Gods and Generals
14 February 2003
As the great-great grandson of
Union soldier Robert Lybarger, I have to confess that good American
Civil War stories like Gone with the Wind, Glory,
The Red Badge of Courage or even Pharaoh's Army do have a
special place in my heart. This is true even if the films come from
a perspective my ancestor would not have liked. For example, Robert
would have hated the way that Victor Fleming depicted his fellow
veterans of Sherman's March to the Sea in Gone with the Wind
and that film's sanitized presentation of slavery. Nonetheless, all
of these movies force us to look at what makes us Americans and to
examine how our lives are better or worse because of the struggle.
Sadly, screenwriter-director Ronald F. Maxwell's new prequel to his
moving and engrossing Gettysburg comes short of qualifying.
Despite working with some of the same cast members and with a much
larger budget (Gettysburg was originally intended as a TV
miniseries), Maxwell's new movie lacks the clear focus and the vivid
characters that made the first film so memorable.
Gettysburg, which was
adapted from Michael Shaara's Pulitzer Prize winning novel The
Killer Angels, dealt entirely on the titular battle. Gods and
Generals, adapted from the prequel written by Shaara's son Jeff,
is all over the place, starting with the dawn of the conflict and
ending at the battle of Fredericksburg. In addition, Gods and
Generals also lets viewers in on the personal lives of the lead
combatants. We get a peek at General "Stonewall" Jackson's domestic
life and some of the reasons why Colonel Joshua Lawrence
Chamberlain, a religion and philosophy professor instead of a
professional soldier, joined the Union cause.
These factors should have helped
Gods and Generals become more involving and relevant, making the
story much deeper than a bunch of blue and gray bodies decorating a
field. Instead, these establishing sequences are as stiff and
stilted as a college history lesson delivered by a professor who
knows his material but has lost his passion for it. A good example
is the sequence where Chamberlain (played again by Jeff Daniels)
argues with his wife Fanny before going into training. Mira Sorvino
and Daniels valiantly struggle with Maxwell's stiff dialogue but do
little more than spout platitudes. We get a glimpse of some of
Chamberlain's values, but Lawrence and Fanny's relationship and how
it might have influenced him on the battlefield is never developed.
In fact, Daniels' top billing is a
misnomer. Most of the film actually follows "Stonewall" Jackson, and
Daniels' brief appearances seem more distracting than enlightening.
His scenes are supposed to be a build-up for his later and more
substantial appearance in Gettysburg. In the context of
Gods and Generals, however, the scenes involving Chamberlain and
the 20th Maine are intended to lead up to the "later"
story but instead make the new film's
three-hour-and-forty-five-minute running time seem more oppressive.
It's a real shame because Chamberlain's tale (his background as a
bookworm made him an unlikely warrior, but his quick thinking and
his occasionally unmilitaristic approach made him a winner on the
battlefield) has more interesting components than Jackson's, as it's
Stephen Lang (who played General
Pickett in Gettysburg) portrays Jackson as a strict general,
a brave warrior, a loving husband and a pious Christian. All of
these traits are commendable, but in the end Jackson emerges as
little more than a nice guy who kicked Yankee butt. Jackson is
haunted by the death of his first wife in childbirth, but the
relevance to struggle is only sporadically pertinent to the story.
It's also a
shame that Maxwell couldn't have done more with Robert Duvall's
portrayal of Confederate mastermind Robert E. Lee. As with
Chamberlain, he seems inserted with only fitful relevance to the
rest of the film. Nonetheless, it's actually an improvement over the
In Gettysburg, the only bad
performance came from Martin Sheen as the same character. From his
laughable "Suthun" accent to his hyperactive gestures, Sheen came
across as someone only fools would place in charge of an army.
Duvall, however, projects a quiet, wily dignity and is fun to watch
even if his scenes aren't that consequential. This may be due to the
fact that the actor is actually portraying one of his own ancestors.
If only he'd been recruited for the first movie
There are other improvements in
Gods and Generals. Thanks to the fact that Ted Turner, who
financed both films and had cameos in both, put up more money in the
new one, the battle scenes and the landscapes are less
claustrophobic and often breathtaking. In Gettysburg, the
budgetary constraints revealed themselves in the makeup. Most of the
actors sported wigs and alleged facial hair that didn't seem
remotely biological, much less human.
Nonetheless, it was the
performances behind those phony beards that gave Gettysburg
its power. After a while the gripping performances that Daniels, Sam
Elliott, Tom Berenger, and the late Richard Jordan gave made a
viewer forget the unconvincing prosthetics and concentrate on the
story and the people in it. For all its length, Gods and Generals
(the shorter of the two films) never achieves that same empathy.
This may explain why the packed
audience of hundreds at the screening I attended all groaned loudly
when the closing titles informed them that Gods and Generals
was actually part of a trilogy. It's a safe bet that no one
attending that night will be waiting in line for The Last Full
Measure should it ever be filmed.
Ronald F. Maxwell
C. Thomas Howell
Royce D. Applegate
Ronald F. Maxwell
R - Restricted.
Under 17 requires
parent or adult