The nation's heart was touched by…Gods and Generals
Sometimes, there is a fine line between propaganda and the truth. Misinformation may just be the most painless form of lying, because it's usually a mere matter of glossing over certain known issues for the sake of a single idea. You're not deceitful outright; you're just not being 100% truthful. But the moral component never dissipates. It may seem like a fib of convenience, yet most would agree that leaving part of the facts out of something is just as deceptive as totally misrepresenting them. Nowhere is this more important, and insidious, than in history. As a nation and a people, we should be able to rely on our recollections and realities of the past to guide our future actions, but if we are only presented with a portion of the true accounts, or if some material is missing all together, then our heritage is no more precise than a hyper-glorified Hollywood war film or an Oliver Stone "factual" take on JKF or Nixon. The cracks left open in the foundation of truth allow accuracy's enemies, bias and prejudice, to work their way in and putrefy the center until you can't trust or depend on anything. When Gettysburg, the made-for-cable movie adapted from the novel The Killer Angels arrived in 1993, many praised its meticulous attention to detail. Some even went so far as to call it the first truly representative Civil War film. But just as many who praised it found fault in the factual inaccuracies buried throughout the film. Now, a decade later, the "prequel" to Gettysburg has arrived on DVD. The question becomes, does Gods and Generals play fair with the truth, or is it guilty of lies by omission?
Facts of the Case
On the eve of the vote for Virginia's secession from the Union, Federal Government officials approach Robert E. Lee to head the United States Army troops against the Southern rebellion. A native Virginian, Lee declines and instead accepts the commission to lead the Rebel troops. For him, it's a matter of state pride and loyalty. As it is with VMI professor Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson, called to duty when the legislature vote confirms the split from the North. A sincerely devoted Christian, he believes in a higher authority leading him and his men to certain, pre-ordained fates. Along with other members of the Virginia militia, he takes up arms against the Northern aggression to preserve his precious state sovereignty.
Meanwhile, in Maine, another college professor, Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, asks the governor for a commission in the Northern army. He is given a division to train and meets up with his brother, who has enlisted. Together with other Northern forces, they head to the Maryland/Virginia border to engage the enemy.
There are three major battles that shape Gods and Generals. The fighting at Manassas earns Jackson his "rocky" nickname. At Fredericksburg, initial victories by the North are wiped out as the Rebels hold the Marye's Heights hillside (secured behind a stone wall, oddly enough) and defeated soldiers, including members of Chamberlain's company, must retreat. There is a lull in the fighting, at which time Jackson befriends the Beale family as the Confederates spend Christmas with them. Finally, as the winter breaks and with several divisions amassed, General Lee orders an all-out assault on a weak Union position at Chancellorsville and the North suffers a humiliating defeat. In the pressure to push forward, Jackson and his associates fall into a Rebel ambush and the General is mortally wounded. As Lee prepares to push on to Gettysburg, Jackson succumbs to pneumonia and dies.
There are always two sides to every story. Sometimes, one position is stronger than another, but any honest discussion of a time or event needs both sides equally represented lest someone feel left out. But there are those circumstances that just don't lend themselves to fairness in presentation. The Holocaust can never be sympathetic from the Nazis side. The life and death of Jesus Christ is also something near impossible to view favorably from the crucifier's position. While not such an extreme example, the Civil War is also a hard act to grasp from the South's position. So many narratives and treatises have been written regarding slavery and the silliness of the secessionist position that Johnny Reb appears retarded in defense of his State and its sovereignty. Perhaps this is why it has seemingly escaped an effective Hollywood cinematic storytelling. It's one of the few instances in American history that all multi-layered subtext, hundreds of compelling characters, and various aspects of several universal truths aside, there is only one commonly accepted morally right side. Gods and Generals wants to change all that, to use the narrow focus of the South's campaigns in Virginia to make its point about noble Southern sacrifice. It also hopes to champion General Lee and General Jackson, the Confederacy's most inscrutable and enigmatic military figures, to exemplify favorable Rebel authority. But it runs into the proverbial "stonewall" trying to tie these men into the entire political and ideological backdrop of the war. And in doing so, it again dooms another North-South saga to the "should have been better" woodpile.
