The American Civil War is the stuff of great drama, pitting brother against brother, friend against friend, playing out in sweeping tragedies of slavery, death and destruction. Filmmakers return to the subject repeatedly and some fine movies have resulted, from The Birth of a Nation to Gone with the Wind to Glory. In Gods and Generals writer/director Ronald F. Maxwell focuses on the three great battles that preceded Gettysburg. It’s a prequel to his 1993 film of that name, and is drawn from a novel by Jeff Shaara, son of Michael Shaara who was the author of The Killer Angels on which Gettysburg was based.
The reenactment of the battles–Manassas, Fredericksburg, and Chancellorsville–are at the heart of this lengthy (3 hours 40 minutes) epic and they’re the most interesting part of it. Civil War buffs are in a better position to judge the historical accuracy of Maxwell’s representation, but the film certainly gives the impression of careful research and concern for authenticity. The way the enemy’s strengths and weakensses were assessed, the military strategies that were planned and the deployment of men in the field is layed out with skilled clarity, before and during the actual conflicts.
The battle scenes go on at length, but they have been largely sanitized–no Spielbergian D-Day grit (Saving Private Ryan), no Peckinpah slow motion blood baths (The Wild Bunch) here. The musical score (John Frizzell, Randy Edelman) can be counted on to swell melodramatically with the climax of each battle. The hospital scenes show some blood (mostly on doctors’ aprons), but spare the audience the sight of amputations and other gruesome extremes.
Maxwell gets in big trouble, though, when it comes to human drama. Only one character is fully fleshed out, Stonewall Jackson–and that mostly because of an astute and intense performance by Stephen Lang. On horseback, Jackson makes one speech to the first brigade which is a genuine rouser. In another scene he proclaims: "Though I love the Union, I love Virginia more!" (More than one movie buff will be reminded of Betty Davis as Elizabeth I: "I love you, Essex, but I love England more!" At least her delivery was leavened by a generous touch of camp.)
But Maxwell hasn’t a clue how to write natural sounding dialogue; when he tries to, it’s a string of cliches. Apparently aware of this, he substitutes lengthy quotations from the Bible, poetry, and Shakespeare and he has his characters declaim these speeches as if on a podium, rather than in normal conversation. While such sources assure some fine words, they do little for dramatic veracity. The film turns into a torpid pageant, rather than the powerful human drama that is inherent in the material.
Maxwell tries to show both northern and southern participants, though the South gets by far the most play. The principal representative from the north, Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain(Jeff Daniels), was a college professor who enlisted in the Maine militia. Daniels (The Hours, Blood Work) is excellent at grim-faced marching about, but the character is barely developed. Mira Sorvino (The Triumph of Love, Summer of Sam), as his wife, somehow in her brief appearance manages to give her character a sense of life lacking elsewhere. The opening sequence between the two lends some promise that is never fulfilled. Scenes in the home of an aristocratic southern family are rife with overpoweringly saccharine sentimentality. And the great Robert Duval (Gone in 60 Seconds, Apocalypse Now) plays Robert E. Lee with such an excess of restrained dignity that there’s no personality left at all.
Producer Ted Turner makes a momentary appearance in God and Generals, perhaps his swan song to AOL Time Warner. He should have sold short before Gods and Generals.