“Stirring, spectacular epic achievement… History has never been brought to life with such insight and vivid detail, with such vibrant emotions, with so much to learn and so much to live in a movie experience that is awesome to behold.”
DAVID SHEEHAN / CBS -TV
“A big, ambitious, sweeping epic … Stephen Lang gives one of the best performances of his career.”
JEFFREY LYONS / NBC-TV
“…powerful, riveting, monumental… divine inspiration… Ron Maxwell’s attention to detail effortlessly puts vivid life into names once memorized from a history book.”
STAN URANKAR / CLEVELAND SUN NEWSPAPERS
“People passionate about History, and especially about the Civil War…will love this one.”
PAUL VILLENEUVE / LE JOURNAL DE MONTREAL
“…a heartfelt film with an enlightening message… The production values, including the cinematography, art direction and musical score, are each outstanding.”
PHIL BOATWRIGHT / BP NEWS
C. JACON MARBY / TECHNIQUE
“…Lang makes Jackson ruthless in war and, at the same time, the literate soul of patriotic valor – defender of the South as the last bastion of freedom… Lang carves Jackson in flesh and blood…”
OWEN GLEIBERMAN / ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY
“Jeff Daniels does a compelling job of bringing his character alive… Robert Duvall makes an impressive Robert E. Lee… Lang plays the role with conviction and humanity.”
MARGARET A. McGURK / THE CINCINNATI ENQUIRER
“…remarkable battle sequences… Maxwell’s re-creation and grand design make this movie special – along with Duvall’s re-strained, majestic portrayal of Lee.”
MICHAEL WILMINGTON / CHICAGO TRIBUNE
“The populous, precisely choreographed battle scenes, which use 7,500 Civil War re-enactors, transport you directly to the front lines…”
STEPHEN HOLDEN / NEW YORK TIMES
“…an awesome sense of authenticity and scope… The battle scenes attain a level of accomplishment that is likely to intrigue and please legions of Civil War buffs.”
KEVIN THOMAS / LOS ANGELES TIMES
“Lang brings this fearless soldier fully to life…”
RON WEISKIND / PITTSBURGH POST-GAZETTE
“If you love history…you’ll want to see GODS AND GENERALS …Duvall invests his part with integrity and authenticity.”
ELEANOR RINGEL GILLESPIE / THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION
“…strong performances… massive, incredibly rendered sequences of sustained warfare …astounding battle scenes …galvanizing performances by Jeff Daniels and Stephen Lang… Daniels brings the same intellectual panache and understated determination to the part as he did in Gettysburg… But it’s Lang, as Gen.Stonewall Jackson, who rides off with the movie. He’s truly a revelation.”
TOM SIEBERT / CITY PAPER
“…Mr.Maxwell has returned to his post as a Civil War chronicler with a full measure of devotion.”
GARY ARNOLD / WASHINGTON TIMES
“The engrossing performance of Lang as Jackson is the first great performance of 2003. It’s the most dynamic screen portrayal of a military man since George C. Scott’s Patton in 1970.”
JACK GARNER / ROCHESTER DEMOCRAT & CHRONICLE
“GODS AND GENERALS is one of the more remarkable movies of the decade.”
STEVE SAILER / UPI
“GODS AND GENERALS is an extraordinary achievement in filmmaking. The story is fascinating and the performances are outstanding.”
KAREN BUTLER / UPI
“Stunning, inspired, and inspiring, GODS AND GENERALS is the finest Civil War movie ever made – including GONE WITH THE WIND.”
JIM SVEJDA / KNX-CBS RADIO OR CBS RADIO
“Answers and questions some of the great civil war myths… Daring film-making about a war American’s should never forget… GODS AND GENERALS is a rarity, a historical epic that stays true to the facts. Robert Duvall and Stephen Lang bring the civil war icons Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson to life.”
RICHARD CROUSE / REEL TO REAL
” Offers a powerful human context for understanding the US Civil War!”
” Presents in a powerful way the impact of war on the families of the soldiers.”
” Captures the horror and devastation of war on civilians and soldiers alike.”
“Jeff Daniels is outstanding as Colonel Chamberlain, leader of the 20th Maine.”
“Much more than a clash of two armies – a vivid portrait of a nation in conflict with itself.”
JOHN J. PUNGENTE / SCANNING THE MOVIES BRAVO
“…a landmark epic”.
SUSAN GRANGER / SSG SYNDICATE
“Masterfully done. It was truly moving to see a realistic account of how our country was divided not too long ago.”
RICH WEST / FMiTV NETWORKS
“Writer-director Ron Maxwell paints an incredibly vivid portrait of such legendary men as Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee. More than that, we get a real sense of life in those troubled times, the strategy and mechanics of battle, as well as the tragedy of pitting brother against brother.”
“I’m awfully glad I saw it, and if you have a taste for history, you should too.”
LEONARD MALTIN / HOT TICKET
“It’s like Ken Burns come alive, but with color and clash.”
“Some films bring out the best in actors. This role is Jeff Daniels’ legacy. If there is a third part to this trilogy, he’ll complete the arc of triumph of one man’s character.”
“History is not dates and battlefields. It’s people and passions…in this film, you’re right up against those people, seeing the world from their viewpoint.”
“…sweeping, yet sweet; it’s an epic with emotion.”
PATRICK STONER / “FLICKS” PBS
“A compelling tale of honor, values, and the horror of war.”
“Visceral, engrossing and highly entertaining.”
“Epic in scale, universal in its humanity.”
“Superb performances from an exceptional cast”.
MIKE SARGENT / WBAI-FM
“Duvall and Lang form a dynamic duo that captivates the audience and vividly brings these historical figures to life”.
“GODS AND GENERALS will teach you all of those things that you missed in history class.”
WILLIE WAFFLE / WMAL-AM or WMAL-RADIO
“Masterfully done. It was truly moving to see a realistic account of how our country was divided not too long ago.”
RICH WEST / FMiTV NETWORKS
“A truly inspired work”
“GODS and GENERALS is not only the finest movie ever made about the Civil War, it is also the best American Historical Film. Period.”
BILL KAUFFMAN / AMERICAN ENTERPRISE MAGAZINE
DAVID SHEEHAN / KCBS-TV
History’s not about dates and battlefields, it’s about people. Films with an historic angle are not documentaries, they ‘re dramatic creations. Points of view are personal and erratic, which is why close friends of equal education and sensitivity can disagree on vital issues. Put all of that together in a 3 hour 40 minute movie, set in the past during our nation’s most turbulent times, and add prejudices over race, and regional loyalty, and you have the reason this film will make a limited amount of money at the box office, although lots of money on VHS and DVD.
“Gods and Generals” most famous star is Duvall, as Robert E. Lee. But this is not Lee’s story, this plotline is a prequel to the great events at Gettysburg, and is really the story of “Stonewall” Jackson, played by an excellent actor, Stephen Lang, who was in “Gettysburg”, but in another part, that of the famous General who led Pickett’s charge. By focusing on the man, Lee himself considered his strong right arm, you get an insight into the behind the scenes relationships of the Army of Virginia. By showing Jackson’s personal life, one well documented, as a loving family man who was deeply religious, as were many in this period of religious revival on both sides of the conflict. You also get a feeling of the very different world inhabited by these people. Finally, it’s important to remember that you are not viewing the world of the Deep South with its large plantations of slaves, but Virginia, where there were areas like the Shenandoah Valley where I grew up, that saw almost no slavery and none on the scale or misery of the Deep South.
Since the film was an historical underpinning, must be worked into a drama, you don’t see enough details either about all the important battles, or the private lives. The first cut we’re told, get this, was 14 hours long, so the weaknesses of the film are that important issues are reduced to a few scenes, and therefore trivialized compared to real life, but Stephen Lang gives an excellent performance as “Stonewall” Jackson, Duvall looks ready to give a great performance as Lee, if they make that final film about the end of the Civil War, Jeff Daniels is good again, and with all of its limitations and imperfections, this film still manages to be sweeping and sweet at the same time. On my four star scale I give “Gods and Generals”, an emotional epic, three.
PATRICK STONER / PBS
Mr. Lincoln said he liked his speeches short and sweet, so here it is: The new Warner Brothers picture Gods and Generals is not only the finest movie ever made about the Civil War, it is also the best American historical film. Period. Writer-director Ron Maxwell’s prequel to his epic Gettysburg (1993) is so free of cant, of false notes, of the politically conformist genuflections that we expect in our historical movies, that one watches it as if in a trance, wondering if he hasn’t stumbled into a movie theater in an alternative America wherein talented independents like Maxwell get $80 million from Ted Turner to make complex and beautiful films about what Gore Vidal has called “the great single tragic event that continues to give resonance to our Republic.”
I watched Gods and Generals with a jackhammer headache coming off a sleepless night plus half a day wandering through suburban Charlotte, North Carolina, hardly a den of wonderment and charm. Not ideal conditions for sitting down to a three-hour-and-45-minute movie, yet Maxwell’s magnum opus bowled me over. Beside Gods and Generals, such previous treatments of the War Between the States as Edward Zwick’s civics lesson Glory (1989) and the soap operatics of Gone With the Wind are revealed as arrant juvenilia.
BILL KAUFFMAN / AMERICAN ENTERPRISE MAGAZINE
It was not only the bloodiest conflict in American history, it determined the course of American history more decisively than any other single event. An ambitious new movie traces the dramatic events of the first years of that titanic conflict and I’m Jim Svejda, On Film.
“Gods and Generals” is the first panel in a projected trilogy of Civil War films that began in 1993 with “Gettysburg.”
The action begins with Colonel Robert E. Lee (Robert Duvall) respectfully declining the command of the Federal army and an obscure instructor at the Virginia Military Institute named Thomas Jackson (Stephen Lang) deciding that if Virginia leaves the Union, so will he. It is also the story of a Maine professor named Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain (Jeff Daniels) who answers Abraham Lincoln’s call for volunteers and will be present at many of the great turning points of the Civil War.
While “Gettysburg” was an intelligent, well-made epic, “Gods and Generals” is an entirely different order of movie: perhaps the finest Civil War movie ever made — including “Gone With The Wind” — and one of the most inspiring movies you’ll ever see. Vast in scale, brilliant in its detail, “Gods and Generals” also offers the most balanced view yet of what the conflict was really about. In choosing to make Stonewall Jackson it’s tragic hero — and Stephen Lang’s performance is absolutely overwhelming — it brings into painfully clear focus why the war had to be fought. “Gods and Generals” is not only a great movie — but it’s also what America is, brought thrillingly to life.
JIM SVEJDA / KNX 1070, LOS ANGELES
“Gods and Generals” inflames the imagination and inspires the soul. The sweeping depiction of three crucial battles ranks with “Alexander Nevsky,” the Soviet “War and Peace,” and “Saving Private Ryan” in terms of thrilling immediacy.
MICHAEL MEDVED / KRLA, SRN RADIO NETWORK
Why do men fight for their country? What occasions justify the use of force, the unleashing of all the dangerous passions that arise in time of war, the disruption of civil society, the vast waste of lives and treasure that follow in its wake, and the massive political changes that result with the peace? As our nation exercises its muscles of self-government, and debates the wisdom and prudence of removing a brutal dictator, Saddam Hussein, from power for his reckless flouting of the peace agreement which ended the first Gulf War, it’s especially fitting that Hollywood is releasing a film that looks at such questions soberly. Most refreshingly, this movie arises from a perspective of profound, reflective patriotism.
Gods & Generals opens nationally today, and it promises to be a blockbuster hit. More importantly, it’s a deeply honest piece of film-making. It follows the outbreak and first decisive battles of the American Civil War. Written with the aid of prominent historians North and South, black and white, it was directed with meticulous realism and lyrical skill by the maker of the epic, Gettysburg (1994), Ronald F. Maxwell.
What’s amazing about the film is its truthfulness and historical sensibility: Unlike too many Hollywood productions, it doesn’t import into the past the prejudices and values of the present, or demonize the losing side. Instead, Gods & Generals depicts with equal sensitivity the motivations that drove men of each region to enlist and fight in our country’s bloodiest war -which claimed the lives of 600,000 Americans. (By way of comparison, we lost fewer than 60,000 dead in Vietnam.)
The acting is uniformly superb: Robert Duvall plays General Robert E. Lee with the grave dignity that made Lee a figure of honor even among his enemies. Jeff Daniels portrays Col. Joshua Chamberlain, the humane and idealistic Union officer who would later save the day for the North at Gettysburg, and in his quiet fervor evokes all that was noblest in the motives of the men who volunteered to fight to preserve the Union. His gradual awakening to the profound evil of slavery mirrors accurately the shift in Northern opinion over the course of the war, as it evolved into a struggle that explicitly centered on slavery and race relations. The character who dominates the film, Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, is played by Stephen Lang as a study in paradoxes-a fiery warrior, implacable on the battlefield, whose tenderness and devout Christian faith emerge when the guns are silent, and he cradles his infant daughter in his arms, or talks intimately with God as he watches the sun climb the sky over the Shenandoah mountains.
What the film makes clear is that, at least at the war’s outbreak, few men believed they were fighting about slavery. It’s true that the political leaders of the South saw the election of Lincoln as spelling the death-knell of their region’s economic system, which was predicated on slave labor. They also noted, with horror, that Lincoln became president without a single Southern electoral vote-which suggested that their region was now politically impotent, soon to become a colony of the North.
Most Southerners didn’t own slaves, nor did Southern men enlist to f ight for the preservation of that wicked institution-any more than Northern m en volunteered to fight for sweatshops, cheap immigrant labor, or the liquidation of the Indians (although this is what multiculturalists would like us to believe.) It’s easy to imagine that one’s opponen ts are fighting for the very worst of causes, and to pretend that the enemy is unambiguously evil. (One thing that makes The Lord of the Rings so satisfying is that the dark forces are purely evil-a race of monsters crafted by a Dark Lord to serve his explicitly malicious purposes.) It may even help battlefield morale.
But it usually isn’t true. The American South was not Mordor, nor the Confederate soldiers a legion of slavering Orcs. Nor were Union soldiers bent primarily on conquest, pillage, and the subjugation of their Southern neighbors-as Confederate nationalists pretended. Instead, the men of two regions, which had for 85 years been united in a single, loosely-knit federation, treasured loyalties to different entities. As their letters, abundantly preserved, make clear, the men of the South believed that they owed their patriotism to their state, to Virginia or Louisiana or Texas. For them this was the locus of sovereignty. They believed that the United States was more like a loose alliance of governments-like NATO or the European Union- than a centrally governed nation-state. If you wish to understand Confederate nationalism, imagine Irishmen or Spaniards or Swedes rebelling against a too-intrusive European Union-which may well happen someday. It was Lincoln’s decision to use force to prevent secession by several Southern states that inspired other states of the region to call home their senators, peel away their state militias, and embark on the deadly gamble of forming the Confederacy.
Conversely, the men of the North believed that the Constitution was a binding, irrevocable contract which had dissolved the sovereignty of states, and transferred ultimate authority to Washington-and that the leaders of Southern states were engaged in open treason and rebellion.
Each interpretation of the American Founding had its merits. Historians have speculated that the U.S. Supreme Court might well have sided with the seceding states, had they pursued a peaceful legal challenge.
Tragically, they didn’t. The counsels of reason and peace were swall owed by an upsurge of 19th century romantic nationalism, and men of the South attempted to break the founding compact of America. After an epic four year struggle, they were utterly defeated, their cause thrown on the dustbin of history, and their motives forgotten or distorted. The symbols under which they fought-the Confederate flag for instance-are now abused by hate groups, and banned from historical displays depicting the war. Schoolchildren are taught to believe that half of America was once subject to a spell of almost pure evil, which could only be purged in blood. (It is only a short step, which some Afro-centrists have taken, to condemn the nation as a whole.) If we are to understand our nation’s history, and foster a real patriotic love for the place, it’s essential that real information replace the myths, and empathy arise for all those involved in this tragic struggle-the soldier, the civilian, the slave, and the statesman alike. This exciting and moving film goes a long way towards fostering all those valuable things. Go see it, and tell your friends.
JOHN ZMIRAK / FRONTPAGEMAGAZINE.COM
“Maxwell has linked Gettysburg with Gods and Generals in a powerful thematic and aesthetic way.”
GARY ARNOLD / WASHINGTON TIMES
…an American cultural event of major significance.
…a feat of insight and courage.
…stunningly crafted and epically expansive.
Maxwell has largely given us a dramatization of Americans…as the real people in the real context in which they loved, perspired, wept, struggled, suffered and died.
Gods and Generals is an arresting example of how a people’s history should be told.
CLYDE WILSON / CHRONICLES
“Ron Maxwell’s unrelentingly brilliant film may be rewarded at the 2004 Oscars. In fact, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences should just give [Stephen] Lang his Best Actor Oscar this year, instead of waiting until next. His unparalleled performance as Jackson should be one thing about which there is no debate.”
