Movie and Film Reviews (MFR) Action,Drama Gods and Generals (2003)

Gods and Generals (2003)

Based off the bestselling novel by Michael Sharra, Gods and Generals is a prequel to the 1993 hit Gettysburg and follows the complex events from the beginning of the U.S. Civil War in 1861 thru the events preceeding the battle of Gettysburg in July of 1863, as depicted in that film. The film was written for the screen and directed by Ronald F. Maxwell, who also directed Gettsyburg, and the film was produced masterfully by Ted Turner.

With a magnificant scope, brilliant cinematography, painstaking detail and a high level of historical accuracy, Gods and Generals chronicles the rise of the Confederacy under the leadership of General Robert E. Lee (Robert Duvall) and General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson (Stephen Lang) in the early years of the deadly civil war that tore the United States apart for four bloody years. The film begins just days after the attack on Fort Sumter, and after President Lincoln has called for 75,000 volunteers to qwell the rebellion in the cotton states. Lee is offered overall command of the U.S. army, but refuses out of loyalty for Virgina, a state about to join in secession from the union and officially join the Confederacy, and who gives Lee command of the army of Northern Virginia. General Jackson leaves his teaching post at the Virginia military institute to recruit and train the Virginia common army volunteers, and the early stages of the war becomes about who will attack first, when and where?

The film focuses on the three biggest and most important battles of the early part of the war, beginning with the first major engagement between North and South at First Manassas. It is there that General Jackson and his brigade earn there reputation and legendary nickname of “Stonewall” and where the South proves the war will not be a quick 90 day affair as many people previously thought. As the following two years progress, so does the status and acclaim of Jackson and his men, as the South wins one major battle after another, including the battles of Fredricksburg and Chancellorsville, as depicted in the film. Chancellorsville is thought by many historians to be Lee and the South’s brightest moment, but it does come at a high cost, one that will drastically affect the remaining years in the war, beginning with Lee’s bold choice to invade the North and the inevitable battle at the small Pennsylvania farm town of Gettysburg, only 2 months after the stunning Confederate victory at Chancellorsville.

Few historic films take the time or take pride in such authenticity as is on display in both of these Civil War masterpieces by Ronald F. Maxwell. The films perfectly capture the times and the struggles this nation went thru to become the nation we are today. It was simply a different time, and these films serve as an invaluable time capsule of information about our past, a past that must be understood to understand our identity as a nation. In those times people lived more simply, yet more passionately as well. By focusing centrally on Stonewall Jackson and the South, Maxwell allows us to see what it was like to be there. For Jackson, like many of the day, his priorities were straight and he knew them well and would die to protect them and his way of life. God came first, his home (in Virginia) second, then his country. People didn’t yet grasp the idea of a truely United States, and thats why this war was so important. You feel the passion and religious ferver of Jackson and many others in the film.

Wonderfully, Maxwell takes time, between battles and military strategy, to focus on the small moments. We see the struggles of the civilians in the South, and spirit of the Southern women. We see the connection the troops and generals have with the civilians and we begin to understand the difference in lifestyles between North and South, and the difference to those fighting it. The North, right or wrong, was the invaders and the South, right or wrong, was defending there own way of life, and there own homes, families and towns. There is an elegance to that way of life on display, the simpleness of it, and it can be sad to realize that way of life is now gone forever. That was the price the South paid for waging this war, they lost there way of life, and the film (produced by Ted Turner) is obviously sympathetic to that idea of loss, and to the mighty Southern cause, but it also understands and illustrates the bold mission of unity and freedom that the North undertakes.

For fans of Gettysburg, the film is a wonderful companion and prequel. While not as condensed, or as long as Gettysburg (which focused on a single three day battle), Gods and Generals is a remarkable acheivement with a tremendous scope to it. As a Civil War buff, it would’ve been nice to see the battle of Antietam, or even the events of Fort Sumter or even view Lincoln once or twice, but the focus is on Lee, Jackson and the army of Northern Virginia, and in that the film exceeds even the most modest Civil War entusiast’s expectations. While central figures from Gettysburg, such as Lee, Longstreet and Pickett (ironically portrayed by Stephen Lang in that film) have been recasted, other actors do return to wonderfully reprise and expand there roles. Brian Mallon does a great job in an expanded role for Union General Winfield Scott Hancock. And indeed the regiment of the 20th Maine, heroically depicted in Gettysburg returns, and we see the formation of that unit and the struggles they endure before that fateful day. Jeff Daniels returns as Col. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, and again is allowed a few moments to give elegant and masterfully written speeches. C. Thomas Howell reprises his role as Chamberlain’s younger brother Tom, and Kevin Conway again gives a wonderful performance as the fiery irishmen, Sgt. Buster Kilrain.

But the film’s real star, and focus is on Stephen Lang’s awe-inspiring, mighty, tender and award worthy portrayal of the legendary General Jackson. Jackson was a man of high principles. A god fearing, highly religious and highly loyal soldier, Jackson felt it was his duty, and the duty of all southerner’s to destroy the “yankee invaders” who had dared presume to invade there land or try to dictate and inflict there way of life upon them. Stephen Lang does such a great job of portraying the complexities within Jackson. He has so many sides to him, and Lang hits them all perfectly. We see his fearlessness and determination in battle, as well as his hatred of the enemy and his desire to destroy them. But we also see his tender side, both in lovely scenes with his wife, Anna (Kali Rocha), and in heartbreakingly sweet moments with a young southern girl named Jane (Lydia Jordan).

The Civil War is undeniably the single most important event in our history, and its a blessing to us all that there are filmmakers today that realize that, respect that and who are painstakingly recreating that horribly bloody war onscreen for the rest of us, and future generations to see. How important was the Civil War? Yes, it restored the Union and freed the slaves, but it was much more than that. It gave us our identitfy. The great Civil War historian, the late Shelby Foote, perfectly described what the Civil War accomplished and why it is the most central and important moment in our nations history. He said, “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. And after the war, it was always ‘the United States is,” as we say today without being self conscious at all. And that sums up what the war accomplished. It made us an ‘is.‘”

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