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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.

Special Features reviewed by Shannon J. Harvey:
Warning: Historians, Civil War buffs academics will need to control their drool at the gravity of this comprehensive release by Warner Bros. The cup sure doth runneth over, and everyone involved here wants to make sure you know it.

Firstly, it must be said that this mammoth Civil War epic is somewhat lost on the small screen. Even a DLP projector won't replicate the cinema experience of widescreen field battles and alike. However, the six channel sound is totally immersive, and good systems will respond better to the blasts of canons and the trample of hooves and boots across Southern soils.

Adjoining the epic 210 minute film is a scene specific commentary involving director Ronald Maxwell, historical advisor James L Robertson Jr of Virginia Tech and military advisor Col Keith Gibson of VMI. You can play all of the scenes that have commentary or play individual scenes with commentary. The three do a good job of addressing the thematic considerations of particular scenes, but they do spend much time pontificating, quantifying and theorising. It's a more academic than filmic commentary.

There are two standout featurettes on disc two. Authenticities (13 minutes) takes an exhausting look at the historical town of Harper's Ferry and how it formed the backdrop for the $100m set. It investigates how 7,000 plus re-enactors (extras) were costumed and placed, and the dangers of creating the chaos of war on a live set. Life of "Stonewall" Jackson is a return to academia, as historians, creators and researchers (including those on the commentary) trace Jackson's life from wayward student to artillery officer to feared military leader to Presbyterian to cut-down hero. The disc rounds off with two film clips that seem superficial in comparison to the rest of the features, Bob Dylan's Cross the Green Mountain music video and Mary Fahl's Going Home music video.

If this epic movie or its sequel, Gettysberg, does not quench your thirst for the American Civil War, the extras certainly will.

Published December 11, 2003

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CAST: Jeff Daniels, Stephen Lang, Robert Duvall, Mira Sorvino, C. Thomas Howell, Frankie Faison, Kali Rocha, Mia Dillon, Bruce Boxleitner

DIRECTOR: Ronald F. Maxwell

SCRIPT: Ronald F. Maxwell (book by Jeff Shaara)

RUNNING TIME: 223 minutes

PRESENTATION: 2:35:1 widescreen Dolby Digital 5.1

SPECIAL FEATURES: Introduction by Ted Turner, Journey to the Past, The Authenticities of the Film, The Life of Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson, Commentary, Visit Virginia, Bob Dylan's "Cross the Green Mountain" music video, Trailer, DVD-Rom access

DVD DISTRIBUTOR: Warner Home Video

DVD RELEASE: December 3, 2003

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