Movie Review: Gods and Generals
By William B. Feis
William B. Feis earned a Ph.D in military history from The Ohio State University in 1997 and is currently an associate professor of history at Buena Vista University in Storm Lake, Iowa. In addition to numerous essays and articles on Civil War intelligence, he authored Grant's Secret Service: The Intelligence War from Belmont to Appomattox (University of Nebraska Press, 2002), which was selected as the History Book Club Editor's Choice for September 2002.
The difficulty with making historically-based films is that the end result is never a clear reflection of the actual events. Instead, as critic Jacquelyn Kilpatrick has argued, a movie "is like a photograph of the mirrored reflection of a painted image." Gods and Generals, the latest cinematic offering from the coffers of Ted Turner and the directorial expertise of Ronald Maxwell, is more a tintype of a refraction of a Currier & Ives lithograph. Based on Jeff Shaara's novel and the prequel to Gettysburg (1996), itself an adaptation of his father Michael's classic Killer Angels, the movie evokes an array of emotions and thoughts depending upon one's interest in the Civil War. It is exciting and boring, fulfilling and frustrating, absorbing and maddening. Most of all, it is disappointing to realize that Hollywood has yet to produce a worthy successor to Glory (1989).
The major strength of the film is how it captures the look and feel of the war, especially with regard to soldiers and battles, which is a credit to Maxwell's almost obsessive quest for realism. As with other Civil War films since Glory, he utilized the expertise and authenticity of volunteer reenactors. Mindful that critics of Gettysburg (which he also directed) had complained that Confederate soldiers in that film appeared too well fed, Maxwell recruited only reenactors who looked like the real thing. During the Fredericksburg battle scene, he also insisted that Union troops cross a pontoon bridge instead of choosing the much less expensive-and historically inaccurate-option of fording the Rappahannock River. This painstaking attention to detail made for battle scenes that transport the viewer back in time. Though the depictions of key engagements, including First Bull Run and Chancellorsville, were at times gripping, no one will confuse the film's battle scenes with the gritty realism of Saving Private Ryan. With few exceptions, the ugliness of the killing and the dying in this film remains hidden behind a thin veneer of romanticism.
Gods and Generals featured some heavyweight talent, including Robert Duvall as Robert E. Lee, Bruce Boxleitner as James Longstreet (sporting a more convincing beard than that pasted on Tom Berenger in Gettysburg), Jeff Daniels reprising his role as Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, and Stephen Lang as Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson. Regrettably, much of the star power was wasted and, overall, the story suffers from uneven character development. Duvall played a convincing Lee, though not a very human one. As a result, the audience sees only a "marble man" who speaks mostly in grandiloquent pronouncements. In fact, the dialogue in the movie was plagued by the same problem that afflicted Gettysburg. Though using the exact words of participants certainly enhanced the authenticity of the film, the lack of distinction between the written and the spoken word, especially given the formal, flowery, and wordy nature of nineteenth century writing, led to awkward exchanges and stilted speechifying. In addition, some of the dialogue was not only unnecessary for the story but confusing to the audience. All this made the film excruciatingly long and transformed flesh-and blood individuals into relics from a wax museum.
Daniels and Boxleitner deliver good performances but both are underutilized and their characters never allowed to fully develop, perhaps because Gods and Generals is really two movies. One attempts to capture the major events of the first tumultuous years of the war while the other is a mini-biography of Stonewall Jackson. The two never quite mesh but Lang (who played George Pickett in Gettysburg) turns in the best performance of the film with his depiction of the eccentric, religiously devout senior officer. Though Jackson saved the day at Bull Run, Lang could not do the same for this film.
Actors, uniforms, battle scenes, and dialogue aside, the movie is simply too long. At the end, instead of exclaiming "AUTHOR! AUTHOR!", I wanted desperately to shout "EDITOR! EDITOR!" Sadly, there was a good film in there somewhere, and judicious editing might have revealed it. But Maxwell seemed reluctant to leave much on the cutting room floor, which is where more of the film belonged. The Fredericksburg battle scene, for example, proceeds at a mind-numbing pace that was wholly unnecessary. Excising superfluous dialogue and endless troop movements would have moved it along more rapidly without compromising the story. In fact, it was after the seemingly infinite scenes of Union troops marching toward the stone wall on Marye's Heights that a number of viewers in the audience, having had enough, exited the theater.
As with his repetitious battle scenes, Maxwell bludgeoned the audience with images of Stonewall Jackson and others praying or reciting Bible verses. Though an accurate reflection of the religious fervor and piety of many in that era, he includes far more scenes than were necessary to make that point, further slowing the film's already glacial pace. Perhaps in an attempt to get the history right, Maxwell also introduces a dizzying array of officers and includes far too much gratuitous detail. For example, the scenes in which Lee plans the battles are fraught with minutiae that even the most knowledgeable viewers will find pointless and confusing. As one patron exclaimed afterwards, there was too much God and too many generals in Gods and Generals.
