold up my hands and admit that I know very little about the man, but even a most cursory reading of his biography show that he was a much more complex individual than is shown here. On film he comes across as a decent, devout man, so completely sure in his faith that he is able to sit on his horse while mortar and cannon balls fly around him, certain that whether he lives or dies is all predestined as his beloved Lord so wishes. Based on the evidence this film presents alone it would be difficult to believe there was anything more to the man – even when he authorises the execution of deserters from his regiment, personal responsibility is taken out of his hands because it is “for the good of his country”. This does not tally with reality at all – at the Military Institute where he taught prior to the war he was considered a strange man, and the film entirely ignores the less successful aspects of his war career – his feud with another Confederate General after one of his campaigns went disastrously wrong, for example, and his occasionally curt manner with subordinates. Instead, we are shown Jackson forming a bond with a small girl, an irritatingly superfluous plot that takes up way too much time and evades the main issues of his life. The most frustrating scene comes when his cook, the black man Jim Lewis, starts praying to God about emancipating the slaves and Jackson says “I’m sure, one way or the other, they will be freed.” A complete non sequitor of a sentence that manages to avoid the more interesting topic, ie how does he himself feel about fighting for a side that wishes to keep slavery? This refusal to flesh Jackson out has the ironic result of making the viewer wonder: What exactly aren’t we being told?
The refusal to scratch the surface of Jackson’s character is not the only aspect of Maxwell’s script that is lacking. It is also somewhat lacking in structure. We move swiftly from the outbreak of war to the battle of Bull Run to Fredericksburg to Chancellorsville, with nary a clue given about how the war has gone between them. Instead we are treated to long scenes of Southern Troops sitting around listening to young women playing the piano, the 20th Maine on a seemingly never-ending march to nowhere, or the aforementioned bonding between Jackson and some little girl, none of which are illuminating in the least. For a film that purports to educate as much as entertain, it is somewhat lacking, and is all the more disappointing because of it. Furthermore, those who have not seen Gettysburg will wonder why exactly the film wastes time with Chamberlain at all – he doesn’t achieve anything remarkable here and in a film that leans so heavily on the Confederate side he feels out of place. There is a vague attempt to contrast him with Jackson when the scenes of the two men leaving their wives are run in parallel, but it is not enough.
The main crime, however, is the film’s refusal to engage fully in the debate which any serious Civil War film (especially one with designs of education such as this) needs to undertake, namely the freedom of slavery. The opening quote, by George Elliot, sets the stall for the opinion the film takes, that the Southerns were not fighting for the protection of the institution of slavery so much as their own freedom from Washington rule (a paradox largely unremarked on). This does not excuse the fact that for many involved slavery was the abiding issue - as Chamberlain says to his brother at one point, even though the war wasn’t originally about emancipation it had quickly become one of the key issues, and there just isn’t enough time given to it. We see a black servant helping her mistress flee from Fredericksburg before pretending that her house is her own, and we have in Jim Lewis a character who we could have done with seeing a lot more – a black man willingly working for the Confederates – but serious debate and character examination is severely lacking. Having Chamberlain make a speech to his brother about the situation misses the point – it is the Southerner’s opinions we want to hear from, not the Unionists.
The actors do their best with what’s given to them, but as most of the other characters all act as satellites around Jackson(aside from the misplaced Chamberlain) they aren’t given a great deal to do. Robert Duvall takes over from Martin Sheen as General Lee (and is in fact a descendant of the General’s) but has little screen time and does not make much of an impact, while Babylon 5’s Bruce Boxleitner as Longstreet has even less to do (just as well as when he is on screen there is a suspicion that he is rather miscast). There are a collection of junior officers that Jackson interacts with who are fresh faced and utterly interchangeable and Kali Rocha as Jackson’s wife is called upon only to simper and look lovingly at her husband with doe-eyes. One of the better performances comes from Donzaleith Abernathy as the servant of a wealthy southern family, who in her brief screen time brings a dignity to her role that is a bit wasted here, while Jeff Daniels as Chamberlain repeats his performance of ten years ago, somehow less effectively than before. Still, it’s still nice to see him back, and there is also a welcome return of his right hand man, the ill-fated Buster, played as before by Kevin Conway.
