Ronald Maxwell’s mammoth new film “Gods and Generals” opened Feb. 21 at the Mount Vernon Multiplex, and it was a three-popcorn, two soft-drink movie with an intermission.
Prepare to spend four hours watching the drama unfold, from the time that the Virginia’s legislature voted for secession in early 1861 to the aftermath of the Battle of Chancellorsville in May 1863. The battles portrayed were fought in Northern Virginia near Manassas and in Fredericksburg.
Do not go, however, expecting to see a film about men in warfare. This is not “Saving Private Ryan” with muskets. “Gods and Generals” is not a war movie.
Rather, it is a film exploring the roles played by conscience, conviction, and religious belief in the lives of men and women affected by that cruel conflict. There are few clichés, little braggadocio, little or no posturing. This film is not cinema for lovers of John Wayne war films. Nor is it a film for Civil War buffs, although attention to detail is often exemplary.
The film title is less than accurate: it should rightly be titled “God and the Confederate Generals,” or perhaps “God and General Jackson.” The film focuses upon Jackson, deeply committed to his own Calvinism-inspired beliefs and to their impact upon him as a man, husband, father, and general.
His religious and moral beliefs and those of others portrayed were a source of their personal strength and courage. In this film, through much wonderfully written dialogue between actors and actresses, one finds fine and sensitive portrayals. It was, as historian Bruce Catton points out, an era in which grown men unashamedly expressed their religious beliefs. It is the religious, cultural, and spiritual world of the protagonists, which are the subject of this film, not the Civil War as such.
The writing avoids clichés; the protagonists are not smarmy, superficial, platitude-spouting cardboard characters uttering banalities.
As a result, those expecting a rousing boomer of an action movie might depart disappointed and some may find the film ‘‘talky.” It is not, however, dull, didactic dialogue; it is beautifully written screenplay from Jeff Shaara’s novel of the same name.
The sense of this reviewer (a committed Civil War buff) is that the novel was written taking full advantage of the diaries, letters, and memoirs from the very first people’s war on this planet, in which the majority of the participants could both read and write. The screenplay brings that alive.
There were scenes in which the quality of the acting and the dialogue moved this reviewer to tears. That was surprising to one who is neither religious, a war lover, nor prone much to enjoying ‘‘human interest’’ film.
Here is a quibble, though, from a guy who once taught a college level course on the Civil War. Buffs must suspend disbelief in the matter of General Jackson’s uniforms. Jackson was from our hills of Virginia, not the Tidewater aristocracy. He was not an exemplar of sartorial splendor and I suspect the only time he was so well arrayed as he is in this film was when they buried him at VMI in his general’s dress uniform. The “real” Stonewall dressed for comfort and convenience, for go and not for show.
Here is advice for the family viewers: Don’t take the kids. Not because there is too much blood and gore to disturb them, for there is not. Nor is there profanity and sex. It is just that most youngsters will be bored to distraction.
Plan to make it a long day or night at the movies. This film will benefit from a close watching, because the essence of the film is in the interplay between individuals, and not great battle scenes a la the cinematic presentations of “Gettysburg” (now the sequel to this ‘‘prequel”).
Stephen Lang played Virginia General George Pickett in Maxwell’s film “Gettysburg” but plays Virginian Stonewall Jackson in “Gods and Generals.” Lang is, in a word, superb. I think it will be a travesty if he is not nominated for an Academy Award.
This reviewer went primarily to view Virginia resident Robert Duvall playing the role of Robert E. Lee, a role massacred by Martin Sheen in “Gettysburg.” Lee’s role in this film, however, is relatively minor, so Duvall had very little to work with.
The only high-ranking Union General portrayed (briefly) is mutton-chopped Ambrose G. Burnside and the only laugh line in the film comes when a Union picket on one side the Rappahannock line wants to do some “commodity” trading with his Confederate opposite across the river: “Do you have a lame horse you want to trade, Johnny Reb.”
“What do you want with a lame horse, Billy Yank?” comes the reply. “As a good trade for General Burnside,” the Union soldier says. They end up sharing only tobacco and coffee and not another word mid-river.
For the greatest benefit in a later home viewing extravaganza, go out to see the film anyway. Get a foundation “read” of the film in a movie theater and for the action scenes if you wish, but remember the film’s dynamic is in the dialogue, not the action, and in character and convictions, not powder and smoke.
John James Cahill is a freelance writer, a historian, and a photographer who lives in the Mount Vernon area of Northern Virginia.
Where & When
Gods and Generals is playing at three local theaters.
*AMC Hoffman Center 22, 2500 Eisenhower Avenue, 703-236-1086
2 p.m., 3 p.m., 7 p.m., 7:45 p.m.
*Hoyts Potomac Yard Cinema 16
3575 Jefferson Davis Highway, 703-739-4040
1:50 p.m., 3:10 p.m., 7:15 p.m., 8:10 p.m.
*Multiplex Cinemas Mount Vernon
7940 Richmond Highway, 703-799-1800
2 p.m., 7:30 p.m.