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Volume 15, Issue 1: Ex Imagibus

Gods and Generals

Nathan Wilson

Gods and Generals
Directed by Ron Maxwell
Ted Turner Pictures (2003)

When I nestled into my seat, prepared for two hundred and fifteen minutes of staring at the screen, I did not know what I would leave the theater thinking. I was aware of the overwhelmingly negative reviews the film received at the hands of critics around the nation. This led me to believe that Gods and Generals must be hot stuff. I was also aware that some Christians think of this film as The Postmillennial Movie, the film so good that the lion must be looking around for the lamb. Of course this reaction had me worried that the film had to be as full of cheese as they come.

Gods and Generals is based on the novel of the same title by Jeff Shaara, and is a prequel to the film Gettysburg based on the book The Killer Angels by Jeff's father Michael. The storyline spans some of Stonewall Jackson's major action, from First Manassas and Fredericksburg, finishing at Chancellorsville where Jackson received the wounds from his own men that resulted in his death.
Three officers are the primary focus of the film: Robert E. Lee, Joshua Chamberlain, and Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson. We spend most of our time in the South with Lee and Jackson (primarily Jackson) but also find our way into Maine and follow Chamberlain down into the action of Fredericksburg.
It is difficult to analyze this movie, as it really doesn't present one narrative line with any sort of continuity. There is no plot. There are only characters and actions. To my recollection there is not a single character in the entire film that is presented in a morally unsympathetic light. General Burnsides is the only unsympathetic character and that is a result of tactical incompetence. There are no protagonists and antagonists, there are just men, with different (respectable) beliefs, shooting each other.
So there is not any room for talking about the story line, plot, conflict, or resolution of this film. The movie title could be accurately, if less poetically, changed to Things That Happened to Jackson and Others. This is not an action movie, nor is it a pure documentary as there is no deep, resonant voice-over explaining every sequence. This film is a portrait and it has to be criticized or praised as such. Ron Maxwell is not packaging a story in an historic setting. The movie is about that setting, and the men who were part of it. He attempts to paint neutral, objective pictures of the characters, their beliefs, marriages, decisions, and priorities. His movie is a hybrid of an artistic period sketch and the writing of a war correspondent.
It would be unfair to criticize a romantic comedy as a failed war film, or a tragic period drama as not as funny as last year's best comedy. It is just as unfair to criticize this film apart from an understanding of its goals. It is possible and frequently necessary to criticize the goals of a film, but we must first identify what those goals were. In this case, the purpose of the film was to present an historically accurate picture of the Civil War on both a national and human scale. The primary goal was of reenactment, not of commentary.
Ron Maxwell had no desire to pick a side or condemn anyone. That is why virtually every character is presented in the best possible light. Gods and Generals is a reenactment and a tribute. Maxwell desired to honor all participants who, as the film's website states, "fought passionately and courageously for their vision of freedom." The film makes it clear that Lee and Jackson were not fighting to defend slavery, but the sovereignty of the state of Virginia. The film makes it just as clear that Chamberlain was fighting to free slaves. Who was right? Maxwell is not interested in engaging with that question here. It is not one of the film's goals.
There is no question that the film does achieve its goals. The picture that Maxwell paints is honest, and painful to watch. Jackson was a staunch Calvinist and Maxwell displays him as such with respect. He does not alter his telling of history and so the film has taken heat as a racist, pro-South propaganda piece. Jackson prays repeatedly on screen without being mocked, and so Christians are acclaiming the film as baptized, born again, and thoroughly faith-based.
It is not faith-based. Ronald Maxwell was shooting for a tolerant, neutral tribute to all. Neutrality is not possible, as he has since been honestly informed by an angry press. Despite the fact that even the driest of information will necessarily be interpreted through the worldview-yellowed eyes of the viewer, he gave it his best shot. And as an historical snapshot, it was a good one. The film displays a degree of insight in why the war was fought that is not at all common. It also demonstrates an understanding of differing (if equally to be respected) views of God. Jackson's Calvinism is contrasted with Chamberlain's theology. We are also shown Lee and Jackson on the battlefield as submissive sons. Chamberlain looks the battle in the eye and says, as the Southern men never could, "Hail Caesar, we who are about to die salute you."
While some complain about the fakeness of the beards, and the woodenness of the acting, the film is a far more accurate portrayal of one of the most interesting and tragic periods of our short history than could ever be reasonably expected from the likes of Ted Turner. Gods and Generals merits the long watch.

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