GREG KANE / BALTIMORE SUN
A complex look at Civil War believers.
If the four-hour battlefield epic doesn’t work for [some] reviewers on an artistic level, it’s hard to make a case against that kind of judgment. But the moral and political indictment of the film as a “whitewash of the past” is politically correct slander. Gods and Generals commits the unpardonable sin of depicting the Confederate generals not as prototypes of Goering and Rommel, but as noble, tragic men whose motives for fighting were complex and fully human. The movie invites understanding of the historical south, not outright condemnation, and that’s something that the present age will not tolerate.
Gods and Generals, which is loosely based on the Jeff Shaara novel of the same name, concerns itself with key battles in Virginia during the first half of the Civil War. It focuses on three characters: Union Col. Joshua Chamberlain (Jeff Daniels), later a hero of Gettysburg; Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee (a stunning Robert Duvall); and most especially, Lee’s right hand, Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson (Stephen Lang). While there is a great deal of battlefield action, the film takes care to show the thinking that went into each great man’s reasons for fighting the war. The Southern side gets much more screen time, perhaps because Maxwell leaned toward the north in his previous film,Gettysburg.
The film is about conflicting ideas of patriotism, God, personal conscience, and history. Its basic point is that Lee and Jackson (like many southerners) fought not because they loved slavery or detested the Union, but because they felt honor-bound to defend their homeland.
What is one’s homeland? To mid-19th-century Americans, most of whom never traveled more than a few miles from the place of their birth, the United States was an abstraction. In those days, it was much easier and more natural for them to feel loyalty to their state and its people. The rock singer Little Steven has a great song called “I Am a Patriot,” the chorus of which captures this deeply personal sense of nationalism: I am a patriot/And I love my country/Because my country/Is all I know/I want to be with my family/With people who understand me/I got nowhere else to go.
Lee opposed secession, but once the decision was taken, it was this sense of duty that bound him to fight for the Confederacy. If you or I had been Virginians back then, how many of us would have had the courage to have gone north to fight for the Union, or even had the imagination to conceive of such a thing? What Maxwell is trying to do here is show contemporary audiences why good men would take up arms to defend a government and a culture that enslaved other men. It is for much the same reason that black GIs fought bravely in World War II for a country that still didn’t guarantee them their full rights: because their homeland asked them to.
Maxwell takes a big risk in downplaying questions of race and slavery here. You can understand why he may have done this; do modern audiences really need to be told that slavery was evil? We see now how vicious and evil slavery was, but if you’re trying to show audiences why Lee and Jackson behaved as they did, you’re simply not going to put slavery front and center, because it didn’t figure prominently in their own deliberations, certainly not compared to the centrality of the claims their native soil had on their loyalties.
Perhaps this explains why some critics find it phony that the film’s two black characters, a house slave named Martha (Donzaleigh Abernathy) and a cook named Jim (Frankie Faison) relate so affectionately to whites. It’s easy to see these portrayals as Confederate clichés of happy black folks watched over paternally by their masters. This would be wrong, and unfair. However paradoxical, it’s simply true that whites and blacks in the south loved each other despite the structural sin in which they were mired.
Anyway, Martha and Jim both express a desire for freedom, and a clear awareness of their people’s oppression. There is a lovely scene in which Jim, who prepares meals for Jackson’s camp, prays under a starry sky with the general. Jackson is an extremely pious Presbyterian, and prays constantly. Standing next to Jim, with whom he is close, Jackson asks the Lord to protect Jim’s family. Jim, also addressing the Almighty, prays, “How is it, Lord, that good Christian men, like some men I know, tolerate they [sic] black brothers in bondage?” The general stands next to Jim, looking heavenward, beseeching God to “show us the way, and we will follow.” Jim’s face falls. He knows the general, his friend and a good man, just doesn’t get it.
That scene serves to illuminate a particularly tragic aspect of Jackson’s character. We see him throughout the film intensely praying, seeking to do the will of God. You cannot doubt his sincerity, nor the uprightness of his character. Yet there is a blindness there, an inability to grasp that his ways are not necessarily the Lord’s ways. He can be absolutely merciless. One moment he is having gentle words of prayer at the bedside of a dying soldier, and in the next breath is chillingly calling for the total slaughter of the enemy. He is both tender and ruthless – again, a paradox, but a very human and very believable one.
Religion is an integral part of Gods and Generals, particularly on the southern side. Lee and Jackson are forever talking about God’s will – Jackson at one point refers to his men as “the Army of the Lord,” as he is about to execute deserters – but don’t seem much troubled by the question as to whether or not their cause is just in His eyes. Jackson is a true Christian Stoic, believing that man’s role was to be largely passive as the will of God worked itself out through history. His conception of God was austere and tribal, as in the Old Testament. Jackson thought God ordained slavery for inscrutable reasons, but in time would end it, if that was His will. Man’s role is to wait on God, and accept everything he sends to us.
A convinced Calvinist, Jackson believed God had predestined each man to die on his appointed day. “My religion teaches me that I am as safe in battle as in bed,” he says here. “That is the way all men should live, then all men would be equally brave.” Yet this same noble conviction that allowed him to bear misfortune with equanimity also kept his conscience untroubled in the face of the unspeakable cruelty of slavery.
By contrast, the god of Col. Chamberlain is the more universalist and egalitarian vision we see in the New Testament. Chamberlain here gives voice to a vision of a God who expects His followers to act as His agents to bring justice to the world. If that should mean war, then we must make sure the ends we’re fighting for justify the suffering war will entail. Unfortunately, Chamberlain’s view, which I’m guessing is Maxwell’s, gets short shrift in the film. Nevertheless, Chamberlain has a good monologue in which he explains that even though slavery has always been with mankind, it is intolerable, and if he has to die to “end this curse and free the Negro, then God’s will be done.”
There were tremendous historical consequences from this clash of religious visions. A soldier in battle must believe God is on his side in order to bear the pain and suffering of war, yet there is great danger in presuming that the Almighty endorses your actions. He is infinite; we are finite. Gods and Generals is filled with challenging theological questions, but the movie appears to have struck historically and theologically illiterate reviewers as showing little more than a bunch of Bible-thumping rednecks sitting around talking about Jesus while fighting to keep the slaves back on the plantation.
Maxwell told me he made Gods and Generals “without judgment of that generation” of men who fought the Civil War. It wouldn’t have been true to history to make a film depicting a simplistic conflict between good and evil. Slavery was completely indefensible, but there was more to that war and the men who fought it than race hatred.
“It’s easy to judge [antebellum southerners] because of slavery,” Maxwell said. “At the same time we should recognized that they were incredibly faithful people, of incredibly strong fiber. We’ve descended from those people, and we can take solace from that.”
Solace? Maxwell seems to have no use for the au courant idea that all decent people, southerners in particular, must repudiate and be ashamed of their ancestors to be morally and socially acceptable. Brave man. He’ll pay.
NATIONAL REVIEW MAGAZINE
God, Generals and Ted Turner
Dear Ted Turner,
At this advanced stage of your long and complicated career you have finally crossed the line – making a contribution to your country and its culture so unequivocally positive and powerful that every American, regardless of political perspective, owes you a debt of gratitude.
No matter how one feels about your creation of CNN, your donation of a billion dollars to the UN, your marriage to Jane Fonda, your operation of the Atlanta Braves, your divorce from Jane Fonda, your dismissal of Christianity as “a religion for losers,” your bison ranching, your yachting, or your fanatical feud with Rupert Murdoch, you have now performed a massive good deed that should provoke universal appreciation.
Not that “Gods and Generals” – produced due to your singular determination and generosity – constitutes a perfect film; many commentators, especially among your politically correct pals, will no doubt find fault with it for a portrayal of the War Between the States that aims for truth rather than trendiness. Nevertheless, your personal investment of some $80 million in a project of such audacious ambition has resulted in a major movie miracle. I’ve been reviewing movies for 23 years now (having started at CNN, in fact) and I’ve never before sat spellbound for nearly four hours (the film runs more than three hours and 40 minutes, with an intermission) wishing, at the end, that this heroic movie had gone on even longer.
Despite the epic scale of this effort, director-writer Ron Maxwell reached the right decision in making no attempt for comprehensive coverage of the period he illuminates. The movie begins in April, 1861, and concludes 25 months later, making no reference to epic battles like Antietam or the Peninsula Campaign, or to important personalities like McClellan, Winfield Scott, Halleck or Fremont. Even though Maxwell focuses most of his attention on the single fascinating figure of “Stonewall” Jackson, he never portrays that general’s most astonishing triumph – the breathtakingly brilliant Shenandoah Valley Campaign in the Spring of 1862, still studied today as an example of inspired leadership and masterful tactics. Maxwell chooses to concentrate on the general’s human qualities rather than his undeniable military genius, and the result is a film that should appeal to women as much as men, to history fanatics as well as those who don’t know the difference between Bull Run and Valley Forge.
Stephen Lang plays General Jackson with such startling authority and vitality that if there is any justice at all in Hollywood (a dubious proposition), he will receive a Best Actor Oscar nomination next year. The amazing element in this utterly riveting characterization is its balance and complexity: Lang’s Jackson is simultaneously fierce and tender, spiritual and practical, petty and magnanimous, eccentric, implacable and incomparably charismatic. The physical resemblance to the historic Stonewall is uncanny, even eerie – complete with the blazing blue eyes that led his men to nickname him “Old Blue Light.”
Robert Duvall similarly shines as Robert E. Lee, bringing to crackling life the dignity, poetry and ruthless edge of this legendary commander. Duvall takes over the role from Martin Sheen (of all people) who proved adequate but uninspired in Ron Maxwell’s previous battlefield spectacular, “Gettysburg” (1993). Sheen’s Lee seemed dreamy, almost effete, and much too kindly; Duvall’s “Marse Robert” comes across (accurately) as an altogether more formidable customer.
In every way, “Gods and Generals” shows quantum improvements over “Gettysburg” – reflecting the vastly larger budget which your commitment made possible, Mr. Turner. The false beards and over-fed re-enactors that proved seriously distracting last time have been replaced by impeccable art direction, costumes, make-up and sets. The result, with the sweeping depiction of three crucial battles (First Bull Run, Fredricksburg and Chancellorsville, all filmed on the actual battlefields), ranks with “Alexander Nevsky,” the Soviet “War and Peace,” and “Saving Private Ryan” in terms of thrilling immediacy. One particularly moving sequence involves Meagher’s Irish regiment charging for the Union up Marye’s Heights at Fredericksburg, only to run directly into a Confederate Irish regiment, greeting them with recognition, tears, cheers, and deadly, withering fire.
With its emphasis on Jackson, including his moving friendship with a 5-year-old-girl during the Christmas season break in the fighting in 1862, “Gods and Generals” will undoubtedly draw criticism for its sympathetic treatment of the Confederate cause. In fact, Maxwell’s four hours of cinema provide a richer understanding of Southern motivation and passions than Ken Burns ever did in his hours and hours of gripping documentary on PBS. Looking down at the town of Fredericksburg, Virginia, just before the battle, Maxwell provides a stunningly effective speech for Robert E. Lee, as he recalls that he met his wife in that very village. “It’s something these Yankees do not understand,” he says, “will never understand. Rivers, hills, valleys, fields, even towns. To those people they’re just markings on a map from the war office in Washington. To us, they’re birthplaces and burial grounds, they’re battlefields where our ancestors fought. They’re places where we learned to walk, to talk, to pray. They’re the incarnation of all our memories and all that we love.”
Maxwell treats his Union characters with less love, even while making clear their moral superiority on the issue of slavery.
Jeff Daniels returns to play Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, the Maine college professor who became one of the major heroes at Gettysburg. Though the events of “Gods and Generals” precede the struggle in “Gettysburg,” Jeff Daniels looks unmistakably, distractingly older this time – showing the passage of 10 years. Maxwell also gives him a big moment before the Federal charge at Fredericksburg in which he recites the timeless words of Julius Caesar to inspire his men. The historical Chamberlain might well have delivered such a speech, but the hammy, lengthy, Latinate, declamation fizzles on screen. The heavy, intrusive and occasionally lumpish musical score by Randy Edelman and John Frizzell works poorly for this sequence, and other key moments in the movie.
Nevertheless, “Gods and Generals” inflames the imagination and inspires the soul – never more than in its frank, friendly treatment of the deep religiosity of men on both sides. The compassionate re-creation of so many vivid, decent characters never apologizes the paradox that soldiers in both blue and gray remained convinced that they served the Almighty’s will in battle; Maxwell allows us to believe that both sides may have been right.
Small moments provide some of the movie’s richest gifts: with Jackson and other officers singing “Silent Night” at a Christmas party while Stonewall yearns to see the newborn daughter he has never met; a Rebel and a Yankee walking on stones to the middle of a river, to trade tobacco for coffee and to pass a few peaceful moments; Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain explaining to his distraught wife (superbly played by Mira Sorvino) why he feels compelled to risk his life far from home; Lee declining to visit the wounded, dying Jackson, as if this refusal will force his indispensable lieutenant to a miraculous recovery.
There’s also a fine moment, Mr. Turner, when your smiling face appears for a few seconds along with other Confederate officers listening to a spirited rendition of the music hall favorite, “The Bonny Blue Flag.”
“We are a band of brothers, and native to the soil,” sing these sons of the South, and that sense of regional pride, loyalty to hearth and home, permeates this remarkable and richly rewarding movie.
Even those who have criticized you in the past, Mr. Turner, should recognize that with this film you’ve raised your own Bonny Blue Flag and challenged other Americans of wealth and influence to follow your example. Focus groups and market studies would have tried to discourage you from investing $80 million in a strikingly intelligent four-hour spectacle that never stoops to score cheap political points or conform to current fashion by showing the Confederates as redneck Nazis, or providing a one-dimensional focus on slavery as the only issue in the war.
Any consumers of pop culture who long for more ambition and substance in American entertainment must rush to see this movie; in fact, to show support for bold new directions in cinema, you should see it several times. If this film succeeds beyond expectations it will send powerful messages to the gatekeepers in show business, encouraging a new emphasis on juicy, accurate historical and, yes, religious content.
This movie, in fact, could amount to a turning of the tide in the ongoing battle to enrich and uplift the culture. If that occurs, we must thank God and two generals: Ron Maxwell, and that unlikely leader for the cause of the angels, Ted Turner. As in any great battle, deliverance can come from an unexpected source.
Thank you, Mr. Turner, and I wish you great success with your courageous effort.
MICHAEL MEDVED / KRLA, SRN RADIO NETWORK
Films have a key role in educating youth about history.
In one powerful scene in Ron Maxwell’s new film, “Gods and Generals,” are summed up all the clashing loyalties of the Civil War. A young black woman–the house slave of a decent southern family that loves her, but a slave nonetheless–has loyally barred the Yankee invader from their home in Fredericksburg following their flight. She relents during the battle, however, when the house is requisitioned for a field hospital. She tends the wounded and, comforting a dying Union soldier, she realizes that this man has come down from his safe home in the North to help free her and her children. Whereupon she changes sides.
What makes this scene so powerful, in addition to the eloquence of the writing, is that it pits the woman’s natural affections against her sense of natural justice. Maxwell’s epic film is full of such moments. But this scene alone refutes the argument that “Gods and Generals” does not place sufficient emphasis on slavery as the central clash of the war. What it does not do is make slavery the sole cause of the war from the perspective of 2003.
Instead, “Gods and Generals” is true to the spirit of history. It enables us to see the cause and meaning of the war as those who fought and died saw those things. And they had many motives driving them into fratricidal strife–ending or sustaining slavery certainly, but also defending their homes against attack, fulfilling a patriotic duty of loyalty to their state, a desire to maintain the Union at all costs, and so on.
Not only does Maxwell–assisted by superb performances from Stephen Lang as Stonewall Jackson and Robert Duvall as Robert E. Lee–convey why these men and women took the sides they did; he also allows them to speak in the language of their time: sometimes with a grand Biblical eloquence, sometimes with the gentlemanly understatement of the officer class, sometimes quoting the literature with which educated men and women of that time were familiar.
This willingness to let speeches stretch to the length necessary to make an eloquent argument is an enormous artistic risk in today’s tongue-tied Hollywood. As a dramatic device, however, it helps us to see that both Confederates and Unionists were significantly different people from our contemporary selves–more uncomplicatedly religious, more rooted in the place they were born, more devoted to ideals of heroism and chivalry, relatively unconcerned about such things as economic growth.
Yet, though both sides talk relatively little about slavery and a great deal about liberty and patriotism, slavery continually intrudes into their lives and minds–to the Confederates as an unsettling reproach, to the Unionists as an uncomfortable justification–in scenes like that in which Jackson and his black army cook pray together for an enlightenment that may still have eluded the great general at his death.
