February/March 2004 | Volume 55, Issue 1
Gods and Generals
The very words HIstorical and film taken together suggest some kind of mildly patronizing qualification, like “military music” or “detective fiction.” There aren’t many definitions of a good film that one could apply to Gods and Generals ; it is poorly paced, utterly lacking in dramatic structure (aside from the historical facts it is based on), and largely devoid of most of the artistic pleasures that we seek in movies (except, in this case, acting).
Why, then, would I recommend Gods and Generals , and to whom? First, I’d recommend it simply because historical films can sometimes give us something that other films can’t—namely, history. Second, I’d recommend it to anyone who, for a few hours, can forgo purely aesthetic considerations to see history come alive. And that is what, at its best, the director Ronald F. Maxwell’s 220-minute (not counting DVD extras) film does: It makes history come alive. Forget the contemptuous or dismissive reviews that greeted it on its release, and ask yourself if you’ve ever had a desire to see Stonewall Jackson and his world re-created. If not, go no further.
If so, you’ll have to come here, because no other film since the silent era has even attempted a portrait of Jackson. Stephen Lang, one of America’s best actors, will leave you with a vivid image of the man and the convictions that drove him. You may not like what you see, but to dismiss the movie’s reverence for Jackson as homage to a bully—and at least two major papers used precisely that word in attacking the film—is to miss the point entirely.
The novel by Jeff Shaara on which the film is based (a prequel to his late father Michael’s The Killer Angels , about the Battle of Gettysburg), focuses on the great Confederate victories at Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville, as seen through the eyes of four officers—two Confederate, Jackson and Robert E. Lee (Robert Duvall), and two Union, Winfield Scott Hancock (Brian Mallon) and Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain (Jeff Daniels). Regrettably, Hancock’s role has been downsized, either in the original script or on the cutting-room floor. For that matter, Duvall’s angst-ridden Lee, who seems to carry the burden of history with him in every word and gesture, is pushed largely into the background by Lang’s fiery Jackson. This at least has the merit of highlighting the two officers, Jackson and Chamberlain, who best reflect the opposing points of view and the cultures that nurtured them.
Gods and Generals works best when considered as a series of set pieces, many of which (such as a sequence in which a musical troupe entertains Lee and his staff with “The Bonnie Blue Flag”) are unlike anything that any other movie on the Civil War has ever attempted. The most spectacular sequences, of course, are the battles themselves. The attack of the Federals against the Stonewalls at Fredericksburg is, with the possible exception of the assault on Fort Wagner in Glory, the most harrowing depiction of Civil War combat ever put on film. The Battle of Chancellorsville, in which the camera sweeps out of the woods with Jackson’s “foot cavalry” upon bivouacked Union troops, might be the single most sensational battle scene ever in a Civil War movie.
Gods and Generals has been accused of being sympathetic to the Confederate point of view. I don’t know that this is true; I think perhaps the story lacked a proper Union general to pair with Jackson. (For all his sterling qualities, Daniels’s Chamberlain is only a colonel and thus lacks Jackson’s stature in the film.) Grant or Sherman would have been appropriate, but we won’t get them until the final installment of this three-movie series, based on Jeff Shaara’s The Last Full Measure .