Gods and Generals

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Gods and Generals

by Daniel McCarthy

If you’re already planning to see Gods and Generals, see it soon. A nearly four-hour historical epic that has so far received middling-to-poor reviews from most sources, this isn’t a movie that’s going to remain in theaters for long. It will have a second life on television, and a third on DVD, but there’s no substitute for seeing it on the big screen. This is an epic, after all: a film called God and Generals deserves to be seen in a larger-than-life medium.

It’s the "prequel" to 1993′s Gettysburg and like the earlier film is written and directed by Ronald F. Maxwell, with financial support from Ted Turner, who makes a cameo appearance in Gods and Generals (it’s an occasion for half of the audience to nudge the other half and whisper on the sly, "check it out, that’s Ted Turner"). This film depicts events from the beginning of the war through the battles of Manassas, Fredericksburg, and Chancellorsville, each of which was a Confederate victory, thanks largely to the film’s protagonist, Gen. Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson (Stephen Lang). This is as much his story as it is the story of the war itself. It’s also a story told mostly from the South’s point of view — one reason why critics hate it so much.

Make no mistake: Gods and Generals is more or less explicitly Christian, Southern, and even libertarian. Jackson is unflinching in the face of enemy fire because of his unshakable trust in God; he feels as safe on the battlefield as he feels in his bed. He prays as intensely as he fights. And what he fights for is his home, his family, and their freedom. The same cause animates Jackson’s colleagues, from Gen. Robert E. Lee (a superbly cast Robert Duvall) to the cadets of the Virginia Military Institute, where Jackson teaches at the beginning of the film. They aren’t fighting for an abstraction, but neither are they fighting for mere real estate; their homes and their principles are inseparably intertwined.

None of this is to say that Maxwell has made a one-sided film, even if it does lean heavily in one direction. In an age when any show of Southern symbols or defense of the Southern cause is equated with racism — or, by neoconservative sources, with treason — the film has to emphasize one side more strongly than the other just to achieve balance. The case for the Union is already familiar to filmgoers; not so the case for the South. Critics have been inclined to dismiss the pro-Union speech made in the film by Lt. Col. Joshua Chamberlain (Jeff Daniels) as tokenism. It isn’t. When Chamberlain asks how anyone can fight for freedom while tolerating the institution of slavery, he’s raising a point that does more damage to the Southern cause than critics have been able to appreciate, because they don’t understand the association of the South with freedom.

Ideology is only part of the reason that Gods and Generals has received middling reviews, however. Equally important is that this is a film that requires an adult attention-span. Not only is it nearly four hours long, but most of its characters wear uniforms and, among the generals, have similar-looking beards. The dialogue is very mannered, even stiff, but with good reason. As Steven Sailer wrote in his UPI review of the film, "…that’s how the educated classes talked in the 1860s. They read more than we do now, but owned less printed material. So, they read classics over and over. Lincoln, for example, was marinated in the King James Bible and Shakespeare. They were adept at high rhetoric and loved orations." Characters in Gods and Generals freely quote poetry and Bible verses from memory, and frequently make allusions to Roman history. The effect is to make Gods and Generals feel like the kind of feature film that would have been made in the 19th century, if there had been feature films in the 19th century.

Most movies, even supposedly serious ones, are intended as escapism. Gods and Generals is not. As a result, it makes little sense to evaluate this movie by the same standards one would apply to Daredevil or Old School or whatever else might be showing at the local multiplex. Gods and Generals is an entertaining film, but it isn’t entertaining the same way as other films. For one thing, it is not a personal, psychologically subjective film that encourages viewers to identify with the characters and their feelings. Instead the film tries to convey a feel for the war itself, both in its brutal battle scenes and in the almost godlike aura that attaches to some of the war’s commanders, particularly Stonewall Jackson. Where it does attempt to humanize its characters, as when Jackson gives a piggy-back ride to a little girl he has befriended, the film tends to go amiss. To convey the sense of a man like Jackson as both a human being and a legend is a very tall order indeed; the film is at its best when focused on the legend.

The film is called Gods and Generals because that was the title of the book by Jeff Shaara on which it is based. But there is only one general here who really has the stature of a god, and that’s Stonewall Jackson. This is apparently the first time he’s been portrayed on film. It’s about time. One suspects that most Americans, outside of Civil War buffs and unreconstructed Southern patriots, have little sense of who or how significant Jackson was. Whatever the historical truth may be, the legend of Stonewall Jackson is of a leader so great he could almost have single-handedly saved the South. There is a mystique about Jackson that, as a classicist, I can only compare to that of Alexander the Great. The two men could not have been more different, certainly not in their personal lives, but with each there is a sense of divine sanction following their battlefield careers, and with each there are lingering questions of what might have been had they not died as soon as they did. Even Napoleon and Caesar seem like much less fated individuals — probably because they lived long enough to display the limits of their abilities.

Gods and Generals does justice to the legend of Stonewall Jackson without overstating its point. In the film, he is still human and he does make mistakes. Stephen Lang’s performance as Jackson is dead-on; he shows us a man so single-minded in his devotion to God that all else is mere detail. It’s for that reason that Jackson can stand unperturbed in a hail of fire — even after he’s been hit by a stray bullet — and that he remains stoic in the face of battlefield carnage. Lang’s performance gives a credible feel for the relationship between piety and martial brilliance that the legendary Jackson exemplified. Gods and Generals would be worth seeing just to see Lang as Stonewall Jackson, and to see Stonewall Jackson done justice on the silver screen.