Recall that “Gods and Generals” covers the early civil war in which the Confederacy enjoyed a string of military successes. It ends with the death of Jackson as a result of “friendly fire” in the hour of victory. Ahead, however, lies defeat for Lee at Gettysburg and the Confederacy’s fall in the third film of the series, “The Last Full Measure.” We will then see the terrible consequences for the Confederacy of its attachment to the “peculiar institution.”
In the meantime, Americans need to know their own history–not as propaganda for how we see the world today but as an accurate remembrance of how it once was. Our schools churn out graduates who have only the remotest idea of U.S. history before the television age. In one test of 10 history students, only one student knew that the First World War ended in 1918, and only two knew that the Second started in 1939. None knew the date for the battle of Waterloo (1815), women getting the vote in America (1920), or Hitler’s rise to power (1933).
Given this almost heroic level of ignorance, it is highly unlikely that these students have any very clear idea of Lee, William Seward, Jackson, Ulysses S. Grant, or anyone else involved in the greatest conflict in American history, with the single exception of Abraham Lincoln who has managed to leap from the past into mythic status.
Yet, Lincoln himself praised “the mystic chords of memory” as essential to the self-understanding of a nation. Since we can no longer rely on schools and colleges to transmit these memories to the coming generations, we must rely on movies and videos to fill this national need. If those filmmakers who step up to the plate are as scrupulous as Maxwell in conveying the historical truth, we will have more luck than we deserve.
JOHN O’SULLIVAN / CHICAGO SUN TIMES
Perhaps The Best Civil War Film Ever
“Gods and Generals,” the new and suddenly controversial film from Ron Maxwell, should be on the “must-see” list of all fans of great movie-making. This historical epic is the second installment in what well could be Maxwell’s supreme life’s work — bringing Jeff and Michael Sharra’s novel trilogy of the American Civil War to dramatic and unforgettable life. It is perhaps the best film ever made about that conflict.
As with the 1993 film “Gettysburg” (adapted from “The Killer Angels”), “Gods and Generals” will be most impressive on the big screen. Don’t wait for video or DVD to absorb this masterpiece. Some have criticized the length of Maxwell’s film, as many did with ‘Gettysburg.’ The running time is about 3 hours and 35 minutes, not including a minimum 12-minute Intermission. With that and previews, plan on a four hour visit to your local cinema, but rest assured: This film is worth every minute.
Given the wondrous joy I felt after viewing the film in its first week of release, I was saddened to read of the bitter edge that has crept into some critical evaluations of the project. To assess the harshest critics, some context is in order.
The principle voice of “Gettysburg” was Joshua Chamberlain, portrayed by Jeff Daniels (who, happily, returned for this prequel). He is drawn as a noble northern officer whose reflections on the Emancipation Proclamation (in the new film) reflect accurately a steady shift in the war’s stated purpose — away from preservation of the union into a crusade against the ancient institution of human slavery. The two films contain enough hints about Chamberlain’s character and certainty of purpose that his remarkable post-war career (as an educator at Bowden College and one of the most successful politicians in Maine’s history) is understandable.
In marked contrast to generally favorable assessments of the portrayal of Chamberlain in the first film, certain critics now seem outraged by the new film’s balanced and faithful (to the novel and to history) treatment of Thomas Jackson, the professor at Virginia Military Institute who, as Robert E. Lee’s strategist, worked his way onto the lists of the world’s greatest commanders.
Again and again, in 1861 and 1862, this man of absolute faith and confidence (portrayed by Stephen Lang) led the heavily-outnumbered Confederate Army of Virginia to victories over the Union. The North simply had no one to match wits with Jackson, who earned the nickname “Stonewall” for leading his brigade’s heroic stand in the first Battle of Bull Run.
Maxwell’s framing and use of characters are beautiful. Many things about “Gods and Generals” are distinctive. Perhaps the most notable is the explicit portrayal of the touchstone of Christian faith that illuminated the lives of warriors and observers on both sides of the conflict. The subliminal (and in a couple of cases, explicit) message of some critics of Maxwell’s new installment is that faithful presentations of what is actually known of the lives of men like Jackson and Lee must not be allowed, even if Chamberlain can be presented favorably (as Maxwell does in both films).
Women play a much larger role in this film than in Gettysburg. Mira Sorvino’s portrayal as Chamberlain’s wife is luminescent. Jackson’s wife, Anna, is played with sensual emotion and believability by Kali Rocha. The love and fidelity of both couples is central to the story of this film. The desire and care at the heart of each relationship seems so authentic, so faithfully rendered, that it becomes, in the viewing, remarkable and mysterious. The passionate bonds of marital love portrayed here are an extension of the love the characters themselves feel for God. Theological matters aside, for a moment, Maxwell’s direction of these capable performers can help modern audiences understand how the love of such women sustained such men on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line.
Similarly, excellent black performers appear in notable supporting roles in this film (that was not the case in the middle segment of the trilogy). Particularly notable is Frankie Faison’s rendering of Jackson’s servant and cook, Jim Lewis, who conveys the awkwardness and complexity of that era’s black-white relations in even the most cordial circumstances. In another scene, as a young soldier lies dying in a home shattered after the Siege of Fredericksburg, Martha, a slave portrayed by Donzaleigh Abernathy, tearfully discusses the war’s course and purpose with a heart-broken General Winfield Scott Hancock, portrayed (as in “Gettysburg”) by Brian Mallon. These utterly believable moments further humanize this most human of conflicts.
In the end, however, the story’s most memorable characters are also the most notable — Jackson, Chamberlain (sketched above), and Robert E. Lee. In Robert Duvall’s understated interpretation, Lee’s decision, in the story’s opening minutes, to decline command of the Union Army, is accurately drawn. After he resigns his U.S. commission to defend of his “country” — Virginia — the consequences are soon apparent.
At the other end of this epic tale, Jackson’s victory at Chancellorsville is rendered with integrity. Maxwell conveys memorably the heroic long march of Jackson’s soldiers before a bold attack. He captures the utter surprise of Union forces — and the late, desperate stands that prevent complete collapse of the North’s cause. This, rather than the South’s victory under favorable conditions at Fredericksburg, is probably the emotional high point of the film — as was the collapse of Pickett’s charge in “Gettysburg” (where a different-looking Lang gave a sympathetic reading to the unfortunate division commander). The depiction of Jackson’s demise is unforgettable — including Lang’s delivery of some of the most memorable last words in human history.
The premise of many critics is that modern audiences will not tolerate film-making of such honesty and accuracy. I hope they are wrong, and that Ron Maxwell has the opportunity to join forces with Ted Turner one more time to crank out the final chapter in this courageous trilogy. (Turner appears in a fine cameo, as a Confederate officer attending a morale-boosting theatrical performance.)
First, this great movie is highly recommended. As a point of comparison, for power and scope, the film that kept coming to mind was “Lawrence of Arabia” — another motion picture with great acting, believable storytelling, gorgeous cinematography and a large, dramatic scale. (The films also share appropriate and well-performed music. Besides memorable use of music for the battle sequences, lovely ballads are featured during the opening and closing credits of “Gods and Generals.”)
Second, this motion picture could stand, if it earns the audience it deserves in the face of malevolent ill-will from certain critics, as a partial corrective to the deliberate mendacity that marks modern Hollywood’s customary treatment of great moments in human history.
In just half a century, our culture has gone from uncritical hagiography in biographies of Southern politicians like John Calhoun to relentless elite mandates to erase subtleties — including truths, tragedies and triumphs from the conflict that shaped a great nation — in America’s past.
This state of affairs makes some Americans sad and pessimistic about the future of civil discourse. Resentment is not the right word to describe the feelings of many of us over what is happening, yet “resignation” is equally inadequate to characterize our hopes and dreams.
“Gods and Generals” is an authentic retelling of key moments in the Civil War. It can help today’s audience understand why honorable men who worshipped the same Creator and who lived on the same continent could come to such a horrible and bloody crossroads of division. Maxwell’s masterpiece comes to us without the “Politically Correct” distortions that threaten to destroy popular understanding of the past.
Not to put too fine a point on the matter, financial success for a film such as this could become a partial antidote or vaccine against the falsifying of history and the degrading of tradition that is eating away at America’s heart and culture.
PATRICK B. McGUIGAN / TULSATODAY.COM
GODS and GENERALS
Stonewall Jackson arrives on the screen with excellent credentials as an intriguing movie heavy. Consider his quirky religious piety and moral certitude on the side of the defenders of slavery, his reputation as a killing machine on the battlefield, his brilliant military tactics, his eccentric personality, harsh discipline, and death at the hands of his own men during his greatest victory. All this – as well as spectacular, gut-wrenching combat – is captured in the movie Gods and Generals (released in the US this month by Warner Brothers), which follows the war in Virginia during the first two years leading up to the pivotal battle at Gettysburg in July 1863.
But director Ron Maxwell’s epic depicts Jackson not as a cardboard villain but as a tender figure through whom themes of love and devotion can be explored. Maxwell believes these may help us understand what could have motivated Americans to kill and be killed in such massive numbers in the bloodiest of fashions.
Stephen Lang plays Jackson as a complex, sympathetic Confederate hero who lived by lofty standards, related easily and respectfully with free and enslaved blacks, carried on a passionate love affair with his wife between battles, and left camp to baptise his new-born daughter shortly before his final assault. It is a treat to see so much of Jackson’s story portrayed.
Such an engaging portrayal of Confederates may be shocking to some and could raise questions of revisionism. Yet Maxwell’s conversion of Michael Shaara’s novel Killer Angels into the movie Gettysburg a decade ago earned him a reputation for accuracy and a reverence for the context of history.
Maxwell has refused to allow us to re-live the beginning of the Civil War from the vantage of the outcome and of modern sensibilities. He forces us to feel and see as a Virginian in 1861. And in exploring the mystical ties of most human beings to place and the universal abhorrence of invasion and occupation, this movie feels relevant to today’s news when so many countries are in danger of disintegration, and when challenges are made to the very idea of the United States as a country of a particular people with a special tie to a particular place.
The movie’s moral centre does not ultimately lie in Jackson, however, but in the person of Joshua Chamberlain, the unlikely Union hero portrayed by Jeff Daniels. While admiring the honour and even noble character of many of the Virginians he faced, this Maine professor-turned-officer reminds the audience that the Virginians’ defence of their own liberty failed to recognise the denial of liberty to enslaved black residents.
In many ways, this movie is about the love of each of these two men for God, country and wife – how they differed, how they were similar and how they affected the course of the war. These themes unfold as Virginia secedes rather than raise an army to ‘invade’ South Carolina and as the war unfolds in the breathtaking battles of Manassas, Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville.
Each of those battles offers a contrasting type of military tactics, terrain and drama. No doubt the producers hope the realistic battle sequences will be strong enough to appeal to teenage boys. If so, they will hear a lot of theology amidst the sounds of combat.
While Jackson’s most important religious concept appears to be God’s `will’, Chamberlain’s is God’s `law’. Yet their interpretation of God’s will or law leads each of them to risk his own life and take the lives of countless others. Jackson seems to watch for signs of what God wants him to do through the presentation of opportunities; Chamberlain is more likely to try to ascertain the moral choice according to his interpretation of God’s law. Jackson prays and admits to not understanding the bondage of fellow human beings while appearing willing to wait for this to change in ‘God’s time’; Chamberlain sees slavery as an evil that human beings through moral choice should bring to an end in ‘their time’. Chamberlain is willing to enact massive bloodshed to free people (slaves) from subjugation, while Jackson is willing to enact massive bloodshed to keep a people (Virginians) from becoming subjugated.
The deeply religious aspect of Americans at that time has been much remarked upon. But its portrayal here remains an exceptional insight into what the result of the Great Awakening was by mid-nineteenth century. A cross-section of the Revolutionary War, for example, would not have found similar devotion. The America that convulsed over whether to be a single nation and whether to eradicate slavery was a culture of intense theological awareness. Although this movie fails to portray the Christian pacifism and militant Christian abolitionism of the era, it may give more nuanced voice to the religious tenor of the times than any previous presentation on screen.
Religious differences also colour the interwoven and often parallel love stories of the two men with their wives. Anna Jackson (played by Kali Rocha) accepts her husband’s decisions as mere following of the will of God. Fanny Chamberlain (Mira Sorvino) sees her own husband as having more choice and thus is less reconciled to what he does. The movie is at its most satisfying when it draws us into the contrasts and similarities of Jackson and Chamberlain, including scenes of them teaching in their respective college classrooms just before taking up arms.
In the lives of most Americans not raised in the Deep South, the Civil War may too easily have been seen as an easy choice between the goodness of the anti-slavery Union versus the evil of the pro-slavery Confederacy. If the choices had been that simple, though, there likely would never have been anything like the level of violence and suffering that occurred – at least that is a thrust of Gods and Generals.
Today, when economic forces are pushing toward a type of globalisation that tend to diminish, if not deny, peoples’ special ties to land or community, Gods and Generals argues the existence of a universal human passion for these ties causing conflicts to emerge around the globe. Maxwell takes no chances that the viewer might miss this theme, opening with George Eliot’s words:
A human life, I think, should be well rooted in some spot of a native land, where it may get the love of tender kinship for the face of the earth, for the labours men go forth to, for the sounds and accents that haunt it, for whatever will give that early home a familiar unmistakable difference amidst the future widening of knowledge. The best introduction to astronomy is to think of the nightly heavens as a little lot of stars belonging to one’s own homestead.
Gods and Generals is provocative in allowing Jackson and Robert E. Lee (Robert Duvall) to show why they thought Lincoln was invading their ‘country’ and home, forcing them into defending their land from the ‘War of Northern Aggression’ in what Jackson called ‘this, our second War of Independence’.
Viewers unfamiliar with 150 years of academic speculation about the beginnings of the Civil War may be surprised to hear how convincing Lee and Jackson are in arguing that Lincoln misplayed his hand in 1861 and needlessly drove Lee and Jackson into Confederate leadership, when they just as easily could have led Union troops. Had Virginia remained in the Union, as its legislature had first voted, the Confederacy would have been denied two of its most skillful generals and the much-larger force of Union soldiers would not have had to suffer under incompetent generals until Gettysburg in July 1863. The case suggested by Maxwell’s opening scenes is that because Lincoln’s early orders helped push Virginia into the Confederacy, Gods and Generals is a movie of Confederate victories under Lee and Jackson as they repel three Union invasions.
In the battle of Manassas, Jackson repels the Union’s first invasion of Virginia. Then in December 1862 at Fredericksburg, overwhelmingly superior numbers of Union forces attempt to break through to crush the Confederate capital of Richmond and restore all states to the Union. Especially powerful is the film’s depiction of a Fredericksburg family at the beginning of the war and then as the Northern invasion smashes across the river and up the streets of their town. One may argue that the attack on the civilians and property of the city of Fredericksburg was provoked or was justified by higher purposes, but it would be hard to argue through the eyes of this featured family that they had not been invaded.
But one family’s invasion can be another’s liberation, as we know from Kosovo, Afghanistan, Somalia, Panama, Haiti, Grenada, Iraq and maybe Iraq again, in recent years. Each situation requires different weighing. When does the liberation outweigh the death and invasion? To help think about this momentous question, people around the world continue to be drawn to the ambiguities and colossal tragedy of the American Civil War. Gods and Generals is a gift to all who wrestle with the big moral issues of war and peace, justice and liberty- and especially issues of humans’ ties to place and community – through a new view of the soft side of the Stonewall.
ROY BECK / HISTORY TODAY
COLUMN: M.D. Harmon
Portland Press Herald
Civil War film panned by critics precisely because of its realism
Copyright 2003 Blethen Maine Newspapers Inc.
Having just seen the best movie that almost no one else will go to, I thought it worthwhile to discuss the reasons why “Gods and Generals” is so good, and why critics have almost universally panned it.
First, however, some background: The film is the second in what may become a Civil War film trilogy based on the books of a father and son, Michael and Jeffrey Shaara.
In my view it’s more than successful, but it’s doubtful it will make back its $70 million cost of production, and that puts the third part in jeopardy.
The reason isn’t that it’s a bad movie; it’s that this “prequel” to 1993′s “Gettysburg” is entirely too faithful in recreating a period now so distant from modern America that it might as well be set long, long ago in a galaxy far, far away.
Most historical films take considerable care about reproducing costumes and settings; then the writers put characters in them who might as well have grown up in 1980s Los Angeles (as, in fact, most of them did). That’s why Ronald F. Maxwell, the screenwriter and director of both “Gettysburg” and “G&G”, was quoted as saying that when Hollywood does make a film about a real historical figure, such as 1995′s “Jefferson in Paris,” it goes straight for the fluff.
