Line up philosopher-generals with fabulous uniforms and terrifying facial hair on either side of grassy fields. Advance ragtag lines of anonymous young boys and old men into musket- and bayonet-fueled battle against one another. Survey the legions of dead and dying who’ve given their lives for political concepts they scarcely grasp. Rinse and repeat. And repeat. And repeat.
War movies — what are they good for? Absolutely nothing, if they’re not going to illuminate what drives nations to fight or what drives the people who do the fighting, or even if they’re not merely meant to immerse us in the emotional and physical viscerality of combat. Ron Maxwell’s Civil War opus, based on Jeff Shaara’s bestselling novel, thinks it’s doing all of that, but it’s far remote and far too antiseptic to do either.
Gods and Generals desperately implores us, on the one hand, to weep with pity for the carnage arrayed across Southern hillocks and for the ironies of war so amplified by the domestic strife of a divided nation, and on the other hand, to appreciate the human impulses that informed the actual logistics of the war. But it’s so full of its own importance — and with so little reason — that the reaction it invites most often, apart from indifference, is derisive laughter. This nearly four-hour orgy of battle reenactments, as blandly meticulous as anything you’ll find on documentary cable TV, devotes so much of its stupendous running time to marching and shooting and reloading and shooting and regrouping and some more marching that in the short space left for the characters to attempt to make themselves human, there’s no time for anything other that declamation and speechifying — everyone talks as if they know they’ll be quoted in a history book someday, as if they know the world is watching even in their most private moments. What is intended, it seems, as an intimate look at the men who plotted the strategies that won and lost the war never brings us any closer to illuminating for us either the personal or the political motivations of the men. All we get are the same broad, coolly detached brushstrokes of the junior high social studies books that read as if they’re intended to turn the reader off to a deeper understanding of the private passions that drive the course of history.
Hero of the South General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson is the putative hero of this piece, too, though all that we learn about him is offered right up front: his faith in his god leads him to believe that he is right in thinking whatever it is he thinks about the South — those particulars are not shared with us. Jackson has nowhere to go from there — he doesn’t change or grow or learn anything about himself over the course of the film, and so neither do we learn much about him. Actor Stephen Lang — best known from the stage but also as General George Pickett in Maxwell’s Gettysburg, of which Gods is a prequel — deserves better than he gets here; he imbues Jackson with a wholly believable ardor, but writer- director- producer Maxwell gives us no larger context in which to understand him. The effect is, uncomfortably, a reactionary one. With the intense, if blurred, focus on Jackson hardly balanced out by a far weaker exploration the Northern characters — chiefly Colonel Joshua Chamberlain, portrayed by an ineffectual and miscast Jeff Daniels (The Hours, The Crossing) — and only bare nods given to the issues of slavery and racism or even the preservation of the Union, the film is startlingly sympathetic to the spirit of the Confederacy. And by concentrating only on the first half of the war, in which mismanagement by Northern commanders handed the South decisive victories, it seems to acknowledge that sure, while everybody thinks God is on their side in every war, he really was taking sides in this one.
The lack of context and the lack of closure of the issues at stake, both personal and political, ensure that Gods and Generals will appeal strictly to Civil War buffs, half of whom, it seems must actually appear in the film, as the legions of hobbyist reenactors who fill out the battle scenes. As a way to kill any love of history, though, this would-be epic is perfect. Surely it’s destined to be shown in 8th-grade American history classes, much to the dismay of 13-year-olds everywhere.