To Civil War enthusiasts, director Ron Maxwell is seen as a Godlike figure. First he gave us Gettysburg in 1993, after several failed film projects of his own. The film came out of nowhere and took the movie industry by storm, and today is regarded as one of the last true war epics ever made, because of its grandiose shooting style and use of thousands of extras instead of CGI. Ten years later, he would give us the much awaited prequel to this film, Gods and Generals, based on the novel of the same name written by Jeff Shaara, the son of Michael, who wrote the original book.
For me, Gettysburg was the movie that turned me on to the Civil War, so naturally I could not wait for this film to come out. I still remember going to the theater on its opening day, with my mom, who was also interested in the subject due to my curiosity as a youngster. The movie left a profound impact on me, because it was everything I imagined, including the running time which clocked in at more than three and a half hours due to the intermission. Several times the audience wept, then laughed, then were amazed by this massive piece of storytelling. This film, too, is shot on an epic scale, but unfortunately it is weighed down by religious overtones, which ultimately led to the film’s downfall in this politically correct world, and subsequent termination of a follow up project and sequel to the trilogy, The Last Full Measure.
Gods and Generals was released with such promise—it was to appear in theaters, be released on DVD, shown as a two-night event on TNT, then a year later, a six hours director’s cut was to be released, giving us the full story. But only the first two would be realized, as the film quickly bombed and was yanked out of theaters. The reason for this was politics, and the fact that this movie, although about the Civil War, was extremely religious. Here we see Jackson, Lee, and even Chamberlain constantly bringing God into the equation, and while these men were very religious in a much different world (personally, I did not mind it one bit, although it did get preachy more than once), it truly led to the film’s negative critical reaction. The trailer even stated that, “One side fought for God’s glory, while the other fought for his kingdom on earth.” In reality, even though they were religious, I highly doubt they were fighting for God himself.
Nevertheless, this is an enjoyable film, despite its faults, but unfortunately, it can probably only be enjoyed by Civil War buffs, an amount of people large enough for a small film project or low-budget affair, but not big enough to make or break a $60 million spectacle, all personally financed by Ted Turner, who produced related films Ironclads, Gettysburg, Andersonville, and The Hunley as well.
The story begins with showing Robert E. Lee as a Colonel in the United States Army and the decisions he made that brought him to the Confederacy. We get very interesting back story on all major characters, including Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, played by Stephen Lang who was Pickett in Gettysburg, and of Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, played by Jeff Daniels as he reprises his role from the original. The one thing that Gettysburg lacked that this film makes up for is character development—here we see why the soldiers are fighting, instead of seeing a bunch of guys in blue and gray thrust onto a battlefield. The film also does a very good job in showing both sides as being right, while not vilifying either side. To many, this was seen as a fault more than an asset, but I think it helps in understanding the causes of this great war. The audience can then make up their minds as to who was right, and who was wrong.
This film was a very difficult story to tackle, mainly because it had to focus on three years of the Civil War, rather than just three days. The Battle of First Bull Run, while instrumental in showing Jackson’s first taste of combat as well as the first major battle of the war, is almost randomly inserted into the movie and seems out of place. It is also only about ten minutes in length, and features only one part of the battle. This film could have really done without it, and would have been better served with having the characters simply talk about what happened off-screen. The insertion of this also left out any possibility of having Antietam in the film, something that was filmed but left on the cutting room floor (multiple people who worked on the film said that the action scenes for Antietam were the best in the entire film). We will just have to wait and wonder about it until a director’s cut is released.