“If it’s about Thomas Jefferson,” he said, “Hollywood thinks it can’t make a movie about his genius, or that he was part of something earthshaking. It has to be about the fact that he must have slept with one of his slaves.”
This Oprahfication of history galls Maxwell, and he countered it by portraying actual historical figures with their contexts and outlooks intact.
One of those figures is Maine’s own Joshua Chamberlain, Bowdoin College professor before the war, and its president and governor of Maine afterwards. Actor Jeff Daniels, reprising his role as Chamberlain, makes a substantial and moving antislavery speech, inserting the accurate historical note that the Civil War did not begin as an effort to end slavery, but it turned into that. He states that such an effort was worth the sacrifice of his life.
It is a mark of Maxwell’s fidelity to Chamberlain that he has this professor of classics declaim a substantial section of an account by the Roman historian Lucan on Julius Caesar’s crossing the Rubicon (itself a declaration of civil war, because Roman commanders were forbidden to take their armies over the river).
The quotation is delivered just before the 20th Maine Regiment, of which Chamberlain was then second in command, crossed the Rappahannock River to encounter a one-sided bloodbath on the field below Marye’s Heights at Fredericksburg:
“As soon as Caesar got unto the bank/And bounds of Italy; here, here (saith he)/An end of peace; here end polluted laws;/Hence leagues, and covenants; Fortune, thee I follow, /War and the destinies shall try my cause.”
That’s exactly what a professor of classics would say at such a time and place, and it’s wonderful.
One of the principal jibes of the critics is that the movie’s language is too stilted, but that’s because we have lost so much touch with our own past that we have forgotten how well-versed in classical literature and the cadences of the King James Bible people were a century and a half ago. Educated people would use those cadences and the phasing of classical sources when they wrote and spoke.
But there’s more: The film’s chief character is not Chamberlain, nor even Gen. Robert E. Lee (played with perfect pitch by Robert Duvall). It is Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, a West Point graduate and devout Christian who, like most Americans who lived south of the Mason-Dixon line, was blind to the enormous evils of slavery.
Nevertheless, Maxwell lets Jackson be Jackson, in a stellar performance by Steven Lang. And it is Jackson’s dominance of the movie’s philosophical core – which is its treatment of his faith, and the faith of the other central characters, including Chamberlain – that I believe is at the heart of the critics’ disparagement of the film.
As David Mills, editor of the journal “Touchstone,” notes, “The critics were . . . put off by the movie’s realism – not the realism of the battle scenes, which was relatively muted . . . but its realism about the characters’ minds and particularly their faith. They do not think or talk like the modern secular American, and this makes the modern secular American uncomfortable. . . . I do not think we should underestimate the sunlight-upon-vampire effect of the movie’s religious honesty upon the critics.”
Mills is right, but there are plenty of modern Americans who do pray as often as the characters in this film, who do talk to God as if He were really present and capable of intervention in their lives, who do have a worldview that is not reflected in our popular entertainment.
Which is what makes “Gods and Generals” (now, you should understand the title) so special. And so very unpopular with modernists. Sunlight upon vampires, indeed.
- M.D. Harmon, an editorial writer and editor, can be reached at email@example.com or 791-6482.
“An awesome sense of authenticity and scope…The battle scenes attain a level of accomplishment that is likely to intrigue and please legions of Civil War buffs.” Kevin Thomas, The Los Angeles Times
“Maxwell’s re-creation and grand design make this movie special – along with Duvall’s re-strained, majestic portrayal of Lee.” Michael Wilmington, Chicago Tribune
“Gods and Generals is not only the finest movie ever made about the Civil War, it is the best American Historical Film. Period” Bill Kauffman , American Enterprise Magazine
“The populous, precisely choreographed battle scenes, which use 7,500 Civil War re-enactors, transport you directly to the front lines…” Stephen Holden, The New York Times
Between long, harrowing sequences depicting the chain of blood-soaked Confederate victories (Manassas, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville) that led up to blood-soaked Confederate defeat on the outskirts of a small town in southern Pennsylvania, writer-director Ronald Maxwell, in this prequel to his 1993 battle epic Gettysburg, takes a couple of noteworthy chances. By highlighting the human costs of slavery to everyone but the enslaved – here, relations between African-American domestics and their owners are cordial, even respectful, on both sides – he risks being pilloried as an apologist for that institution. Similarly, his rigorously non-ironic depiction of the unflagging eloquence, unselfconscious religiosity and excellent good manners of the pre-bellum Southern aristocracy – to say nothing of giddy cameo appearances by Ted Turner, Phil Gramm, Robert Byrd and others – could lead to imputations of uncritical nostalgia for the era. In fact, though, in thus fleshing out the military careers of Generals Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson (Stephen Lang) and, to a lesser degree, Robert E. Lee (Robert Duvall), both of Virginia, Maxwell illuminates the processes of denial and the cultivations of self-image by which these famously decent men, in defense of indefensible prerogative, sent thousands upon thousands – portrayed here, as in Gettysburg , by a virtual army of professional and amateur Civil War re-enactors – to their deaths. (Ron Stringer)
LA WEEKLY NEWSPAPER
The New York Times Tries to Squelch a Patriotic Film
By J.P. Zmirak
Readers of FrontPage have already learned a bit about media hit-jobs from the harsh attacks leveled against Bruce Willis’ “Tears of the Sun.” I haven’t seen it, so I won’t address that film, but there’s another film subject to similar attacks, for similar reasons, which I’ve seen several times – and you should see, too, before leftist critics hound it out of the multiplexes: Ronald Maxwell’s “Gods & Generals,” the high-budget prequel to his classic “Gettysburg.” I’ve written about this movie before, so I won’t rehearse the plot again. The film is a grand, dramatic, sincere, and exquisitely accurate re-creation of the opening years of America’s Civil War. It clearly depicts the motivations that drove leading figures on both sides, shows the horrors of battle without sickening the viewer, and reproduces the language, manners, and values of 19th century America better than any history book I’ve ever read. Indeed, viewing the film reminds me of work I have done on American history with primary sources-letters, documents, speeches, and old newspaper clips. There’s a reason for this: The writer/director Maxwell based most of the dialogue on actual correspondence and memoirs recorded by the real individuals he portrays: The speeches by General Lee are real; the loving words Lt. Joshua Chamberlain addressed to his wife are the ones she actually read, holding his battle-grimed letter in trembling hands as she prayed for his safe return from the Union Army.
A great writer once said “The past is another country.” Watching “Gods & Generals” is like taking a trip to that country, the “old weird= America,” where people read the Bible aloud to each other, sewed patriotic flags by hand, and played classical or folk music on their own instruments at home. Most films about our history feel more like a tourist trip to the German or Italian “villages” at Epcot Center-sanitized, plastic recreations designed to suit our current taste and prejudices, without a hint of ugly truths, safely unchallenging to the visitor. “Gods & Generals” confronts us with the strange, unsettling truth that countries change, that our ancestors thought and spoke quite differently than we do, that they fought and died over questions that our history books dismiss in neat, politically-corrected slogans or vague generalities.
And critics are punishing “Gods & Generals” for its virtues. Just this Sunday, The New York Times(which has called President Bush the “Xanax Cowboy” ) devoted half a page to a lazy compilation-drawn from a single Web site by a lazy reporter-of only the negative reviews given of the film. The Times called the picture “a bomb,” even though it has been in the top-ten grossing films since its release-quite an achievement for a gravely serious, 3 hour-plus film that theaters can only exhibit twice a day. The Times piece compared this carefully-documented, profoundly moving film to such ludicrous duds as “Battlefield Earth” and “The Postman,” even as audiences across the country are turning out to see it, and sober critics such as Henry Sheehan, Michael Medved, Jeffrey Lyons, andLeonard Maltin are praising the film for its profundity, complexity, and beauty. None of these reviewers earned a mention in the Times piece, of course.
The film accurately depicts the war as erupting from an upsurge of Southern nationalism, which obscured the moral evil of slavery behind a parade of regional pieties and slogans about a “second war of independence.” For this, the movie is accused of taking the side of the Confederates. Using meticulous research by African-American scholars, “Gods & Generals” truthfully presents the mixed loyalties that many black Americans in the South, slave and free, experienced at the war’s outset-as they were torn between old ties to local whites, and their powerful craving for liberty. For this, the film has been dubbed “patronizing.” In fact, it is the critics who are patronizing these long dead African-Americans, presuming to read their minds and instruct them posthumously in the niceties of racial politics. The film is called sanctimonious and preachy, because it shows the profoundly religious folk of 19th century America at prayer, invoking God’s blessing before a battle, and dying with Bible verses on their lips. Presumably, critics would be happier if the director dispatched his characters as Quentin Tarantino does – gunning them down in a spray of artificial blood, howling streams of profanities. Now that’s how people are supposed to die in a movie.
I could go on, but there isn’t much point. Instead, let me urge you to read a few of the film’s more balanced reviews (click on any of the critics names given above) and decide for yourself: Do you want Hollywood to keep making films that portray American history truthfully, respectfully, and intelligently? Or a wave of manufactured propaganda that shills for the agenda of the Democratic party-as most of Tinseltown likes to do?
If you want more movies you can take your kids to see, that will provoke them to read American history and think deeply about their nation and its past, collect your family, call your friends, and go see “Gods & Generals” this week-before The New York Times succeeds in censoring it.
March 11, 2003
Band Of Brothers – Or Clique Of Comrades?
The former is depicted as being in stilted Victorian language and a shameless apologia for the Confederacy as a divinely inspired crusade for faith, home and slave labor,” according to Newsday, “nauseating in its gruesome sentimentality” and “eager to whitewash the Souther= n cause,” according to Jonathan Foreman in the New York Post, or an amoral historical narrative, according to NROnline.
But the latter is a consciousness-raising event. The high point of Six Feet Under, we are told, is the sensitive depiction of the interracial homosexual relation between a thirtysomething funeral director (who has just practiced diversity by accepting as a partner a young Hispanic) and an emotionally tormented black former police officer. Although Six Feet Under’s meandering plot manages to touch on every pc cliché, “arts commentators” are agog over this adult drama. La Times feature writer Howard Rosenberg wrote (March 7, 2003) that “TV’s other high achievers are wilted roses measured against Six Feet Under, which continues to be heroically smart, tender, and witty.”
By contrast, the arts community - joined by Establishment conservatives, what Steve Sailer has called the “righteous Right” - are incredulous that Ron Maxwell would script, produce and direct a movie on the Civil War that does not condemn the Southern side nonstop. In NROnline, this film, which dares to go on for four hours, is contrasted by M.T. Owens to one of George Will’s favorites,Glory, which presents “a deeper truth,” by offering a lesson on racial equality.
I consider Gods and Generals to be one of the most inspiring and finely-crafted movies I’ve seen. The figure of Stonewall Jackson as depicted by Maxwell and actor Stephen Lang is a Protestant approximation of an Homeric hero.
We are a band of brothers
And native to the soil…
Jackson and Lee are not defenders of slavery; both in the movie express reservations about it. Moreover, the vast majority of those who fight with them do not own slaves and treat blacks as least as decently as do those on the other side. They are commanding armies against the invaders of their state. Long before the U.S. became a “propositional nation,” conceived in New York and Washington, it was a collection of provinces, in which long-established settlers thought exactly like Lee and Jackson.
One cannot restore that world. And the American globalists who are venting on Maxwell and his movie would certainly have no desire to do so. But it is utterly presumptuous for these propositional globalists and/or multiculturalists to pretend they are the real Americans-while Robert E. Lee, thegrandson of Martha Washington and the son of Harry Lee, who had dedicated his life as an officer to his country, was morally inferior because he would not take up arms against his own state. Lee’s family had been Virginians long before the federal union had been created.
Another complaint about the film: blacks are not shown rebelling against their condition. Thus Jackson’s manservant, Jim Lewis, although indignant about slavery (which Jackson, who taught blacks to read the Bible, never defends), stays by his side and refers to himself and Jackson as “men of Virginia.”
But this reading of history is justified. After the Emancipation Proclamation, in January, 1863, there was no wholesale defection of blacks from Southern farms. If anything testified to the wrongness of slavery, it was the decent, diligent way that most Southern blacks stood by their masters and their by-then defenseless women and children. [VDARE.COM note: This was exactly the point made by Booker T. Washington in his 1895 Atlanta Exposition speech - famous for outlining his strategy of black self-help, with his complementary appeal for protection against immigrant labor market competition totally forgotten.]
Gods & Generals depicts this during the battle of Fredericksburg, where a slave family stays behind to defend their owner’s house from looting Union troops (portrayed with disturbing frankness). We know that blacks signed up to fight for the Confederacy, when they were allowed to, in return for their freedom.
As Gene Genovese underlines in his works on master-slave relations in the antebellum South, there was often a strong social bond between the planter class and their “servants,” which survived even the obvious abuses of the slave system.
It is also not clear to me, unless one assumes that plantations were precursors of Auschwitz, why Southern blacks would have chosen to side with those who were invading and pillaging the South. It might have seemed better to go on serving those whom they knew and to try to use the war situation to improve their status.
A last point: why the Southern commanders keep referring to their struggle as “our second war of independence.” Neoconservative critics are prompt to respond that this was not a second revolution because it was not really “ conceived in liberty.” It defended slavery, whereas the original revolution was dedicated to universal propositions contained in the Declaration of Independence.
The problem here is that too much is being made of a particular passage drawn from a particular text that at the time was used as propaganda-to justify the resistance to British authority by thirteen North American colonies. What fueled this uprising were specific grievances, like paying what were considered onerous taxes to the British government and having Southern plantations burnt down by British Hessian mercenaries.
For most Southerners, who entered the rebellion only after the British began to pillage them, their resistance was indeed that of a “band of brothers and native to the soil.” They were not fighting for global democracy in 1777 – any more than they would be in 1861. And as far I can recall, slavery existed in the rebelling colonies at least as widely as it did in the antebellum South.
Moreover, having to pay about 80 % of the tariffs that the federal government was then collecting, asThomas DiLorenzo and Charles Adams both note in relevant works, left Southerners feeling at least as oppressed as had those who launched the first War of Independence.
In my opinion, what our cultural elite finds most offensive about Maxwell’s art is that it portrays white,Christian gentry and their loyal black servants fighting for ancestral land, against an armed progressive creed.
I’m not sure that those who are booing the Confederates would like Abraham Lincoln’s WASP nation-state any better. But at least it is something out of which they can imagine that their own global (non-nation) nation evolved.
Because the Union crushed those Southern secessionists, we are led to believe, it became possible to move on to the world of the Wall Street Journal and to that of the politically correct HBO series.
The Whig historical view lives on-even among yuppies.
Paul Gottfried is Professor of Humanities at Elizabethtown College, PA. He is the author of After Liberalism, Carl Schmitt: Politics and Theory, and Multiculturalism And The Politics of Guilt: Toward A Secular Theocracy.
National Review, March 10
Writer-director Ronald Maxwell’s epic new film Gods and Generals is an act of public courage. Based on the Jeff Shaara novel, Gods and Generals examines key battles in Virginia during the early part of the Civil War, chiefly through the eyes of Confederate generals Lee and Jackson. The film dwells on the personal motivations, particularly the religious concerns, driving these men into battle. What we see foremost is tragedy: Lee and Jackson opposed secession and wanted slavery ended, but believed they had an overriding duty to defend their Virginia homeland. Though the film invites understanding instead of judgement, it is by no means a romantic apologia for the Lost Cause; rather, it is a reminder that history is rarely a Manichean struggle between pure good and uncut evil, but more often a drama played by actors with noble ideals, perhaps, but blind to their flaws. It is an indictment of the hubris of our politically correct age that a film asserting this perdurable truth about mankind’s affairs will strike many as offensive. But truth it is, and (we) should be grateful to Maxwell for daring to tell it.
Reclaiming the American Story
by Clyde Wilson
The war of 1861-65 is still the pivotal event of American history, despite all that has passed since. In the extent of mobilization, casualties, and material destruction on American soil, in the number of world-class events and personalities, and in revolutionary consequences, nothing else can equal it.
That is why Ronald F. Maxwell’s epic portrayal of the first two years of the conflict, a prequel to his 1993 Gettysburg, is more than just another film or a good recreation of history. It is an American cultural event of major significance.
The cataclysmic bloodletting of the war left a gaping hole in the American psyche. Late in the 19th century, we began to achieve a kind of healing by rendering the tragedy as a common ordeal of North and South. The Great Reconciliation went something like this: The victorious North agreed to stop demonizing Southerners as an inexplicably and irredeemably evil people, to recognize the courage and sincerity of their effort at independence, and to adopt the Confederacy’s heroes, such as Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, as American heroes.
