… or four and a half hours of my life I won’t get back.
The impetus for watching this film was actually inspired by St. Patrick’s Day. There’s a scene during the Battle of Fredericksburg where the Irish Brigade of fame, led by Gen. Thomas Meagher, attacks Marye’s Heights and meet the 24th Georgia Volunteer Infantry, or Georgia’s Irish Brigade. In the film, the Georgians are shocked and appalled both that their fellow Irishmen are fighting for the Union and that they are actively shooting their fellow Irishmen. When the Federals retreat, the Georgians send up a cry to honor their dead and retreating brethren. What a way to celebrate a day most everyone else takes as an excuse to drink excessively. The Irish love their misery, I guess, and my father, being 3rd generation Irish, made sure us kids knew the ways of his people.
I’m one of those people who can’t just cherrypick a clip of a film. I have to watch the whole thing. And I did. I did not actively take notes, so what follows will be general impressions of this rewatch. Also, please note that I saw the movie when it came out in 2003, and this might be the first time I’ve seen it since. On principle, I generally don’t watch it. (The soundtrack, on the other hand, is amazing.)
And so without further ado, Gods and Generals:
The novel of the same name, purportedly a prequel to the film Gettysburg, focuses on a few key players on each side: primarily Lee and Jackson from the south and Hancock and Chamberlain from the north. The film, on the other hand, is basically four hours of Jackson, intercut choppily with bouts of heavy-handed idealism from Chamberlain and one-liners from Lee that are supposed to show his wisdom and sagacity but just come across as stiff. Like, one of the most heartwrenchingly romantic threads of the original film is that of Hancock, commander of the Union’s 2nd Corps, and his BFF Armistead, a corps commander under Lee, who dies after ensuring his family bible will make it back to Hancock+wife. The movie omits this storyline altogether. A tragic scene early in the book, where all of the army’s commanders are gathered in southern California on the eve of battle, saying their goodbyes as some head north to Pennsylvania and some head south to Virginia, knowing the odds favor them meeting across a battlefield next rather than a pianoforte – was instead replaced a scene of Chamberlain bludgeoning the viewer with morality as he questions humanity’s allegiance to each other and their nation with his wife. Another popular theme of this take on the war is that Chamberlain was a philosophy professor before volunteering, and while the film shows him teaching (again, awkwardly preaching on the duties of humankind and patria), the aforementioned discussion with his wife doesn’t even mention the fact that he had volunteered for service when he was supposed to be taking a sabbatical. If they had shown that, I think a scene like that would have underscored his sense of duty quite nicely. Actions speak louder than words, and sadly the film tries to use words instead of actions to underscore its points.
Recycling Steven Lang as Jackson didn’t bother me, even though he played Pickett in GB. I’m not sure why Sandy Pendleton was a solid secondary character. Casting, overall, was a weird dichotomy between the original actors ten years older trying to play younger versions of their original selves, and totally new actors playing the old parts. My Civil War discussion group could go on for days over who was a better Lee: Martin Sheen or Robert Duvall. Armistead had one line in the whole film, and I think the only reason he got a line at all was because of his (tragically romantic) role in the prequel. Tom Chamberlain was written to be charming with the naivete of youth, but it came across as awkward and out of place because the actor is visibly approaching middle age and the writers were trying to recapture the essence of his character from GB and failed. Brotherly bickering with Lawrence was doubly awkward because Jeff Daniels was *clearly* middle aged.
The bit of casting that I thought was SPOT ON was Adelbert Ames, the elder Chamberlain’s unit commander. The actor was a good physical match and was written well. What I originally thought was some sort of strange pronunciation of words was, in fact, what I would hazard to be a Maine accent. I suppose if all the southern folks get variations of the same drawl, the northern folks get their own Bah Hah-bah accent. Ames’ accent was a lot more … consistent than either of the Chamberlains’. Maybe I like him because he’s a unique character so I’m not forever comparing his actor/character to GB.
