Gods & Generals: But is it a Good Movie?

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Nobody’s
much surprised that movie critics resented the content of Ron Maxwell’s
new film, “Gods & Generals.” Since the film faithfully and accurately
depicts the motivations of both sides at the outset of the American
Civil War, it necessarily rejects the party line history as transmitted
through most history books and films about the war. The characters
are moved not by passionate attachment to or revulsion at the evil
institution of slavery, but rather by conflicting modes of patriotism;
Northerners cleaved to the Federal Union, which they saw “rebels”
trying to shatter, while Southerners adhered to their home states,
which they saw as oppressed by an imperialistic government. A newly
hatched Southern nationalism, warts and slaves and all, drove the
Confederates to a long string of victories over their much more
numerous, better-armed opponents, right up until the Battle of Gettysburg,
which turned the tide – in large part because it killed off
so many promising junior officers, which the South could not afford
to lose. This film shows the South reaching its high tide, riding
in the heroic wake of the complex, paradoxical figure of Gen. Thomas
“Stonewall” Jackson, brilliantly portrayed here by Stephen Lang.
Most critics, even those who savaged the film, have praised his
gripping performance, which infused the 19th century, biblical dialogue
with feeling and fury.

What
was a little surprising to me   was the coruscating critical
barrage the film suffered on aesthetic grounds.  The New
York Times, which barely mentioned the movie before, devoted
half a page to reproducing just the negative reviews, and tried
to lump “Gods & Generals” in with “Battlefield Earth” and Kevin
Costner’s ill-famed ode to government workers, “The Postman.” (I
always wondered if that film was funded by my dad’s old labor union,
the National Association of Letter Carriers… .) This made me suspicious,
and led me to think that there’s an ideological agenda underlying
the chorus of critical disdain the movie is getting. That was my
first thought, and there’s certainly something to it. Simply displaying
the Confederate flag – except on the Web site of the Southern
Poverty Law Center, amidst various SS regalia and neo-Nazi tattoos
– takes nerve these days, given people’s Pavlovian response
to it: Racist, Klansman, Skinhead… .

Another
element which rattles reviewers is the omnipresence of Christian
faith throughout the film. Almost all the major characters –
with the poignant exception of a single Confederate general, who
on his deathbed confesses his atheism to a grieving Stonewall Jackson
– are seen to pray, invoke God’s blessing on their cause, and
commend the results of their efforts to the judgment of Providence.
This has led the less sophisticated reviewers, who resent the past
because it has past, to accuse the film of sanctimoniousness. No
doubt, they would prefer movies such as 2000’s loathsome “The Messenger,”
which attempts to read religion out of the life of St. Joan of Arc,
and remakes her story as the “Terminator” with cleavage. Suspicion
is indeed justified, in reviewing this movie’s reviewers.

That
said, are they onto something? Is there something aesthetically
wrong with “Gods & Generals,” which leftists and PC parrots
latch onto, and pro-southerners overlook? Did the filmmaker unwittingly
make it easy for his film to be dismissed, by committing cinematic
mistakes? Let me try to rate this movie as drama, to give as dispassionate
a view as I can of the film’s virtues and vices. At the end, I think
you will see that the movie is undoubtedly worth seeing, more than
once – and not just because one wants to support a sympathetic
film-maker, or to buck the liberal critics, but because it’s a powerful
and virtually unique piece of cinema.

The
Flaws

That
doesn’t mean it’s perfect. “Gods & Generals” is long at 3:37
plus a 12 minute intermission, which tests the attention span and
endurance of most movie-goers. It also reduces the number of times
a theater can show the film each day to twice or thrice, making
the movie much less commercially viable. For strictly business reasons,
it might have been wiser to cut the film into two different features,
as was considered at one point in post-production. There is something
a little grueling about watching the three long battles the film
depicts (the important conflict at Antietam had to banished to the
DVD version), and the long character sequences interspersed among
them. No doubt, that length made some reviewers doubly impatient
with the lengthy speeches delivered by some of the characters –
however worthy, historically accurate, or intrinsically interesting
they are. The language in the film is beautiful, and true to the
19th century, when educated Americans made regular reference to
Roman orators, the Old and New Testaments, and the speeches of the
Founders. But in the context of a four-hour film, they come across
to the unsophisticated viewer as fat that an editor should have
cut.

