Why do people engaged in warfare always believe that God endorses their cause and not their opponent's? The Civil War drama Gods and Generals is filled with so much religious righteousness -- endless Bible readings, urgent recitation of prayer, and ardent supplications to the Lord, to say nothing of the heavenly choir that intermittently bursts forth on the soundtrack -- that the film feels more like a recruitment tool for Soldiers for Christ than a look at the bloody four-year conflict that tore this nation apart.
The three-hour-and-42-minute film, which invokes the Lord's name so many times that a more fitting title might have been simply God and Generals, is a prequel to 1993's Gettysburg, which played briefly in theaters before finding renewed life as a TNT miniseries. Based on Michael Shaara's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Killer Angels, Gettysburg concerned a single battle -- three days of carnage in July of 1863 that proved to be the turning point in the War Between the States.
Gods and Generals covers three earlier military campaigns: the first battle of Manassas (a.k.a. Bull Run), the battle of Fredericksburg, and the battle of Chancellorsville, all of which the Confederacy won. The man most responsible for these victories was Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson (Stephen Lang), the Virginia philosophy professor who became General Robert E. Lee's most trusted commanding officer, and it is Jackson who stands front and center in this movie.
Jackson was a devoutly religious man, whose fearlessness in battle was attributed to his rock-steady faith. But writer-director Robert Maxwell and actor Lang imbue him with such religious zeal that he seems almost deranged. Whenever Jackson addresses the Almighty, he breaks into a beatific smile, his eyes shine, and he extends his arms as if expecting to be airlifted into heaven right then and there. One assumes that the depiction, based on a book written by Jeffrey Shaara, Michael's son, is factually accurate, but it is hard to take the character seriously.
Nor is Jackson alone in his devotion to God. At least five or six other characters, including General Robert E. Lee (Robert Duvall, taking over for Martin Sheen); slave Jim Lewis (Frankie Faison); and Yankee Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain (Jeff Daniels), Jackson's counterpart on the Union side, address Him aloud or earnestly praise His name. While there may not be any atheists in foxholes, as William Thomas Cummings once noted, the religious pronunciations are so numerous as to prove disruptive. Interestingly, Caesar also gets a few nods: Chamberlain twice solemnly proclaims, "Hail, Caesar! We who are about to die salute you."
Writer-director-producer Maxwell and executive producer Ted Turner apparently aren't terribly comfortable with the South's view of blacks as lower-class citizens, so the key Confederate officers take great pains to declare that they personally do not believe in slavery. How convenient.
The filmmakers wanted Gods and Generals to be more than simply a story of war, so they trot out the valiant wives whose love and support were essential to the fighting men. In fact, if the film is to be believed, Lee, Jackson, Chamberlain, and the rest were really just a bunch of sentimental old fools, dependent upon their womenfolk.
Mira Sorvino, as Fanny Chamberlain, gives one of the film's best performances. Certainly she is the only one of the actors who seems comfortable with the cadence and speech patterns of the day. The other actors, even the theater-trained Lang, sound strained and mannered.
The story unfolds in predictable images: tracking shots of marching soldiers, a family gathered around a piano, frightened civilians fleeing the Yankees. A couple of the battle scenes, however, are very impressively staged -- especially one rather late in the film, when the Rebels launch a surprise attack on the Union camp.
Given the current political situation, the battle scenes prove especially sobering -- and a good reminder of how costly war is in human terms. Those unfamiliar with how battles were fought 150 years ago will be horrified to watch as two rows of combatants march toward one another, with nothing to shield them from each other, until at perhaps 100 yards apart, they simply start firing their weapons.
More Americans lost their lives during the Civil War than in any other conflict in the nation's history. That's another sobering thought to keep in mind as the United States marches once more toward war.
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