Gods and Generals is the kind of movie that mistakes emblematic pontification for emotion, the recitation of entire poetic passages as powerful, and the overblown ability for unending oration as epic. It wants to stand as a sweeping spectacle of one of the darkest chapters in our young nation's history, but it only wants to accomplish it with words, not deeds, bombastic brays from bearded windy windbags, not gripping historical drama. Indeed, part of the problem with Gods and Generals is that it reeks of "no one talks like this" syndrome. Granted, we didn't have viable audio recording equipment back then and it's quite possible that our mastery of the English language has degenerated to the point where anyone failing to add "like" and "umm" to the regular speech pattern (but a heck of a lot of "thys" and "thees") would sound arcane and foreign. But weird is exactly how modern ears hear the highfalutin words uttered by everyone, and it bears repeating, everyone in the cast. When a black slave chef, offering his "yessa massa" services and insights with plenty of extra "s" on the end of verbs and awkward grammatical structure, can still swing it like Shakespeare, you know this movie is fixing to cheat you. It's going to substitute nobility for nuances, offering up carefully constructed monologues or prayer-like sermons for the real meat and potatoes problems and pain of the Civil War.
For this is the sham of Gods and Generals, the fraudulent bill of goods sold as historical accuracy. There is bias and bent all over this film, the kind of single-minded summarizing that undermines the very issues it is trying to illuminate. This film is like a heroic poem written by John the Baptist, or Hallmark Greetings, not Homer or Ovid. It couches its issues in flowery language in hopes that the splendiferous verse will intoxicate and move you, as all the while basic facts of the war are swept under the rug or disregarded completely. It may be a stickler for particulars, but not necessarily all of them or the right ones. This is a movie for history buffs and persons in Civil War re-creationist societies only. An audience who thinks Billy Joel's "We Didn't Start the Fire" presented the last word in current American history would never be able to follow this film, let along real thinking moviegoers. Events are never placed in perspective or context. Characters are introduced in long broad strokes (Jackson: religious freak; Chamberlain: philosopher) and then are immediately thrust into events and actions. We jump months ahead into the conflict attempting to cover the three years prior to Gettysburg (this film is an official "prequel" to that equally overbearing bit of moviemaking) and, in the process, overlook hundreds of events that also shaped the war. But the linear leapfrog is just one reason why this film fails to satisfy. Gods and Generals may be the first ever war film where the reason "why we fight" is less important than "how we fought."
In many ways, this movie is merely a series of vague, overly verbose set-ups for outrageously long and confusing battle scenes. War, pre-planes and tanks, has always seemed a little pointless on film. Civil War fighting apparently follows the Zap Brannigan theory of possible victory. Simply put, each side hurls wave after wave of available bodies at one another until whoever has the most men left standing after hours of firing and reloading gets to declare some kind of moral, or legitimate victory. Under this theory, all Lee and Grant had to do was count out available military units, or perhaps weigh out potential corpses, and whomever tipped the scales in their favor would be declared the winner. With air strikes and massive artillery capabilities, death can rain down from any angle at any time. But when you see a line of rebels, standing with guns poised, as coming up the hill before them are legions of Yankees with bayonets blaring, you know a lot of the same old slaughter is going to happen before someone yells "retreat." Gods and Generals has the chance to win you over to their type of warfare: it could explain or illuminate it much in the way Ridley Scott articulated ancient Roman strategies in Gladiator or Michael Mann explained his fighting factions in Last of the Mohicans. But director Ronald F. Maxwell is too caught up in the iconography of this war, with its gray against blue battalions beating the snot out of each other under brightly colored divisional flags. For him, this war is all about the symbols, about making sure things look and feel right. The fact that he can't make you understand the mechanics of battle means that, perhaps, he has yet to figure them out as well.
But probably the biggest problem most people will have with the way Gods and Generals plays out is that it is practically a love letter to the Confederacy, an undying declaration of devotion to a group of gallant men who fought the Federalists to retain their God-given State's rights and sense of independent patriotism. When Stonewall Jackson or some ancillary character proclaims his "love for God first, Virginia second," earnest music playing in the background and sunlight beaming down in rays of Almighty approval, you know on which side of the segregation issue this movie is operating. Listening to the high-minded bashing of Lincoln and his government, we feel uneasy. After all, the notion of placing homestead before country is so foreign to our current ears as to ring of terrorist baiting treason. But the South's ethical integrity is what Gods and Generals is here to sell. In the few scenes shown from the Union's side, we get the impression of incompetent boobs more afraid of the cold than command. They are never seen as heroes when hundreds of them die in a barrage of Confederate bullets. But the minute some minor member of the Southern cast is felled, we hear harps and angelic choruses, as if to mark the unfortunate occasion. While it may seem like an exaggeration (and indeed, the South whipped a lot of Northern butt before the Union got its act together), Gods and Generals' lamentation for Lee and the boys is a bit much. True, this is the section of the story where the South wins the most victories. Perhaps someone can point out why that's so important.
