THE URGE TO EMBRACE "Gods and Generals" is so strong as to be almost overwhelming. It is a beautiful, serious movie about the Civil War that holds tight to the trail of truth. It is well acted and scrupulously made. Anyone who has recently suffered through Hollywoodized history--Pearl Harbor, "The Messenger," "Thirteen Days"--will surely run to "Gods and Generals" if for no other reason than director Ronald Maxwell gets things right.
No small achievement, that.
"Gods and Generals" is the prequel to 1993's outstanding "Gettysburg," and the two really are companion films. Both are adapted from Shaara books, "Gettysburg" from Michael Shaara's The Killer Angels and Gods and Generals from Jeff Shaara's book of the same name (Jeff is Michael's son). Both are directed by Ron Maxwell. Both were shot entirely on location and share actors. And both are epic, with casts of thousands and running times near the four-hour mark.
Yet in scope, the two are very different. "Gettysburg" covers just four days in a small Pennsylvania town. For all its carnage and grandeur, it is an intimate movie. You see men getting breakfast and going to bed, praying and fighting like devils in between. You live through those hours with them.
"Gods and Generals" is much bigger. It begins in 1861 with Robert E. Lee being offered command of the Army of the Potomac. Lee declines and Virginia secedes from the Union. War erupts in South Carolina and Lee forms up the Army of Northern Virginia. The movie follows through the Battle of Fredericksburg in December 1862 and on to the Confederate victory at Chancellorsville in May 1863. Despite the state of America's public schools, it should spoil nothing to reveal that it ends after Stonewall Jackson's tragic death at Chancellorsville.
Maxwell has a lot going for him in "Gods and Generals." His budget is bigger than it was for "Gettysburg," and it shows. The effects are better and they are, mercifully, used mostly in the background: In death scenes reenactors still fall over gamely, clutching their breasts; there is no "Patriot"-type gore. The cast is, again, superlative. Jeff Daniels reprises Joshua Chamberlain, Brian Mallon is on hand as Winfield Scott Hancock, Royce Applegate as Jim Kemper.
There are also a handful of casting changes. For whatever reason, Tom Berenger decided not to come back as James Longstreet. He is replaced, somewhat unsatisfyingly, by Bruce Boxleitner. The greater loss is Richard Jordan. As Lewis Armistead, Jordan gave "Gettysburg" its heart as a man who, facing his best friend on the battlefield, knows that death is waiting for him under the hot July sun. Shortly after filming "Gettysburg," Jordan was felled by a brain tumor. In "Gods and Generals" his presence is sorely missed.
Martin Sheen, on the other hand, is not missed at all. His portrayal of Lee in "Gettysburg" was solid but is completely overshadowed here by Robert Duvall's. Duvall's Lee is at once stronger and gentler than Sheen's, and while there are moments in "Gettysburg" where Lee is shown in his dotage, here Duvall gives us a Lee in complete command of his faculties. If anything, "Gods and Generals" suffers from too little of Duvall.
But "Gods and Generals" is Stonewall Jackson's movie, and Stephen Lang, so good as George Pickett in "Gettysburg," does Jackson justice, showing him to be a reluctant and honorable holy warrior.
Of the many things "Gods and Generals" does right, perhaps the most impressive is its portrayal of religion. Maxwell shows men (and a handful of women) who are both intelligent and devout, whose faith is a real part of their everyday life. You could argue that Maxwell is merely being accurate, but he's also being brave. In modern America--and particularly in Los Angeles--one isn't supposed to look admiringly on people who look to God for guidance.
And yet for all there is to recommend it, "Gods and Generals" is deeply flawed. To call it too long would be crass, but in a sense it is too long. And at the same time, too short.
At nearly four hours, it strains the audience's resolve. There is frankly too much in "Gods and Generals" to be digested in one sitting. And the story expands across such a long timeline--more than two years of the war--that nothing is treated with the depth it deserves and much of what we see is mere surface. Indeed, rumors around the production have suggested that Maxwell's first cut of the movie was a full six hours.
The six-hour version is probably more satisfying than what is onscreen, but that too poses a dilemma, because a six-hour movie cannot be released theatrically. So what to do? The answer is surely TBS and DVD. After its run in theaters, "Gods and Generals" will graduate to cable TV, where it can be run as a miniseries, and onto DVD, where it can be expanded to six hours and seen as the director originally intended. The small screen should solve all of its problems.
But where does that leave us? We who carp about popcorn pap and historical distortions at the Cineplex now have our dream movie. That it doesn't entirely work as cinema says something depressing about the natural limitations of the medium. And something very encouraging about the future of DVD.
Jonathan V. Last is online editor of The Weekly Standard.