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September 13, 2011

Gods and Generals: Review

portraits of Hood Stuart, Early, Hill, Polk, J.E. Johnston, Hardee, Smith, Bragg, Robert E. Lee, Beauregard, Breckinridge, A.S. Johnston, Stonewall Jackson, Ewell, Hampton, Fitzhugh Lee, Price, Semmes, Longstreet

Famous Confederate commanders…, Sherman Publishing Company, 1884

Watching Gods and Generals feels more like a reading a history book than watching a movie.  I don’t mean because the film is so long (the version I saw was three and a half hours. *), nor is it because there are so many words thrown across the screen.

Sure, the locations changes often, and so you might read a lot of titles to figure out where you are geographically (there aren’t a lot of maps in the film. You’d be totally forgiven for missing a few of the titles, they briefly accompany the fleeting but beautiful establishing shots.)

Additionally, with the authenticity of the accents, a few viewers may be tempted to turn on the subtitles (although the actors do enunciate pretty well.) A lot of the story is passed through dialogue, so that could mean a lot of reading.

But no, that’s not why Gods and Generals is like a book. In fact, it’s a wonderfully visual movie, much like a series of photographs, and the painstaking attention to detail is what makes this film worthwhile.

This attention to detail also kills any chance of having a central storyline. Just like a good textbook, God’s and Generals tries to be subjective. And so, we not only have the point of view of the man who seems to be the main character – Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson – but we are also burdened with the stories of his cook, a soldier who is shot for desertion, other generals, and Stonewall’s adversaries.

No, we are not satisfied with just one Yankee general to balance things out, but we have meet that general’s brother, and his wife, and learn a bit about both of them and their changing attitudes toward the war.

Now, all these points of view aren’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s interesting to pause on a household slave, and wonder if she’s considering escape, or whether she’s considering taking her master’s place. Little bits of dialogue really help us think about every person who the history of these early battles touch.

The Irish Civil War

One of the most touching sequences, for instance, involves Irish men shooting other Irish men. “Go to Hell and Damnation” one man says as he fires at his former countrymen. His face portrays a complex mix of emotions of a man who would normally be lost in the battlefields.

The Dixie Irishmen ask each other “Don’t they understand that we are fighting for our freedom.” It’s a great little piece that shows the director can really pull on the heart strings, though it strays completely from the plot.

Yes, Stonewall Jackson is the main character, but we could hardly call him the protagonist. The story ends with his death, but it starts before his enlistment. In many ways, he’s just another pawn in the big terrible war around him. And that’s what makes this film so special.

Not your typical biopic, not an epic either.

Most films about big men make them look giant, insurmountable, like gods. This film shows the Generals that are revered as Gods, but brings them down to the status of human. We understand the horrors of war, as we do in Gallipoli or All Quiet on the Western Front, but here we see how these horrors also affect those at the top. Even the greatest General is just a soldier, with a heart that can break in tragedy, and a conscience that can be torn by the hypocrisies of the cause he serves.

While the split character, seeing all the wives and families, completely destroys a fiction film like Heat, this isn’t a narrative in the Aristotelean structure. This isn’t a tragedy about how Stonewall Jackson died, or how a great war started that tore up the nation. This is a history.

Most Americans have ancestors who were around then, we know people who look like those who fought in that war. This isn’t the story of the downfall of people greater than us, or the success of people we can identify with, or the comedy were we laugh at our inferiors. This is the story of our own past, it’s like watching a recreated photograph of our five times great grandparents wedding, or rather, burial.

Just as Lee says to his troops that the land is where they fell in love, where they played, where their history is, so every bit of that story means something to us, as Americans, whether our ancestors fought for the Union or the Confederacy.

So, if you’re interested in the Civil War, in knowing why the Confederates fought against the Union, in knowing why hundreds of thousands lived and died for both sides, you’ll learn a little more by watching this film.

While it strives to be accurate, however, there are a few inaccuracies that show it as a fiction, or at least a psychological perception rather than reality. One, is the Zouave uniform. Why do the Yankees have red Zouave uniforms that stand out in such great numbers? Why are the Zouave wearers so particularly joyful in their destruction?

And why do those Zouaves disappear from the Union army about the time the Emancipation Proclamation is declared? Is that a coincidence?

“Caesar, those who are about to die salute you,” quotes the academic from Maine as he leads his troops to battle. He verbally expresses his doubt in the validity of this war to a greater degree than any Confederate general does.

This film is about how the unionists from the North were seen by the secessionists in the South. I’d say it’s not a true “Civil War” movie, but more a “War of Northern Aggression” film, or at least a “War Between the States” picture.

Sure, it goes out of its way to show the Union point of view, and to show a couple of Southerners go North to Pennsylvania. They seem to be wise old men who see the secessionist cause as wrong, while many younger men rashly think their cause is right.

(One could be forgiven for thinking that at times this film is pro-Unionist. Rather than being completely neutral or on one side, it portrays both sides pretty strongly.)

However, its hard not to sympathise with the Secessionist cause after seeing this film. We hear what the Confederate Irish have to say about their cause, we even hear them sing for Texas, we see the Union Irish as brave fools who march to their deaths in battle.

Missing too are Lincoln’s loyalist Southerners. Would portraying them be tokenism? No more so than depicting the Zouaves (were there really that many Zouaves? They had to be included because their costumes added to the sense of lawlessness of the Northern troops.)

If you have an open mind, and you’re interested in knowing why people fought under the battle flag, take a few hours off and watch this.

DVD extras

Watch them! They really add to the background of the film. I’d give the extras five stars.

You learn about the extra research the actors brought to this film, and how it affected them.

The crew is also wonderful, and what they went through to get the shots to look just right is phenomenal. When you consider the budget of this film, a lot was achieved. It’s interesting to see just how they made the money stretch so far.

* apparently there’s a 280 minute directors cut on blu-ray.   When I get a blu-ray player…