Mark Reviews Movies


2 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Robert F. Maxwell

Cast: Stephen Lang, Robert Duvall, Jeff Daniels, C. Thomas Howell, Kevin Conway, Bruce Boxleitner, Brian Mallon, Kali Rocha, Mira Sorvino

MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for sustained battle sequences)

Running Time: 3:51

Release Date: 2/21/03

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Review by Mark Dujsik

Gods and Generals is ambitiously mounted but executed with much to desire. As a historical recreation of the major battles of the early Civil War, the movie is a partial success, but as a historical and dramatic recreation of the events off the battlefield, the movie is a decided failure. Writer/director Ronald F. Maxwell plays one note throughout—reverence. Everyone is honored here in one manipulative way or another; the movie focuses on the triumphant spirit of the Civil War mixed with an overwhelming shade of melancholy. Gods and Generals thinks it is grand without ever being so. All of the characters pray and speechify but never come across as human beings. Part of the problem is the dialogue, which may have seemed appropriately archaic in the screenwriting stage but just comes off as stilted as interpreted by most of these actors, but more importantly, Maxwell doesn't quite understand the logistics of scenes between less than five people. He shows decent control over handling large crowds of soldiers, sure, but that kind of faceless drama alone doesn't have the power to gain our sympathy.

It is 1861, and Robert E. Lee (Robert Duvall) has been called in to protect his country from the inevitable onslaught of rebels from the southern states who have shown their intentions at Fort Sumter . Instead of helping to lead the fight to preserve the Union , Lee is more concerned with the Virginia legislature's imminent decision of whether or not the state will secede. Lee's first priority, he says, is to his home. Virginia does indeed secede, which means a new responsibility for Thomas Jackson (Stephen Lang), professor at the Virginia Military Institute. General Jackson leads a valiant stand at Manassas and earns himself the nickname "Stonewall" for his calm, determined persona on the battlefield (he insists the moniker belongs to his troops). On the Union side, Joshua Chamberlain (Jeff Daniels) abandons his comfortable home life and career as a teacher to become a Lieutenant Colonel in the Union army. The three men meet in battle in Fredericksburg , and the movie follows them through 1863 and the Battle of Chancellorsville.

The focus of the movie is decidedly on the Confederacy, which is fine in theory but doesn't work here because we can see history being glossed over and the politics of the time being simplified. It takes about an hour before the movie seems to realizes that there was another side to the war. The motivations for both sides are drastically abridged. The South is fighting for independence, although we always wonder why. The North is not represented properly; that side of the war has no clear purpose until Lincoln signs the Emancipation Proclamation (slavery, by the way, is almost a non-issue until Jackson and his cook have a ridiculous conversation that poses the idea that there might not have been slavery in the hypothetical Confederate States of America). It's as though Maxwell doesn't think the audience will be able to handle reasons unless they are as straightforward as these, which is odd considering the movie's obvious concern with history. People, locations, dates, and full regiments are introduced with subtitles throughout, as if such information is more important than the complex mechanics that have brought these people to where they are. If Maxwell wants us to side with the South, he should give us better reason. Instead, it's all glorified flag-waving, overblown talk of duty and honor, and melodramatic heartache.

Once the movie hits its battle scenes, the more complicated part of history is forgotten for a while. There's a fair amount of strategizing before each battle, so we have knowledge of what's happening. The battles themselves are huge but also somewhat awkward. Maxwell uses subtitles during the fighting, which gives it the feeling of a technical exercise. On that level, the sequences work, but then there's the ever-present bloated score, giving the proceedings a false grandeur. There's also never a tangible presence of the horror of war that the characters keep talking about, although there are moments, particularly during the Battle of Fredericksburg. A single shot of a soldier who has been shot in the eye is the movie's most effective on this level; there's also a scene at night where soldiers must hide behind the bodies of their fallen comrades to shield themselves from enemy fire. The performers in the battles sometimes appear out of the moment—simply going through the motions. Stephen Lang and Robert Duvall compensate for that. Lang has a strong presence as Jackson that Maxwell relies on perhaps too much, and Duvall is suitably quiet and thoughtful as Lee. Jeff Daniels has little to do beyond pontificating before and after a single battle, which compels us to focus on the little things, such as his distracting accent.

Gods and Generals offers little, both for those intently fascinated by the American Civil War and for those who have a passing interest in the subject. Some of the historical oversimplification could be perceived as offensive or insulting, but I think it's more the case of an innocent but major misstep than something subversive. I could understand someone mistaking it as propaganda. But subversive? No, it's not smart enough for that.

Copyright © 2003 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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