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'Gods and Generals'

'Gods and Generals' is a long history lesson

Friday, February 21, 2003

By Ron Weiskind, Post-Gazette Movie Editor

"Gods and Generals," a movie about the Civil War, seems an apt centerpiece for a dispute almost as old as cinema itself. In a film based on actual events, what's more important: historical accuracy or dramatic necessity?

'Gods And Generals'

RATING: PG-13 for sustained battle sequences.

STARRING: Stephen Lang, Robert Duvall, Jeff Daniels.

DIRECTOR: Ronald F. Maxwell.

WEB SITE: www.godsandgenerals.com


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Historical buffs tend to boil over at Oliver Stone films such as "JFK" or "Nixon," fearing that young people will mistake the director's ideological, often conspiratorial take on events for proven fact. Filmmakers will argue that just the facts, ma'am, can leech the dramatic vitality from a story and make it tedious to watch.

"Gods and Generals" seems accurate to a fault. We remember these battles, we know these words from the history books. Unfortunately, too often the film feels like a classroom lesson. The actors often sound like they are reciting speeches rather than engaging in dialogue, playing icons instead of characters.

It starts in the very first scene, when a representative of President Lincoln offers command of the Union army to Robert E. Lee (Robert Duvall). Lee declines, declaring himself unable to raise a hand against his native state of Virginia. The formal stiffness in Duvall's demeanor is not just reflective of the manners of Lee's time, it also represents a historical straitjacket that can squeeze the character dry.

But the central character in "Gods and Generals" is Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson (Stephen Lang), a teacher at Virginia Military Institute and a religious man with a mystic (some would say fanatical) air about him.

Lang brings this fearless soldier fully to life in the incident that earned him his nickname -- standing like a stone wall, in the words of a fellow officer, at First Manassas as he rallies his troops on the counterattack to rout the Union forces. Jackson is the one fully rounded character in the movie.

The battle scenes -- the movie re-creates First Manassas, Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville -- could have been more elegantly filmed by writer-director Ronald F. Maxwell, but there was nothing elegant about this war. The men slog on, often into certain death, until their superiors tell them to stop. It impresses upon us both the mindlessness of it and the amazing sense of duty practiced by these soldiers. The film benefits from the use of Civil War re-enactors in these scenes.

One of the problems with historical accuracy is that it can spread like kudzu. "Gods and Generals" runs almost four hours, including an intermission. It's too much, and it could have been worse: Maxwell's original cut was six hours and included the battle of Antietam.

"Gods and Generals" is a prequel to the 1993 film "Gettysburg," also written and directed by Maxwell, which was a better film. It was able to focus on a narrow slice of the war, a battle that lasted just three days although its influence cannot be measured. "Gods and Generals" covers the first two years of the war -- it needs a figure like Jackson to hold everything together. Even then, it contains a series of sickly saccharine scenes of a 5-year-old girl forging a friendship with him.

While the movie stresses accuracy, it also approaches its subject from its own particular point of view. Its sympathies are clearly with the South, but not because of slavery. Even the epigram at the beginning of the film states the rebel soldiers were fighting primarily to protect the sanctity of their homeland -- Lee's own decision to place Virginia above the United States supports this view.

The strongest condemnation of slavery comes not from one of the two significant (and historical) black characters in the film but from a white Northerner, Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain (Jeff Daniels, reprising his "Gettysburg" role).

One of the black characters is Jackson's cook, Jim Lewis (Frankie Faison), whom the general calls Mr. Lewis when they meet. Would any Confederate have referred to a slave by an honorific? One night, while Jackson prays, Lewis responds by asking God to help these good people recognize that the blacks should be free.

Donzaleigh Abernathy has a larger role as Martha, a house servant to a Fredericksburg family that treats her virtually as one of their own. When they must flee, she insists on staying behind to protect the house from the Yankees, which she does -- by posing as its owner, wearing her mistress' clothes. Later, she tells a Northern general how much the slaves crave their freedom.

These are ambiguous relationships, to be sure. If "Gods and Generals" had been more willing to explore such gray areas, where history doesn't fill in all the gaps, it would have been a more dramatically satisfying movie.

Costumes from the film will be on display starting Tuesday at the Soldiers & Sailors National Military Museum & Memorial, 4141 Fifth Ave., Oakland.

Ron Weiskind can be reached at rweiskind@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1581.

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