Once again, I would like to thank Warner Brothers for sending me the two films in advance and allowing for this review to take place. This has really been a lot of fun. I would also like to attach a spoiler warning: if you want to be surprised at what scenes are included when you watch it for the first time, do not read this review until after you see it!
When I arrived home from work and found the package had arrived containing the two films I so anxiously awaited to see, I knew my anticipation was going to be soon over. I quickly brought them in the house and opened them up, wanting to watch them right then and there. Instead, I waited a couple of hours, not able to come to the realization of what I was actually holding in my hand. This is the version of Gods and Generals that we have heard so much about, and done our fair share of speculation over. What scenes were coming in? What new characters will there be? Will the Antietam battle scene live up to its reputation spread by the very few who had seen it? Over the next five and a half hours, after taking breaks to jot down notes and walk around, the four hours and forty minutes of brilliance would answer all those questions, and leave me satisfied.
At first, I was not going to take any notes, because I waited so long and wanted to enjoy it, but when the new footage began to flow fast and furiously, I had no choice but to write down what was going on. The first thing that the audience will notice is that the film is broken down into five parts: Manassas, Antietam, Fredericksburg, Moss Neck, and Chancellorsville. This definitely serves to guide the film, and almost makes each section seem like acts from a play, very fitting when you consider the scope of this film and screenplay is Shakespearean in nature. As you will read below, the Antietam scene blew me away, and the newly added John Wilkes Booth character was absolutely fantastic. But what caught my attention was not the addition of new material, but the subtraction of some. Not only are some scenes extended, but some are shortened, and two (that I counted, could have been more) are eliminated all together. Many people said the reason why they found the original boring was because of the constant praying and preaching, and director Ron Maxwell took care of all of that here.
Before the actual review of content, I want to make note of the technical aspects of the Blu Ray presentation. The picture itself was masterfully enhanced and the colors enriched, while the sound is so realistic and absorbing, you will feel like you were picked up and placed right in the middle of the battlefield. Since I already reviewed the theatrical version of this film, this review will focus mostly on the new scenes. Please keep in mind that I could not describe them all, because there were too many, but these were what I felt were the best and most important.
Part One: Bull Run
The first new footage that makes its way in is the highly anticipated insertion of the John Wilkes Booth character, played by Chris Conner, who figures quite prominently throughout the entire film, in five or six scenes. We see him make a speech to some Confederate recruits, citing a line of Shakespeare, but not before signing some autographs for the herds of beautiful young women who flock to see the superstar actor. The portrayal of Booth in this film was so important, because we see what he was really like, before his intense hatred of Lincoln began. He was young, charismatic, and patriotic—most likely the major sex symbol of his day as well. He was not the raving mad lunatic that history tries to paint him as, and here we see the human side of him.
A good scene involving Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, captured by the wonderful Stephen Lang, involves him wanting to purchase a horse. Initially, he intends to give the horse he names “Little Sorrel” to his wife, but keeps him, after telling Pendleton (Jeremy London) that he is “even-tempered”. Several shots are also shown of him riding the horse in the Virginia countryside.
Now we get to a major change involving the original footage. The scene where Jackson prays on the eve of battle was removed entirely, and there is no music playing when his soldiers come out of the woods and on to Henry House Hill. As soon as I saw this, I knew that this cut would be for real. The removal of the prayer kept the pace of the film going more evenly, and allowed for the battle of First Bull Run to be fought with intensity, without the audience having to bring themselves up from listening to Jackson.
Part Two: Antietam
I swear, that when the title card for this part came on the screen, I got goosebumps. For the next hour or so, this would be the section that has the most added footage. John Wilkes Booth makes his second appearance backstage, having a conversation with our good friend Henry T. Harrison, played by Cooper Huckabee, who you will remember as Longstreet’s spy in Gettysburg. We then move to Centreville where Jackson informs his men about his promotion to Major General and transfer to the Shenandoah Valley. His men are upset by this, because the brigade will have to remain, but they say how they will petition to get transferred with him. This makes a coming scene, where he gives his “First Brigade” speech to his men on horseback, have more meaning and clarify a lot. There is also extended dialogue between Jackson and his wife Anna (Kali Rocha) as they are laying in bed, after she visits him.
The Union then makes their entrance, with the already released “Camp Mason” deleted scene. There is a new scene involving Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain (Jeff Daniels) and his superior officer Adelbert Ames (Matt Letscher), whose character was greatly expanded in several scenes, when they discuss tactics and their importance. Ames also remarks that he heard how smart Chamberlain is, and says that he will be able to master whatever duty he is given. Ames also tests Chamberlain’s brother, played by C. Thomas Howell, on the steps in loading a rifle.
Robert E. Lee, played hauntingly well by Robert Duvall, then holds his first council of war, to tell his generals of his Maryland invasion plans. Just like in Gettysburg, Longstreet (Bruce Boxleitner) warns him of the risks, while Jackson is excited for the opportunity.
