Rated PG-13 - Running Time: 3:40 - Released 2/21/03

Gods And Generals, Ronald Maxwell’s long-awaited prequel to his 1993 Civil War epic Gettysburg, has come under fire (no pun intended) for being long, boring, and historically inaccurate, and failing to live up to the quality expectations set by its 10-year-old predecessor. Welcome, Mr. Maxwell, to George Lucas’s world. At nearly four hours, it probably is too long for anyone who is not a Civil War enthusiast, or anyone who doesn’t like to sit in a theater seat too long (which may include a good many Civil War enthusiasts), but the length issue is mitigated to an extent by the inclusion of an intermission at about the 2:15 mark. On the subjects of boring and historically inaccurate, the same sort of paradox is in play: people who love all things Civil War-related may have no problem with boredom, but they will be annoyed by the historical inaccuracies; those who are not history buffs probably won’t notice the mistakes, but will tire of the dry conversations, the speechmaking, and the surprisingly non-bloody battle footage. I did notice that, especially at the beginning, the dialogue seemed like very much line delivery and very little acting. The early scenes, which involve people tearfully saying goodbye to their sons and husbands, and the appointment of Virginia General Robert E. Lee (played this time by actual Lee descendant Robert Duvall) as leader of the Confederate army, contain dialogue which seems more like well-rehearsed speeches than actual conversation, setting a tone that works against the film in the minds of moviegoers who think to themselves, “is this what it’s going to be like for three more hours?”

There is something to be said for the sheer guts of undertaking a huge project like this. Gettysburg was originally intended to be a TV miniseries, but Gods And Generals, based on the book by Jeff Shaara and adapted for the screen by director Maxwell, was planned as a feature film from the beginning; its rich production values (and its $60 million price tag that co-producer Ted Turner reportedly put up out of his own pocket) indicate a spare-no-expense attitude. The battle scenes—Bull Run, Harper’s Ferry, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville—shot entirely on location using thousands of volunteer re-enactors, are truly epic in scope if not nearly as grisly as they must have been, and serve as a testament to man’s curious ability to march into the face of death for the sake of God, honor, and principle. The trouble is, when you end up as Maxwell did with a 6-hour movie, you’ve got to either cut it down or make two, and this is where he ran into some serious problems maintaining historical accuracy. While the film is technically beautiful, its construction betrays some strange and, dare I say, desperate choices.

I don’t consider myself a Civil War expert by any means, but, like many Americans, I became an armchair enthusiast in 1990 thanks to Ken Burns’s fascinating public TV miniseries The Civil War, and I learned at least a little about the sequence of events. Perhaps the most disconcerting thing about Gods is that it jumps from the beginning of the war and the battle of Bull Run in 1861 to that of Fredericksburg, Virginia, nearly 1½ years later, skipping most of 1862 and omitting such important battles as Shiloh and Antietam as if they never happened. But if you consider that this is mainly the story of Confederate General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson (played elegantly by Stephen Lang, who was Gen. George Pickett in Gettysburg), and that the director was faced with cutting over 2 hours from his original print, then perhaps we can understand the predicament he was in. Maybe the Antietam scenes are lying on the cutting room floor, but the omission is jarring to anyone who paid attention in 9th grade.

Meanwhile, some of the things Maxwell left in are even more surprising. In his zeal to show the feelings and attitudes of the time, on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line, rather than simply present a workmanlike depiction of historical events, he devotes more time on such things as Christmas celebrations, prayer, executions for desertion, and Jackson’s relationship with a little girl who serves as a surrogate daughter (played by Lydia Jordan) than on the war. Did Maxwell cut Antietam out just so we could see Jackson sing “Silent Night”?

Regardless of editing decisions, however, this movie features some fine acting (after it gets going for an hour or so) by its principals, many of whom re-create their roles from Gettysburg. In addition to the truly superb work done by Lang and Duvall, we are treated to numerous thoughtful supporting performances by the likes of Jeff Daniels, who returns to the role of Union officer Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, Kali Rocha as Jackson’s wife Anna, Kevin Conway as Union officer “Buster” Kilrain, C. Thomas Howell as Chamberlain’s brother and subordinate officer, Mira Sorvino as Chamberlain’s wife Fanny, and Donzaleigh Abernathy as a southern house slave who, while devoted to her loving white owners, suffers with justifiably conflicted feelings about the war and the “enemy” who could set her free.

There is so much to be said about the American Civil War that each of the major battles could exist as a touching, thrilling movie of its own. Perhaps in his desire to condense, director Maxwell bit off more than he could chew, but what remains is a beautiful movie, flaws and all, that recounts an important chapter in our nation’s history and features some excellent performances. It could have been handled better, perhaps, but there is enough about it that works to make it worth watching. ****

Copyright 2003 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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