“Gods and Generals” is the prequel to “Gettysburg”. “Gettysburg” was financial and critical success, but it took ten years to follow it up. Like that movie, “Gods and Generals” was written and directed by Ronald Maxwell. He based his screenplay on Jeff Shaara’s novel. (“Gettysburg” was based on Jeff’s father’s novel Killer Angels.) “Gods and Generals” was also produced by Ted Turner Pictures and Turner has another cameo as Col. Weller Patton (“Old Blood and Guts” great uncle). As with Ted, many actors reprised their roles from the first film. For instance, Jeff Daniels returned as Joshua Chamberlain (even though he was ten years older, but playing the same age character – hooray for Hollywood make-up artists!) Several other key parts had new actors. Most interestingly, Stephen Lang (who played Pickett in “Gettysburg”) now plays Stonewall Jackson. Robert Duvall replaced Martin Sheen as Lee. A similar cast did not result in similar results. The movie cost $56 million and made just $13. This does not bode well for the planned third installment based on Shaara’s Last Full Measure.
“Gods and Generals” covers the first half of the Civil War (or as Jackson calls it – “The Second War of Independence”) in the eastern theater. The title card is a quote from George Eliot about love of one’s homeland. This is the first clue that the movie will take a Southern point of view. Robert E. Lee is offered command of the Union Army, but declines because he cannot take up arms against his state. Meanwhile, Thomas Jackson is teaching at Virginia Military Institute. He is a terrible teacher who memorizes his lessons and threatens to repeat them from the start if interrupted. Can’t some alternative job come along that is more suited to his talents? (It would be a shame if 600,000 Americans would have to die for him to fulfill his destiny.) Sure enough, along comes the Civil War and school is out. Like summer vacation, the boys are thrilled it has arrived. Two young men leave home to join the Confederate Army. Slave women kiss them goodbye. This is the second clue. If you are a Yankee, you might want to turn off the movie now.
The religious theme is initiated early. Rebels march off to war to reverential music that tells us they are doomed, but God is on their side. This theme is hammered throughout the movie through the Jackson character. He is very pious, but is a bit lenient on that old “thou shalt not kill” commandment. The first set piece battle is First Bull Run (which surprisingly, the movie does not call “First Manassas”). The battle concentrates on Jackson’s brigade and coverage of the battle shows some flaws that Civil War experts will find irritating. Gen. Bee refers to Jackson himself, instead of his brigade, when he uses the word “stonewall”. Jackson is wounded in the hand for dubious cinematic reasons. More problematic, considering the number of reenactors in the scene, Jackson orders his men to “charge bayonets” and the order initiates a charge (instead of the proper presenting of bayonets). The resulting charge is loaded with action with lots of hand-to-hand and realistic deaths. It is fairly graphic for a PG-13 movie. The charge wins the battle, although in actuality it was not nearly that simple.
In between periods (to use a hockey analogy), Joshua Chamberlain leaves his professorship after an intellectual debate (everyone speaks like an intellectual in this movie) with his wife about his reasons for leaving. He presents the generic “a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do” argument. Not the preserve the Union view. The recently canonized Jackson hires a black cook named Lewis. Lewis wants to defend his home! Jackson promises “Big Jim” that someday his people will be free. Lewis will stand in for all the “good blacks” of the “peculiar institution”. Jackson represents their benevolent “employers”. Just as you are swallowing what just came up in your mouth, a letter arrives from Jackson’s baby daughter. Gag! Keep your puke bag handy, there is more to come.
The second period covers the Battle of Fredericksburg. (The movie conveniently skips the Battle of Antietam and that awkward Emancipation Proclamation.) The movie covers the taking of the town after a spirited Southern defense. The Yankees loot like the barbarians that they are. Martha, a slave, defends her master’s home. Lewis would be proud of her. The battle scene is a dandy. It concentrates on the futile attacks on the stone wall. At one point it’s Irish versus Irish (literally, as many of the reenactors are cinematically shooting at themselves) in a schmaltzy scene. In the mirror image of the first film’s Pickett’s Charge, the 20th Maine assaults the stone wall and gets pinned down. Chamberlain spends hours listening to bullets thunk into corpses he has piled for protection.