And it only gets worse. Not only does it want to rub these preliminary victories in the face of the pro-Northern mindset that seems irrevocable connected to the Civil War, but also there is a determined effort to over-humanize the Southern soldier (who come across as gentile, fierce fighting true gentleman of the South) and demonize the Yank. When the Union army overruns Fredericksburg, there is an extended scene of vicious, drunken looting as soldiers steal or desecrate valuable Virginian personal property. As Chamberlain and his troops hunker down for a depressing, barren Christmas, the ladies and gentlemen of the Confederacy enjoy an ornate and courteous Christmas, complete with caroling. We even get the obligatory "a midnight clear" moment when, during that same suspect X-mas, a typical Johnny Reb and a morose boy in blue cross a shallow river separating them and meet, halfway, to share each other's coffee and "tabacky." For every scene of Southern leaders sipping lemonade or fluffing their overblown beards, we have a few seconds of Northern troops looking lazy and lost. But the final act of historical heresy is the mindlessly inane song and dance musical number (which is perhaps accurate and recorded for all time, but at this point, who really cares) called "The Bonnie Blue Flag," which is probably the originator of rebel rousing with its cheerleader like sing-a-long of Southern superiority. It's a jarring bit of jingoism that betrays the biased mindset, overall, of Gods and Generals "shall rise again" leanings.
Still, there are some decent things about Gods and Generals, fine performances and small moments that try and compensate for the pro-secession scheme of the film. Jeff Daniels is not the first name that comes to mind when people think of a scholar in the humanities or a charismatic military leader, but he manages to erase a great deal of the Dumb and Dumber shame from his face and turns Chamberlain into a sympathetic, believable commander. Stephen Lang, so upsetting as Harry Black in Last Exit to Brooklyn and slimy as Freddy Lounds in Manhunter, seems to have disappeared in recent years, only to show up in badly made television crime films. Here he is very, very good as Stonewall Jackson, but one gets the impression that the real life man was far less righteous, understanding, and poetic as Lang makes him out to be. Lots of familiar faces turn up (Mira Sorvino, C. Thomas Howell) to give a good minute or two of acting quality, but overall, most of the actors are riding along with Robert Duvall (as Robert E. Lee) on this one. As long as they look the part and can put on as near an appropriate accent as they can manage, it's all the performance they need. Equally weak here are the special effects, especially the matte paintings of antebellum Washington and Virginia. With George Lucas able to create realistic looking alien worlds with the flip of a computer switch, it seems unbelievable that Maxwell couldn't find some CGI savant to make the faraway Fredericksburg look more credible and less like a bad Currier and Ives engraving. And though this film boasts an extras cast of thousands, a few hundred more computer-generated troops would have enhanced the horrors of war nicely. As it stands, Gods and Generals may want to look impressive in its scope, but it sure looks cheap in the execution.
At least Warner Brothers offers an impressive DVD package for this release. The visual and sonic presentations are stunning. The anamorphic widescreen 2.35:1 transfer is clean and crisp, which unfortunately highlights the horribleness of the aforementioned matte work. Still, there are no defects in the night scenes and zero compression issues in sequences of heavy smoke or fog. As for the Dolby Digital 5.1, it is very impressive in the battle scenes where sound engineers make bullets and mortars whir from channel to channel. There is also a nice ambience created in the household scenes, reflecting a quieter, simpler time in life. But what most history buffs and film fans want is bonus content, and Gods and Generals has tried not to disappoint. But beware: there is at least one last attempt at South rehabilitation amongst the extra material. Leaving the apologetic featurette for a moment, we do get a very nice biographical piece on Jackson, which verifies and expands on many of the stories and beliefs depicted in the film. There is also an exhaustive look at the behind the scenes preparations for this film. The location footage, showing how the historical landmark of Harper's Ferry was transformed into an at-war Fredericksburg is very interesting.
But it's in the final two extras where, once again, Johnny Reb gets the Mason-Dixon makeover the filmmakers feel he deserves. The commentary track, which does not run the entire length of the film, allows the participants (director Ronald Maxwell and two Civil War historical advisors—Col. Keith Gibson of VMI and James I. Robertson Jr. of Virginia Tech) a chance to pontificate on what they think a scene means or why certain aspects of the film (slavery, the Northern armies) are glanced over. By the time you have finished this separate viewing experience (the track cannot be accessed during the movie itself but is offered in its own scene-skipping format), you'll wonder if you and the contributors saw the same film. They see all kinds of anti-slavery sentiments in a movie that literary runs for three hours and thirty-nine minutes yet only spends four minutes addressing the subject. They acknowledge their pro-South stance, but temper it with lots of high-minded excuses ("This is Jackson's story. These are his beliefs"). But between the difficulties in recreating and filming large scale battles, they just spend far too much time as outright apologists for secession, consistently declaring the noble and ethical intentions these States had for defending their sovereignty and indirectly, their human rights violating way of life. Yes, they have scholarly dissertations and historical documentation to back up their one-sided take, but balance could have easily been achieved. They could have, maybe once, acknowledged the Federal Government's right to maintain a united States of America. But the simple fact is that they never once argue that Lincoln was right in trying to preserve the Union at any costs.