This had been anticipated by Joshua Chamberlain’s respectful salute to the defeated at Appomattox. His sentiment was shared by most fighting Union soldiers, though not by their political superiors and ideological masters. (Ambrose Bierce and other combat veterans said they never met an abolitionist in the Union Army.) Because of deliberately whipped-up political hysteria, it was not until late in the century that much of the Northern public overcame their Southern-devil idea of the war.
In return for respect finally granted, Southerners agreed to be thankful that the country had not been broken up and to be the most loyal of Americans in the future. In other words, the war, instead of being a morality play of the triumph of virtue over evil, was accepted as having had good and bad on both sides and as a necessary trauma out of which had arisen a new, more united, and more powerful nation. This is why Southerner D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation, with its sympathetic recounting of Southern experience coupled with an admiring portrayal of Lincoln, was a great success.
The Great Reconciliation prevailed for half a century. Gone With the Wind was immensely popular. The Confederate Battle Flag was carried by American fighting men to the corners of the earth in World War II (which today would subject them to security investigation and court-martial). Harry S. Truman chose a romantic portrait of Jackson and Lee for the lobby of his presidential library, and Dwight D. Eisenhower and Winston Churchill chose Southern expert Douglas Southall Freeman to show them around the field of Gettysburg. That Gods and Generals has Stonewall Jackson as its central character would have been considered, not too many years ago, as American as apple pie. Today, it is a feat of insight and courage. What Maxwell has done in this stunningly crafted and epically expansive recreation of the first two years of the war is nothing less than to restore American history to the Americans.
Although Southerners have kept and continue to keep their part of the bargain, the truce was broken around 30 years ago, and the Southern-devil theory re-emerged—and has been gathering force ever since. The average historian’s explanation is that Americans have achieved a new realization of their heinous history regarding African-Americans and can never go back to the callous views of previous generations. This rests on the unquestioned assumption that the African-American experience—or, rather, the current interpretation of it—is the central or even the only important experience of American history.
The real explanation for the revival of Southern demonization as a national pastime is actually more complicated and has nothing to do with the discoveries of “expert” academic historians. It reflects, first of all, the triumph of Cultural Marxism—of history at the service of a fanatical agenda. The mainstream academic interpretation of the Civil War—and of much else in the American past—that prevails today institutionalizes views that, 50 years ago, were current nowhere except in the communist neighborhoods of New York City. Our history has been rewritten under the rubrics of Race, Class, and “Gender.”
The worst thing about this is not, as countless neoconservative publicists have wailed, that it makes for divisive politics. The worst thing about it is that it cuts us off from our history, rendering our forebears alien and dead abstractions.
With regard to the Civil War, there is another element of distortion that relates not to leftist politics so much as to the penchant of too many Americans to assume their own unique righteousness, which has been a problem ever since the first Puritans stepped ashore at Boston. If Sherman burning his way through Georgia and Carolina was a righteous exercise against evil, then obviously the bombing of Christian Serbs and the starving of Iraqi children reflects the same unsulliable mission of American triumph.
The classic illustration of this is Ken Burns’ celebrated documentary on the Civil War. Surrounding his thesis with intrinsically attractive materials, Burns revived the portrayal of the war as a morality play in a way that was widely appealing. In Burns’ interpretation, the war was about the benevolence of the Union and emancipation and the evils of treason and slavery. At bottom, this rests upon a convenient fantasy—the fantasy of Northern racial benevolence. It is child’s play to demonstrate that such benevolence never existed before, during, or after the war. This historical fabrication—that a war of conquest was gloriously, unselfishly benevolent—remains a seemingly ineradicable foundation of the American amour-propre.
By contrast, Maxwell has largely given us a dramatization of Americans, including African-Americans, as the real people in the real context in which they loved, perspired, wept, struggled, suffered, and died. That context truly was epic and, like all great historical events, morally complex. I could go on at length about the many marvelous aspects of Maxwell’s creation: the battles, the well-drawn characters from history, the recognition of the importance of Christianity in the lives of our forebears, and much else. Though based generally on Jeff Shaara’s novel of the same name, Gods and Generals follows the book less closely than Gettysburg did The Killer Angels, which is all to the good.
There can be no perfection on this earth, which brings me to the one small flaw in this dazzling gem. Southerners, generally—and, for all I know, Civil War students, too—found fault with Martin Sheen’s portrayal of Lee in Gettysburg. I thought the condemnation excessive; Sheen did a good job, given the impossibility of recreating Lee in a world where not even a model remains. Many happily greeted the news that Robert Duvall would portray Lee in Gods and Generals.
Now, I am risking being ridden out of town on a rail for this, but I would rather have Sheen or, even better, an unknown performer as Lee. Duvall is a fine actor who has portrayed many Southerners with verisimilitude. As Lee, he is a failure. At the beginning of the war, Lee was a vigorous, late-middle-aged man with an audacious military genius lurking just below a placid surface. Duvall plays Lee from the start as a worn-out old man—as Lee must have been after Appomattox—and with an overdone Deep South, rather than a Virginian, accent.
I was privileged to view a pre-release screening of Gods and Generals. It was way past my bedtime and a hundred miles from home, but I kept hoping the screen would never go blank. The film, I understand, has been cut considerably for theatrical release. I deliciously anticipate both the complete six-hour version that is to be released on DVD and the final installment of Maxwell’s trilogy, The Last Full Measure, which is already in production. Gods and Generals is an arresting example of how a people’s history should be told—which ought to have a healthy effect on Americans’ idea of themselves.
Copyright 2003, www.ChroniclesMagazine.org
THE WORLD & I magazine
THE LAST AMERICAN EPIC by David Madden
Director of United States Civil War Center, Louisiana State University
The author was Michael Shaara and the novel was The Killer Angels, which won the Pulitzer Prize for 1974. Writer-director Ronald Maxwell’s highly successful, now classic movie adaptation Gettysburg appeared in 1994, six years after Shaara’s death, and stimulated sales of the novel to over two million copies. Maxwell became a kind of father figure for Jeff, encouraging the young rare coin dealer to write a prequel to his father’s famous novel. Only two years after the movie Gettysburg appeared, Jeff Shaara’s Gods and Generals was published; he tells the story of the same generals over a five year period before their separate, parallel paths converged on Gettysburg. Ironically, it was an immediate bestseller and work on the film began only three years after publication.
In the three novels, the focus is divided equally between North and South, but because of the nature of movies, Ron Maxwell’s plan had to be somewhat different: Gettysburg focuses on North and South equally, Gods and Generals focuses on Generals Lee and Jackson, and The Last Full Measure will focus on General Grant. Because the third movie in the trilogy is still in the planning stage and thus most people are unaware of the overall balanced perspective, a controversy has arisen over the seemingly sympathetic view of the Confederacy in the movie version of Gods and Generals. Equal focus on North and South was relatively easy in Gettysburg because the battle took place in a single small town in only three days. But because it takes place over several years and several battles, Gods and Generals had to focus upon a single hero, General Stonewall Jackson. Even with that focus, shifts to Chamberlain on the Union side slows the character based narrative pace. Not even excepting Grant and Sherman, the two generals in whom there has always been the greatest interest, not only in both the north and the south but around the world, are Lee and Jackson. Given the danger of shattering the focus, cinematically that is imperative enough for concentrating on them. The unfortunate result is the unfair accusation that Gods and Generals is pro-Southern, and, in the minds of quite a fewer number of critics and viewers, therefore Neo-confederate, but not, one hopes, pro-slavery. As scriptwriter and director, Maxwell enables Chamberlain to attack slavery and even has Jackson wish freedom for his black cook. Movie goers who view the Confederacy as evil, might concede that it is in the nature of drama in all genres that the more colorful character steals the show and seems at moments to skew its meaning, the classic instance being John Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost, which sets out to “justify the ways of God to man,” and in which the risen son of God cannot compete for our interest with the fallen angel, Lucifer. In Homer’s epic poem The Illiad, heroes on both sides are flawed.
Homer avoided the serious risk of immersing the reader in too many battles and too many characters by compressing the ten year war of many battles into a single battle and one clear cut hero on each side, as Ron Maxwell was able to do in Gettysburg. But the actual nature of the American Civil War-many officers and men in many battles on many different battlefields–and Jeff Shaara’s novelistic conception for Gods and Generals gave Maxwell a scriptwriter-director’s cinematic nightmare in which his choices were dictated and limited. The battles (minus Antietam on the cutting room floor) are among the most powerful ever filmed. And the focus on Jackson, enhanced by Lee’s hovering presence, gives the viewer one of the most moving death scenes in recent memory. If we do not quite have a blind Homer in the combined novels of father and son, in the films we have a Homeric vision that is uncannily clear. The novel trilogy and the movie trilogy are true examples of epics.
The use of the term “epic” to characterize the events and the poems, novels, and movies of the Civil War is, for Americans caught up in history, unusually apt. The importance of the accurate use of the term for the historic event and as a genuine honorific for novels and movies that deal with the war on a grand scale is that when we feel we are experiencing the magnificent exploits of heroes on a high level, our response to such works is magnified and elevated, and our sense of the war as being relevant to our lives today is deeper.
By contrast, “tragedy” and “satire” are far less appropriately applied to the Civil War. To call the war a national tragedy, or even to invoke the adjective “tragic,” is to abuse the term, as Claude G. Bowers did in the title of his Civil War history, The Tragic Era. We want very much to apply the term “tragic” to the assassination of President Lincoln but the key phrase in Aristotle’s definition–”the fall from a great height of a noble person because of a fatal flaw in his character”–does not apply. No “fatal flaw” killed any of the War’s heroes. Discussing a Civil War movie he greatly admires, Ron Maxwell rightly declined to indulge in the honorific term: “Ride With the Devil examines a tragic subject without being a tragedy.” Satires were written about Lincoln and other key figures and events in the war, but amid much “tearing of flesh,” no true satire has been written about any aspect of the war.
“Facts reveal battle strategies, political maneuvering, and casualty lists,” says Leah Wood Jewett, Director the United States Civil War Center, in a head note to her interview with Ron Maxwell in Civil War Book Review (www.cwc.lsu.edu). “But it is the fictional accounts produced over the past 130 years that convey the intimate, human moments that pierce our hearts and illuminate our imaginations. The novel-and in modern times, the film-speak to our souls in ways that no other medium can.” Ron Maxwell elaborates. “Poetic license is the art of what might have been. It is like a retrieved memory, an illumination.” And Jeff Shaara summarizes: “Naturally, the novelist, filmmaker, and historian can each bring a particular contribution to the same account. What works for the audience is, ultimately, all that matters.” In Homer’s time, the only choice, but a good one, was poetry. For a narrative of some length, prose works better for many people today. And for many more, movies work best.
The style of the Shaara trilogy is elevated, though it suffers by comparison with Homer’s, but Maxwell’s use of the poetics of cinema must be allowed to stand without comparison, except with that of other writer-directors of the few American epics we have. When we compare the impact of the epical Trojan war and Homer’s epic upon Greece as a nation and the Greeks as a people with that of the Civil War and Shaara-Maxwell’s epic we may with some justification conclude that the American War had a much deeper, clearer, more lastingly powerful, direct effect. The impact of the Shaara novels and the Maxwell movies as expressions of that war and its effects is too recent to inspire much more than a confident prediction. Which I will now make. Unless another novel and another movie come along to challenge them, these will stand as our Homeric epics-our finest means of understanding how our national identify has been shaped.
By understanding the Civil War as our last American epic, we can understand ourselves in the world today, both our dark problems and our bright prospects. Facts alone fail us. Imagination alone fails us. Emotion alone fails us. But emotion, imagination, and intellect, acting together upon the facts, make the facts stand up and speak.
MOVIE REVIEW: Patriotism vs. Nationalism
The new Civil War film Gods and Generals accurately depicts the true causes of that tragic conflict, and the Christian faith and nobility of those who fought.
by William Norman Grigg
In his morally obtuse review, movie critic Roger Ebert sneers that the Civil War film Gods and Generals “is the kind of movie beloved by people who never go to the movies, because they are primarily interested in something else….”
Exactly. It is a film that will earn the grateful favor of people for whom movies, television, and other products of the media cartel’s entertainment affiliate detract from the business of real life. Such people prefer to invest their time learning about their ancestors, and teaching that heritage to their children. They will recognize in Gods and Generals a bewilderingly faithful depiction of an earlier American society organized around duty to one’s family and country, rather than the service of emancipated appetites. In that culture, the Bible defined moral duties, and individual loyalties were rooted in the soil of a particular family and community.
“It’s something these Yankees do not understand, will never understand,” muses General Robert E. Lee (Robert Duvall) as he gazes upon Fredericksburg from a nearby hill. “Rivers, hills, valleys, fields, even towns – to those people they’re just markings on a map from the war office in Washington. To us, they’re birthplaces and burial grounds, they’re battlefields where our ancestors fought. They’re places where we learned to walk, to talk, to pray. They’re places where we made friendships and fell in love. They’re the incarnation of all our memories and all that we are.”
Earlier in the film, as Virginians debate the merits of secession, Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson (Stephen Lang in an astonishing performance) explains that while he believes in the Union, Virginia, his home state, has a “primal claim” on his loyalties: “That’s my understanding of patriotism.”
To minds synchronized with the rhythms of prime-time television, such scenes must be utterly mystifying. After all, such people might object, what difference does it make where one lives, as long as you have cable television? And isn’t “patriotism” measured by one’s loyalty to the government, as embodied in the president?
“Patriotism,” as men like Lee and Jackson understood, is love of one’s patria, or fatherland – literally, the land of his fathers. It is not the love of a government, or of philosophical propositions, however sound the government or noble the propositions. While the Confederate cause stemmed from this understanding, it was also shared by many who chose to fight on the Union’s behalf. Director Ronald Maxwell illustrated that fact during the opening credits by displaying a montage of regimental flags, both Confederate and Union, each of which symbolized tangible local communities, rather than the centralized abstraction called the “Union.”
Secession and Coercion
Following the attack on Fort Sumter in April 1861, the Lincoln administration ordered each state to assemble a quota of volunteer troops to invade and punish the secessionist states of the Deep South. Virginia’s quota was eight regiments of troops. In his response, Governor Letcher of Virginia declared: [T]he militia of Virginia will not be furnished to the powers at Washington for any such use or purpose as they have in view. Your object is to subjugate the Southern states, and a requisition made upon me for such an object – an object, in my judgment, not within the purview of the Constitution or the [militia] act of 1795 – will not be complied with. You have chosen to inaugurate civil war, and having done so, we will meet it in a spirit as determined as the administration has exhibited toward the South. Like the other southern states from which Lincoln sought to requisition troops, Virginia did not initially favor secession. But as Letcher’s letter illustrated, Virginians equally opposed punishing states that had exercised their right to withdraw from the Union.
That right was explicitly reserved in the ratification acts of Virginia, New York, and Rhode Island, when those states approved the U.S Constitution. The right of secession was recognized at the 1814 Hartford Convention, where New England states opposed to the War of 1812 threatened to withdraw from the Union. As historian Charles Adams observes, “There were secessionist cries from some Northern states over the enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Act, the whiskey tax, the War of 1812, the admission of Texas, and the Mexican War. The Abolitionist party proposed that the Northern, nonslave states secede from the … Union with the Southern states.”
Prior to 1861, Americans in both the North and the South understood that the Union existed among the states, rather than above them. As Virginia jurist Abel P. Upshur summarized in his study The Federal Government: Its True Nature and Character: The Federal Government is the creature of the States. It is not a party to the Constitution, but the result of it – the creation of that agreement which was made by the States as parties. It is a mere agent, entrusted with limited powers for certain specific objects, which powers are enumerated in the Constitution. Through secession a state would reclaim the powers it had lent to the federal government. And the option to secede represented the ultimate check on the consolidation of power in Washington, something the Framers of the Constitution strove to prevent. “Too much provision cannot be made against consolidation,” warned Federalist Fisher Ames during the Convention of Massachusetts. “The State Governments represent the wishes and feelings, and local interests of the people. They are the safeguard and ornament of the Constitution; they will protract the period of our liberties; they will afford a shelter against the abuse of power, and will be the natural avengers of our violated rights.”
This perspective is vividly portrayed in Gods and Generals. The film begins on April 20, 1861 – the day that Robert E. Lee turned down command of the Federal Army, and the Virginia convention responded to Lincoln’s call for troops by voting overwhelmingly to withdraw from the Union. In explaining his decision, General Lee points out that Virginia would be the first battlefield in the war against the “rebellion.” Although he did not support slavery (the chief source of contention between the Deep South’s “fire-eaters” and the Lincoln administration), and he believed secession unwise, General Lee would not make war on his home, his “country” of Virginia.
“A Union that can only be maintained by swords and bayonets, and in which strife and civil war are to take the place of brotherly love and kindness, has no charm for me,” wrote Lee after resigning from the U.S. Army. In the film, Jackson presents a similar view during an address to new recruits to the Confederate army. Just as he would not permit a Union army to invade Virginia and compel it to join a “Union” held together by force, he would not be party to an invasion of other states for that purpose.
