For Phil’s choice this week we are back to the Civil War and the movie Gods and Generals (2003) directed by Ronald F Maxwell. The movie is based on novel of the same name by Jeffrey Shaara, and is part of a trilogy of books, a prequel to the 1st book, The Killer Angels by Jeff’s Dad Michael regarding Gettysburg which also became a movie (we will be doing that too), and the 3rd book The Last Full Measure, which followed on from Gettysburg but wasn’t made into a movie. The movie company in their wisdom, decided to do Gettysburg first out of order, and it did very well at the box office, then Gods and Generals was released and didn’t do well at all, so the last book in the series wasn’t taken up.
Anyway, we are watching the first two in the correct order.
AT 4 & 1/2 hrs for the extended version, Gods and Generals is a long haul, so we did it over two nights. Not much point in doing the plot, Civil War history is huge, and if you’re from the USA you must surely have done it in school, and if not, it’s too big to go into here. Suffice to say this covers the time from when Robert E Lee resigns from the Union Army to take charge of the Confederate forces, covering Manassas, Antietam, Fredericksburg, Moss Neck, and through to the Battle of Chancellorsville and the death of Stonewall Jackson, Lee’s right hand man. Robert Duvall takes the part of Lee, and Stephen Lang of Thomas Jackson.
It’s a huge movie, with extended battle scenes, and set talky pieces inbetween. The battle scenes are meticulously planned and shown. They don’t show much blood and gore, nothing like Private Ryan and the like, but still manage to convey the absolute horror and scariness that men must feel when walking into a barrage of artillery and gunfire. It reminded me of the scenes of going over the top during The Somme in WW1. The stupidity and lack of tactical prowess shown by the Generals making the decisions on the Union side is sharply defined.
The movie focuses a lot on the doings of General Stonewall Jackson who is shown to be a sharp cookie, if a little OTT with ardent religious fervour in the movie. Military historians regard Jackson as one of the most gifted tactical commanders in U.S history, so maybe all his prayers and exhortations to the divine served him, and the Confederates well. At least until he was shot by his own men in a case of mistaken identity.
Robert Duvall is his usual self, and portrays the gravitas of Lee well, along with his skills as a tactician. Jeff Daniels is employed for the Union side, playing Colonel Joshua Chamberlain and delivering the full speech of Caesars crossing of the Rubicon to his regiment of soldiers, which seemed a bit mad but hey, it’s hollywood.
The whole film feels like it was made in the 1950’s with stilted speechifying and cheesy sentimentality inbetween some epic but bloodless battles. The slavery part of the war is not shown and barely mentioned, though the odd black person is shown being treated nicely by the whites they are with and now and again one gets a starry look in their eyes and wishes they were free. Any Southern homestead has happy looking slaves! Every man is a good guy, and all the women are angelic, every soldier is told to ‘do your duty’, and they do, getting massacred in the process (Union) or cheering a resounding victory (Confederates). The movie feels very sympathetic to the Confederates and focuses on their grievances about losing their independance, and keeps well away from the emancipation of the slaves. Maybe that comes up more in the books, or will when we watch the next installment, Gettysburg. But neither does it diss the Union either.
Part of the movie was given over to the actor John Wilkes Booth, played by Chris Connor, who is shown to be a popular actor in his day, fawned over by simpering ladies, as he is very handsome. He refuses to let President Lincoln and his Missis come back stage to meet him after they see him in a play, “You may tell that tyrant, that destroyer of civil liberties, that war monger, that I am in dispose,” he tells the stagehand who asks him if Lincoln can come back, before changing his mind to have the stagehand tell the President that he had already left for the evening. So his pro-South credentials are established.
Having watched a few documentaries now on the Civil War, I found it hard to really like this movie. Apart from the battles, it was clichéd and saccharine. Duvall didn’t really feature much so no great depth to his interpretation of Lee, just an heroic resignation speech at the beginning of the movie. Most of the movie concerned Stonewall Jackson, and Lang certainly gave himself to the part.
Fraggle Rating: On the whole, a worthy watch for anyone interested in the Civil War. Great uniform details and cinematography at least.