Now to the part everybody is waiting for, the actual battle scene, and it begins rather unexpectedly. The scene where Chamberlain and Kilrain (Kevin Conway) meet for the first time is expanded, and leads right into the battle, as that meeting was supposed to be on the morning of September 17th. Ames joins Chamberlain and they hear cannon fire in the background. Having never been in battle before, he is nervous, but Ames tells him it is just the artillery feeling each other out—this is really quite unassuming when you consider the bloodshed about to occur. Howell also keeps his humor, when he confronts his brother and says that he has gained weight even with a diet of hardtack and “worms”, as he puts it. The scene then cuts to blasting cannons when all hell breaks loose.
When the battle begins, Lee rides to his artillerymen and tells them how important they are. We then go right into the cornfield, where yes, I will announce it, we have the best battle footage of the entire movie (it even trumps my much loved Fredericksburg). The fighting is fierce and brutal, and the pace of the entire sequence is frantic, making you uneasy because so much is going on. There is no gallantry at Antietam, just horror. The two sides advance and blast away at each other, the bullets shredding the stalks of corn and tearing through arms and legs of the men. There are more bullet entry effects in these five minutes than the rest of the film, and perhaps that is why it was removed—I’m beginning to think the MPAA was a lot more strict back then, and in 2003 this would have made it an R-rated film. The effects here are top-notch. There is one shot of a bullet going through a man’s canteen and sending water everywhere. The artillery effects are also spectacular, and men go flying when the explosions occur.
Two of the characters I interviewed, Brian Mallon as Hancock and Patrick Gorman as Hood, also get more screen-time here. In just about twenty seconds, Hood will give you the feeling of such realism. Pendleton rides to him and asks how long he can hold, and Hood barely even looks at him and gives a half-hearted salute, because he is too busy watching his Texas infantry get slaughtered in the cornfield. Hancock gets his addition when he confronts the added character of George McClellan (James Parkes) rather unenthusiastically. I will not quote what is said between the two, but McClellan has the air of arrogance about him, and I only wish he got more screen-time, because as a person, he was so complex. There is also a scene revolving Jackson and a close call with a cannonball. However, I will not ruin that for you—you will have to see it for yourself!
Just like in Fredericksburg, Kilrain and Tom have their little wise-crack. The younger of the two says that it would be hard to kill a sergeant (their rank) because there are two men standing in front of them. The old Irishman then says, rather bluntly, “A sergeant only fires his weapon when the men in front of him are killed.” Unfortunately, the two brief scenes in the cornfield is all the fighting we get here. That is the only part of the film that really disappointed me—I guess I was expecting a longer battle scene, but it is my own fault for assuming as much. Nevertheless, the intensity present in just ten minutes or so was so great, that I actually had to watch the scene a second time when it was completed.
When the battle comes to a close, Ames rides and tells the men that they will not be needed. He makes a slight dig at McClellan, for failing to use all his men, and noting how nothing was accomplished by either side, and the losses were so great. It then cuts to Booth, performing on stage, and what he is reciting is played over a pan shot of dead soldiers, with the words matching pretty closely to what is shown. We then see him eating dinner with a lady friend, where he calls Lincoln mad for issuing the Emancipation Proclamation. But it is the lady who steals the scene, when she says the truth about the proclamation, and how it did not really free anyone. Later on, we meet the character of Prussian general Heros Von Borcke (Matt Lindquist), who joins the Confederates and is a friend of J.E.B Stuart (Joseph Fuqua). Here he presents Jackson with a new uniform, a gift from Stuart, and makes him try it on. His character is quite funny, and is in one or two more scenes.
Part Three: Fredericksburg
It was at this point in the viewing, when I looked down at the player and saw there was about two more hours left, that I knew I needed some coffee. Thankfully, I was able to put the notebook down for most of this part, because it was left relatively unchanged. There is one line I like from Pendleton, though, when he tells Lee how far away Jackson is, and how quickly they will arrive. Lee asks something to the effect of, “What are his men made of?” The response is, “It’s General Jackson, sir. For him, dawn begins a minute after midnight.”
While the battle scene was pretty much unedited, there was one thing I did not understand. During the shelling of the city, when the Beales’ and Martha’s family are hiding in the cellar, and there is a knock at the door, the line Martha (Donzaleigh Abernathy) speaks is overdubbed and changed. Rather than, “Praise be, it’s young John.” it goes to, “Praise be, it’s Master John.” Perhaps this was to clarify her place as a slave within the household, though she is treated rather well.
During the scene where the generals meet beforehand, there is about five seconds of dialogue added where Stuart remarks to Jackson that he likes his new uniform. Jackson’s mannerisms make him appear more human, and the added footage really takes him down a notch from where he was, making the emotionless commander a bit more likeable, though that is how he was in real life. There is also a small, yet rousing speech given by James Kemper (the late Royce Applegate) to his men before they are deployed to the stonewall at Marye’s Heights.