In a very real sense, Gods and Generals is an extended study of Jackson’s character, the product of Christian stoicism. Convinced that God had numbered his days, and would not deprive him of any of this life’s joys allotted to him, Jackson told an aide that he was “as safe in battle as in bed.” He was tender and solicitous toward his beloved esposita, Mary Anna, haunted by the death of his first wife and daughter during childbirth, and actually fearful that by loving his family so deeply he might be cheating God.
Separated by war from his wife when his daughter is born, Jackson, as depicted in the film, befriends a five-year-old girl while spending the winter of 1862-1863 at the Moss Neck mansion. He is later devastated to learn that scarlet fever has claimed the young girl’s life. The tragedy affects him so deeply that he breaks down and cries in front of his men, who are astonished that one so fearsome and ferocious on the battlefield could shed tears over the death of a single child.
For Jackson, in the film as well as in real life, tenderness and ferocity were complementary traits. He understood that as a husband and father, God had given him the duty to find out where trouble was coming from, and to get in its way before it reached his family. This explains why Jackson was determined to annihilate federal troops who invaded Virginia, when those troops were Americans he would otherwise have warmly welcomed as peaceful visitors. It also explains a scene wherein Jackson carries out the execution of three Confederate deserters. If the federal army lost the war, Jackson explains to his adjutant, then Republican war hawks would lose their war profits and maybe an election or two. “But if we lose,” Jackson reminded his subordinate, “we will lose our country.”
In the film, Maine Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain (Jeff Daniels) is used to express the Lincoln administration’s perspective: The Union was indissoluble, created by the collective will of the “people” of the states as a vehicle for advancing human equality. Chamberlain was a noble man, a deeply serious Christian and scholar of astonishing breadth who displayed courage and honor on the battlefield on behalf of the truth as he was given wisdom to understand it. While Gods and Generals necessarily focuses on the Southern side, it allows Chamberlain to make an eloquent case for the view that constitutional government could not continue to co-exist with the unambiguous evil of human slavery.
Some critics have savaged Gods and Generals for supposedly neglecting the issue of slavery, but the film actually does historical justice by consigning the issue to the periphery. In the film, Chamberlain’s brother Thomas reacts to news of the “Emancipation Proclamation” by correctly pointing out that most of the Northern enlistees had joined up to save the Union, rather than to fight on behalf of people they derisively called “darkies.” Colonel Chamberlain, invoking the war’s gruesome body count, insists that the end for which those soldiers died must merit their sacrifice.
While abolishing slavery was obviously the single worthwhile effect of the Civil War, it was never the primary aim of Lincoln’s war policy. “My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery,” he wrote in a famous 1862 letter to Horace Greeley. “If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that. What I do about slavery, and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union.”
The “Union” Lincoln passionately sought to “save” was not the limited federal compact created through the Constitution, but an artifact of his own construction. As Marxist legal scholar George P. Fletcher of Columbia University’s School of Law points out in his provocative study Our Secret Constitution, Lincoln’s objective was to bring about “the consolidation of the United States as a nation in the mid-nineteenth-century European sense of the term.” “One year into the war,” writes Fletcher, “after a string of Union defeats, Lincoln learned that the old Union could not possibly survive. ‘A new one had to be embraced.’ And the new Union would have to be based on a new constitutional order.”
That new order, Fletcher continues, would be based on the conceit that “the federal government, victorious in warfare, must continue its aggressive intervention in the lives of its citizens.” This revolution would leave constitutional institutions in place, but they would be “recast in new functions” within “a new framework of government, a structure based on values fundamentally different from those that went before.” Specifically, Fletcher contends, the informal post-Civil War “constitution” emphasized equality, rather than freedom. The Civil War, he concludes, “established our primary political trilogy: Nationalite, Egalite, et Democratie [Nationalism, Equality, and Democracy].”
Fletcher thus candidly describes the North’s victory in the Civil War as the triumph of a totalitarian vision closely akin to that of the murderous French Revolution. He also ironically vindicates the South’s claim to be the defenders of the Founders’ constitutional vision.
What Was Lost
Patriotism, a love for the land of one’s forefathers, motivated the South – particularly the Virginians. The North’s nationalist vision was rooted in loyalty to the central government. This view was memorably captured in the properly famous letter of Major Sullivan Ballou of the Second Regiment of the Rhode Island Volunteers. Ballou wrote the letter to his wife Sarah on Bastille Day, July 14th, shortly before receiving orders that sent him to Manassas, where he and 27 of his men were killed in the first major battle of the Civil War.
“If it is necessary that I should fall on the battlefield for my country, I am ready,” wrote Major Ballou. “I have no misgivings about, or lack of confidence in, the cause in which I am engaged, and my courage does not halt or falter. I know how strongly American Civilization now leans upon the triumph of the Government….”
Writing to General Lee following the war, Lord Acton offered a vastly different perspective. “I deemed that you were fighting the battles of our liberty, our progress, and our civilization,” observed the great British scholar, “and I mourn for the stake which was lost at Richmond more deeply than I rejoice over that which was saved at Waterloo.”
In his graceful reply, General Lee adverted anew to the constitutional principles undergirding the Southern cause, however imperfectly the South embodied them.
[W]hile I have considered the preservation of the constitutional power of the General Government to be the foundation of our peace and safety at home and abroad, I yet believe that the maintenance of the rights and authority reserved to the states and to the people … [to be] the safeguard to the continuance of a free government.
Lee’s assessment of the likely consequences of Northern victory reads uncannily like prophecy: “[T]he consolidation of the states into one vast republic, sure to be aggressive abroad and despotic at home, will be the certain precursor of that ruin which has overwhelmed all those that have preceded it.”
Gods and Generals ends after the death of Jackson, months before the Confederate high tide ebbed at Gettysburg (the subject of an earlier film by director Maxwell), and years before Lee’s surrender at Appomattox (a scene Maxwell intends to capture in a third film on the last two years of the war). Because Gods and Generals vividly portrays the men who tried to prevent the outcome Lee described, the film has earned the hateful scorn of most film critics. This is also the reason why it will be cherished for generations to come by those who want to understand and preserve our constitutional heritage.
by Daniel McCarthy
Gods and Generals is the “prequel” to 1993′s Gettysburg and like the earli er film is written and directed by Ronald F. Maxwell, with financial support from Ted Turner, who makes a cameo appearance in Gods and Generals (it’s an occasion for half of the audience to nudge the other half and whisper on the sly, “check it out, that’s Ted Turner”). This film depicts events from the beginning of the war through the battles of Manassas, Fredericksburg, and Chancellorsville, each of which was a Confederate victory, thanks largely to the film’s protagonist, Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson (Stephen Lang). This is as much his story as it is the story of the war itself. It’s also a story told mostly from the South’s point of view – one reason why critics hate it so much.
Make no mistake: Gods and Generals is more or less explicitly Christian, Southern, and even libertarian. Jackson is unflinching in the face of enemy fire because of his unshakable trust in God; he feels as safe on the battlefield as he feels in his bed. He prays as intensely as he fights. And what he fights for is his home, his family, and their freedom. The same cause animates Jackson’s colleagues, from Gen. Robert E. Lee (a superbly cast Robert Duvall) to the cadets of the Virginia Military Institute, where Jackson teaches at the beginning of the film. They aren’t fighting for an abstraction, but neither are they fighting for mere real estate; their homes and their principles are inseparably intertwined.
None of this is to say that Maxwell has made a one-sided film, even if it does lean heavily in one direction. In an age when any show of Southern symbols or defense of the Southern cause is equated with racism – or, by neoconservative sources, with treason – the film has to emphasize one side more strongly than the other just to achieve balance. The case for the Union is already familiar to filmgoers; not so the case for the South. Critics have been inclined to dismiss the pro-Union speech made in the film by Lt. Col. Joshua Chamberlain (Jeff Daniels) as tokenism. It isn’t. When Chamberlain asks how anyone can fight for freedom while tolerating the institution of slavery, he’s raising a point that does more damage to the Southern cause than critics have been able to appreciate, because they don’t understand the association of the South with freedom.
Ideology is only part of the reason that Gods and Generals has received middling reviews, however. Equally important is that this is a film that requires an adult attention-span. Not only is it nearly four hours long, but most of its characters wear uniforms and, among the generals, have similar-looking beards. The dialogue is very mannered, even stiff, but with good reason. As Steven Sailer wrote in his UPI review of the film, “…that’s how the educated classes talked in the 1860s. They read more than we do now, but owned less printed material. So, they read classics over and over. Lincoln, for example, was marinated in the King James Bible and Shakespeare. They were adept at high rhetoric and loved orations.” Characters in Gods and Generals freely quote poetry and Bible verses from memory, and frequently make allusions to Roman history. The effect is to make Gods and Generals feel like the kind of feature film that would have been made in the 19th century, if there had been feature films in the 19th century.
Most movies, even supposedly serious ones, are intended as escapism. Gods and Generals is not. As a result, it makes little sense to evaluate this movie by the same standards one would apply to Daredevil or Old School or whatever els e might be showing at the local multiplex. Gods and Generals is an entertaining film, but it isn’t entertaining the same way as other films. For one thing, it is not a personal, psychologically subjective film that encourages viewers to identify with the characters and their feelings. Instead the film tries to convey a feel for the war itself, both in its brutal battle scenes and in the almost godlike aura that attaches to some of the war’s commanders, particularly Stonewall Jackson. Where it does attempt to humanize its characters, as when Jackson gives a piggy-back ride to a little girl he has befriended, the film tends to go amiss. To convey the sense of a man like Jackson as both a human being and a legend is a very tall order indeed; the film is at its best when focused on the legend.
The film is called Gods and Generals because that was the title of the book by Jeff Shaara on which it is based. But there is only one general here who really has the stature of a god, and that’s Stonewall Jackson. This is apparently the first time he’s been portrayed on film. It’s about time. One suspects that most Americans, outside of Civil War buffs and unreconstructed Southern patriots, have little sense of who or how significant Jackson was. Whatever the historical truth may be, the legend of Stonewall Jackson is of a leader so great he could almost have single-handedly saved the South. There is a mystique about Jackson that, as a classicist, I can only compare to that of Alexander the Great. The two men could not have been more different, certainly not in their personal lives, but with each there is a sense of divine sanction following their battlefield careers, and with each there are lingering questions of what might have been had they not died as soon as they did. Even Napoleon and Caesar seem like much less fated individuals – probably because they lived long enough to display the limits of their abilities.
Gods and Generals does justice to the legend of Stonewall Jackson without overstating its point. In the film, he is still human and he does make mistakes. Stephen Lang’s performance as Jackson is dead-on; he shows us a man so single-minded in his devotion to God that all else is mere detail. It’s for that reason that Jackson can stand unperturbed in a hail of fire – even after he’s been hit by a stray bullet – and that he remains stoic in the face of battlefield carnage. Lang’s performance gives a credible feel for the relationship between piety and martial brilliance that the legendary Jackson exemplified. Gods and Generals would be worth seeing just to see Lang as Stonewall Jackson, and to see Stonewall Jackson done justice on the silver screen.
But there is much else to commend Gods and Generals as well. The scenes of battle are realistic and harrowing, as good as those in Gettysburg. It’s all the more impressive considering the PG13 rating of this movie. Without resorting to buckets of blood, Gods and Generals still gives a believable and moving representation of battle. It also represents how futile and pitiful war can be when your commanders are as incompetent as the Union’s Gen. Burnside (Alex Hyde-White). During the battle of Fredericksburg Burnside sends wave after wave of Union troops against well-fortified Confederates, with appalling casualties. Union soldiers wind up using the bodies of other soldiers as barricades against the bullets. The Yankees gain control of Fredericksburg for a time, which serves as occasion for an orgy of looting. When the Confederates regain control, it’s already too late for some of the townspeople, who have lost everything. Meanwhile the federal troops regroup in the morning and are touted by their commanders, reading a message from President Lincoln himself, as the bravest warriors in all the history of the world. “Buster” Kilrain, an Irish enlisted man in the Union army, has nothing but contempt for such inflated nonsense. What’s the good of being brave, after all, if you’re simply going to be used as cannon fodder?
A particularly important scene that has been overlooked by most reviewers, including those who write for ostensibly conservative periodicals, comes near the beginning of the film, as Thomas Jackson prepares to leave his teaching post at the Virginia Military Institute and lead his former cadets into battle. The father of one of the cadets does not support secession and is preparing to move to Pennsylvania. He meets with Jackson and his son. Jackson agrees to let the youth go with his father, if that’s what he wants. Should he choose to stay and serve with Jackson, the young man will be in it for the duration, unable to leave the army until the war’s end. And that is the choice the cadet makes: to stay and fight with Jackson, rather than accompany his father to Pennsylvania.
The scene is important because it dramatizes the fact that these men had to make choices. They did not choose their loyalties blindly. Some of the fake conservatives who’ve given Gods and Generals its best reviews would prefer to ignore this truth; when they show any sympathy for the South at all, it is only for the soldiers as misguided patriots, men who made a mistake rather than committed a sin or a crime (like treason). But this attitude is demeaning to those who fought for the South. Yes, they were patriots, and for them their fatherland was their state, not the Union. But they were thoughtful patriots, by and large, who knew full well what they were doing and why. The South, to them, was not just a piece of real estate on which ones friends and relatives happened to live; it stood for a way of life and a set of beliefs as well, all irreducibly united. The scene at VMI illustrates
that. Even if it meant being separated from his father, the cadet chose to side with the South because the South, in his best estimation, was right. To
ignore the element of choice here and reduce the war to mere tribal loyalty is to do as great as disservice to this film – and to the men that it depicts – as those who evaluate it in politically correct terms do.
Nothing bothers politically correct critics more than the role of blacks in this film. There are two major black characters here and both of them are affiliated with the South. In fact, both of them are loyal to the South, despite their hatred of slavery. One of these characters is Martha (a lovely
Donzaleigh Abernathy), a domestic slave who stays behind in Fredericksburg while her master’s family flees, in order that she can protect their home from occupation by Union troops. After all, she tells the family, it’s her house too. The other black character is Stonewall Jackson’s freedman cook, Jim Lewis. His family, including cousins, is half-free and half-slave, as he
tells his Jackson one night when they pray together while pausing after a march. Jim prays for God to enlighten his countrymen and put an end to slavery. Jackson concurs, and tells Jim that there are some generals who would like to see slaves who volunteer for the army granted their freedom.
Two black characters, both of whom are loyal Southerners. This is more than the Roger Eberts of the world can take. On top of which, the only character shown as explicitly racist is a Northerner, Joshua Chamberlain’s brother Tom (C. Thomas Howell), who refers to black as “darkies” and suggests that the Emancipation Proclamation is likely to lead to rebellion in the Union ranks,
as well as stir up the South all the more. Col. Chamberlain upbraids his brother for these views, and this serves as the occasion for Col. Chamberlain’ s speech in defense of the Northern cause (“speech” is the right word; again, the dialogue can be very formal in places, and rather didactic too). There is a heavy-handedness to this; sometimes the film is giving a direct exposition of its subject matter, telling rather than showing. This is a failing, but a minor one, and perhaps one that cannot be helped. These are after all points of view – blacks loyal to the South, racist Northerners, and liberty -loving Confederates – that go against the prevailing stereotypes of today. Maxwell has to err on the side of being too obvious, because he’s telling many of his viewers something that they do not want to hear.
It took a lot of courage for Maxwell to make this film and to make it the way he has. It took a lot of courage too on the part of his supporters, including Ted Turner. There is still one more chapter to go in the Maxwell-Shaara Civil War trilogy (Gods and Generals, Gettysburg, and the proposed Last Full Measure). Whether the last movie gets made and show in theaters depends on how well Gods and Generals performs. Right now, it isn’t performing too well. It certainly is a “difficult” movie – difficult for some because it presents a fair picture of the South, and difficult for others because it’s over three hours long and very mannered – and it has its flaws. But it’s a film well worth your support; where it fails, it fails because it’s too ambitious. And where it succeeds, such as in Stephen Lang’s performance as Jackson, in presenting a reasonable view of the Southern cause, and in showing some of the most realistic battle scenes ever seen, it succeeds tremendously well. So see it, and see it soon.
February 28, 2003
Daniel McCarthy is a graduate student in classics at Washington University in St. Louis.
Sunday, July 20, 2003
Gods and Generals – A Review
This very long film film, 223 minutes, has just been released in DVD (July 2003). (Many) of the formal reviews have panned the film. I have now seen it twice and I feel compelled to make a case for it being actually a great film. I don’t mean to use the adjective lightly. I mean great in scale and in its humanity: it addresses mythic material in an epic form. The initial reaction to the film was poor in the mainstream press. It was too long. It contained many subplots and themes that could have been excised to increase the pace. It did not pay enough attention to the evils of slavery. That the religiosity of Jackson and the pedantry of Chamberlain were jarring.