Probably the most offensive aspect of Gods and Generals is the incredibly hypocritical and occasionally downright insane Journey to the Past featurette. Subtitled "The African American Slave Experience in the Film's Era," it's nothing more than a preventative strike against those of us who see Gods and Generals as an attempt at recasting the Southern cause in a more positive light. Utilizing Donzaleigh Abernathy and Frankie Faison, the only two prominent black actors in the cast and forcing them to say some of the most inflammatory things this critic has ever heard (She: "Not all blacks at the time were against slavery," He: "The Confederacy was really not about protecting the right to own slaves"), one participates in the mind-boggling experience of watching minorities sell out their heritage for the sake of some slick Hollywood historical motion picture. Perhaps this reaction is severe, but this preachy and solemn special presentation just doesn't smell right. If the film did the fine job of expressing these opinions within the course of the narrative, why does this piece belong here? And why require your ethnic actors to champion your position? If this film is so righteous and fair in its presentation, do we really need long conversations about how "dignified" and "empowered" the blacks in the film are? Slavery is an incredibly minor issue in Gods and Generals. To hope that this 30-minute document would somehow rectify that is just ludicrous. Why not just let the odd Bob Dylan music video or Enya-in-training tunelessness of Mary Fahl speak for the issue?
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The notion that, somehow, Gods and Generals is "pro-South" propaganda is about as believable as the thought that Lincoln was a closeted homosexual. At any point during all conflicts, one side wins the day while the other sustains potentially irrevocable damages. In the case of World War II, any movie made prior to US involvement would stink of "pro-German" sentiments since the Nazis would seem more or less indestructible and well loved by their people. Balance may be important to a historical drama, but not every story has two equal sides. The battle at Fredericksburg was a fiasco for the North: a badly executed and out-strategized session in mass suicide for poorly led Union soldiers. There is really no other way to paint. So naturally, a movie that focuses on these events will appear prejudiced, when in reality it is only offering a small slice of the entire conflict. Many of the "Suwannee River" moments are simply giving the Southern side of the story some balance, since for many years the North has hogged the victor's spotlight. Besides, this is the first part of a proposed trilogy. The North gets their moments in Gettysburg and will eventually win the war, so don't be so hard on Gods and Generals. It may lumber along at a snail's pace and spend far too much time in solemn sermonizing, but at least it tries to enlighten a deluded American public about the sacrifices all citizens made to reunite the Union.
Who, exactly, were the "Gods" here in this story? Who were the all-powerful deities that used their omnipresence, omnipotence, and loving mercy to ease suffering and right wrongs? There were no divine spirits in the Civil War: not Lincoln, who seemed to bumble into the right decision more often than he actually made one; not Grant, who had Sherman to do most of his dirty work for him; nor Lee, the savior of the South who discovered too late that some things may not have been worth saving. They were not holy entities, they were just men. Men with flaws. Men with fears. Men with the solemn task of battling their fellow Americans over principles, not property. Gods and Generals wants to remove the stigma from the "war of Northern aggression" and, instead, give unsung heroes and misunderstood historical figures their proper factual re-do. But the way it does so is to simply avoid the entire Union position all together, to proffer their version of history and fail to address the Government's side completely. By more or less sidestepping slavery and deifying the Confederates we get a revisionist past that all below the Mason-Dixon line can be proud of. There is no denying the bravery, the sacrifice, and the sincerity under which many of the Southerners fought. And the North was not filled with pristine boy scouts. But nothing and no one is served when selective recollection is used as truth. Without balance, without some addressing of underlying, essential issues, Gods and Generals becomes a meticulous recreation, authentic in every detail, of only half the story. If those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it, what happens to those who rely on only half of history? It makes one wonder.
Gods and Generals is hereby found guilty of being a one-sided, pro-Southern slice of populist propaganda and is sentenced to 50 years of hard labor in the Fairness facility of the Historical Recreation section at Motion Picture Penitentiary.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Commentary by Writer/Director Ronald F. Maxwell and Two Technical Advisors, Col. Keith Gibson and James L. Robertson, Jr.
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