The South's `Gods and Generals': Look away

Pious, high-minded and bad history

Movie Review

February 21, 2003|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Watching Gods and Generals, Ron Maxwell's prequel to Gettysburg, is like being forced to stare for an entire afternoon at a statue of Stonewall Jackson in some Deep South town square. Before long, you hope a flock of pigeons will do their worst to it.

This lopsided chronicle of the Northern Virginia campaign in the early years of the Civil War purports to connect the wartime careers of Jackson (Stephen Lang), Robert E. Lee (Robert Duvall) and Union officers Lt. Col. Joshua Chamberlain (Jeff Daniels) and Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock (Brian Mallon). Indeed, that was the design of the original novel of the same name, written by Jeffrey Shaara, the son of Michael Shaara, the author of Gettysburg's Pultizer Prize-winning source novel, The Killer Angels. But writer-director Maxwell falls in love with Jackson and lets him and Lee dictate the movie's political and dramatic terms. They're such monotonously high-minded figures that they never give the audience a reason to surrender.

Maxwell paces every scene as deliberately as a statehouse address. He doesn't want us to miss a word as the Southerners express their conviction that President Lincoln caused the War Between the States because he called for troops to quell the rebellion around Fort Sumter, violating the sanctity of individual states. It takes a full hour for the film to cut from Lee and Jackson in Virginia to Joshua Chamberlain in Maine. Daniels, returning to his Gettysburg role, remains a welcome sight - an uncertain, vulnerable human being, not a pseudo-noble slab of granite. But his equally preachy yet more perfunctory scenes are simply a way for Maxwell to cover his left flank against attacks on his film's reverence for secessionists.

Gods and Generals is a fiasco, as a movie and as history, partly because it fails to dramatize the contradictions in the positions of Jackson and Lee - men who say they love the Union but love their native state more. Maxwell takes their pronouncements at face value. Of course, these men decreed that when they opposed raising federal troops to march into the Deep South and became mainstays of the Confederate Army, they were fighting for their own independence, freedom and integrity. But Lee and Jackson were sophisticated enough to know that most of their compatriots were intent on preserving slavery. Astonishingly, the movie's version of the Southern stance on that institution is that slavery will disappear "one way or t'other."

Few historians today pretend that the North's primary motive for war was the abolition of slavery, but even fewer contend that the South had no interest in defending slavery. As Princeton historian James M. McPherson notes in The Battle Cry of Freedom, however high the tenor of the political rhetoric, votes for secession skyrocketed in the heaviest slave-holding counties. Nonetheless, Maxwell drives slavery into the background and fringes of his movie.

The subjugation of black men and women emerges as a theme only with cringe-worthy clumsiness. A house slave who takes charge of her Fredericksburg mansion (her white family runs from the Union invaders) tells General Hancock that no matter how devoted she is to her owners, she wants to die free. Even more awkwardly, when Stonewall Jackson and his black cook Jim Lewis (Frankie Faison) share a prayer, the cook wonders why God would tolerate devout Southerners holding black people in bondage. That prayer gets a bad laugh from the audience. Then again, chuckles of any kind are so rare in this movie, even a bad laugh is a good laugh.

In handing the film over to Jackson, Maxwell takes one of the most admired and controversial figures in military history and turns him into a plaster saint. "A disciplinary martinet," "a religious fanatic," "taciturn, humorless and secretive" - those are some of the phrases McPherson uses to describe Jackson. "Jackson had tarnished some of the fame won at Manassas by an aborted winter campaign into West Virginia that provoked a near mutiny by some of his troops," writes McPherson.

But Maxwell will have none of that. He uses as his guide the James I. Robertson Jr. biography (Stonewall Jackson: The Man, The Soldier, The Legend) that offers few negative comments about the man in all of its 950 pages. In Gods and Generals, Jackson's religious passion becomes as pure as blizzard snow and as potent a force as his Southern patriotism: If he decides deserters from his own brigade should be executed, it's because they've defiled the holy unity of his Christian army. Lang, a good actor for Michael Mann in Manhunter and Crime Story, has nothing to play except a polite version of bullying force. On one occasion, he betrays a homicidal passion when he vows to "kill them all." Otherwise, he's simply intensely virtuous, whether ordering around his men or doting on a 5-year-old girl and his own infant daughter. Lang acts with a lump in his throat, as if torn up at the poignancy and magnitude of his own character's righteousness.

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