Film Reviews: Wednesday, February 27, 2003
Wooden Soldiers

War is hell, and theinterminable Gods and Generals is the next closest thing.


The Civil War film Gods and Generals is one of the most boring movies I’ve ever seen, which is saying quite a bit. It runs a whopping 220 minutes, and it’s so bad it’d be lethal at half that length. This is a prequel to writer/director Ronald F. Maxwell’s 1993 four-hour-plus Civil War film Gettysburg, and many of the same actors from that film are brought back. Jeff Daniels, whose Col. Chamberlain was the hero of Gettysburg, gets knocked down to second banana here in favor of Stephen Lang’s Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson. The movie traces the Civil War from its early days up until the Battle of Chancellorsville, where Jackson was killed by friendly fire following a splendid victory. We’re told about his devout Christianity and his love for his wife and baby girl, but the man never comes to life. The general (and everyone else in the film) comes out as a plaster saint.

The chief reason for that is Maxwell’s script, written in the decorous, cadenced prose common to 19th-century American writing. This prose can be quite beautiful when read aloud, as it was in Ken Burns’ The Civil War, but to fill an entire movie with it is way too much. The endless dialogue often brings the film to a complete standstill. These characters are forever articulating principles and offering up fervent prayers and invoking florid metaphors and repeating key phrases for what’s supposed to be dramatic effect. They’re completely incapable of simple conversation. Maxwell’s lack of talent for verbal communication is near-total and sometimes verges on the comical — a little girl under a Christmas tree asks, “General Jackson, what do these ornaments signify?” (The very young actress probably doesn’t even know what “signify” means.)

If that’s not enough, the movie’s also intellectually fraudulent. Afraid of offending certain segments of its audience, it resorts to that comforting lie that some white Southerners tell themselves, that the war was about states’ rights. The war was about slavery. Any attempt to say otherwise is dishonest, and this film is rather transparently so. The black slaves in this movie are either entirely absent or loyal to their white masters. When Jackson’s cook (Frankie Faison) asks God why He lets men enslave others, the general simply doesn’t answer, but it’s not because he’s suddenly confused about why he’s fighting the war in the first place, nor is it because he believes in the system and wants to maintain it. It’s because the movie is so busy (if you can describe a film this glacial as “busy”) paying tribute to the bravery of both Union and Confederate soldiers that it brushes aside the harsh reality of slavery and the racism that allowed it to continue to exist. From a historical standpoint, that’s just inexcusable.

Civil War buffs who want to see these historic battles brought to life will find this film a disappointment, as well. Even though he tries, Maxwell doesn’t have the visual sense to show us the terrain and where the lines are, so it’s impossible to figure out exactly where the action is and where it’s going. Those with a knowledge of military history may be able to fill in the gaps for themselves, but the newcomers won’t see anything except cannon fire and soldiers catching bullets. Something is drastically wrong when battle scenes come off as stuffy — perversely, Maxwell films a bayonet charge and then cuts away just before the soldiers’ bayonet points meet the enemy.

All in all, the entertainment quotient of Gods and Generals is as close to zero as it’s possible to get. Teachers should be actively dissuaded from showing it to their classes, because it will extinguish the most eager student’s interest in the Civil War. This film is history presented in such a relentlessly high-minded fashion that it turns into an insufferable drone.

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