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Gods & Generals

[Our Sunday Visitor, March 2, 2003]

What is it about the Civil War? We can’t quite get over it. It’s a story we tell ourselves over and over, never sure we’ve gotten it right.

There’s good reason for that. It’s a complex story, and the easy categories of South Bad, North Good don’t do it justice. Yet, just to demonstrate our ambivalence, it’s the South we pine for. More reenactors want to be Rebs than Yanks. No Northern gal holds the heart-place of Scarlett O’Hara. You can attribute this to romanticizing the losing side, but nobody romanticizes Hitler.

Ronald Maxwell’s trilogy on the Civil War, based on the novels by Michael and Jeff Shaara, began ten years ago with “Gettysburg.” This new release is “Gods and Generals,” and if it gets the attention it deserves, we’ll also get to see the final installment, “Last Full Measure.”

“Gods and Generals” easily takes the head of a long line of films about the Civil War. Maxwell’s work sets a standard of comprehensiveness, realism, and balance that no other film attempts, much less achieves. It does this through meticulous attention to period detail and unprecedented use of on-site photography, bringing viewers a “You Are There” experience that only film could provide.

Much in the new film is of highest quality: the cinematography is dazzling, and the music brings it to life. The battle sequences are overwhelming; not merely bloody (though they are sometimes that) but so evocative of real face-to-face warfare that they are exhausting. The opening of “Saving Private Ryan” is not as wrenching as this, because in the WW II drama you couldn’t see the eyes of the man you’re killing.

But in quieter dialogue sequences the film lags. It aims too low, shooting for sentimentality rather than tragedy. The difference is that sentiment brings an easy tear to the eye, while tragedy opens a sudden chasm of thoughts and emotions, evoking stunned wonder that lingers in memory. “Gods and Generals” falls short of such complexity, though it easily raises tears.

During the screening I scribbled in my notes, “Just a series of staged dramatic moments.” Later I wondered, Well, isn’t that what every film is? Problem is, it shouldn’t show so much. And in a period movie like this, where the scenes are full of oldfangled dialogue, it can drag even more. Not every actor can wrap his mouth around “shall.” Try this: “I was able to obtain a good spyglass and could ascertain beyond all doubt that our house is still standing.” Can you deliver that better than the unfortunate saddled with it in the movie?

An early scene between Jeff Daniels and his on-screen wife, Mira Sovino, demonstrates the problem. Daniels repeats the same role for which he won accolades in “Gettysburg” ten years ago. (It’s unfortunate that the films are out of sequence, and this second film actually precedes “Gettysburg” historically. Future viewers of the series will wonder what kind of miracle spa Col. Joshua Chamberlain went to between May and June of 1863.) While I think Daniels wants to portray Chamberlain as thoughtful, he comes across as merely passive and slow on the uptake. This is effective when he’s a battered everyman in a disastrous retreat sequence, but is merely sodden in an earlier scene with his wife. In this stilted set-piece, Sorvino must not only be angry with her husband in ponderous language, but also recount a dream, and then wind up by reciting a poem. On the page, it’s a nightmare. Sorvino overcomes it, however, through the miracle of what experts call “acting.” She uses her breathing, breaks up lines, develops a catch in her throat, and in every way runs circles around the horsehair-stuffed dialogue.

Robert Duvall, as Robert E. Lee, is likewise brilliant in delivering material that could have easily sounded stiff. His Lee is fundamentally reserved, a quiet, thoughtful person of rare empathy, and as such he exerts gravitational pull over every scene he’s in. In an interview Duvall explained that when confronted with long stretches of period dialogue his impulse was to “take the curse off” by looking for physical business to break it up, a prop to handle or stirrup to adjust. For one scene he suggested that Lee be seen soaking an injured hand in Epsom salts. “That wasn’t how they wanted things,” he said, “they wanted it to be just straightforward.” Duvall played the material as required, yet his impeccable instincts make him shine in every scene.

The big surprise of the film is its strong theme of faith, specifically that of Stonewall Jackson, played by Stephen Lang. Jackson is a harder man than Lee, and one whose personal tragedies have led him to absolute trust in God’s providence no matter what it brings. This daring faith is the centerpiece of the movie and its true hero.

The Jackson character recalls many Civil War films gone before, as it depicts the epic struggle of a man and his beard. It is a false beard, and you would think scientists had a cure for this by now, but no. With a hat pulled low over his eyes, and the beard aggressively encamped throughout his lower face, Lang is cast back upon few facial resources, chiefly consisting of nose. Many of the makeup shortcomings of the earlier film have been improved here, but the false beards are still overpopulated and thick as sofa cushions. Lang’s is an eloquent nose, as noses go (note to editor: do not substitute “as noses run”), but faced with such a challenge even Gielgud’s nose would stand perplexed.

The shortcomings of “Gods and Generals,” its hokey moments and occasional makeup and accent flubs, are minor compared to the extraordinary scope of its achievement. The Civil War is a story we keep telling ourselves, and the retelling is now part of the story. Ronald Maxwell’s films tell this vexed story more clearly and fully than any film has before, and move us one step closer toward the understanding that will finally bring us rest.


Video Club

Since the members of each local group rent and watch videos separately, then gather to discuss them in a meeting, or even over email, it’s not necessary for everyone to watch the same film. (If you don’t have a local group, start one!) This month, individuals should choose among “Gone With the Wind” (1939), “The Red Badge of Courage” (1951), “Shenandoah” (1965), and, if you can find it, the controversial silent classic, “Birth of a Nation” (1915). Ask: why is it hard for us to resolve our feelings about the Civil War? What changing attitudes do these films show? Finally, and perhaps most eerie: why have the greatest Civil War movies been released right before America enters a war?

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