Civil War film may reopen debate on cause of conflict

February 12, 2003

THE LIGHTS dimmed in Washington's National Theatre as the seven-member Virginia Military Institute color guard ascended the stage.

About 30 other VMI cadets followed the color guard. All snapped to attention when given the order, and an instrumental version of the national anthem rang through the theater. Most of those in attendance fervently sang the words as "The Star-Spangled Banner" wound to a conclusion.

After the VMI cadets departed, two figures went up on the stage. The lanky one with the white hair and matching mustache may have been familiar to most. He was media mogul Ted Turner. But who was that dark-haired guy in the black suit and tie?

It was none other than Ron Maxwell, movie director and screenwriter par excellence and the reason for all this fanfare. The occasion was the long-awaited premiere of Gods and Generals, the prequel to Maxwell's Gettysburg, which runs from time to time on Turner's TNT cable channel.

There's a literary angle as well. Gods and Generals is the first book in a Civil War trilogy. Jeff Shaara wrote the first book, his father Michael Shaara wrote The Killer Angels - on which Gettysburg is based. Jeff Shaara wrote the third installment, The Last Full Measure. Maxwell plans to complete the trilogy on film.

But that's getting a bit ahead of the story. On Monday night, the National Theatre crowd eagerly awaited Maxwell's 210-minute epic Gods and Generals - which opens in movie theaters nationwide Feb. 21. The credits rolled as the camera faded from the flag of one Civil War unit to the next, alternating between Union and Confederate.

The film opened with Col. Robert E. Lee - played by Robert Duvall - of the U.S. Army meeting with an envoy from President Abraham Lincoln. The president was prepared to offer Lee command of the 75,000-volunteer Union army that was being formed to put down the rebellion.

Lee attempted to clarify matters. That army was being formed to invade the Southern states, was it not? Indeed it was, the envoy answered. Lee then opined that Lincoln's call for 75,000 volunteers hadn't solved the secession crisis but had worsened it. The president of the United States forming an army to invade sovereign states was, Lee said, a form of tyranny.

The same reference to a tyrannical federal government seeking to impose its will on Southern states seeking independence was repeated as Gen. Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson (portrayed by Stephen Lang) spoke to the troops he had been ordered to raise by presidential edict. An invasion by a Northern army would subject Southern states to tyranny, Jackson told the troops.

What's this we have here? A Civil War film, in a nation run amok with political correctness, that thumbs its nose at the politically correct line? Why, everybody knows the Civil War was fought to end slavery and that those horrible Confederates were all evil racists.

The truth lies more in history's gray area than in either its black or white regions. There is one historian who theorized that the Civil War was caused by the South's economic vassalage to the North. Most of slavery's profits, this historian said, went not to Southern slaveholders, slave traders or other rich elites in the South. Most of the profits - because of economic policies that punished the South - went to Northern manufacturers. The South seceded to keep the money at home and end this unequal treatment.

This tendentious historian wasn't one of those apologists for the South known to have written biased and pro-Confederate history. It was black historian J.A. Rogers who made the claim in his book Africa's Gift To America. Rogers hailed from Jamaica, not America's North or South. Thus he had no ax - racial, ideological or otherwise - to grind in dealing with North or South, American black or American white.

Maxwell attempts in Gods and Generals to give a balanced picture of the forces that drove North and South to war. After giving the Confederate viewpoint an airing that might seem to some viewers sympathetic, Maxwell switches to Union Col. Joshua Chamberlain (Jeff Daniels), who says he believes his Southern enemies are sincere about fighting for independence against tyranny. Chamberlain then wonders why the Confederates can see no tyranny in slavery itself.

Here's hoping that Gods and Generals causes the debate to rage even more about the origins of what should rightly be called the War Between the States. It will be good for box office, which means Maxwell's unrelentingly brilliant film may be rewarded at the 2004 Oscars.

In fact, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences should just give Lang his Best Actor Oscar this year instead of waiting until next. His unparalleled performance as Jackson should be one thing about which there is no debate.

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