GODS AND GENERALS
Sometimes we wonder if Ted Turner has so much money he does not know what to do with it. In this instance, Ted Turner Pictures has produced a long, long, long and solemn homage to Stonewall Jackson, who was the most successful Confederate general of the Civil War. Luckily for the North, he was shot by his own pickets during his victorious campaign at Chancellorsville--perhaps the most famous of a notorious string of deaths due to friendly fire--and died eight days later.
While presenting the values of both sides of this conflict in honorable fashion, there is no question that the screen adaptation of Jeffrey M. Shaara's book Gods and Generals is awfully kind to the South. Maybe it is about time that the Southern point of view is given a fair hearing, since most films about the Civil War are clearly biased for the other side. Few historical representations of the period have captured the speech, eloquence and dignity of the historical participants as accurately as Gods and Generals. Indeed, that is one of the chief virtues of Gettysburg (1993), also directed by Ronald F. Maxwell, and based on The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara, Jeffrey Shaara's father.
Still, some audiences will be startled to learn how many officers of the Confederacy were friendly towards their slaves, and thinking about one day granting them their liberty. A good deal of this sentiment wreaks of political correctness, unfortunately, and not showing any of the negatives of slavery costs Gods and Generals a good deal of credibility. It is those horrid Yankees who pillage the town of Fredericksburg. Why, the South would never think of robbing innocent civilians! Of course, a good case can easily be made for Northern self-righteousness and rapacity. That is a by-product of war and always has been. Does anyone think the Romans were less brutal in their conquests than the boys in blue and grey?
Overall, Gods and Generals is less revisionist history than a rose-colored presentation of Southern life and motives at their most honorable. Indeed, Biblical rhetoric and 19th-century oratorical syrup flow through almost every scene, sometimes sounding like purple prose and sometimes like a most poetic language to our jaded modern ears. "It is well that war is so terrible, or we should grow too fond of it," says General Robert E. Lee (Robert Duvall). That is ultimately the lesson of this epic tale of a profoundly religious and incredibly gifted general.
Gods and Generals is chronologically correct, but for all its terrible and lengthy battle sequences, it feels slower and more stilted than Gettysburg. Though the film was shot on location in outstanding fashion by Kees Von Oostrum, the matte shots invariably look like lesser Currier and Ives--surprisingly tacky.
Performances are competent throughout, and in some cases, remarkable: Stephen Lang's Stonewall Jackson is beautifully measured, and combines the grit of a soldier with the fanaticism of a man motivated first, last and always by his Christian beliefs. Brian Mallon as General Winfield Scott Hancock, a man who follows orders he knows will result in the slaughter of his men, is an impressively spirited and complex portrait of an officer. Kali Rocha is charming as Jackson's devoted wife, Anna. And Donzaleigh Abernathy is intriguing as Martha, an African-American devoted to the family that owns her, but ready to grab freedom at the first opportunity. Unfortunately, while Robert Duvall's portrait of General Lee presents the requisite dignity and intelligence of a great leader, he seems to be suffering from permanent depression, convinced the South will never triumph. There is some truth to that, but it makes for a one-note character. And Gods and Generals, displaying Confederate victory after Confederate victory, contradicts the notion that there was never a time for Southerners to feel optimistic.
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