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 renewed that frustration for me.
“Gods and Generals” (2003) was the much anticipated prequel to the fairly well-received 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 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 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 if handled honestly. Jackson was a huge figure in Civil War history and an examination of him in film would be interesting. But this film was hagiography at its worst. Actor Stephen Lang did, I think, the best he could with the script he was given. 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.
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 suspect there was some sense on the writer’s part that these characters were in some way “empowered” by their decisions. In fact, the opposite is true as they essentially choose to stand by the institution of slavery. It is a throw back to “Gone With the Wind.” A delusional depiction of what most slaves experienced.
On a positive note, the scenes of Union forces charging Marye’s Heights at Fredericksburg are well done (if you skip over Jeff Daniel’s over-dramatic recitation of Lucan). 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.
The film might have done a great deal more with the right script. Instead it serves to reinvigorate the old Lost Cause myth.