In our second intermission, Jackson has a talk with a little girl. He tells her, “your daddy will come home, all the daddies will come home”. Wait, what? There is a minstrel show featuring the song “Bonnie Blue Flag” and a line by Ted Turner. (Speaking roles pay more money.) Joshua Chamberlain and his brother Tom (C. Thomas Howell again) discuss emancipation in an obvious attempt by screenwriter Maxwell to make up for Chamberlain’s wishy-washy comments in “Gettysburg”. Jackson befriends a cute little girl during a plantation sojourn. As though the schmaltz meter can’t go higher, it is turned up to 11 with the arrival of Mrs. Jackson and their baby daughter. Thankfully the intermission ends and we are on to the third period which consists of the Battle of Chancellorsville. We are heading for a happy ending, fellow Southerners. Except for the death of the saintly Jackson. Sorry, did you not notice he was not in “Gettysburg”? That’s why I am not living in the Confederate States of America.
I was quite surprised and excited to learn that they had made a prequel to “Gettysburg”. I am a big fan of “Gettysburg” and have read extensively on the Civil War, especially the war in the east. I have to admit that most of my reading was of the Army of Northern Virginia. Being a Southerner, I naturally found the Confederate Army more interesting. I guess you could say I rooted for Lee and his men. However, I never lost sight of the wrongness of their cause. While “Gettysburg” had a Southern slant, that could be excused as an accurate rendering of the source novel and the fact that the Confederate perspective was more compelling than the Union. The movie was well-received and the critics did not divide themselves between Southerners who admired it and Northerners who despised it. The same cannot be said about “Gods and Generals”.
The problem is not with the history. The movie is more accurate than most war movies. I mentioned some minor flaws in the Battle of Bull Run, but for the most part the movie does not make things up. The three battles are instructional although you only get a small part of the battlefield and it helps a lot if you are already familiar with the events in the war. The combat itself is very accurate. Credit must go to the reenactors. The weapons are authentic and unlike “Gettysburg”, the cannons recoil. Unfortunately, there were less reenactors for the prequel so CGI had to be used. The battle scenes for Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville are among the best put on film. Lee’s famous quote “It is well that war is so terrible or we should grow too fond of it” is borne out cinematically. After what Chamberlain undergoes in the field in front of the stone wall at Fredericksburg, you wonder how he did not suffer from debilitating PTSD. You watch scenes like this and you wonder how our current public would respond to that scale of bloodletting. Compare this to “Black Hawk Down” which has the best take on modern American warfare. Have we gotten softer?
Sticking with the hockey analogy, the problem is not with the game, it’s with the intermissions. The expository scenes are boring and infuriating. The movie would have more accurately been titled “The Life and Death of Stonewall Jackson”. He totally dominates the movie. Stephen Lang is excellent as Jackson and gets his personality right. (The rest of the cast is average in their performances, although the facial hair is superior to the original movie.) Jackson is a fascinating figure and the movie accurately portrays his eccentricities and beliefs. He was indeed very pious. The movie makes this painfully clear. The problem is not in his portrayal. The problem is that the movie is centered around him. He is the living representation of the “Lost Cause” and the states’ rights argument for preserving slavery. His relationship with his slave Lewis is apparently accurate, but that does not make it acceptable for a modern movie. It was not even acceptable in “Birth of a Nation” in 1915. That “classic” shares a similar vibe with “Gods and Generals”. Both are loathsome to African-Americans. Both are pro-Southern.
It is natural to compare “Gods and Generals” to “Gettysburg”. It does not come off well in comparison. The acting is inferior. Much of it is wooden. The score is worse. Randy Edelman had only small involvement this time. The combat is good, but does not rise to the level of the fight for Little Round Top and Pickett’s Charge. The dialogue is still mainly actors spouting memoir quotes. This makes for accuracy, but with a heavy dose of pretentiousness. Much of the dialogue is speeches and some of those speeches are sermons. (I use the word “sermons” because the movie is very religious.) And the words that originated with the screenwriter (like Jackson’s discussions with Lewis) are cringe-worthy. As are the fictional characters like Martha and the little girl Jackson befriends.
I usually don’t let personal feelings creep into my reviews. Obviously, all reviews are opinions, but I try to focus on how well the movie tells its story. This is one of the few movies that I have a visceral reaction to due to the vibe of the movie. I mentioned that I rooted for Lee’s army in my reading on the Civil War. However, I never bought into the “lost cause” legend. It would have been a disaster for the South if it had won the war. To release a movie in 2003 that makes the case for states’ rights and slavery is untenable. For that reason, I cannot recommend it. If you can overlook its flaws, the movie is admirably accurate as a history lesson. Just don’t invite your African-American friends over to watch it.
GRADE = D