gods and generals (2003)


director: ronald f. maxwell

stephen lang, robert duvall, jeff daniels

Ronald Maxwell’s Civil War epic Gods and Generals has been met with a wall of critical hostility that occasionally smacks of the overeager. Whatever problems the film has - and it has many - should be at least partially forgiven by Maxwell’s ambitious attempt to make a film more truthful to actual history than almost any previous take on the Civil War.

A prequel to Maxwell’s earlier Gettysburg, Gods and Generals is largely about the first years of the war, and more specifically about Confederate general Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson. As portrayed in Maxwell’s screenplay and played by Stephen Lang, Jackson is a good man - devout, loyal and, unlike the rebel government for which he fights, opposed to slavery. He’s a noble but tragic figure, pledged to die for a cause both inimical to his personal morality and utterly detestable to the eyes of history.

Like most of the characters in the film, Lang’s Jackson quotes Bible verse frequently, and views the world without a hint of irony, an earnest, sometimes mawkishly sentimental, but historically accurate tone that the film strives to duplicate. Many critics seemed put off by the piety of many of the characters, a criticism that probably says more about their own prejudices than Maxwell's film. It feels like the director tried to make the film that would have been made if movies were a century old in 1865.

Deathbed sequences are modeled on century-old magazine illustrations, without a hint of ironic remove, or a consciousness of second-hand imagery being used. Secondary characters soliloquize aloud with speculation on the thoughts of main characters, and the lulls between battles are filled with domestic interludes or - most winceworthy of all - a dire musical number.

There’s nothing remotely modern about Gods and Generals; the computer-generated panoramas of towns and battlefields look like vintage storybook illustrations. Frequent lapses into portentous speechifying make Gods and Generals feel like wartime propaganda, more than vaguely reminiscent of the vast, plodding epics once produced by Soviet filmmakers, the kind of movies that seem to owe more of a stylistic debt to serialized Victorian novels than the hyperactive, restless economy of filmmaking.

The battle scenes - a high point for the Civil War re-enactor crowd that helped make Gods and Generals and Gettysburg - are alternately harrowing (in bloody close-up) and confusing (in long shots), the latter thanks largely to some fantastically incoherent editing that can’t seem to decide from whose perspective, North or South, we’re watching vast lines of troops being fed into the meat-grinder. The Battle of Fredericksburg in particular veers maddeningly between the two, but it says much about Maxwell's mandate that, once we're in the thick of the carnage, it's hard to recall a more vivid movie depiction of 19th-century war.

This four-hour film, a pet project of media mogul Ted Turner, will apparently be a six-hour film on DVD, and ultimately part of a trilogy when a third film about the end of the war is finished. It’s to be hoped that the final film will be inspired by the speed, brutality and harshness of the world the war inspired, if only for the audience’s sake.