Gods and Generals is an extremely one-sided account of the first half of the Civil War.
No, it isn’t one-sided in the way most Civil War movies are — favoring North over South or South over North. It is one-sided along a completely different axis. But that pertains to one of the major flaws of the movie, which I’ll get to shortly.
First let me tell you what works in the movie: Basically, any given thirty minutes that you choose. If you wandered into the theater at a random point, sat down for half an hour, and then got up and left, you would stand a good chance of having a reasonable cinematic experience. Taken in isolation, any thirty-minute segment is basically okay.
The visuals in the movie are interesting. It was filmed entirely on location at the sites of the actual battles it chronicles. It also was filmed at the right times of year for the battles. This brings a kind of landscape realism to the screen that is uncommon. One gets a much better sense of what it was like to be in these places at these times than one gets in most Civil War movies. Often the natural beauty of these places is palpable, even in the midst of battle.
Two actors also bear mention as notable successes: Stephen Lang works as Gen. Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson and Robert Duvall works as Gen. Robert E. Lee. A host of difficulties confront actors trying to bring well-known historical figures from the last two centuries to the screen. For one, it isn’t possible for actors to look exactly like the historical figures they represent. The parts also are often woodenly written or completely historically inaccurate. Lang and Duvall do much better with their parts than most.
Lang has to do most of the work, as Stonewall Jackson is this movie’s main character. He has to be believable and likable for the bulk of the movie’s almost four-hour run time (counting intermission). Take any given thirty minutes, and his performance is in the "okay or better" range. Jackson comes off as a complex and human character, though the movie does seem to downplay some of his eccentricities.
For example, he does come across on the screen as very religious, but the audience doesn’t know quite how to take this since the Christian ethos at the time of the Civil War is expected to have been much more intense than today’s. What the film needs was someone on screen to point out that Jackson didn’t simply have normal nineteenth-century piety; he was viewed even in his own time as a religious eccentric, as well as eccentric in other ways (e.g., sucking on raw lemons and riding with one arm raised above his head to keep his bodily humours balanced; the movie alludes to both of these but takes the edge off them).
Duvall also is believable as Robert E. Lee. He doesn’t have all the charisma Lee was supposed to have with his troops, but he has a spark of it. And anybody’s performance as Lee would have to be better than Martin Sheen’s rendition in the otherwise superior Gettysburg (1993), also directed by Ron Maxwell (what was he thinking?).
There are moments in Gods and Generals that are genuinely affecting, as when a band of Irishmen on the Confederate side is forced in the heat of battle to shoot down a band Yankees who are fellow Irishmen. Or when one Irish Yankee discovers that the dead body he has been using as a barrier to soak up bullets used to belong to someone he knows. Or when Gen. Jackson and a five-year old girl become playmates because her daddy can’t be with her and he can’t be with his own newborn daughter, whom he has never met. Or when Jackson must confront his feelings when his surrogate daughter/playmate dies of scarlet fever. Or when Jackson finally gets to meet his daughter. Or when… well, you get the idea. Take any given thirty minutes of the movie and you’ll run into genuinely affecting moments.
There are also genuinely funny moments. Most notable is when, in the middle of an already jovial scene in which a group of performers are singing "The Bonnie Blue Flag," CNN mogul Ted Turner suddenly turns up in a cameo. It’s impossible to take his appearance seriously, and the audience breaks into laughter, which seems to have been the intent. Even universal bad boy Turner seems to be having a chuckle.
The movie tries hard to make its characters warm and likable — and not just on the Southern side. Northerners are also likable, particularly Jeff Daniels as Lt. Col. Lawrence Chamberlain, a university professor whose conscience compelled him to abandon his teaching post in order to enter the Union Forces.
In fact, basically everyone you see on screen is likable. Only one person — even down to the minor characters — at all comes off badly. This is Union Gen. Ambrose Burnside (Alex Hyde-White). But Burnside only appears as a bumbling incompetent (which he was; so much so that Abraham Lincoln relieved him of his command, though we don’t see that in the movie). He doesn’t seem like a bad human being.
This is one of the problems with the film. Everybody is likable.
In a way, it’s the opposite of a problem Gone With the Wind (1939) has. In that film basically none of the characters are likable. They are all flat cartoons of various archetypes, with only a hint of being two-dimensional. This is true whether they are rogues (Scarlett O’Hara, Rhett Butler), hypocrites (Ashley Wilkes), or saints (Melanie Wilkes). There’s only one really solid, likable character in Gone With the Wind, and that’s Mammy (Hattie McDaniel), who is smart, sharp, tart, and able to put Scarlett right in her place.
While Gone With the Wind is filled with unlikable characters, Gods and Generals is filled with nothing but likable characters. They may disagree. They may be at war with each other. But they are all basically decent human beings with real feelings and genuinely good motives, however misguided they may be.
In other words, Gods and Generals is all good guys and no villains. In fact, everybody is so good and decent that it’s hard to tell where the generals leave off and the gods start.
That makes for bad cinema.
