GODS AND GENERALS
In 1861, Robert E. Lee (Robert Duvall) declines the President’s offer to lead the Union Army, but elects to protect his home state of Virginia. General Thomas ‘Stonewall’ Jackson (Stephen Lang) prepares the troops for battle in the South, while in the North, Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain (Jeff Daniels) heads to war alongside his brother Lt Thomas Chamberlain (C. Thomas Howell). Jackson takes great comfort in his faith in God as he leaves his wife Anna (Kali Rocha) behind, and Chamberlain farewells his wife Fanny (Mira Sorvino). Over the course of the following two years, the armies fight and suffer on the battlefields and their families live in dread as the American Civil War drags on. (This is a prequel to Gettysburg.)
Review by Andrew L. Urban:
By some accident of fate, I saw this film at a media preview on the day (just hours after) Saddam Hussein’s giant statue in the middle of Baghdad was symbolically toppled. The moment lent an extraordinary resonance to this extensive historic re-enactment of a part of America’s Civil War, the part just before Gettysburg (filmed in 1993 from the same source). Take the pivotal speech by Jeff Daniels’ Lt Col Johsua Chamberlain to his friend and fellow officer about the moral imperative behind the war against the South. In short, he explains to the then average racist young man that the South cannot justify a fight for freedom while they practice slavery. It’s put more eloquently, but the immediate parallels with the war in Iraq are evident even in shorthand. Parallels with many wars, in fact. Another thing he says in that speech is that the civil war didn’t start out as a fight against slavery, “but war changes things”.
It started as a quarrel over the unification of the states. The South was proudly independent. But its moral ground was untenable to many people in the North, and the war triggered the legislation that finally gave black slaves their freedom. Abraham Lincoln started that war, and history has judged him a hero. Along with its moral lessons, Gods and Generals, as if the title didn’t make it clear, also throws into sharp relief the deeply religious nature of that war. Or rather, the deeply religious men who fought it, beseeching god from both sides.
As generals still do, on all sides. This truncated account of events and themes does no justice to the film, which, for students of history, is a treasure trove of detail. (Hence the extraordinary length.) Almost fanatical in its even handedness, Gods and Generals also attempts to humanise many of the key players of the war, so they are not just General Robert E. Grant (Robert Duvall) or General Thomas Jackson (Stephen Lang), but three dimensional people whose innermost thoughts are splashed onto the screen as part of the battle plan (along with thousands of ‘re-enactors’ as soldiers).
With its prayers, poems and quotes from the Bible, Gods and Generals is a compassionate and passionate examination of the great wound on the American psyche that the Civil War has left. It is not a film that can be approached and analysed like any other war movie, because it defies the conventions of that genre. It is a historical record, intense and painful and often illuminating, but sometimes ponderous and self indulgent. And more than a history lesson, a lesson also in the perversity of extreme human conflict driven by the explosive combination of tribalism, pride and the primitive, self-centred belief in some god’s will.
Review by Louise Keller:
A prequel to Ronald F. Maxell’s highly acclaimed 1993 film Gettysburg, God and Generals brings to life a magnified view of the events of the American Civil War between 1861 and 1863. A labour of love with special interest to history buffs, this epic film is extraordinary in many ways.
This is a story about war and faith. The film tells the stories of men from both sides who fought passionately for their beliefs. In particular, it hones in on the Generals, their faith and motivation. It also could be said that for some of the soldier, the generals were their gods: they looked up to them, obeyed them unquestioningly and accepted death as part of their duty. My interest in this film is not as a history buff, or indeed as someone who has a profound knowledge of the American Civil War. I am certainly interested in the subject and keen to understand the era, and in learning about this, the film is successful on various levels. Of course, the length of 223 minutes is a major commitment, and many of the battle scenes are endlessly repetitive. For me, the result is overall rewarding and fascinating.
The film may not work on every level (some aspects are overdrawn, overdone and sentimental), but I did connect with the characters and walked away carrying with me a thoughtful overview of the events. The length certainly reinforces the reality and hardship of the war: many battle scenes simply merge together in my mind. Some may find the introduction of different regiments in the first half to be confusing, and it does take some time to work out exactly where everyone fitted in. Central to the story is General ‘Stonewall’ Jackson, memorably portrayed by Stephen Lang, who lived by his very strong faith in God.
A noble and great leader, Jackson never questioned his faith and Lang beautifully conveys the strength of the man, but also shows his Achilles heel, through his friendship with a five-year old girl who befriends him. There’s plenty of emphasis on Jackson’s profound religious beliefs, and Lang leaves a strong sense of the man. Gods and Generals is a mammoth cinematic feat, and while it may not appeal to a broad audience, those who will be enticed to see it, will find much merit.
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ROBERT MAXWELL INTERVEIW
GODS AND GENERALS (M)
CAST: Jeff Daniels, Stephen Lang, Robert Duvall, Mira Sorvino, C. Thomas Howell, Frankie Faison, Kali Rocha, Mia Dillon, Bruce Boxleitner
PRODUCER: Ronald F. Maxwell
DIRECTOR: Ronald F. Maxwell
SCRIPT: Ronald F. Maxwell (book by Jeff Shaara)
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Kees Van Oostrum
EDITOR: Corky Ehlers
MUSIC: Bob Dylan, Randy Edelman, John Frizzell
PRODUCTION DESIGN: Michael Z. Hanan
RUNNING TIME: 223 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: Roadshow
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: Victoria: October 5, 2003; NSW: October 16, 2003 (limited release)
VIDEO DISTRIBUTOR: Warner Home Video
VIDEO RELEASE: December 3, 2003