Warner Bros. // 2003 // 219 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Judge Ryan Keefer (Retired) // January 12th, 2008
The nation's heart was touched by...Gods and Generals.
All kinds of epic battles have been played using my DVD player's laser beam, and Gods and Generals is the first one that focuses on the bloodiest war in American history, the oxymoronic "Civil War." It's been released on standard definition, on HD DVD and now on Blu-ray. So is this thing worth all the, whatever it has with it?
Written and directed by Ronald F. Maxwell, the film's events lead up to and are a prequel for the film Gettysburg, another Maxwell joint. In this one, Robert E. Lee (Robert Duvall, Assassination Tango) is approached by the Union to command the Union forces as Virginia secedes from the Union. He winds up commanding the Confederate forces, with Virginia Military Institute graduate Thomas Jackson (Stephen Lang, Tombstone) helping to lead the troops and protect Virginia from years of large coffee cups and gridlocked traffic. Or maybe it was for Virginia's right to self-govern.
The rationale for making this film seemed flawed from the start. Sure, you've got Duvall and Jeff Daniels (Terms of Endearment) as Confederate and Union officers, respectively, but the main focus of the film seems to be on Jackson himself. The film does a capable job of looking at Jackson's life before and during the battles, but to give a lot of time to a general who fought and died in battle on the losing side seems to be a little bit short sighted for some folks. Lang's performance is good; as Jackson he does manage to balance officer vs. gentleman well, but the guy's fate is known from the start, so why should a lot of people care about it, especially as the film goes on, and on, and on?
Oh yeah, the film's three and a half hour runtime? Excessive and unnecessary. The film's first five minutes are spent on the opening credits for pete's sake! The battles that are fought in the film at Manassas, Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville are certainly well orchestrated, but some of the characters you expect to be a little more important aren't, and there's a lot of wasted conversation among other characters (Daniels' home life is shown for a second and it's not really checked back on after that). It doesn't help that the pacing of this three-hour epic makes it feel like the length of the War itself, but that's neither here nor there.
Technically, I was expecting a bit from the 2.40:1 widescreen VC-1 encoded transfer this thing sports, but instead, I got a film whose image depth was sparse and whose detail was seldom. The blacks even seem to be a little on the inconsistent side as well. This was a fairly big disappointment. The Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack however, was what I was expecting it to be. Panning and subwoofer usage was frequent during the battle scenes and rear speakers were used frequently. However, the more tranquil shots that possessed dialogue were lacking and a little bit on the weak side, but it could have been worse. At least that what I'm telling myself.
The extras appear to be holdovers from the standard definition copy. You've got a commentary with Maxwell and historical advisors Keith Gibson and James Robertson which thankfully doesn't run the length of the film, and jumps from scene to scene when the trio is done talking about a particular scene, and it runs about an hour and a half. There wasn't a lot to be gained from this track that I could tell, Maxwell talks about the production and the need to get it right, and everyone discusses what was done or could have been done better when it came to the battles themselves, from a non-production standpoint. Ted Turner, who was the film's executive producer, talks about what drew him to the project in a three-minute introduction, and then "Journey to the Past" is a television-produced featurette that talks about the making of the film and touches on some of the themes of the war itself, but when it comes to the actual making of the film, seems to look at abstract parts of the production without getting too in depth. "Authenticities of the Film" spends about fifteen minutes looking at the urge to get things right, with the occasional battle sequence breakdown. It's not too bad but doesn't cover much either, and "The Life of Stonewall Jackson" is another fifteen-minute piece that covers the life of the figure in the film. Two music videos, a promotional commercial for Virginia's tourism and the film's trailer round the disc out.
The film does try to dispel some widely held theories about the Civil War, namely the one that it was started purely out of slavery. But that main argument seems to fail simply because Jeff Bridges and a couple other people say so, and the fact that Jackson was friendly to his African American cook Jim Lewis (Frankie Faison, The Wire). But just because you try to deliver a message doesn't mean you get points for the message itself.
In between Gods and Generals and Gettysburg, you've got about eight hours of filmmaking whose action sequences are good but not great, whose performances are occasionally excellent but mostly workmanlike, and whose stories seem to move at a snail's pace. Save yourself the trouble of two of these things, and watch the Ken Burns miniseries which is a little longer, broken down into more palatable segments and is more compelling than both of these things. Pass, pass, pass.
Guilty as charged.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
* 2.40:1 Non-Anamorphic (Widescreen)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 219 Minutes
Release Year: 2003
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13
* Commentary by Writer/Director Ronald F. Maxwell and Two Technical Advisors, Col. Keith Gibson and James L. Robertson, Jr.
* Introduction by Executive Producer Ted Turner
* Three Making-Of Documentaries: "Journey to the Past," "The Life of Thomas 'Stonewall' Jackson," and "The Authenticites of the Film"
* Two Music Videos from Bob Dylan and Mary Fahl
* Official Site
* Original DVD Verdict Review
* Original DVD Verdict Review [HD DVD]