Gods and Generals (2003)

Written & Directed by Ronald F. Maxwell

As a young middle school student I came across something of a miracle that, ultimately, helped to mold my future educational path more than I would know. That miracle was The Killer Angels, a fantastic historical fiction novel written by Michael Shaara. Film lovers may be more familiar with this work in its movie form, Ron Maxwell’s 1993 film Gettysburg, a mammoth of a film that, while not necessarily a pop culture hit, remains a great war film that featured some sizable stars like Martin Sheen, Jeff Daniels, and even a younger Stephen Lang. Gods and Generals fits into this narrative as the first part of the Shaara Civil War trilogy which was completed by Michael’s son Jeff. The third part being The Last Full Measure, which was never made into a film. Jeff Shaara has become one of my favorite authors and his fictionalized accounts of historical events helped lead me toward my degree in History, so it comes to somewhat of a surprise that it took me this long to see this film. Well, I guess the fact that it is 4 1/2 hours long may have kept me at bay.

That number alone is enough to lose the interest of many, and it is hard to blame them. The film is very much a chronological war procedural that takes its time through the first half of the American Civil War. It features numerous characters and makes an attempt to give them each  their fair backstory and screentime. For many this can add up to a runtime that is way too long. In addition, the film plays very much like a Civil War reenactment with extended battle scenes. So now that we have eliminated about 95% of the population from being interested in the film, let me speak to the 5% and tell them that this is a fantastic film. Like Shaara’s book, Maxwell manages to infuse a certain amount of prose and poetry into a narrative that could so easily fall into a dry rendition of history like those dreadful lectures from our History professors. But if we all had a professor more like Maxwell, or John Alexander in my case, the enthusiasm and passion for the subject would shine a beautiful light on the curiosity, humanity, and greatness of history.

I will readily admit, however, that the film can fall into being overly melodramatic from time to time with fits of overacting from the mostly unknown cast. As for the bigger names, Robert Duvall (as Robert E. Lee) leaves a lot to be desired, especially portraying such an American legend. But Jeff Daniels, reprising his role of Lt. Col. Chamberlain from Gettysburg, is quite good. The real gem here has to be Stephen Lang as Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson. His is the lead role as the film, while meandering here and there throughout, mostly follows the famed Confederate general. He brings a lot of tenderness to the role while maintaining the grit, military genius and passion for which Jackson is remembered. Maxwell, who hadn’t directed a film since 1993s Gettysburg, shows glimpses of greatness throughout the film. Gods and Generals is far from perfect and has no hope of recruiting new fans from the masses who are disinterested in history or the subject of the Civil War, but for those who are interested, check this film out if you have the time. It is a fine 280 minutes.

*** – Very Good

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