But there is much else to commend Gods and Generals as well. The scenes of battle are realistic and harrowing, as good as those in Gettysburg. It’s all the more impressive considering the PG13 rating of this movie. Without resorting to buckets of blood, Gods and Generals still gives a believable and moving representation of battle. It also represents how futile and pitiful war can be when your commanders are as incompetent as the Union’s Gen. Burnside (Alex Hyde-White). During the battle of Fredericksburg Burnside sends wave after wave of Union troops against well-fortified Confederates, with appalling casualties. Union soldiers wind up using the bodies of other soldiers as barricades against the bullets. The Yankees gain control of Fredericksburg for a time, which serves as occasion for an orgy of looting. When the Confederates regain control, it’s already too late for some of the townspeople, who have lost everything. Meanwhile the federal troops regroup in the morning and are touted by their commanders, reading a message from President Lincoln himself, as the bravest warriors in all the history of the world. "Buster" Kilrain, an Irish enlisted man in the Union army, has nothing but contempt for such inflated nonsense. What’s the good of being brave, after all, if you’re simply going to be used as cannon fodder?

A particularly important scene that has been overlooked by most reviewers, including those who write for ostensibly conservative periodicals, comes near the beginning of the film, as Thomas Jackson prepares to leave his teaching post at the Virginia Military Institute and lead his former cadets into battle. The father of one of the cadets does not support secession and is preparing to move to Pennsylvania. He meets with Jackson and his son. Jackson agrees to let the youth go with his father, if that’s what he wants. Should he choose to stay and serve with Jackson, the young man will be in it for the duration, unable to leave the army until the war’s end. And that is the choice the cadet makes: to stay and fight with Jackson, rather than accompany his father to Pennsylvania.

The scene is important because it dramatizes the fact that these men had to make choices. They did not choose their loyalties blindly. Some of the fake conservatives who’ve given Gods and Generals its best reviews would prefer to ignore this truth; when they show any sympathy for the South at all, it is only for the soldiers as misguided patriots, men who made a mistake rather than committed a sin or a crime (like treason). But this attitude is demeaning to those who fought for the South. Yes, they were patriots, and for them their fatherland was their state, not the Union. But they were thoughtful patriots, by and large, who knew full well what they were doing and why. The South, to them, was not just a piece of real estate on which ones friends and relatives happened to live; it stood for a way of life and a set of beliefs as well, all irreducibly united. The scene at VMI illustrates that. Even if it meant being separated from his father, the cadet chose to side with the South because the South, in his best estimation, was right. To ignore the element of choice here and reduce the war to mere tribal loyalty is to do as great as disservice to this film — and to the men that it depicts — as those who evaluate it in politically correct terms do.

Nothing bothers politically correct critics more than the role of blacks in this film. There are two major black characters here and both of them are affiliated with the South. In fact, both of them are loyal to the South, despite their hatred of slavery. One of these characters is Martha (a lovely Donzaleigh Abernathy), a domestic slave who stays behind in Fredericksburg while her master’s family flees, in order that she can protect their home from occupation by Union troops. After all, she tells the family, it’s her house too. The other black character is Stonewall Jackson’s freedman cook, Jim Lewis. His family, including cousins, is half-free and half-slave, as he tells his Jackson one night when they pray together while pausing after a march. Jim prays for God to enlighten his countrymen and put an end to slavery. Jackson concurs, and tells Jim that there are some generals who would like to see slaves who volunteer for the army granted their freedom.

Two black characters, both of whom are loyal Southerners. This is more than the Roger Eberts of the world can take. On top of which, the only character shown as explicitly racist is a Northerner, Joshua Chamberlain’s brother Tom (C. Thomas Howell), who refers to black as "darkies" and suggests that the Emancipation Proclamation is likely to lead to rebellion in the Union ranks, as well as stir up the South all the more. Col. Chamberlain upbraids his brother for these views, and this serves as the occasion for Col. Chamberlain’s speech in defense of the Northern cause ("speech" is the right word; again, the dialogue can be very formal in places, and rather didactic too). There is a heavy-handedness to this; sometimes the film is giving a direct exposition of its subject matter, telling rather than showing. This is a failing, but a minor one, and perhaps one that cannot be helped. These are after all points of view — blacks loyal to the South, racist Northerners, and liberty-loving Confederates — that go against the prevailing stereotypes of today. Maxwell has to err on the side of being too obvious, because he’s telling many of his viewers something that they do not want to hear.

It took a lot of courage for Maxwell to make this film and to make it the way he has. It took a lot of courage too on the part of his supporters, including Ted Turner. There is still one more chapter to go in the Maxwell-Shaara Civil War trilogy (Gods and Generals, Gettysburg, and the proposed Last Full Measure). Whether the last movie gets made and show in theaters depends on how well Gods and Generals performs. Right now, it isn’t performing too well. It certainly is a "difficult" movie — difficult for some because it presents a fair picture of the South, and difficult for others because it’s over three hours long and very mannered — and it has its flaws. But it’s a film well worth your support; where it fails, it fails because it’s too ambitious. And where it succeeds, such as in Stephen Lang’s performance as Jackson, in presenting a reasonable view of the Southern cause, and in showing some of the most realistic battle scenes ever seen, it succeeds tremendously well. So see it, and see it soon.

Daniel McCarthy [send him mail] is a graduate student in classics at Washington University in St. Louis.

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