Gods and Generals
Picture *** 1/2
Film ** 1/2
When director Ronald E. Maxwell's film Gettysburg was finished in 1993, it was intended as a TV miniseries. But it turned out so well that a short version of it (if more than four hours can be considered "short") was released to theaters. It enjoyed a modest success and garnered a loyal following on VHS, LD, and DVD. Civil War buffs were gripped by the obsessive historical detail, almost un-heard of in a major Hollywood production. And while Maxwell tended to overdo the speechifying, the battle scenes were electrifying. Combine that with some exceptional performances, notably Jeff Daniels' Oscar-nominated turn as Col. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, and the result, on balance, was a good film, and one of the best ever made about the Civil War.
Gods and Generals is a prequel to Gettysburg that covers the period from the beginning of the war to the battle of Chancellors- ville—considered by many to be the high tide of the Confederacy's battle fortunes. The new movie centers around Stonewall Jackson, arguably the best general the South had, Robert E. Lee not excepted. Produced by the same team (Turner Pictures and Maxwell) that gave us the earlier film, and with some of the same actors (some playing different roles), it isn't nearly as successful, largely because Maxwell's apparent love of overstatement gets out of control. There are too many speeches, too much static pontificating.
But while Gods and Generals as a whole earns a C– as drama, it gets an A+ for effort and historical accuracy. Yes, a few dramatic liberties were taken. Early in the film, for example, Robert E. Lee is offered command of the Union armies, but refuses without hesitation. In reality, he agonized over his decision for two days.
By and large, however, the filmmakers stuck to the historical record. On my first viewing, I rolled my eyes at some of the lines and "facts" presented. But I found out later, not only through the excellent extras on this DVD, but also through going back to Ken Burns' magnificent PBS documentary The Civil War, that these things were true, and those lines were based on real statements by real people.
But while fact can be indeed stranger than fiction, that doesn't mean it will work as drama for contemporary audiences. From the deep, near-fanatical religious faith of Jackson (true) to Chamberlain's knowledge of Shakespeare (also true—before the war, he had taught English literature at Bowdoin College in Maine), a little goes a long way. But director Maxwell can't stop at a little.
Technically, there's not much to criticize. The 2.35:1 cinematography is beautifully rendered. Flesh tones sometimes look a little pale, but the image is surprisingly crisp—not razor-sharp but naturally detailed, with almost no visible edge enhancement, even in the medium and long shots that are vital in those battle scenes. The sound is exceptional as well. You'll duck when those cannons go off, and drop to the floor as bullets whiz over your head. The fine music score, from Randy Edelman and John Frizzell, is superbly recorded. It isn't quite as rousing as Edelman's score for Gettysburg, but it's better-sounding, with less synthesizer and more real orchestra.
Gods and Generals contains the seeds of a good movie. Trim about an hour from the running time and we might find it. But despite its very real flaws, it deserves high marks for stunning battle sequences, an excellent commentary that clarifies many of the film's idiosyncrasies (the commentary accompanies only about half the film), and other intriguing extras. And unlike sitting through its full 32/3 hours in the theater as a captive viewer, at home you can easily grab the remote and skip around. By doing that, you'll make the film more of an interactive documentary than a drama. Used in that fashion, I can definitely recommend Gods and Generals for those with more than a passing interest in the Civil War.—TJN