Not too long ago, I actually put myself through the torture of renting the extended edition of “Gods and Generals.” The almost universal gnashing of teeth over this movie on the part of historians and reenactors is old news. But, the relatively recent release of the director’s cut re-opened that wound for me. And so I must here lament.
“Gods and Generals” (2003) was the much anticipated prequel to the fairly well-received epic film “Gettysburg” (1993). The latter was a decent movie. Produced by Ted Turner, directed by Ron Maxwell, “Gettysburg” was based on the 1974 novel by Michael Shaara entitled Killer Angels. The novel is, in my humble opinion, the best piece of historical fiction ever written about the Civil War. The movie version, “Gettysburg,” began as a made-for-tv production, and therefore has a sort of low-budget feel. And it looks rather like one big Civil War reenactment. That is to say, fake, lacking the grit and realism that a war movie ought to have. But, still, “Gettysburg” has its good moments and I watch it again from time to time.
Author Jeff Shaara (son of Michael Shaara who wrote Killer Angels) penned a prequel to his father’s book called Gods and Generals, which takes the reader from the beginning of the Civil War up to the Battle of Gettysburg. He also wrote a sequel, Last Full Measure, which runs from Gettysburg to the end of the war.
When word got out around 2000 that Turner and Maxwell would be making a movie based on Gods and Generals, I was both excited and apprehensive. The novel was alright, but no Killer Angels. And the movie “Gettysburg” had also been alright, but no Killer Angels. So there was a sense early on that this could all go quite wrong. Still, there really are so few Civil War movies out there, it was exciting and many eagerly awaited its release.
Also exciting, they were seeking thousands of reenactors to take part. I was relatively new to reenacting at the time, but I enthusiastically signed up to be one of the hordes of extras.
First, some critique of the movie itself. When “Gods and Generals” was first released in theaters, I was woefully disappointed, and so was just about everyone I knew. At more than three and half hours, it was painfully slow, most of the acting dreadful, the storylines haphazard. When the extended edition (a grueling four and a half hours) came out some months ago, I thought perhaps there might be some more meat to the storylines. Perhaps the characters would be more fleshed out. I was quite wrong in this.
My issues with the movie would fill many a blog post. So I will focus on my two biggest complaints. First and foremost, “Gods and Generals” somehow became a bio-pic about Stonewall Jackson. The novel was not so. This, in and of itself, would not be a bad thing. Jackson was a huge figure in American history and deserves to be the central character of a film. But he was so very poorly written in this movie. Actor Stephen Lang did, I think, the best he could with the script he was given. But the dialogue is so stilted. And the effort near the end of the movie to depict Jackson as a Christ figure, complete with stigmata, is just so awfully over the top, it is nauseating. It is hagiography at its worst.
Second, the depictions of the few black characters are just disturbing. One, a slave who follows his master to war to be a cook in the Confederate army because he wants to “do my share” is just bizarre. Another black character is freed but still chooses to be a laborer for the Confederate army and is proud that he is being paid wages to do so. Another black character, Martha, is a slave for a well-to-do family in Fredericksburg and is depicted as a beloved member of the family who is protective and loyal to those who “own” her. I get that they are trying to depict slaves who supported the South and felt strong and empowered by that decision. Really, the way it comes across is just a throw back to “Gone With the Wind.” A rosy, sugar-coated (I might even say delusional) depiction of what most slaves experienced.
On a positive note, the scenes of Union forces charging Marye’s Heights at Fredericksburg are very good. The Irish Brigade sequence is quite effective and the combat depiction in front of Fredericksburg’s infamous stonewall is possibly some of the best I’ve seen in any Civil War film. I honestly would recommend that people simply watch the Fredericksburg sequence and nothing else.
In December of 2001, I went down to Virginia, drove through the night, flopped down for about an hour’s sleep and then got up to be an extra in some of the Fredericksburg scenes. It was an interesting experience. The high point…I somehow managed to be standing right next to one of the principal characters when he delivered a line, and so I got my “close up” that lasts roughly 0.5 seconds.
During this sequence, we were supposed to represent Zook’s brigade as they crossed the canal at the foot of Marye’s Heights. Our canal was a sunken ditch, not unlike the real one, traversed by numerous wooden planks. And our job was to run across the planks, reform on the other side, then go back to “one.” That is, return to the other side of the ditch and do it again. And again. And again.
I had the role of a sergeant during this sequence. And so, when we reached the other side, I was supposed to urge men into line. I was specifically instructed by the crew to do so. All good, it was something I was accustomed to doing. I did this by tapping men on the shoulder, or giving a slight tug on their coat, telling them to get in line, hurry up, dress the line. Actual sergeants would have pushed and shoved, but this is a big no-no in reenacting, especially when you are working with strangers.
While we reenactors performed our simple maneuver, there were stunt men among us who had very carefully choreographed “hits” to take. They stood near ground charges, leaping into the air when they went off and splashing into the ditch. It looked very painful.
During one take, I was doing my usual “get into line boys” and I turned to some men in uniform who were lagging behind and definitely not getting into line. I tapped one of them on the shoulder. At which point he wheeled on me with fist raised. I was rather sure I would be missing some teeth in the next second. I then realized he was a stunt man. A very adrenalin-filled stunt man who bellowed, “Get the eff off me! I am effing working here!” That’s not precisely what he said, but you get the idea.
My fault. I skulked back to the line feeling like a complete ass. The corporal next to me made me feel a bit better by commenting on the fact that the man had overreacted just a wee bit.
Lesson learned. Do not ever touch a stunt man. Is it possible that this negative experience tainted my opinion of “Gods and Generals?” No. The movie is still terrible.