My only critique here is that I really expected Maxwell to revamp the CGI effects of soldiers marching into battle. They seem to be enhanced slightly, but the superb clarity of Blu Ray does not hide the fact that they all move exactly the same way. This was scoffed at in the original, and I have no doubt it will be scoffed at by many here too.
Part Four: Moss Neck
The one section of the film that I thought the original could have done without was the telling of Jackson and his men and their dealings with the family at Moss Neck Manor. But once again, because the storyline is expanded, it fits right in and rather smoothly. It actually begins toward the tail end of Fredericksburg (I wonder why they did not wait a little longer) when Hancock brings his injured friend to the makeshift hospital. This is where we see the second bit of dialogue removed completely, as Martha’s quoting of the Book of Esther while caring for the soldier was cut out.
After seeing an insertion of Lee receiving news of Burnside’s retreat from Fredericksburg on December 15, Chamberlain is seen riding talking to a general, who I assume is Joseph Hooker, about the failure of the attack. This is where Ron Maxwell makes his cameo, as a subordinate officer in the background. The next new footage is the already released “Steal Away to Jesus” scene where Jim Lewis (Frankie Faison) talks to a fellow black Confederate soldier about how the other man was given his freedom papers right before his former master was killed in battle.
There are now two new major scenes, where Jackson’s newborn baby is baptized, and the other where we finally have meaning given to the music on the soundtrack titled, “No Photographs”. In a quite humorous sketch, photographers arrive to take a picture of Jackson, saying that they initially came for Lee but he would not have it taken until Jackson does. After much deliberation, he announces that he cannot refuse a request from Lee, and has the picture taken, much to his dismay.
Finally, to cap off Part Four, is the best of the Booth scenes. Abraham Lincoln (Christian Kauffman) and Mary Todd (Rosemary Knower) are riding in a carriage on their way to the theater, talking about how wonderful an actor Booth is, and how they are excited to see him perform Macbeth that night. Here, Booth gives the much-anticipated “Dagger of the Mind” soliloquy, where at one point, while raising the dagger, he looks Lincoln directly in the eye. When the performance is through, Booth is backstage smoking a cigar with Harrison when a worker tells him that the President wants to meet him. Booth responds, “Tell that tyrant…that destroyer of civil liberties…that war monger, that I am in dispose. Better yet, tell him nothing. That I have gone for the night.”
Part Five: Chancellorsville
While the battle scene was left alone, as far as I could tell, there is a lot of added dialogue. The first is before and after the Wilderness strategy discussion and the other is Jim Lewis talking to Von Borcke about Jackson’s eccentricities with prayer.
After Jackson is wounded, we see the rest of the footage. John Wilkes Booth makes his exeunt, with a performance in Julius Caesar, as Brutus, in which Chamberlain and his wife Fanny (Mira Sorvino) are in attendance. The two meet Booth and Harrison after the play, but Booth does not speak to the Colonel, just his wife. When they leave, Harrison becomes enamored with Chamberlain’s bravery, and then begins to talk about wanting to become a soldier. He calls it “an honor” to be killed by a man like Chamberlain, and despite Booth trying to dissuade him, it leaves off with Harrison ready to join the army (which he does, because of where he is in Gettysburg).
Jackson’s death has some minor edits as well. There is a small hymn sung while at his deathbed. After he dies, the funeral procession is shortened and the ending is slightly altered—I will not spoil that one for you, because it is quite somber. If you were teary-eyed at the end of the original, you will experience the same here.
To give this movie a number rating would not do it justice. Let’s just say that I am more than thrilled with the production that we have all waited eight years to see in its entirety. Personally, I think it was worth the wait, though I wish it was cut by a few years! The story flows a lot better and the cuts made, along with the additions, really help the audience stay focused. This was the masterful epic story that was meant to be told, and I am sure all who enjoyed the theatrical version will be head-over-heels with this one. The only thing that makes me sad about this was the fact that so much had to be put off. Because Conner put so much into the Booth character, and Harrison was so likeable in the sequel, it’s a shame that they had to wait eight years for their performances to be seen, but better late than never I guess.
For the critics that dismissed it the first time, give it another shot. Gods and Generals has been enhanced and revamped from start to finish, and it is worth a try. It will probably take another viewing or two for it all to sink in for me, but I am very happy right now to be able to have reviewed this for all of you—I hope it has wet your appetites even more. There will be no better way to commemorate this 150th anniversary of the American Civil War than to watch this film. There is so much passion behind every scene, not only because of the painstaking attention to detail, but the adventure it must have been to finally produce this project. To Ronald Maxwell, I have just two words to say: “Thank you”.
Own Gods and Generals on Blu Ray May 24th! Until then, some more of the deleted scenes have been put online. Check them out!
EDIT: Click here to read some additional follow-up to this review.