I think that these are criticisms of those that are so entrenched in their “modern” world view, that they cannot access the most moving of all forms of human communication- the Homeric Epic.
When I was a boy I read the Odyssey and Moby Dick. At the age of 9, these appeared to me to be only adventure stories. I think that most of the reviewers of Gods and Generals used this type of lens to “see” the film. I am going to be a bit mean now, but maybe this is the only level that they were prepared to experience life? One reviewer complained about the lack of blood! One thought that the subplot with Jackson and the little girl had pedophilic undertones? Many complained that not enough had been done to show the evils of slavery – they wanted more cruelty on the screen. In particular, many felt exceptionally uncomfortable about Jackson’s faith in God and his willingness to converse with God at all times. All negative reviews felt crushed by the pace and the length of the film. Maybe if they were to read the Odyssey and Moby Dick today, would they would make the same type of criticisms? I suspect that they would find the books long-winded, slow, with too many subplots. Many would find the scene where Ishmael and the Harpooner share a bed at the beginning of the book homo-erotic. They would miss the meaning completely as they did with this film.
I fear that we, as moderns, have been cut off from the epic by the pace and the superficiality of modern life. It is hard for us to go beneath the surface any more.
Maybe the DVD and a bottle of wine can help to expand the frame. I sat enthralled and mostly in tears throughout the 3 hours plus of this film. Central to my emotion, was the interplay between choice and destiny.
At the heart of the film is the clash of two civilizations. We witness, with Jackson’s death at the end of the film, the first step of the death of an heroic world where character is central. Where relationships are intense between people and where God, Place and Family are worth dying for. The South relies on imagination, flexibility and skill but is overwhelmed by a machine world where economic power is central. Where human relationships are replaced by machine parts
The first part of the film shows the issue of choice and duty. Lee cannot take up the leadership of the Union Army as he owes his greater allegiance to his “country” Virginia. I fear that many modern reviewers simply miss this point. They cannot know the role that Lee, Jackson and other southern leaders have previously played in the Army of the union in Mexico. Nor do they know of their time at the Point. Many of these men were as brothers. Armistead and Hancock are best friends. Pete Longstreet was the best man at Grant’s wedding!. Lee had been a central figure in Mexico and had the enduring trust of Winfield Scott. The men who lead both sides had joined the Army of the United State and gave their oath at a time when oaths meant something. But for the Southerners, they answered a higher calling, their “country”.
We who are so mobile today, Americans move on average every 5 years, have no experience anymore of what it might be like to be part of a stable society. We know little of the power of place.
The film offers a number of these choices to us at its outset. A son rejects his father’s appeal to move back to the North with him. Jackson’s first father in law leaves the south to wipe the dirt from his feet on crossing the Potomac. These are powerful and poignant choices. We watch Jim Lewis, a slave, sign up to serve his country too as Jackson’s cook. This is no fabrication of the director. Lewis walked behind Jackson’s coffin alone holding Jackson’s horse at his funeral. In an epic, there is no simple relationship. The film shows the paradox of the burden of slavery in the context of the relationships. Masters and slaves were also people who shared a place and had feelings toward each other. Jim prays to be free but is also a native Virginian and is the friend and confidant of Jackson.
We witness Chamberlain in a painful confrontation with his wife. He leaves her like a Greek warrior for Troy. She can hardly bear to see him go. What wife could? We see in Chamberlain’s going to war with his brother Tom another aspect of the particular acting for the general in epic.
This was the time when units of the army, especially in the south, were formed regionally. 6,000 men served in the Stonewall Brigade, all from the Shenandoah Valley. All were brothers and sons, cousins and Uncles, friends and neighbours. Can we come close to imagining what this was like in our anonymous age? So Tom and his brother, whom he constantly fails to call Colonel, are the mythic brothers for all the brothers. Only 200 of the 6,0000 who served in the Brigade survived the war. The region lost all its men. Since then the US Army deliberately does not have locals serve in the same unit.
In true epic, a single person embodies the larger theme. So Jackson embodies the South. He is a two-sided man. Much of the film explores his tenderness and also his fierceness.
A reviewer pours scorn on the scenes in the film where Jackson develops an intense relationship with a 6 year old girl. Maybe he, the reviewer, needed more context. Jackson had been orphaned at 7. His greatest fear was the loss of loved ones. The girl’s greatest fear was that her Daddy would not come home. There is a remarkable Christmas scene, where Jackson asks her what she wants and she tells him that she wants her Daddy to come home. He embraces her and says “All the daddies will come home” – Of course Jackson means that they will all come home to God. Everyone that Jackson had loved has died. His parents, his first wife and his first child. What he fears the most is that his current wife will also die with their child. When this little girl dies of scarlet fever, he breaks down and weeps in front of his staff. One asks how can he weep for this girl when he has not wept for any of his men and even for his friends. Dr McGuire answers that he is weeping now for them all.
We also see his fierce side. He advocates taking no prisoners. He, like Grant, knows that war is not a game. That it should only be pursued with great force so that it can end as soon as possible. Jackson is a man whose life is an adventure. His enduring faith in God enable him to accept his destiny. He fears not his own death knowing that it is inevitable. So he is quite fearless and hence inspiring in battle. This sense of destiny and the immanence of God pervades the film and offers us all a other way of being in the world.
The film, like the Iliad, is an intermix of intense human vignettes with grand battle scenes. A reviewer noted that Ron Maxwell should look at Private Ryan for lessons in how to make a battle scene. Really? This is a different time. Here the issue is to show how men summoned the courage to march into a hail of bullets – to stand yards away from your enemy and to return fire and reload when completely exposed. I found the battle scenes enthralling. 7,000 re-enactors who really know what they are doing knock the spots off any CGI effect. Witnessing the Irish Brigade charge up the hill in a foreshadowing of Gettysburg was a great moment of film. The men accelerating through the fire, crouched as they ran as if they were trying to shelter from rain. Men standing shoulder to shoulder 30 yards from the wall and their enemy. What we see is pure courage.
Ironically we then we see Armistead and Pickett, who were to do the same only 4 months later, comment on the bravery and the folly of such an act. We know that Armistead will die on a wall just like this and that Pickett will have his division and his life destroyed on a wall just like this.. The cheer of anguish and salute of the Irish brigade of the CFA at the wall after they had slaughtered their brothers of the Irish Brigade of the Union was a Homeric moment. This cheer too foreshadows another moment in the future. In the years after the war, a great tradition emerged at Gettysburg. At the reunions, long lines of grey-coated old man would walk stiffly up the hill to Cemetery Ridge where at the wall a long line of old men in blue awaited them. When they reached the wall, their union brothers would reach across and pull them over the wall into their embrace.
The flanking attack at the end of the film just before Jackson’s shooting, is also a great moment. For me it is the blend of action with thousands of extras and the score. In silence, the men stand still at the edge of the Wilderness. Then they walk and then run still in silence as the score picks up the pace. It is balletic!
The film takes maybe 20 minutes to show us Jacksons’ death. Too long? What we witness is the death not only of one man but the death of the South. From this moment it is downhill all the way. In his single death we see the death of all the 600,000 who died who left their wives and children, their fathers and mothers, their brothers and sisters all behind. In his death, we also see the end of any chance that leadership in itself could make the difference. Now it will be only a game of mathematics where the numbers and the economic might of the North will grind the South down.
Shooting One Another in the Land of the Free
Opening in 2003, director Ron Maxwell’s Civil War film, Gods and Generals, was swept from the multiplexes within two weeks by a torrent of critical hysteria. “Jingoistic goat spoor,” raged one reviewer; “boring and bloated,” sputtered another. Gentler commentators sighed it was “numbing,” “an unqualified disaster.” It was John Anderson in New York’s Newsday, however, who best revealed what lay behind all this clamor. He found the film to be a “shameless apologia for the Confederacy as a divinely inspired crusade for faith, home, and slave labor.”
This nearly universal condemnation revealed that Maxwell had broken a taboo. In adapting to the screen Jeff Shaara’s carefully researched novel of the same title, he had dramatized the Confederate point of view as well as the Union’s. Although he presents both sides as deeply flawed, this wasn’t enough for America’s mainstream press for he also suggested the South’s cause was not without justice. Anderson was partially correct. The Confederacy was fighting for faith, home rule, and states’ rights. It was not, however, principally defending slavery, nor was the North principally fighting against it. Maxwell makes it abundantly clear that many Confederate leaders, including Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, were either actively against slavery or were convinced its practice was withering away. These facts went unmentioned in 90 percent of the reviews probably because they violate current sensibilities so intolerably.
So Gods and Generals disappeared from the theaters. But then something unexpected happened. The film was released on DVD and rental outlets found it difficult to stock enough copies to keep up with the demand. It seems the public eventually decided to ignore their cultural guardians. But why hadn’t this happened earlier when the film was still in its theatrical release?
By way of answer, the first thing to be said is that the film is not for the faint-hearted. At more than three-and-a-half hours, its examination of the first two years of the Civil War demands a fair amount of historical knowledge and a considerable measure of patience, attributes usually thought to be in short supply among American moviegoers, trained as they are to value sensation over sense. Add to this the complexity of a film that refuses to idealize any of its principals, least of all its central figure, Jackson, powerfully portrayed by Stephen Lang as a courageous but often misguided leader whose fierce convictions lead him to prosecute the war with inflexible cruelty. This leaves the viewer in the unaccustomed position of having no one to cheer for unreservedly. Yet, despite these entertainment gaffes, Maxwell’s film did finally find its audience. Why?
My theory is that Americans can appreciate unconventional material and unpopular opinions, but they prefer to administer the medicine to themselves in small doses. Armed with their DVD remote controllers, they were free to watch the film at home at their own pace and in as many digestible portions as they chose.
Clyde Wilson wrote about Gods and Generals‘ historical consciousness in our February 2003 issue (“Reclaiming the American Story,” Vital Signs). I will only add my impressions of the work’s achievement as a film here.
Maxwell took on two challenges in telling his sprawling story. First, he had to organize a massive amount of detail. Second, as he tells us himself, he wanted to pose questions rather than resolve issues. This meant leaving unanswered his narrative’s biggest question: Was war a justifiable response to the conflict between the South and the North? Not answering it definitively risked leaving the general audience uncomfortable. Maxwell solved this problem by giving his film design, clarity, and force despite its lack of resolution.
For his organizing principle, Maxwell chose a variety of pairings to achieve dramatic parallels and contrasts. Covering Jackson’s campaigns from Manassas to Chancellorsville, the film conveys the Civil War largely from the Confederate perspective. Yet, at the same time, it amply represents the North’s through the experiences of Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain (Jeff Daniels), a professor of rhetoric and literature at Bowdoin College who led the 20th Maine Division into battle. These two warriors are connected by having been on opposing sides at the battle of Fredericksburg, but Maxwell has taken pains to link them in another way, also. He introduces both men in their roles as educators – Jackson at the Virginia Military Institute; Chamberlain, Bowdoin. Their classrooms provide a shorthand index of the difference between the two men and, thereby, the South and the North. We first meet Jackson chastising his students for not having mastered his lesson in artillery. “I will have to teach you again, word for word,” he informs his class with some asperity. No one dares question his intention. The tone of Chamberlain’s class is quite different. He has loftier matters on his mind. He seeks to enlighten his students concerning the laws of nature that govern the universe, including human freedom. “Without law, there can be no freedom,” he informs his pupils. While Jackson trains his charges in the practical arts of war, Chamberlain invites his students to participate in a disinterested contemplation of universal laws. This contrast suggests what was at the heart of the North-South impasse. The Southern mind strives inductively to accommodate itself to the world as it finds it; the Northern mind seeks deductively to impress abstract templates on immediate experience. An agrarian culture conforms to perceived realities; a manufacturing ethos forces its notions on the world.
This basic difference in outlook set the stage for the Civil War and its incredible waste of human life – 20,000 dead and numberless maimed and wounded. And this raises Maxwell’s question: Was this carnage justifiable? He refrains from answering for the very good reason that there can be no final response. What he does instead is provide as vividly as he can a range of answers from those involved, from the leaders to the field soldiers. We are then left to assess matters for ourselves.
Here is my assessment. It only needed the instigation of small-minded men primarily concerned with preserving their power and wealth to catapult large-souled idealists on both sides into a conflict that still bedevils this country. Maxwell’s film is a treatise on the mendacity and myopia that make war possible. Even as the narrative pays tribute to the courage and honor of such men as Jackson and Chamberlain, it never lets us forget that their heroism came at the expense of wanton slaughter. To make this point, Maxwell echoes the original pairing of Jackson and Chamberlain throughout the film. At Fredericksburg, two Irish brigades – one Union, the other Confederate – battle each other. The Confederate side has the high ground and the benefit of a stone barricade. Thus protected, they readily massacre the Union soldiers while taking relatively few casualties themselves. Afterward, a Confederate officer remarks on the incredible bravery of the Union Irishmen who marched so hopelessly into the unequal battle: “Those fellows deserved a better fate.” With these words, we recall an earlier remark made by Kilrain, an Irish sergeant, played sardonically by the always excellent Kevin Conway. He had pointed out to Chamberlain that many of his Irish friends were on the other side, adding, “We left tyranny at home to end up shooting at one another in the land of the free.” Conway tosses off this irony as if to say, What else can you expect in a world gone this mad?
We find similar counterpointing in a Christmas Day cease-fire scene when a Confederate captain and a Union private greet each other cheerfully across the Rappahannock River and then wade to its middle to swap tobacco and coffee. The clash of opposites ultimately resides in the figure of Jackson himself, however. He is a fierce, unsparing warrior driven by honor and patriotism to give the enemy “the black flag,” as he puts it. Kill them all is his constant counsel. Yet he is the same man who reverently joins his black cook in prayer, assuring him that his people will soon be free. He can with equanimity send boyish deserters to the firing squad and then openly weep for a five-year-old girl he barely knows when she dies from scarlet fever. You can admire Jackson for his personal bravery, but his mercy seems unwarrantably selective. Maxwell correctly foregrounds Jackson’s Presbyterian faith in predestination, for this was an especially dangerous creed. It permitted all manner of cruelty in the name of the Almighty’s foreordained will. The wisest generals have always made room for mercy whenever doing so posed no risk to their cause. They have recognized that mercy has both a virtuous and practical role to play in war. Showing concern for your enemy is not only a good in itself but also eminently sensible. Needless brutality in victory only breeds its like in the defeated.
It is an historical fact that Jackson received the wound that would ultimately kill him from Confederate soldiers who mistook him for a Union officer, and so the episode belongs in the film. But Maxwell does more than include it; he underlines it. Jackson was shot on the evening following his spectacular sneak attack on the Union troops at Chancellorsville. After routing them, he was determined, despite his subordinates’ misgivings, to follow his black-flag policy, hunting down and killing as many of their fleeing ranks as possible even if it meant highly risky night fighting. Maxwell wants us to savor this last irony, to taste its ashen flavor fully. Jackson’s valor was finally self-destructive. Just so we do not miss the point, in an earlier scene, we get something bitterly analogous as Chamberlain’s troops listen to an officer who reads them a letter from President Lincoln. Maxwell has used the actual text in which Lincoln commends the men for their bravery in defeat and for having sustained “comparatively few casualties.” Kilrain – who, by this time, has become the film’s one-man chorus – snorts at Lincoln’s presumption and, under his breath, asks with withering contempt, “Comparative to what? The Scots at Culloden, the French at Waterloo?” It is one of the film’s best moments. This, Maxwell makes clear, is war: a bloody, insane business dressed up by distant leaders to look nobly patriotic.
Today, we continue to live with the Civil War’s consequences as no doubt we will continue to endure the aftereffects of our current Middle Eastern adventures. Dulce et decorum est, indeed.
This article first appeared in the May 2005 issue of Chronicles
Gods and Generals: Ars gratia historiae
Coombs, Marian Kester
Prequel to Gettysburg Grounded in Realism, Faith and Family
Liars lie even about the trivial and the petty (an ex-President slides to mind), while artists “lie” only about the greatest of things. But when it comes to telling a story where historical accuracy is the highest value, the balance must be tipped in favor of history, not art.
For this reason one might not count Ronald Maxwell’s Gods and Generals among the greatest artworks of the Cinema, but it is something at least as important: the truest re-enactment of American history ever brought to the screen. Its unblinking honesty and human complexity set a new standard for historical films to come.
In interviews given during weeks of advance screenings across Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia, director Maxwell has made the following radical-conservative observations: “Today has nothing to do with the people who lived in the 1860s. It’s actually the other way around. Their lives, portrayed with fidelity within their own historical context, provide the foundation and continuity for our own time….
