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By David Templeton | February 27, 2003

We are standing in the lobby of a sprawling Cadillac dealership-turned-theater complex in chilly San Francisco, when an elderly man, face alight with disbelief and wonder, approaches to ask, “Excuse me, are you the three Musketeers?” 

It’s a fairly funny question, given that there are about 25 of us standing around, and that—except for myself, dressed in jeans, T-shirt and an old leather jacket—the entire group is garbed in the conspicuous fashion of confederate soldiers of the American Civil War.

“Not the three musketeers,” answers faux gunnery sergeant Walter Masten, amiably, “we’re gods and generals.” 

“Ho ho,” the man replies, “Three Musketeers,” and ambles away unconvinced that he’s been visited by either gods or generals, a reference, of course, to the movie Gods & Generals, a sprawling, 229-minute Civil War epic which we’ve just limped away from after hours and hours in the theater. Based on Jeff Shaara’s best-selling novel of the same name, the film follows General Lee (Robert Duvall), Colonel Lawrence Chamberlain (Jeff Daniels) and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson (Stephen Lang) through various battles leading up to, but not including, the Big One at Gettysburg.  

My fellow movie-watchers are made up of members from the American Civil War Association, the National Civil War Association, and the California Historical Artillery Society, just a few of the numerous spirited Civil War reenactment groups that take turns staging non-lethal re-runs of actual historical battles. Though it is now almost midnight, it is clear that for most of the costumed confederates chattering happily all around me, seeing Gods and Generals tonight was akin to having a religious experience. 

“It actually gave me chills,” admits a gray-jacketed, jaunty-hatted Jeff Rawlinson. “And that’s really something, because I’m wearing two layers of wool over a heavy cotton shirt.” 

Lucky man. While he was enjoying his chills, I was merely suffering tingles of pain from having my derriere parked too long in the same place. Clearly, I was alone in my anguish.  

My associates all adored it.

“It’s a movie a reenactor will love every minute of,” affirms Jim Marsh, otherwise known as General Robert E. Lee, and looking every inch the part. “I only started portraying Lee because my hair turned white,” he confesses with a laugh. Marsh has now seen the film twice (Jesus, that’s 458 minutes!), and liked it even more tonight than he did the first time. Seated at a table in a nearby cocktail lounge, Marsh sits surrounded by his troops, most of whom can recite—at the slightest provocation—the names of every skirmish and battle in the entire Civil War, and a whole encyclopedia of arcane facts.

“Do you realize,” asks Marsh, “that after Gettysburg, the wagon train carrying wounded soldiers from the battleground was seventeen miles long?” 

Any criticisms he has for “Gods and Generals” are admittedly of the nit-picky, only-a-reenactor-would-care variety.   

”Not as much importance was placed on the battle at Chancelorsville,” Marsh points out. “Chancelorsville was probably the south’s greatest victor, and it was certainly Lee and Stonewall Jackson’s greatest victory, though it was made bittersweet by the fact that he died right afterwards. In the movie, they didn’t play up Chancelorsville enough. After the battle of Chancelorsville, Lee, normally a sedate man, stood up in his stirrups, waving his hat, as the men cheered his name over and over—Lee! Lee! Lee! 

“By the way, General Lee did not drink,” Marsh mentions, sipping a scotch.

After a pause, another quibble is mentioned. 

“God, you know that over 65,000 black soldiers served in the Confederate army?” states Texas-born Paul Toland, looking sharp in the uniform of a confederate Colonel. “65,000 blacks and in this movie we didn’t see a’ one of ‘em in uniform.” While he’s at it, Toland adds his opinion that, contrary to popular opinion, Lincoln was a certifiable maniac. 

“The so called ‘Honest Abe,’” he says, “once tried to lock up the chief justice of the Supreme Court for stating that its policies were unconstitutional. No ifs, ands, or buts about it, the man was a tyrant!” 

Ironically, Marsh—General Lee himself, who you’d think would still be holding a grudge—doesn’t agree with his fiery Colonel.  

“Lincoln,” he says, “was an absolutely brilliant human being, probably one of the most brilliant men whose ever walked this Earth. Just read his speeches. This man was a genius.” Fortunately, the debate about Lincoln’s various qualities is cut short by the clock.  

It’s time to go, and not a moment too soon. 

Wars, after all, have been known to start this way. 


Writer David Templeton takes interesting people to the movies in his ongoing quest for the ultimate post-film conversation. This is not a review; rather, it’s a freewheeling, tangential discussion of art, alternative ideas, and popular culture.

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