Paid for by Ted Turner and written and directed by Ron Maxwell, "Gods and Generals" is the large-budget prequel to their 1993 film "Gettysburg," a hit that first flopped at the box office but then triumphed on video and Turner's cable channels.
Recounting the first two years of the war, "Gods and Generals" tracks three heroes. Two are natural warriors from Virginia: Robert Duvall as Robert E. Lee and stage veteran Stephen Lang as Stonewall Jackson. The other is a painfully self-made one from Maine: Jeff Daniels as Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, the professor of rhetoric who may have single-handedly saved the Union at Gettysburg.
The forceful Duvall is certainly believable as Lee the commander, but he may be a little too roughhewn to fully portray Lee the quintessential Southern gentlemen.
I've always found Daniels an actor easy to identify with, but never more so than when, flinching and cringing, this implausible officer leads his men unfalteringly into a withering Confederate fusillade at Fredericksburg.
In contrast, Lang's Jackson, the central character, stands in battle like the proverbial stonewall, serenely convinced that his fate is in God's hands, but also ferociously willing to help as many Yanks as possible meet their fates. Lang's volcanic performance as this Old Testament prophet-conqueror demonstrates that Stonewall was a great man indeed (although perhaps Jackson was not so common and boring as to be wholly sane).
In a Hollywood that lusts after the under-25 demographic, Maxwell has done something very strange. He has made "Gods and Generals" in the style that his 19th century characters would have thought fitting. The pace of this nearly four-hour film is bucolic, the dialogue reverent, the people heroic, and the vision romantic.
Modern audiences will have particular trouble with the literary formality with which characters address each other. They speak in ways that seem unnatural to us -- they read the Bible aloud together and quote from memory 17th century poetry and Suetonius' Roman history.
Yet, that's how the educated classes talked in the 1860s. They read more than we do now, but owned less printed material. So, they read classics over and over. Lincoln, for example, was marinated in the King James Bible and Shakespeare. They were adept at high rhetoric and loved orations.
"Gods and Generals" embodies what Greil Marcus, biographer of Bob Dylan (who contributes the closing song), called "the old, weird America:" those peculiar little communities that existed before mass media, rapid transportation, and widespread military service rationalized and homogenized our culture.
Each company wears a uniform of its own design (the flamboyant New York Zoaves march into battle dressed like the Jacks on a deck of playing cards), making it hard to tell friend from foe. Each soldier and politician cultivates his idiosyncratic style of hair and beard, with some showing bizarre creativity that would put MTV to shame.
"Gods and Generals" is an ode to local loyalties, especially ties to the beautiful land of Virginia. Maxwell, a New Jersey-raised son of a Jewish GI and his French war-bride, pointed out to me, "In the 19th century, few people wandered more than 100 miles from their home with any regularity ... Most people would be tied by bonds of affection and loyalty to a particular place."
In the first scene, Lee turns down command of the Federal army because he can't countenance Lincoln's invasion of his "country" -- Virginia. To me, a staunch Union man from Southern California (which barely existed before the 1880s), Lee's equating state with country seems unthinkable. Yet, to Lee and Jackson, the Old Dominion's 1607 founding was as far back in the venerable past as the French and Indian War is to us.
Historian Shelby Foote famously observed, "Before the war, it was said, 'The United States are ...' Grammatically, it was spoken that way and thought of as a collection of independent states. After the war, it was always 'The United States is ...'"
Maxwell will be heavily criticized for downplaying slavery as a cause of the war (and, even worse, for portraying blacks who remained loyal to their masters), but slavery's role was more indirect than is now smugly assumed. After all, most Confederate soldiers owned no slaves. And, as "Gangs of New York" glancingly illustrated, many Northerners' goal was not to free blacks, but to keep them far away, where they wouldn't depress wages in the North.
Both Lincoln and the most dynamic slave-owners, however, understood that slavery was central. The old localism celebrated by Maxwell could not stand. Railroads and westward expansion were already rendering it obsolete. Slavery, both sides grasped, couldn't remain the South's "peculiar institution." In a nationalizing economy, it would have to become legal everywhere or nowhere. Slavery had to move forward or die, like a shark.