“This is not Hollywood. This is our story. It belongs to all of us…. We are recreating the moral universe of these characters. We want to visit these people.”
Of course, “these people” as they really were offend every modern, progressive taste bud. Their paradox is captured in the title of Michael Shaara’s book The Killer Angels, upon which Maxwell’s previous collaboration with Ted Turner, Gettysburg, was based. A man like Stonewall Jackson was an authentically believing, witnessing Christian, at the same time capable of bayoneting stragglers, ordering hapless deserters shot, and recommending to his subordinates that their policy toward Unionists committing the sin of homeland invasion be to “Kill them, sir. Kill them to the last man.”
Gods and Generals is scripted by Jackson’s own words, along with the words of Generals Lee, Stuart, Chamberlain, Longstreet, Ames, Hancock, Hood and many others; as Dennis Frye, a historian and associate producer of the film, notes, “We couldn’t say it better than they could say it.”
Rarely outside the genre of the Western have Southern points of view been so emotionally and effectively portrayed. Leader after Confederate leader is shown to be reacting to the North’s tyrannical, aggressive moves with understandable fury and alarm, from the opening scene of Lee rejecting Lincoln’s offer of a Union army command, to J.E.B. Stuart likening Virginians to the valiant Apaches he had fought, “defending their own homes.”
Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain is even heard admitting that most heretical of notions, that ending slavery was not an original war aim, but only became so for political expediency after the war “changed things.”
The emotional peak of the film comes when, in the midst of the Union assault on Fredericksburg, the New York and Georgia Irish brigades find themselves firing on each other. “Did they learn nothing at all at the hands of the English?” cries one of the Georgia men. And after Confederate fire has cut the advancing brigade to ribbons and forced its remnants to retreat, the weeping victors raise a keen of Gaelic mourning above the battlefield.
Another wonderment roused by Gods and Generals is why Ted Turner, with his well-aired detestation of Christianity and Amerika, should be bankrolling a film like this to the tune of $60 million (it’d have been a heck of a lot more had they paid the more than 5,000 re-enactors who jubilantly volunteered to take up arms for the cameras).
Gettysburg cost $25 million and made less than $11 million at the box office, although it’s been a steady draw on Turner Network Television (TNT) and the rental market. Moreover Maxwell proposes to release Gods on DVD at its original six-hour length– restoring the battle of Antietam/Sharpsburg-and to complete his Civil War trilogy with The Last Full Measure, also based on a novel by Michael Shaara’s son Jeff.
So why should Turner of all people want to mess with the now universally enforced orthodoxy that “The Civil War constitutes the noble North intervening in the evil South to save the lives of savagely oppressed African-Americans”? In Turner’s own words, “By watching movies and studying history, maybe we can avoid some of the mistakes of the past.” Amen, brother Ted.
Nothing is more tiresome than talk of the movie that “could” or “should” have been. The movie that is speaks for itself-or rather, allows the long-silenced dead to finally speak to us, their all but worthless descendents. As UPI reporter Steve Sailer points out, Maxwell’s epic captures the essence of “those peculiar little communities that existed before mass media, rapid transportation, and widespread military service rationalized and homogenized our culture.”
Gods and Generals
Mrs. Coombs is a freelance writer in Crofton Md.
Copyright Human Events Publishing, Inc. Feb 24, 2003
Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning Company. All rights Reserved
American Heritage Magazine (March, ’04)
by Allen Barra
No other film since the silent era has even attempted a portrait of Jackson. Stephen Lang, one of America’s best actors, will leave you with a vivid image of the man and the convictions that drove him. You may not like what you see, but to dismiss the movie’s reverence for Jackson as homage to a bully-and at least two major papers used precisely that word in attacking the film-is to miss the point entirely.
The novel by Jeff Shaara on which the film is based (a prequel to his late father Michael’s The Killer Angels, about the Battle of Gettysburg), focuses on the great Confederate victories at Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville, as seen through the eyes of four officers-two Confederate, Jackson and Robert E. Lee (Robert Duvall), and two Union, Winfield Scott Hancock (Brian Mallon) and Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain (Jeff Daniels). Regrettably, Hancock’s role has been downsized, either in the original script or on the cutting-room floor. For that matter, Duvall’s angst-ridden Lee, who seems to carry the burden of history with him in every word and gesture, is pushed largely into the background by Lang’s fiery Jackson. This at least has the merit of highlighting the two officers, Jackson and Chamberlain, who best reflect the opposing points of view and the cultures that nurtured them.
Gods and Generals works best when considered as a series of set pieces, many of which (such as a sequence in which a musical troupe entertains Lee and his staff with “The Bonnie Blue Flag”) are unlike anything that any other movie on the Civil War has ever attempted. The most spectacular sequences, of course, are the battles themselves. The attack of the Federals against the Stonewalls at Fredericksburg is, with the possible exception of the assault on Fort Wagner in Glory, the most harrowing depiction of Civil War combat ever put on film. The Battle of Chancellorsville, in which the camera sweeps out of the woods with Jackson’s “foot cavalry” upon bivouacked Union troops, might be the single most sensational battle scene ever in a Civil War movie.
Gods and Generals has been accused of being sympathetic to the Confederate point of view. I don’t know that this is true; I think perhaps the story lacked a proper Union general to pair with Jackson. (For all his sterling qualities, Daniels’s Chamberlain is only a colonel and thus lacks Jackson’s stature in the film.) Grant or Sherman would have been appropriate, but we won’t get them until the final installment of this three-movie series, based on Jeff Shaara’s The Last Full Measure.
Ron Maxwell’s Gods and Generals
Director Ron Maxwell discusses his new documentary epic.
BY JERRY ROBERTS
Director Ronald F. Maxwell on the set of Gods and Generals
There’s commitment, and then there’s real commitment. Director Ron Maxwell became so deeply involved in researching and realizing two authentically precise Civil War movies that they may end up as perhaps the legacy of his filmmaking life. And it’s quite all right with him if his epics — the four-hour-plus Gettysburg (1993) and three-and-a-half-hour prequel, Gods and Generals, entering theaters this month — go down as his lasting achievements.
Though it took 25 years for him to realize his visions, he’s not done yet. The director/writer/producer would like to complete his Civil War trilogy with The Last Full Measure, which is already on the drawing boards.
The chain of events that allowed him to make his first two films began and ended with the personal, historical and financial interests of Ted Turner. Unprecedented help also came from the filming-friendly auspices of the Commonwealth of Virginia, State of Maryland and the generosity of the National Park Service, townsfolk throughout the Shenandoah Valley and Appalachian Mountains as well as the enthusiasm of Civil War historians and reenactors.
Gods and Generals and the proposed final chapter (The Last Full Measure) were inspired via the unique flip-flopped circumstance of a film director being the catalyst to inspire a best-selling novel. Maxwell urged Jeff Shaara to trade his vocations of general contractor and coin collector in middle age, and try writing, taking up where his father, Michael Shaara, had left off.
Michael, who died in 1988, had written the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Killer Angels, the basis for Gettysburg. Jeff, who was in charge of his father’s estate, tapped his own creative juices after Maxwell suggested connected novels, to write the bestsellers Gods and Generals and The Last Full Measure.
At the very least, Maxwell will need another five years and Turner’s resources to make the epic conclusion, The Last Full Measure, which takes the Union and Confederate armies to the surrender of Gen. Robert E. Lee’s Confederates at Appomattox Court House in Central Virginia, thus ending America’s worst tragedy. The conflict had killed 600,000 men, wounded a million and a half, yet freed millions of African American slaves in the South.
Gods and Generals stars Stephen Lang, Jeff Daniels and Robert Duvall as Lee and follows both North and South through the battles of First Manassas, Chancellorsville and Fredericksburg in Virginia. The eventual six-hour DVD will also include the battle of Antietam at Sharpsburg, Maryland, the bloodiest single day in American armed forces history claimed more than 40,000 casualties.
“Had I known after I read The Killer Angels in 1978 that it would take 15 years to make Gettysburg, I may have quit,” Maxwell said. “Now it has taken 10 years to get Gods and Generals made. If we end up making The Last Full Measure, God only knows how long that will take. So, it’s become a life’s work. It’s been very joyous, at times very frustrating and very hard. It demands a lot; I’ve had to make big sacrifices. For me, from what I’ve learned is that I can look at a script and say, ‘Is that worth the rest of my life?’ I can answer, ‘Yes.’
Maxwell decided that Gettysburg should not stand alone but that it should be the centerpiece of a Civil War trilogy. He approached Jeff Shaara, who agreed it was a project worth pursuing; when the book Gods and Generals became a bestseller, Maxwell began working on the script.
Because Gods and Generals was such a huge bestseller, Ballantine Books commissioned Shaara to write The Last Full Measure, and, “we had our literary trilogy. I started long-range pre-production in western Maryland and Virginia. The only way to make this movie was for me to establish a lot of grass-roots support similar to the way I made Gettysburg. Otherwise, this movie would cost way, way more than $100 million, certainly as much as $150 million, if it were to be made in the United States.”
Key to both the authenticity of Gods and Generals and its manageable $60 million budget was enlisting the aid of Civil War reenactors, most of them from throughout the Eastern Seaboard.
“If you have to costume an extra, give him props that fire, guns with bayonets, put facial hair on him, multiply that by 5,000, you just can’t do that on our budget,” Maxwell explained. “The only cost to us for reenactors was housing them in their tent city and in hotels in the winter, and feeding them. Now, why did we do that? They know that, first of all, they’re going to see an authentic movie that doesn’t make a soap opera out of the Civil War or make them look like clowns, one that makes caricatures out of Confederate officers. We treated everybody with their full humanity — white, black, North, South. That was the hallmark of Gettysburg and the whole trilogy — no good guys, no bad guys — very different from most war movies. This is all about human beings caught in a tragedy.
“We also treated each reenactor with respect, like each one is a living Civil War historian. They knew that they could make comments that would get to the director through the chain of command, and every serious comment was listened to. Without reenactors, this would not have been made in the United States. They came from all over the country, mostly from the East Coast — doctors, lawyers, truck drivers, nurses — civilian reenactors too, women and children.”
Maxwell also insisted the production stay in the United States to maintain the authenticity, filming on the actual battlegrounds, many under the control of the National Park Service.
Maxwell prides himself on being a stickler. “We put in long years of pre-production in Virginia, West Virginia and Maryland,” Maxwell said. “Maryland and Virginia actually provided us with grants. When you get people to invest in your movie, you don’t just have a film company coming in saying, ‘Show me the locations; show me where the local crews are.’ I knew we needed partners or we never could have brought this in at this price.
“So, it became a joint project, and we got unprecedented access and cooperation at every level — closing streets, police, fire, National Park Service. Normally, you can take over a town for a day, but you can’t take it over for a week. We threw dirt on the streets of Harper’s Ferry, redressed the town and took it over for a week. The central battle of the film, the battle of Fredericksburg, was a huge production. We could not afford to put up a set like that. So it was very important for us to have shot it on the ground or near the ground of the events it portrays.” Maxwell feels that this authenticity to locale imbued within the cast and crew an added sense of responsibility to know that they were telling the story of hallowed ground, to be on a battlefield that had been soaked in blood. “You can’t stand on it without feeling the waves of the past that kind of sweep over you. You have to be made out of stone not to feel it.
“That translates into the added commitment that you can see in the crew that worked on Gettysburg and Gods and Generals. I’m not exaggerating. The level of commitment is astounding. Everybody’s happy to be there and they give their 100 percent.”
Most of the films Maxwell has done have been from other people’s screenplays, but he said that there’s something entirely different about the process and the dynamic if you are the hyphenate writer-director. “From the get-go, you’re seeing the film as you’re writing it,” he said. “My scripts, because I’m writing them for myself, are very spare — not a lot of description in there. It’s basically dialogue with a minimum amount of description, because I don’t have to write a description for a financier or a producer or a reader someplace.”
The directing team lived mostly in Virginia from the summer of 2001 through the holidays to cover historically accurate summer, fall and winter battles. William Wages, second unit director, shot some of the battle scenes, “and integrated everything beautifully,” Maxwell said.
“Cinematographer Kees van Oostrum and I work in a classical style where every shot is meticulously composed, where we’re moving the camera on a track or a crane — all of it rehearsed,” Maxwell said. “There’s not a single hand-held camera shot in the film. You can take the same subject matter and do the whole thing hand-held and make a fantastic movie. But we made a choice early on that the image was always going to be controlled and composed and lit immaculately. We wanted to catch thoroughly the performances of actors — that’s the heart and soul of the movie. Everything works around that. And it’s very tempting during the battle scenes to go out and use a hand-held camera. But, I feel you lose control of the frame.
“At the same time, the movie is violent, hectic, and frenetic. You’re still in the middle of a tremendous battle, but it’s controlled. Over two pictures, Kees (van Oostrum) and I have evolved the style. The look is fantastic; you feel as if you’re in the 19th century. Kees did a fantastic job, so did Michael Hanan, the production designer. The first AD on the first unit, Donald P. H. Eaton, had to be a general. People say to me, ‘How did you do it?’ I say, ‘It’s easy — DGA.’ You surround yourself with a good first AD that’s the solution. Don loves the story matter; he’s a historian himself, and so is Bill Wages. They know the story and feel that it’s a privilege to work on a movie like this — and then they bring their skills.”
Maxwell credits his team to accomplishing the shooting within the allotted 72 days. “Don’s team was terrific,” he said. “Ron Smith, our line producer, flawlessly executed the logistics — transportation, housing, thousands of people on and off the set, to lunch and back. Scott Easton, the UPM, and Dennis Fry, associate producer, were great in working with the reenactors.”
As with Gettysburg, Gods and Generals is filled with big stunts and safety issues. “We used thousands of real muskets, shooting blanks, and with bayonets,” he said. “Our cannons were real cannons. We had explosives all over the ground. Potentially, these were very hazardous sets. We had to move with great care. No shot or movie is worth hurting anybody or putting anyone or any animal at risk. Our attitude was that we would shut down for a day rather than put anyone at risk. Thank God no one was seriously hurt on this picture. A stunt man dislocated a shoulder when a horse backed up on him, but that was the most serious injury we had. We had no injuries from firearms or explosives. It was very clear — safety first, the shot second. The stunt coordinator was Chris Howell. His son is in the movie — C. Thomas Howell, who was, of course, in Gettysburg too — plays Chamberlain.”
Birthdays of the stunt men were used to help choreograph the casualties in the battle sequences. “We’d say, ‘If your birthdays are in January, April and September, you guys fall on the first volley; if you’re in March and May and October, you fall on the second volley.” Almost all the falls were by stuntmen; you don’t want the reenactors falling on camera, looking like they’re falling on a cushion, even though some reenactors were sprinkled in here and there by the stunt coordinator.”
Gods and Generals originally received an R rating from the Motion Picture Association of America for “extended battlefield violence.” Maxwell wanted a PG-13 rating from the get-go, and strived to achieve that even though he was committed to accurately portraying the bloodiest massive battles on American soil.
“We gave the rating a lot of thought,” the director said. “It’s the Civil War — 600,000 people killed and a million and a half terribly wounded; with enormous disruption, suffering and pain. You’ve got to tell the truth. It’s not a video game or a parlor game. It’s brutal, it’s terrible, and it’s ugly. To not show the brutality would be an enormous disservice. It would be the biggest lie you could tell.
“However, I also feel it’s very important for young people to see the movie. It’s our heritage, our culture, our history. It would be a shame if this were an R-rated movie. Early on, I got on the phone with [MPAA chief] Jack Valenti. He said, ‘Shoot what you want, just try not to get too graphic or gory, because you know then that you’ll get the R. That’s the best guidance I can give you. I can’t tell you how to make your movie’ — I didn’t want him to tell me.”
With that in mind, Maxwell consciously set out for a PG-13, realizing that shots involving artificial limbs, blood splattering, etc. are expensive to shoot and why shoot them if you can’t use it in the film. However, even with their care, they were startled when they received an R-rating on the first go round.
“‘How could they?’ we thought. We were so careful,” Maxwell said. “They told us that there was so much battlefield violence, so unrelenting, that we’ve got to give it an ‘R.’ We worked for three weeks, re-editing the film in subtle ways so that they could stand on some ground to give us a PG-13. It’s war — it would be obscene not to show the horror of war. We asked them for a list of the most objectionable scenes, then we eliminated some and made some shorter.”
Maxwell wants the chance to be his own general again. The box office for Gods and Generals and Ted Turner will have the final say on that. But he’s already prepared, and he’s gotten the commitments of his cast and crew to go back to Virginia for one final charge into the breech.
When contrasting an actual military leader to the job of a director, Maxwell said, “It’s exactly the same. It’s about command, discipline, and everybody doing their job.”