Gods and Generals serves as a prequel to Turner's 1993 production Gettysburg, which Ronald Maxwell also wrote and scripted. Gettysburg took an in-depth look at the battle of the same name, from both sides of the conflict. Gods and Generals provides a recap of some of the major decisions and skirmishes leading up to it. Filmed on actual battlefields with a clear dedication to historic accuracy, Gods represents a striking feat of Civil War re-enactment, even though it's clueless when it comes to breathing life into its characters.
Most of Gods we view through the career of Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson (Stephen Lang), a VMI professor and Mexican War veteran who became one of the Confederacy's greatest military leaders. Jackson makes an atypical film protagonist, and not just because he has a beard like a beaver pelt. He's a devout Christian who, nevertheless, advocates hitting the invading Union soldiers ruthlessly hard: "Kill every last man of them," he argues.
Praying before the battle of Manassas, Lang raises his arms and exhales as if he's infused with the Holy Spirit. During combat he's so unflappable -- even after taking a bullet in the hand -- that he earns the nickname "Stonewall." But Gods and Generals never really gets through the man's defenses. We get bits of irony at this man of God waging war -- like four cannons named "Matthew, Mark, Luke and John" -- but little sense that his faith has ever been tested.
More of a human touch comes from Maine's untried Lt. Col. Chamberlain, with Jeff Daniels reprising his Gettysburg role. Marching troops onto the field at Fredericksburg, he endearingly flinches and glances around nervously at explosions. Chamberlain also gets a chance to speak out against slavery, chiding a fellow soldier for using the word "darkies."
Jackson's conscience seems untroubled by the slavery. Praying one night with his cook (Frankie Faison), a black freedman, Jackson acknowledges that the Confederacy should end the enslavement of blacks, but that's as far as the film takes the matter. Gods and Generals persistently takes the point of view of the Civil War as being "the war of Northern aggression." Watching it, you'd think that slavery wasn't the systematic exploitation and brutalization of an entire race, but just an unfortunate career choice.
No doubt many Confederate soldiers viewed themselves as defending their way of life and didn't analyze slavery too closely, but Gods and Generals whitewashes the South. Faison's character cooks for the Confederate army because he wants to help defend his Kentucky home, while a slave in Fredericksburg (Donzaleigh Abernathy) makes a point of saying how good her owners are to her -- even though, all things considered, she'd just as soon be free.
Such moments would be easier to take if Gods and Generals ever felt genuine. Maxwell's script sounds like it was drawn from speeches, sermons and correspondence of the time, but it never has the ring of normal conversation, with the characters simply declaiming at each other. Such stilted dialogue is hard on the actors, making us focus on the artificial touches, like Robert Duvall's molasses thick accent as Robert E. Lee.
Not surprisingly, the most moving scenes in Gods and Generals have no words. When an Irish brigade charges the Southerners' line at Fredericksburg, Confederate Irish troops weep at having to kill their countrymen and shout out in tribute when the Irish survivors withdraw. On Christmas Day, a pair of soldiers on opposite sides of both the conflict and a river meet in the middle to share a cup of coffee and a pipe of tobacco. They say nothing because what is there to say?
Maxwell also makes effective use of widescreen compositions and his armies of extras, with unbroken lines of soldiers seeming to stretch for miles. But he tries to include so many facts that he keeps the audience at arm's length, as if we're reading a history rather than reliving it.
The film includes one moment of shocking violence when a Union soldier requests permission to leave the field, and his commander sees that he's missing an arm. But otherwise the gore goes unseen. To do justice to the Civil War and the men who waged it, a film needs more stomach for the conflict's violent, ugly realities.