The main problem with the movie, however, is its inadequate treatment of the issues that give the Civil War its meaning. Most glaringly, the depiction of slavery as the key cause of secession and as an abhorrent institution remains muted and is only tangential to the story of grand battles and great men. This is an odd omission given that during the time period covered by the film the war transformed from a campaign to restore the old Union with slavery to a crusade to create a new nation without it. Granted, most Southern soldiers owned no slaves and many Northerners objected to abolition as a goal early on. But the fact remains that the issue of slavery erupted in secession and secession led to the war, making the "peculiar institution" inextricable from the conflict itself. In his defense, Maxwell faced a complicated problem in getting at these issues in a way audiences would understand. However, instead of grappling with more recent interpretations of the war's causes and meaning, he chose to champion the more simplistic-and sanitized-interpretations found in post-war "Lost Cause" mythology. The war, so these arguments run, was not about slavery or race at all, but was merely a "family quarrel" between whites in which the discussion of causes was overshadowed by an emphasis on battles, campaigns, and the bravery, honor, and sacrifice of the noble men on both sides. In this view, observed historian David Blight, "Whoever was honest in his devotion was right." [emphasis in original]
The tendency toward this outlook is apparent in the film's depiction of Confederate soldiers. The overall message is that Southerners fought against barbarous Yankees invaders who threatened their country and their women. On the whole, Southerners are depicted as noble, well-mannered, and obedient. On the other hand, little is shown to counter the image of Northerners as rapacious looters bent on sacking Southern towns. More troubling, however, is the film's depiction of slaves and slavery. The scenes that raise the issue are noticeably few and lost within the broad sweep of the film. Moreover, the only African-Americans shown demonstrate seemingly boundless loyalty to their masters, are treated as an equal part of the family, and evince only a tangential interest in what the war was about. Though there were slaves who fit this description, they were by far in the minority. But this is the only representation of slavery the audience sees. The prime example is Jackson's man-servant, Jim Lewis, played by Frankie Faison. In the film, Jackson hired Lewis, who is portrayed as a free black, to be his cook. However, some convincing evidence indicates that Lewis was indeed a slave whose services Jackson "rented" from another slave owner in Lexington. Overall, Jackson treats Lewis as an equal and always with great kindness. Though at one point Lewis does state a desire for freedom someday, he appears content with his lot, which is somewhat reminiscent of the "positive good" image of slavery popularized in the South before the war.
The film shows a close connection between Jackson and Lewis but lost is the reality of the master-slave relationship. It must be remembered that Lewis had little choice but to be loyal to his owner. Moreover, a contemporary description of the Jackson-Lewis union reminds us that, regardless of how well they were treated, slaves were but a "species of property," a critical point of view the film neglects. During the war, Dr. Hunter McGuire, Jackson's surgeon, lauded Lewis's loyalty to his master and passionately equated him-in color, disposition, intelligence, obedience and fealty-to the general's other favorite possession, his horse Old Sorrel. "Both man and horse seemed to understand their master thoroughly," McGuire wrote, "and rarely failed to come up fully to all his requirements." Without the perspective of the millions of slaves who understood that Union victory meant the coming of "Jubilee," the focus on a kinder, gentler version of the slave-master relationship means that some viewers might mistake loyalty to a master for allegiance to the cause of Southern independence and leave with the impression that the "peculiar institution" may not have been all that bad.
At one point in the film, Jackson even wishes that slaves could be freed and enlisted in the Confederate cause, which is reminiscent of a troubling line from Gettysburg in which Longstreet proclaimed that the South should have freed the slaves and then fired on Fort Sumter. The thrust of these statements is that the war had nothing to do with slavery, that Southerners would have abolished the institution on their own someday, and that slaves would have willingly taken up arms for the Confederacy. All this indicates a strong preference by the filmmakers to dispense with the complexities of causation and focus primarily on the war and the fighting as if they were ends in themselves, very much in keeping with basic arguments posited and perpetuated by "Lost Cause" adherents like Jubal Early and William N. Pendleton.
Responding to similar criticism, Maxwell chided historians for viewing his characters as representatives of larger groups instead of as individuals, arguing that historians should view Jim Lewis on his own terms and not use him to represent all African-Americans in bondage. Though an arguable point, this is an interesting response given that folding the experiences, identities, attitudes, and perspectives of a larger constituency into a single character is a time-honored Hollywood convention, especially in war films. In fact, Maxwell could have enhanced the film by introducing fictional characters who represented other perspectives and, in that way, dealt with the causation/motivation issue. Though the use of these fictional characters is not historically accurate in a literal sense, revealing these perspectives would have been more truthful in a broader sense. Instead, the film avoided a direct confrontation with the slavery issue because it would soil the sentimental aura cloaking the story of honorable men nobly confronting each other in mortal combat. Thus, Gods and Generals is more Gone With The Wind than Glory, more Jubal Early than "Jubilee," and is truly a 21st century tribute to the "Lost Cause."
In the final analysis, the film will certainly captivate many viewers when they see on screen the great battles and leaders that had before lived only in the imagination. However, the film's fatal flaw-the failure to grapple with the war's larger meaning-keeps it confined within a nostalgic comfort zone devoid of much substance. After all, as Frederick Douglass so eloquently observed, the Civil War was not merely a "display of brute courage and endurance" but a conflict "between men of thought, as well as of action, and in dead earnest for something beyond the battlefield."