‘Gods & Generals’ – Perhaps The Best Civil War Film Ever

NOTE: Director Ron Maxwell’s motion picture, “Gods & Generals,” was released in 2003. This review appeared at the time in various publications, including the Tulsa Today website. The director’s cut of the film is available. Inspired by re-posting of Maxwell’s 2009 speech about President Obama’s placement of a memorial wreath at Arlington National Cemetery, McGuigan’s review is reposted here.

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 believably 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 worthy 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 worshiped 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.