Gods and Generals
review by Dan Lybarger, 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 presented here.

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 first film.

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.

Directed by:
Ronald F. Maxwell

Starring:
Chris Conner
Jeff Daniels
Stephen Lang
Robert Duvall
C. Thomas Howell
Kevin Conway
Patrick Gorman
Brian Mallon
Matt Lindquist
Bo Brinkman
Royce D. Applegate
Cooper Huckabee

Written by:
Jeff Shaara
Ronald F. Maxwell

Rated:
R - Restricted.
Under 17 requires
parent or adult
guardian.

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