Gods and Generals
2003, PG-13, 220 min. Directed by Ronald F. Maxwell. Starring Jeff Daniels, Stephen Lang, Robert Duvall, Mira Sorvino, Kevin Conway, C. Thomas Howell, Frankie Faison, Kali Rocha.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Feb. 21, 2003
Hundreds of Civil War re-enactors got the dream gig of their lifetimes in Ron Maxwell’s follow-up to 1993’s Gettysburg, but unless you’re a relative of one of these toy soldiers there is little else to recommend this nearly four-hour-long epic (including intermission) about America’s bloody divide. In its efforts to honor historical accuracy and find the human beings lurking behind the folklore surrounding the war’s favorite figureheads, Gods and Generals has rendered a movie whose characters are more inert than any wax-museum likenesses and whose battle scenes have no more life than a Matthew Brady photo. Full of windy speeches about honor, god, fealty, and so on, the movie comes to a literal standstill whenever one of these noble addresses is about to be delivered. Motion halts and the flowery words take center stage – and hog it like there’s no tomorrow. It comes off like so much poppycock – to use the vernacular of the day. In its bearing, Gods and Generals most resembles an old-fashioned Hollywood biopic about gentlemen warriors in which generals speechify, wives are brave, young men become hardened by battle, and armed conflict is always the last resort of honorable men. The battle scenes are interesting in a historical sense, and allow ample observation of traditional fighting modes, period weapons and materiel, and uniforms, but I would have been willing to sacrifice some of the filmmakers’ precision for the sake of some emotional arousal and enthusiasm. Where the movie succeeds most is in its depiction of the personal loyalties that fed the Civil War’s divisions. These Americans are people with strong loyalties to their states and their militias. They fight to defend that which is close to home. Ideas about economics and slavery often take a back seat to godly devotions and traditions. Also significant in Maxwell’s movie is its focus on characters who haven’t been treated as major players in most of the history books and film renditions of the war. Even though Gen. Robert E. Lee is provided with star casting in the guise of Robert Duvall, the film focuses greater attention on his most trusted lieutenant, Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson (Lang). Daniels embodies Col. Joshua Lawrence, who gives up his promising teaching career at Bowdoin College in Maine to become a leader in the Union army. Gods and Generals is based on Jeff Shaara’s novel. Shaara is the son of Michael Shaara, who wrote the novel The Killer Angels on which Maxwell’s Gettysburg was based, but who died before seeing it brought to the screen. Maxwell encouraged the son to write this follow-up and a third novel, The Last Full Measure, which Maxwell also hopes to make into a Civil War film. At this rate, however, the only people in the theatres will be the re-enactors and their families.