Gods and Generals. It consists of massive Civil War battle re-enactment
scenes surrounded by the longest high school play ever. How long is
it? It's longer than Gone With the Wind. How bad is it? This bad:
Late at night, two soldiers recline on the ground, staring at their
commanding officer, and one says, "Look, there is Jackson, standing like a stone wall."
Holy jumping catfish, Cletus, that's probably how he got his nickname!
Gods and Generals is the prequel to Gettysburg, the 1993 epic that
recreated the pivotal Civil War battle, adapted from Michael Shaara's
Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Killer Angels. Filmmaker Ronald
F. Maxwell and bipolar media mogul Ted Turner reunite for this production,
based on a 1996 book written by Jeff Shaara, Michael's son. Cut down
from six hours - six hours! - to roughly three hours and 40 minutes
(or, as I relayed to my friends: three hours and 40 fucking minutes
forever ripped out of my lifespan), the film is essentially a massive,
unwieldy ode to Gen. Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson of the Confederacy.
Chronologically, it opens with Virginia's decision to leave the Union,
then covers the battles leading up to Gettysburg (the first battle
of Manassas, the battle of Fredericksburg and the battle of Chancellorsville).
Along the way, we get speechifying, more speechifying, lots of long-winded
prayers, a surprising number of references to figures from ancient
Rome and more speechifying. Also included are several family scenes
that moooove veeeeeery slooooooooowly (one holiday sequence includes
two full-length songs back to back).
Stephen Lang, who had a bit part in Gettysburg as George E. Pickett,
stars as Stonewall Jackson, with Robert Duvall as Gen. Robert E. Lee.
Jeff Daniels reprises his Gettysburg role as Union Lt. Col. Joshua
Chamberlain, with C. Thomas Howell as Chamberlain's brother and Kevin
Conway as Sgt. Buster Kilrain. Frankie Faison turns up as Jackson's
cook, valet and official representative of all men of color. And then
there's the womenfolk: Kali Rocha plays Anna Jackson, Mira Sorvino
is Fanny Chamberlain and Donzaleigh Abernathy is a noble slave for
a Fredericksburg family and official representative of all women of
color. Indulgent cameo appearances are made by Sen. Phil Gramm and
Ted Turner, his own bad self, reprising his Gettysburg "role" as Confederate
Col. Waller Tazewell Patton.
The name actors are fine, although Duvall underplays his part almost
to the point of nothingness. The performances of the supporting players
range from serviceable to robotic.
Shortly after the halfway point of the film, the story slows down
(an achievement I would have deemed impossible had I not witnessed
it) as Jackson and company spends quality time with a star-struck
family. Jackson becomes attached to a beautiful little girl (Lydia
Jordan). Very, very attached. In fact, the only adult male I have
ever seen more attached to a child is Michael Jackson. To Stonewall,
the angelic child represents everything noble he believes he is fighting
for (in case anyone misses this, a couple of soldiers spell it out
later). They play games together, listen to songs together and have
several truly cringe-worthy exchanges.
An example: Stonewall: "I imagine you miss your daddy as much as I miss my daughter."
Adorable little girl: "Will my daddy ever come home?"
Stonewall, after a mighty pause: "Yes, your daddy will come home.
All the daddies will come home."
Wanna sit through three hours and 40 minutes of that?
The battle scenes, already being acclaimed by buffs for their accuracy,
look just like Civil War reenactments - overly choreographed and bloodless.
The men scream and fall down dutifully, just like extras in a vintage
western, but there is little sense of the carnage of war.
The scariest thing about Gods and Generals is the fact that, if it
is financially successful (and between the theatrical release, the
DVD/videotape release, the cable and foreign showings and the six-hour
expanded version, it probably will be), another installment is on
the horizon; a concluding mega-chapter based on Jeff Shaara's book The Last Full Measure.
War is hell.
Copyright © 2003 Edward Johnson-Ott