Review: “Gods & Generals” (Film, 2003)By Carrie S., 5/24/11
Directed by: Ronald F. Maxwell
Original Release Date: 2/21/2003
Original Run Time: 219 minutes
The Director, Ronald Maxwell, had a success on his hands with the film “Gettysburg” in 1993, therefore it was decided that his next project would be a prequel that would cover 1861 to mid-1863, just before the battle of Gettysburg. The idea was that “Gods & Generals” would be just as successful and would then be followed by a third film that would cover the end of the war. Unfortunately the production costs were almost $60 million, yet the film only brought in $12 million in sales. It’s obvious that something went wrong.
I think one must first go back to the release date of February 2003 when the United States was still recovering from the shock of 9/11, had troops fighting in Afghanistan and was building up momentum to go into Iraq within the next month. I am of the belief that when you release a war-focused film during war time, most people will want to avoid it. People usually go to movies to escape reality, so spending money to see a film about war and death was probably a difficult sell to begin with, no matter how good the movie actually was. And I’ll admit, I vaguely remember the movie even being promoted, so much so that I didn’t see it when it was in the theater.
This film was based on a novel from Jeff Shaara, son of author Michael Shaara who had written “The Killer Angels” – which “Gettysburg” was based on. Michael Shaara unfortunately passed away in 1988, but his son continued his legacy and has a similar writing style. Though I like Jeff as an author, I’ve liked some of his other works better. He tried to maintain a lot of the same characters such as Joshua Chamberlain, Robert E. Lee and Winfield Scott Hancock, but because of time frame a new character is introduced: Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson. Instead of focusing on one battle, Jeff starts with events leading up the war such as John Brown’s Harpers Ferry raid and follows the story right up to days before the Gettysburg battle occurred. It’s a lot to cover in one book, and even more impossible to do so in a three hour film.
While this is not a review of the book itself (that will be left for another day), it’s important to understand the base work that Maxwell had to work with. I did things somewhat backwards in that I watched the movie first and then read the book. What astounded me was that I felt like it was almost two completely different pieces; it was, at times, hard to make the connections between the book and the film. And I think this is where things really came undone.
While Maxwell did his best to get the original Gettysburg actors to play their same roles, in most cases that didn’t happen. You also have Stephen Lang, who played Pickett in “Gettysburg”, playing the lead of Stonewall Jackson in “Gods & Generals.” Given the amazing job Lang does with the role I can easily excuse this casting, as it’s my opinion that he’s the best part of the movie.
Then you have the issue of the story itself. I felt Maxwell struggle with wanting to “beat” his prior performance yet keep things consistent in format. And while the format worked with a story focused on a three day battle, it did not work when spanned over two years with focus on various characters and battles. It was muddled, with gaping holes in between scenes that left me wanting for more. You have a battle like Fredericksburg where certain pieces were shown in great detail along with other key elements, but the viewer is still left with questions as large pieces of the equation are still left out. I applaud his efforts in showing the Irish Brigade and the suffering of the troops on both sides, but the movie left me feeling like I had just watched a very incomplete story.
While I felt “Gettysburg” had a slight “Southern-sympathetic” slant, to me “Gods & Generals” came off celebrating the South, complete with a jovial scene with performers & military leaders singing “Bonnie Blue Flag”. Because the movie takes place in Virginia the director does his best to address the slavery issue, but it’s the best possible interpretation one could give such a horrible act. There is little to celebrate for the North in this film, as the leaders seem to ruin everything while the men fight with courage and continue to lose, much to their immense frustration.
If I had to describe the film in a single sentence, it would be that “It follows the story of Thomas J. Jackson and how his efforts in the war made him a legend, with a second story focus on Joshua Chamberlain and how he viewed the Union’s war efforts coming from a civilian background and grew into the role of a leader.”
The original film was said to be over six hours long before it was cut in half, which likely contributes to the roughness with the flow of the story. With the May 24, 2011 re-release, an additional hour of footage is shown and includes the battle of Antietam and a storyline that follows future assassin John Wilkes Booth. The Booth storyline is very gratuitous and fictitious, and I was disappointed with the Antietam footage.
If you’re looking to get an education on the 1861 to 1863 period from this movie, this is not the film for you. If you have an interest in Jackson or Chamberlain, or you just enjoy Civil War films and don’t mind fiction thrown in, then it’s worth renting or purchasing. For those of you that are looking to use it as an educational tool – don’t. While “Gettysburg” might be a decent movie to share with pre-teens/teens, this is not. As I suggested with “Gettysburg“, you might also want to pick up the book or audio book version of “Gods & Generals” first.