“GODS AND GENERALS” (2003) Review
In 1993, producer Ted Turner and director Ronald Maxwell released “GETTYSBURG”, a film adaptation of Michael Shaara’s 1974 novel, “The Killer Angels”. Shaara’s son, Jeffrey, wrote a prequel to his novel called “Gods and Generals”in 1996. Both Turner and Maxwell teamed up again 2002-2003 to make a film adaptation of the latter novel.
Set between April 1861 and May 1863, “GODS AND GENERALS” related the American Civil War events leading up to the Battle of Gettysburg. Although the movie began with Virginia-born Robert E. Lee’s resignation from the U.S. Army, following his home state’s secession from the Union; the meat of the film focused on on the personal and professional life of Confederate general Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson during those two years. It also touched on how Bowdoin College professor Joshua L. Chamberlain became second-in-command of the 20th Maine Volunteer Infantry Regiment, his military training and his experiences during the Battle of Fredricksburg. But trust me . . . most of the movie is about Jackson. It covered his departure from the Virginia Military Institute; his experiences with the famous “Stonewall Brigade”; his experiences at the Battle of Bull Run; his relationships with both his wife Mary Anna, his servant Jim Lewis and a five year-old girl from an old Virginia family; and his experiences at the Battle Chancelorville.
“GODS AND GENERALS” had its virtues. One of them turned out to be Michael Z. Hanan’s production designs. Hanan and his team did a superb job in re-creating Virginia of the early 1860s. I was especially impressed by their recreation of mid-19th century Fredricksburg during that famous battle in December 1862. I wonder who had the bright idea of using Harper’s Ferry, West Virgina for that particular setting. Hanan’s work was ably supported by Kees Van Oostrum’s photography and Gregory Bolton’s art direction. Oostrum’s photography and Corky Ehlers’ editing was also put to good use during the Fredricksburg battle sequence. And I really enjoyed the costumes designed by Richard La Motte, Maurice Whitlock and Gamila Smith. All three did their homework in re-creating the fashions and uniforms of the period. Unlike “GETTYSBURG”, “GODS AND GENERALS” featured major female characters. I suspect this gave the trio the opportunity to indulge their romantic streak with crinolines and hoop skirts galore.
There were some admirable performances in “GODS AND GENERALS”. Frankie Faison gave a warm performance as Thomas Jackson’s free cook, Jim Lewis. I was also impressed by Brian Mallon’s subtle portrayal of the concerned Major General Winfield Hancock, a role he had first portrayed in the 1993 film. It is a pity that Bruce Boxleitner did not receive more screen time for his role as Lieutenant General James Longstreet. He had taken over the role from Tom Berenger and gave a pretty solid performance. But alas, he did not receive enough time to do anything with the role. Alex Hyde-White gave an interesting portrayal of Major General Ambrose Burnside, whose decisions led the Union Army to disaster at Fredricksburg. Matt Letscher, whom I last remembered from 1998’s “THE MASK OF ZORRO” was very memorable as the 20th Maine’s founder and first regimental commander, Colonel Adelbert Ames. I could also say the same for Mira Sorvino’s portrayal of Frances “Fanny” Chamberlain, Colonel Chamberlain’s passionate and pessimistic wife. In fact, I believe she had the good luck to portray the most interesting female character in the movie.
So . . . what about the other performances? What about the stars Stephen Lang, Jeff Daniels and Robert Duvall? I am not claiming that they gave bad performances. Honestly, they did the best they could. Unfortunately, all three and most of the other cast members had the bad luck to be saddled with very uninteresting characters, stuck with either bad dialogue or self-righteous speeches. In other words, I found them BORING!!! I am sorry, but I truly did.
First of all, Lang’s Thomas Jackson dominated the film just a little too much. Why bother calling this movie “GODS AND GENERALS”? Why not call it “THE LIFE AND TIMES OF STONEWALL JACKSON”? Even worse, Jackson is portrayed in such an unrelenting positive light that by the time the movie came around to his fate after the Battle of Chancelorville, I practically sighed with relief. Jeff Daniels’ Joshua Chamberlain did nothing to rouse my interest in his story. In fact, he disappeared for a long period of time before he made his reappearance during the Battle of Fredricksburg sequence. And his appearance in that particular sequence was completely marred by him and other members of the 20th Maine Volunteer Regiment quoting William Shakespeare’s “JULIUS CAESAR”, while marching toward Marye’s Heights. Oh God, I hate that scene so much! As for Robert Duvall’s Robert Lee . . . what a waste of his time. Ronald Maxwell’s script did not allow the actor any opportunity to explore Lee’s character during those two years leading to Gettysburg. I realize this is not Duvall’s fault, but I found myself longing for Martin Sheen’s portrayal of the Confederate general in “GETTYSBURG”.
There is so much about this movie that I dislike. One, Maxwell’s portrayal of the movie’s two main African-American characters – Jim Lewis and a Fredricksburg slave named Martha, as portrayed by actress/historian Donzaleigh Abernathy – struck me as completely lightweight. Now, I realized that there were black slaves and paid employees who managed to maintain a friendly or close relationship with their owner or employer. But in “GODS AND GENERALS”, Lewis seemed quite friendly with his employer Jackson and Martha seemed obviously close to the family that owned her, the Beales. I could have tolerated if Lewis or Martha had been friendly toward those for whom they worked. But both of them? I get the feeling that Maxwell was determined to avoid any of the racial and class tensions between the slave/owner relationship . . . or in Lewis’ case, the employee/employer relationship. How cowardly.
In fact, this lack of tension seemed to permeate all of the relationships featured in “GODS AND GENERALS”. Aside from one Union commander who berated his men for looting in Fredricksburg, I can barely recall any scenes featuring some form of anger or tension between the major characters. Everyone either seemed to be on his or her best behavior. And could someone please explain why every other sentence that came out of the mouths of most characters seemed to be a damn speech? I realize that Maxwell was trying to re-create the semi-formality of 19th century American dialogue. Well . . . he failed. Miserably. The overindulgence of speeches reminded me of the dialogue from the second NORTH AND SOUTH miniseries, 1986’s “NORTH AND SOUTH: BOOK II”. But the biggest problem of “GODS AND GENERALS” is that it lacked a central theme. The majority of the movie seemed to be about the Civil War history of Thomas Jackson. But the title and Shaara’s novel told a different story. However, I do not believe a detailed adaptation of the novel would have done the trick. Like the movie, it lacked a central theme or topic.
Perhaps I am being too arrogant in believing I know what would have made the story worked. After all, it is not my story. Jeff Shaara was entitled to write it the way he wanted. And Ronald Maxwell was entitled to adapt Shaara’s story the way he wanted. But I do know that if I had written “GODS AND GENERALS”, it would have been about the Battle of Fredricksburg. It turned out to be the only part of the movie that I found interesting.