“Gods and Generals” tells the story of the great Confederate general Stonewall Jackson. It begins at the onset of the Civil War when Jackson is teaching at the Virginia Military Academy. Jackson, like the Confederate leader Robert E. Lee, felt more loyalty to his home state of Virginia than he did to the Union itself, and he becomes a general in the new Confederate army.
The film is presented as the second installment of a Civil War trilogy from Ron Maxwell, the director of “Gettysburg” – similar to how Red Dragon was promoted as part of a Hannibal Lecter trilogy or how “Born on the Fourth of July,” “Platoon” and “Heaven and Earth” made up Oliver Stone’s half-baked Vietnam trilogy. This is nothing but an attempt to cash in on the success of “Gettysburg.” A true trilogy has more form, like “Star Wars” or “The Lord of the Rings.”
In today’s society, where the concept of slavery is so rightfully reviled by the general public, it is hard to present a sympathetic view of the South. “Gods and Generals” gave an interesting South-sided view to the Civil War, making many parallels to the war for independence that the Americans fought against the British a century before.
I was initially interested in seeing how Maxwell would deal with the South as the protagonist. A true study of the Civil War will reveal that the conflict was not about slavery, but about the independence of the states. The South did not secede because they wanted slavery necessarily. They seceded because they wanted the freedom to make the decision for themselves. Ultimately, citizens in the South were fighting for their own independence from the Union. Even the North didn’t fight against slavery. Sure, slavery was one of the driving issues of the day, but in the minds of the soldiers from the North, the war was about the preservation of the Union.
I hoped Maxwell would focus on the freedom issue, but he copped out. There were a painful number of soliloquies from both Union and Confederate soldiers about slavery and how it was the reason they were fighting. Additionally, Stonewall Jackson (who made impassioned speeches throughout the film about everything from the Bible to how much sugar should be in lemonade) took about ten minutes to preach to his fellow soldiers not only how terrible slavery was, but also how terrible war was. Come on! A speech like this was clearly the work of executive producer Ted Turner in an attempt to affect the American public’s opinion about the impending war with Iraq.
In one of the many speeches, General Chamberlain talks about how it was a kind act to the slaves. In reality, the Emancipation Proclamation was designed by Lincoln to dismantle the work force of the South. It had nothing to do with helping people. In fact, it only freed the slaves in the rebel states (leaving slavery intact in the Union’s border states of Maryland, Delaware, Kentucky and Missouri) and had a clause saying it could be repealed after the end of the war.
It was pretty obvious that Turner had made “Gods and Generals” to be a miniseries on TNT (which may have actually worked with commercial breaks), but after spending $52 million on it, he decided to inflict it upon movie audiences worldwide. This is the only explanation for some of the worst visual effects I’ve seen in a long time. When blown up to a 20-foot screen, they looked like they had been done by some indie filmmaker on a home PC in their attic.
One other question I was left pondering after the film was why does every movie made about the Civil War have to be three hours or more long? There was no excuse to 216 minute running time for “Gods and Generals.” With only enough real story to only fill about two hours, Maxwell tries to make itself an epic by padding the film so much that it drags.
Maxwell needed an editor – not just someone to splice together his film, but someone who could excise complete scenes and storylines that were irrelevant to the picture. There were too many pointless side stories with people like Jackson’s wife, Chamberlain’s wife, and a slave mother in Fredericksburg who held down the fort after an invasion. The first storyline I would have removed was the one in which Jackson develops a creepy relationship with the six year old daughter of a plantation owner. Although it was not the filmmakers’ intention, this relationship became weirdly sensual to the point it reminded me of another more contemporary Jackson we’ve all seen in the news lately.
Finally, the high point of the film is when Ted Turner makes a cameo as a Confederate general. The moment he came on screen, the audience made a collective groan. I had to chuckle at that.