Gods and Generals: 'Stonewalling' the Civil War

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Gods and Generals: 'Stonewalling' the Civil War
Ten years ago, Turner Productions and Director Ron Maxwell collaborated on a film that many people believe is the finest Civil War movie made. Now they have collaborated again on "Gods and Generals," from Jeff Shaara's presequel book to his father Michael's "The Killer Angels." WGT Managing Editor Joe Gannon reviews this epic new Civil War film.

Let me say up front that I participated in "Gods and Generals," a 3-hour-40-minute-long film directed by Ronald Maxwell and produced by Ted Turner. I served as a reenactor extra, as I did in their first Civil War collaboration, "Gettysburg." I hoped that I would love this movie.

If you have read the reviews in any of the major American papers you'll know that critics have heaped scorn on "Gods and Generals." I do agree with some of their criticisms. When a movie is close to four hours long, it is bound to have many slow spots, and this film has its share. There are too many long speeches, for one, and the tone of them often crosses over into sanctimony.

Make no mistake, though; the events being depicted were momentous. They certainly would tend to make people wax often profound. But this movie provides too many of such moments. Much of what is wrong with this film, in comparison to "Gettysburg," may simply be Michael Shaara's death in 1988. He wrote the Pulitzer Prize-winning historical novel "The Killer Angels," which provided the basis for "Gettysburg," and his inspiration is missing here.

"Gods and Generals" is told, in large part, from a Southern perspective. The opening scenes were nearly all about how the Southerners viewed the events of the time. We saw numerous Southern "boys" and officers heading off to "defend their homes," but almost nothing of the Northerners heading off to "save the Union." The Southern viewpoint continues to dominate throughout the movie.

Stephen Lang
'GODS AND GENERALS' PHOTOS ARE COURTESY
TED TURNER PICTURES

Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson is the movie's focus, which ensures it a Southern slant. Jackson is one of the most interesting and compelling figures of the war, and his dynamic leadership until his sudden death provided the Confederate army in the East victory after victory. So one can understand this focus by director Ron Maxwell. Luckily for the movie's quality, Stephen Lang's performance as Jackson is excellent. If Lang's Jackson seems "too religious" (one reviewer calls Lang's portrayal 'Confederate Taliban'), all the historical evidence points to this portrayal being correct.

The only major Union figure in the film is 20th Maine Infantry commander Joshua Chamberlain. With most of the face time going to the Confederates, it was up to Jeff Daniels as the professorial colonel, reprising his role from "Gettysburg," to "save the Union" here. It is my sad duty to report that this time "the Union was lost."

The vigorous Daniels of "Gettysburg" -- filmed 11 years ago -- may have been up to the task; the Daniels of "Gods and Generals" is not. Future viewers of the first two films of this trilogy may wonder if Chamberlain spent the first six months of 1863 in a fitness program. Overall, Daniels' performance seems flat and uninspired. They should get someone else to play Chamberlain if and when they make "Last Full Measure," the proposed third and final part of the trilogy.

A somewhat less svelte version of Col. Chamberlain leads his troops at Fredericksburg.

The movie skips from the battle of 1st Manassas in July 1861, the war's first major battle, to the battle of Fredericksburg in December 1862, without any explanation of the interim. Some may leave the theater thinking that the next battle in the East after 1st Manassas was Frederickburg. I realize that the film was too long already to include filmed segments on all the intervening battles -- which happens to include the single bloodiest day in U.S. history at Antietam -- but in the film we don't even hear anything about them having taken place. There is no explanation of any of the very important events of a year and a half of war that led up to Fredericksburg.

A few comments on Irish-related historical problems: Author Jeff Shaara's inaccurate portrayal of Thomas Francis Meagher at Antietam andFredericksburg, and the bogus lines he gives Meagher are not repeated here. Antietam is not portrayed, and, in his two brief moments, Meagher has no lines, and he is not depicted as wounded on horseback at Fredericksburg. The fact that the actor (actually re-enactor) who portrays Meagher is close to 20 years older than Meagher was at the time is unfortunate.

Complaints made by two Irish Brigade soldiers before the assault at Fredericksburg about Meagher not going with them up the hill in the assault were mitigated by one of the soldiers noting that Meagher injured his knee. I believe that last statement may have been inserted in the script after historical advisor (and WGT contributing editor) Brian Pohanka complained that it was unfair to Meagher without some explanation. The portrayal here left me wondering if screenwriter Maxwell's lines, which are not in Shaara's book, were influenced by Kelly J. O'Grady's book, which is highly critical of Meagher's performance at Fredericksburg. Or Maxwell may have wanted to reinforce the idea that many of the Federal commanders were lacking in leadership qualities. The exception is General Winfield Scott Hancock, a holdover from "Gettysburg" ably portrayed again by fluent Irish-speaker Brian Mallon, but Mallon is given little to do in this movie.

The movie also mislabels the Confederate unit opposing the Irish Brigade at the wall at Fredericksburg as an "Irish regiment." There were many Irishmen among the force, and the man in command, Col. Robert McMillan (not depicted in the movie) was an Irish native, but there was no Confederate "Irish regiment" at the wall. It was a nice touch, however, to include several Irish-influenced Confederate flags, including that of the 1st Virginia Infantry, at various spots in the film, including the opening credits.

The Confederates overrun the Federal 11th Corps at Chancellorsville.

A nice moment after the Fredericksburg battle occurs when matriarch Jane Beale (portrayed by Mia Dillon) comments on the sad irony that the fields where so many of the Irish Brigade just died was once planted with corn later sent to Ireland for famine relief. I'm not sure that it is historically accurate, but it provides an emotional touchstone bridging the Old and New Worlds, and how the war shifted the ground beneath both the Irish and native Americans. The scene provides a sense that war is always a failure of man's better instincts.

Still, the battle scenes may be the one area in which this movie matches "Gettysburg." The lead-up to Jackson's flank attack at Chancellorsville and the routing of the Federal forces there is particularly dramatic. The Wagnerian musical accompaniment increases the tension by the second.

"Gods and Generals" is a flawed movie, but, if you are interested in the Civil War, go and see it on the big screen while you can, which may not be long in light of the chorus of scathing reviews. Let us hope that Jeff Shaara's "Last Full Measure" will be filmed to complete this Civil War trilogy, and that the day after it debuts we will be discussing how much better it was than "Gods and Generals."

LINKS

  • Read more about Thomas Francis Meagher.
  • Read about the Irish at the Battle of Antietam.
  • Read about the Irish at the Battle of Fredericksburg.
  • Photogaphs from the set of "Gods and Generals" by Jim Wassel.
    WGT Managing Editor Joe Gannon, otherwise a researcher in a corporate library in Connecticut, has been participating in Civil War reenacting for 12 years and is currently a mainstay of the 27th Connecticut Volunteer Infantry. Gannon and many other members of the unit worked as extras in both "Gettysburg," based on "The Killer Angels," and "Gods and Generals."
    From the Publisher

    Jeff Shaara, right, explores the lives of Generals Lee, Hancock, Jackson and Chamberlain as the pivotal Battle of Gettysburg approaches. Shaara captures the disillusionment of both Lee and Hancock early in their careers, Lee's conflict with loyalty, Jackson's overwhelming Christian ethic and Chamberlain's total lack of experience, while illustrating how each compensated for shortcomings and failures when put to the test. The perspectives of the four men, particularly concerning the battles at Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville, make vivid the realities of war. Buy GODS AND GENERALS atAMAZON.COM . .

    Copyright © 2012 GAR Media LLC. This article may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed without prior permission from the author. Direct questions about permissions to permissions@garmedia.com.

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