Going into the third hour of the movie, one finds oneself wanting to scream things at the screen like: "Yes! Thank you! You established the character of Gen. Jackson as a good and caring person two and a half hours ago! Can we please stop re-establishing it!"
This relates to the way in which the movie is one-sided. As noted, it isn’t one-sided in the sense of favoring one side over the other (though more time is spent following the Confederate characters since this is the part of the war in which the Confederates were on the offense). Instead, it’s one-sided by portraying only the good and the noble on both sides.
The Rebs get to speechify about how you don’t let your homeland get invaded, no matter what the reason, even though they acknowledge that slavery does need to be ended (which Jackson and Lee did acknowledge in real life). The Yanks get to speechify (at first) about how the Union shouldn’t be broken up and (later) about how slavery is an evil that needs to be ended. Both sides get to make the best case for their positions.
That much is okay. In any debate, everyone should be allowed to make his best case. But then he needs to be cross-examined, and that is what doesn’t happen in Gods and Generals. It’s like reading two affirmative debate briefs with no cross-examination. The dark side of the South is not explored, neither is the dark side of the North.
Okay, so Jackson and Lee were opposed to slavery but also opposed to letting their homeland be invaded. Fine. It’s fair to show that on screen. But was nobody on the Southern side a racist and in favor of slavery? Doesn’t that also need to be shown on screen?
In the same way, many Northerners were genuinely motivated by a desire to free the slaves. It’s fair to show that. But were all of their motives pure and noble? Weren’t some motivated by baser economic and political interests? Weren’t many themselves racists who had no interest in emancipation?
To be fair, the movie does make gestures toward some of these issues. For example, it makes the point (somewhat belatedly) that emancipation was not a war goal until halfway through the conflict. (Indeed, in real life Abraham Lincoln expressly denied emancipation as a goal in his First Inaugural Address and later admitted creating it as a goal principally to avoid Britain and France extending diplomatic recognition to the Confederacy.) But there is no substantive exploration of these complicating issues.
Particularly garish is the way in which the movie underplays the issue of slavery. There is virtually no discussion of this, though it does pop up from time to time. The film does have two (only two!) African American characters with speaking parts, one a slave and one (apparently) free. Both advocate emancipation — one in a particularly subtle but gusty way. (The tragedy is that many in today’s politically correct environment will regard both characters as insufficiently shrill in their denunciations of slavery and fail to recognize the real moral and practical dilemmas facing the characters.) Yet while slavery was by no means the only issue in the Civil War, it is unacceptably underplayed in this film.
A genuinely balanced presentation of the war would recognize it as a complex historical reality by allowing all sides to make their best cases and then follow-up by letting all sides make their best cross-examinations. But Gods and Generals isn’t interested in that. Instead, it’s interested in presenting the Civil War as a hallowed conflict, a war among the saints.
In the second half of this slow-moving behemoth of a movie, the in-progress canonization of characters on both sides becomes simply insufferable. One wants to shout at the screen, "Will the generals on both sides please get off their high horses! — at least figuratively! I know you may have to stay on them for purposes of battle."
If the movie were more tightly edited, this would be less of a problem. One could on some level accept a movie that let both sides argue their case without significant challenge as long as it worked as a piece of cinema. But Gods and Generals doesn’t.
There is no real plot to the movie. In addition to extensive material unrelated to combat, it depicts the battles of First Manassas, Fredericksburg (in mind-numbing detail), and Chancellorsville, following which Jackson was mortally wounded in a friendly fire incident. The movie closes with Jackson’s death, but there is no sense that this is what we have been building toward.
Much of the movie seems to be simply a collection of unconnected scenes of people alternately talking to each other with nineteenth century formality or marching around while bullets are flying and canons are going off. One can’t tell what is going on tactically in the battles (though the movie tries — and fails — to communicate this). Worse yet, one can’t tell how the war itself is going. We see the Confederates give the Yankees a whooping at all three of the major battles, but does that mean they’re winning the war? Who can tell? There is no context.
The only people I can see really enjoying the movie are "Civil War bores" — either re-enactors or amateur historians who obsess about and already know the history of the events on screen. Even they are likely to be put off by the fact that the battles are remarkably bloodless (Saving Private Ryan this ain’t) and that the accents are sometimes wrong (the Northern accents particularly; the waves of Irish and Italian immigration that shaped the modern Northern accents hadn’t had time to stop Northerners from speaking like Southerners to our ears).
Ultimately, while any given thirty minutes of the movie would be tolerable and perhaps even enjoyable, the whole agglutinated four-hour exercise in hagiography is simply inexcusable. In real life, Abraham Lincoln urged Northerners and Southerners to reconcile and listen to "the better angels of our nature." This film tries for four hours to listen exclusively to the better angels of everybody’s nature.
What many may not realize until a title card at the end of the movie tells them is that Gods and Generals is actually a prequel to the much more successful film Gettysburg. Together, they are the first two parts of a trilogy of Civil War novels that ends with The Last Full Measure. While Gettysburg was financially successful, whether Gods and Generals will make enough money for The Last Full Measure to come to the big screen is very much in doubt.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.