Gods and Generals (2003)

Reviewed by Tom Ender

If one desires to view a long movie and looks forward to a war story covering the period of 1861-1863 in North America, Gods and Generals more than fulfills those anticipations. It provides a piece of great entertainment. If viewing this movie on tape, DVD or DVR the length should not pose a problem. It has been called “not only the finest movie ever made about the Civil War, it is also the best American historical film.” I believe it is at least one of the best. The film features outstanding performances, realistic sets, magnificent direction, a fine musical score and a perspective on an important period in American history which one does not ordinarily encounter in popular culture.

A quote from George Eliot about the importance of place in life opens the movie and also introduces a major theme. At this early point I started appreciating the quality of music in the movie in the beautiful song “Going Home,” sung by Mary Fahl. The song plays while the screen shows a series of state battle flags introducing a theme of patriotism and anchoring it in the previously established subject of the importance of locale, all while the opening credits roll.

In the first scene Col. Robert E. Lee (Robert Duvall) arrives at a private home in Washington City. His host offers Lee command of the Union armies to put down the rebellion in the “Cotton States.” Lee declines, basing the decision on an expectation that Virginia, his home state, will soon join the movement for secession.

The focus changes to Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson (Stephen Lang) leading a classroom at the Virginia Military Institute (VMI). Discussions of Virginian secession ensue in the context of resistance to federal force or coercion and the threat of invasion. The scene shifts again to the Virginia legislature where Robert E. Lee accepts command of the “citizen army” of Virginia.

With the major historical setting established, the focus returns to Jackson. Now at home, he prays with his wife and receives a call to lead forces in the Virginian army. Lang gives the top performance of his career as Jackson, a very religious warrior. Religion dominates the motivations in this film as it did in Americans of the period.

Like Jackson, Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain (Jeff Daniels) also leads a college classroom, his in Maine. Chamberlain leads the cast of Union characters and provides the best construction of the Union point of view. The film follows his enlistment and training as an officer in a Maine regiment heading for the Washington area. There he meets Sgt Kilrain (Kevin Conway) who also consistently offers irreverent and insightful commentary on events as they transpire.

Like many films that accurately portray war, Gods and Generals makes one wonder why wars happen. It seemed natural to sympathize with the sentiments of southerners who were defending their homes against invaders and talking of a second War for Independence.

The fates of the Irish at the battle of Fredericksburg show the bottomless cruelty of war. General Lee sums it up succinctly: “It is well that war is so terrible... for we should grow too fond of it.” On the other side of the question, Jackson says: “If the Republicans lose their little war, they’re voted out in the next election and they return to their homes in New York, or Massachusetts or Illinois fat with their war profits. If we lose, we lose our country. We lose our independence. We lose it all.” Some things seem constant.

If you hail from the South, you should enjoy this film. If you call yourself a Northerner you might gain some insight which won’t be easy to find elsewhere in such an easily accessible form. Important and accurate history, issues that still live, great performances, sets and direction; Gods and Generals has it all.

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