I re-watched Gods and Generals over the weekend. I had seen it when it first came out in 2003 and didn’t like it, but I had been wanting to watch it again to see if my first impressions remained the same. They were. Oh my, what a confused, exasperating, sappy, speechifying mess of a film! At least the beard of Confederate General Longstreet in this film was better than beard of Tom Berenger’s Longstreet in Gettysburg. Beyond that, this film was an embarrassment for all involved.
Gods and Generals fails as history—one is hard pressed to gain real understanding of the Civil War, or any part thereof, from watching this film. It compresses events and simplifies motivations—although let that pass since it is a commonplace for historical drama. It omits critical elements necessary to any attempt at explaining the war in northern Virginia. For example, the film’s time period is essentially from the battle of First Bull Run through Chancellorsville, summer 1861-spring 1863.
Yet it even fails to mention the most important battle in the East during that period, Antietam. If the goal is historical, this is a huge omission. But I found truly upsetting that Gods and Generals is so pro-Confederate. They were characterized as “oh so noble,” fighting for their state’s rights. I kept waiting for a conclusion that characterized this rebellion of several southern states as a “war of northern aggression.” It really does give voice to the debates taking place during the Civil War sesquicentennial presently underway about the nature of the war, and comes down firmly on the side that does not slavery as the chief cause of the “late unpleasantness,” as T. Harry Williams used to call it.
In reality, the Confederates were traitors seeking to prop up slavery and the people who profited from that evil institution.. The high point in the film, as far as I’m concerned, was the speech of Joshua Chamberlin to his brother about the Emancipation Proclamation and how it was critical that freeing the slaves become the core aim of the war.
Well, perhaps Gods and Generals was not really about history at all. Perhaps it was just an historical drama in that same way that Anna Karenina is one. If so, then it most assuredly fails there as well. It is overly long, boring, and sanctimonious. No one in the film seems to talk. They all give speeches, all the time. And they deliver them with stultifying and stupifying rigidity. I did like Stephen Lang’s Stonewall Jackson, although the real Jackson was more interesting and charismatic. I also liked Jeff Daniels’ Joshua Chamberlain, as I did his playing of the same part in Gettysburg as well. Both actors made the best of a bad script. I also thought Robert Duvall’s Robert E. Lee was much more effective than Martin Sheen’s Lee from Gettysburg, but he appears so seldom and is so peripheral to the plot that his talent is wasted.
I wish this had been a better movie, both i n terms of history and in terms of drama. On to other Civil War films.