It would be wrong, however, to say that the production is a complete disaster, as it is not. It looks sumptuous, and the battle scenes are much improved from Gettysburg (albeit still relatively bloodless). There is one particularly effective scene during the Battle of Fredericksburg when Chamberlain, Buster and his men have to lie on the ground all night using the bodies of their dead colleagues as sandbags to protect themselves from snipers' bullets which thwack around them with a convincing thump. There is the moment when, across the river, a Union soldier and a Confederate soldier meet up to exchange tea for tobacco, and stand there consuming their respective goods, saying nothing, men driven apart by circumstance and knowing their inescapable fate. And once again the film is shot in the very places these battles took place which, together with the uniforms and artillery used, gives the whole thing a very authentic feel.
The main problem with Gettysburg was that it concentrated so heavily on the battle that the souls of the men were lost. Paradoxically here, in the prequel, the opposite is true. Maxwell spends the majority of his time trying to flesh out his two main characters, Jackson and Chamberlain, but ends up making a bit of a mess of it. He tries to draw parallels between them based around their faith and home lives (at one point Chamberlain’s brother says to him “Mama’s said so many prayers we have nothing to worry about” in complete earnestness, a sentiment the film’s Jackson would heartily have approved of) but these attempts are maudlin at best. That historical accuracy is sacrificed for these attempts is frustrating as it is evidently in that area that Maxwell’s talents really lie and, coupled with a reluctance to examine key issues of the war, it can only be said the telling of the story is a let down. That said, the film never drags and does give a fairly accurate visual impression on what it was like to be there in those days, and so it would be a shame if the director doesn’t get to complete his trilogy. Let’s just hope that next time he returns to what he’s good at, historical exposition, and doesn’t try to tug at the heart strings so blatantly.
A dual-layered flipper disk, the film is split between the two sides, with the break coming at a rather jarring moment, right in the middle of a charge (although at least on putting in side B the movie starts off right away again, with no need to click “Play Movie”). Presented in an anamorphic 2.35:1 print, the film is fully subtitled, as are the extras (aside from the trailer and music videos) which come in a variety of screen ratios. The static menus are identical for both sides and the extras are spread pretty evenly over the two side. The disk is also available in a box set with Gettysburg.
There are a few oddly washed out looking scenes that have nothing to do with directorial input, but aside from that it’s a decent print, with little in the way of grain or digital artefacting.
Very good, with dialogue nice and clear and the sounds of battle surrounding us. Base levels are even and there are no complaints at all.
Introduction by Ted Turner
Three minute piece in which Turner explains his interest in the period and talks about the aim to both entertain and educate. A noble sentiment for a movie such as this, but why exactly do we need to hear from him as opposed to, say, the director?
Maxwell and two military historians comment over an edited version of the film. Mainly focusing on historical information as opposed to the actual mechanics of shooting the film, it's very good as long as you have an interest in the period. For everyone else, though, it will be rather dry.
Two Music Videos
The first is “Cross the Green Mountain” by Bob Dylan, a dreary dirge that has little to recommend it. The video features Dylan looking like Dr Death walking through the injured looking grave and occasionally stroking a soldier’s brow. Frankly the last thing I’d want if I was mortally wounded would be Bob Dylan stroking my brow. The second, Mary Fahl’s “Going Home”, is a far better song (although not quite living up to its early promise) with appropriate lyrics and a mellow feel. Not sure what rolling around on the grass in a tight black dress in the rain has to do with the American Civil War, mind. Neither video is subtitled.
Excellent trailer for the film.
Journey to the Past
Twenty odd minute look at the film, first about the themes involved and then the making. Better than the usual five minute fluff pieces we get, and even if it doesn’t have any great insight at least it’s useful as a summary of what the film was setting out to do.
The Authenticities of the Film
Twelve minute documentary about the issues facing the filmmakers during the shooting of the Battle of Fredericksburg. Very interesting but does feel rather longer than its shorter running time.
The Life of Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson
“Everyone he tried to love died.” Very nice fourteen minute documentary about Jackson, filling in the blanks left by the movie, especially about his earlier life.
Thirty second promo for West Virginia, seemingly from their tourist board. A bit of an odd inclusion but there you go.
Not the movie it desperately wants to be, this is a frustrating film to watch but is worth a look if only for the production values. The extras are good but not great and are not the historical resources they could have been. All in all, a missed opportunity.
5 out of 10
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