The best part of Gods and Generals is by far and away the Fredericksburg scenes. Here we finally get an in-depth look at the tactics and troop movements behind one of the most famous and costly battles of the war. General Burnside is shown perfectly as being incompetent, while the generals around him, namely Winfield Scott Hancock, played by the severely underrated Brian Mallon, disagree with his plans to attack General Lee’s entrenchments at Marye’s Heights head-on. The battle is shown to be brutal, and combined with the terrific score of Randy Edelman and John Frizzell, make the Fredericksburg sequence a form of art. It is hard not to tear up during this battle, because as wave after wave of Union troops are cut down by the Confederates, we see the Irish brigade of the Union make their charge against the stonewall. Unbeknownst to them, the Irish brigade of the Confederacy, led by Colonel Thomas Cobb, awaits them. One of their commanders actually breaks down and cries at the thought of shooting his own countrymen, as bullets strike the wall he is leaning on. The music, once again, is spectacular, with a very sad sounding bag-pipe tune. We also get to see Chamberlain’s first action as a Union colonel, with his brother Tom and old Sergeant follow by his side. Those two actors are the same from the original, with C. Thomas Howell and Kevin Conway coming through with superb performances.
Gods and Generals then takes a jump to 1863, following the aftermath of Fredericksburg, and takes us to Chancellorsville, which was Jackson and Lee’s daring surprise attack of the Union left flank under Oliver Howard, with Joseph Hooker now the commander-in-chief. The music played over this scene is very slow, and increases in pace as Jackson’s men jump out of the trees and begin their assault. We then see the very sad and unfortunate wounding of Jackson by his own men, and his death about twenty minutes later in the film. It was during these final scenes where people began to weep, as I did the first time I saw it, and still get choked up to this day.
The scene with Jackson dying is very emotional, because you can see the Confederacy dying right along with him. Robert E. Lee, played by Robert Duvall, is asked if he will see Jackson on his deathbed, but says no, not allowing himself to accept that fact that his right-hand man is dying. The movie closes with Jackson’s funeral, as a riderless horse and carriage passes by and heads toward Virginia Military Institute, where Jackson was a professor.
Even with all its faults, and it heavy dialogue (mostly consisting of too much preaching), Gods and Generals is still a superb piece of film making. People also criticize the casting of Duvall as Lee, stating that he was too old for the part. Duvall, a descendant of Lee, was older than the General, but when you look at pictures of the real Lee, he looked older than his age. There are just certain shots in this movie where he bears striking resemblance to him, and I personally like his casting over that of Martin Sheen, who actually wanted the part again but could not accept it due to scheduling conflicts. The film is also great because it is a reunion, of sorts, of the Gettysburg cast that we all know and love. Besides Daniels, Lang, Mallon, Howell, and Conway, Royce Appelgate and Charles Lester Kinsolving return briefly as Generals Kemper and Barksdale, respectively, Joseph Fuqua as J.E.B Stuart, Patrick Gorman as John Bell Hood, Ted Turner himself as Waller T. Patton, David Carpenter who switches from Colonel Devin to Reverend Tucker Lacy, and Buck Taylor, who switches from Colonel Gamble to General Maxcy Gregg. (There are others, too many to name.)
We also see some new faces as Bruce Boxleitner takes over for Tom Berenger as Longstreet, and veteran character actor William Sanderson plays A.P Hill. Mira Sorvino also makes a brief, and exquisite cameo appearance as the wife of Colonel Chamberlain (they too had additional scenes that were lifted).
It truly is a shame that a film with such potential, and such work recieved such low acclaim from critics, and I cannot even imagine how great the director’s cut of this film is. It was only screened once, several years ago, and was met with a standing ovation. It includes a subplot of Abraham Lincoln and John Wilkes Booth, the entire battle of Antietam, and a friendship between Booth and Henry Harrison, played by Cooper Huckabee as in the original. Andrew Prine also reprised his role as General Garnett, but he too was edited out.
My final rating of this film will be a 9 out of 10, because of its accuracy and epic scale. This is one of those rare films that can be shown in a history classroom without much explaining, because with the exception of the insertion of Jane Corbin and her relationship with Jackson, everything depicted is, for the most part, exactly what happened. I recommend it to all that have an interest in the war that cost America more than 600,000 deaths in just five years. I also hope that one day we will see the director’s cut of this film, because knowing Maxwell, it is sure to change our view of the Civil War and enlighten us even further—and with the 150th anniversary of the war happening in the next five years, it is either now or never.
Check out my review of Gettysburg here.