The
battle scenes are remarkably unbloody. In one of his few compromises
with commercialism – to obtain a PG-13 rating – Maxwell
drained away most of the gore that must have accompanied the battles;
this is no “Saving Private Ryan.” Had he done otherwise, no father
could take his young sons to see this heroic drama about America’s
past, as thousands countless will. But the film does not sanitize
the horrors of war; instead of the visceral impact of flying flesh
and gushing blood, it focuses on the tragic ending of human lives,
the death of countless brave and idealistic young men in the service
of their countries. There is something re-humanizing about this
approach, which emphasizes the transcendent value of each man’s
life, rather than the animal fragility upon which it rests. The
fields of the dead, the cutting down of row after row of men we’ve
come to respect, even love, the destruction of home and farm –
all portrayed with moving, skillful cinematography – serve
amply to show the sheer hell that war brings on, without any close-up
shots of the piles of severed limbs or dismembered corpses.

The
most legitimate criticism which I think could be raised about the
film – although most of the hostile reviewers missed it –
was a certain static quality in some of the scenes. Here I speak
as a screenwriter, who regularly employs a classic script-doctor’s
trick while writing scenes. Here’s how it goes:

When
you have to give exposition, make sure to accompany it with conflict.
In other words, try never simply to allow General Jackson to express
his Christian faith. Instead, if you must put it across, place it
in the context of an argument. Have him debate his faith with an
unbeliever, or clash about a point of theology with a non-Calvinist.
If he must pray, let him do it in a voice-over, while you show something
more interesting happening on screen – preferably a battle
or a chase. Always employ conflict among the characters – even
those on the same side – to keep scenes interesting as you
move the plot along. You use it as sugar, to help the medicine go
down.

It’s
a simple trick, used all the time on television and in most movies
you’ve seen. It explains why the cops on Law and Order always bicker
in their squad car on the way to a crime scene. It’s heavily overused
– because it works, and helps keep viewers’ attention. I think
Maxwell could have used it more than he did, taking advantage of
the real conflicts between Gen. Jackson, say, and Gen. A.P. Hill
– whom Jackson once had arrested and imprisoned for insubordination.
More use of this convention would have helped the modern moviegoer.
Why didn’t Maxwell employ it very much? Probably because he was
focused on conveying the bigger picture – and riveted on the
overarching, powerfully moving clash between the North and South.
That large-scale conflict, and its inbuilt situational ironies,
are more than enough to make the movie exciting for the literate,
attentive viewer. But they don’t keep the peanut gallery as happy.

A
few other minor details bothered me; some of the CGI graphics and
scale models of 19th century towns could have been more convincing.
A few scenes could have been cut without much loss. One or two of
the minor actors are less convincing in spots, and detract from
the overpoweringly good work of most of the players. A sub-plot
depicting Jackson’s close relationship to a small girl who dies
of scarlet fever, while it nicely humanizes Jackson, could easily
have been saved for the DVD. Finally, the sequence in which Jackson
is wounded and gradually dies, then is mourned in what one critic
aptly called a “Viking funeral,” could certainly be shorter, without
any loss to the film’s emotional impact or truthfulness. But these
are petty cavils, little grains of sand that fleck a beautifully
painted canvas.

Two
Thumbs Up

So
that’s my candid opinion – my sharpest critical appraisal of
a film that has been praised by enthusiasts, and torn to shreds
by those who are hostile to the world it depicts, and the ideas
that motivated the men who lived in it. If you care about popular
culture in America, and the direction it takes, you will pile the
kids (8 years and up) into the car, and drag your friends to the
nearest multiplex where “Gods & Generals” is showing. It will
take 4 hours, and tire you out. You won’t emerge whistling “Dixie,”
or even “The Bonnie Blue Flag.” But you’ll come out of with a profound
sense of respect for the men who built America, and those who tried
and died to build another country – one that has indeed blown
away, and is gone with the wind.

March
13, 2003

Dr.
Zmirak is author of Wilhelm
Röpke: Swiss Localist, Global Economist
. He writes frequently
on economics, politics, popular culture and theology. Visit his
blog
.


     

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