The bit of casting I can’t get my head around was the fairly sizeable role they gave John Wilkes Booth as the disaffected dissenter who complains a lot about the politics of the day. I wanted to tell him to go do something about it, instead of complaining about it, but I didn’t because I remember how history played out. The questions of nationhood and the reach of the federal government were beaten fairly rigorously with Lee, Chamberlain, and Jackson. There’s no need to create a character and then make him friends with Harrison, the actor-turned-spy at the entrance of GB. For one, Harrison didn’t need a backstory. For another, having Lincoln at Ford’s Theatre, watching John Wilkes Booth play Macbeth is way too much. There’s subtlety and that was not it. Booth’s parts did not forward or enhance the story and added an unnecessary half hour. Plus, the short exchange he had with Fanny Chamberlain about heroes and villains was both cumbersome but, more egregiously, had two historical characters speaking who, in real life, probably never got close to crossing paths.
Oh, speaking of wives, from the cinematic perspective, I understand why they included both Fanny Chamberlain and Mary Jackson, although I don’t think either really drove the story forward. I just wish they had found a way to include Almira Hancock, who ranks much higher on my list of badass historical wives. But this is neither here nor there
The storyline covered the build-up to the war and up through Chancellorsville, which was the major engagement just prior to Gettysburg in 1863. I thought the pacing was awkward. Also awkward was the presenting of everyone’s motives, like Lawrence’s questioning of humanity with his wife. So until all the major players get to the field of battle, the film jumps between VMI (filmed on location. One of the guys in my Civil War discussion group was an extra during the flagpole scene at the beginning.), Maine, DC, Richmond. I wondered, once the battles did begin, if they were actually filmed on location. At First Manassas/Bull Run, camera angles were tight and while the whole battle was choreographed poorly, maybe it was because the producers were trying to block out modern day statuary? I doubt it, as the Manassas battlefield has a fraction of the memorials/statuary that GB has. I think it was just poorly choreographed. Also, they missed the hordes of spectators. Perhaps that could have been too lighthearted. If it was actually filmed on site, it was nice to see the shadow of the Shenandoah mountains in the far distance. I didn’t know the rest of the landscape well enough to recognize it, but I’m kind of disappointed, on a personal level, they didn’t include the Battle of Brandy Station because that’s quite a lovely bit of land. Go help save it here.
Why does this movie exist? This is a question we public historians ask ourselves frequently. Much like the (insert sports team of choice), we love to hate it. Agreeing that this film had so much promise that didn’t deliver is a unifying belief. Whereas Gettysburg approached the themes with deliberation and earnestness, Gods and Generals took itself far too seriously. (Like John Wilkes Booth, Lincoln, and Caesar. Really??) (A blog post in support of the inclusion of Booth, for perspective?)Why was the premise of the war, in this film, wholly Lost Cause States Rights stuff? The Freeing the Slaves premise of the war, as it was presented, was undercut by the dialogue with slaves attached to southern families and armies. If the writers had tightened the storyline, characters, and action, the movie would have been much better executed and much less boring. Probably the first five instances was enough to show that Jackson was a pious man and the rest unnecessary. The opening scene where Captain Robert E. Lee is offered command of the northern army- that could have been executed with much more passion. Perhaps Robert Duvall thought he was playing it regretfully and reservedly, but I thought he was stiff. There are snippets of true filmmaking in there which should be treasured when they appear, like the Irish at Fredericksburg. It is a shame this movie bombed, as the completionist in me wants to see The Last Full Measure turned into a film to complete the set. On the other hand, that would save us from the agony of seeing all the actors, 20 years older than their GB selves, trying to play the same characters. Jeff Daniels is far too fat to be a convincing Chamberlain any more.
I have many thoughts about this film that I will probably come back and revisit at some point. Perhaps I’ll review the books on which these films are based. If I haven’t stated it enough, the soundtrack is amazing. While I’m going back and editing, one theme I’ve noticed is that, apart from Steven Lang/Jackson, nearly everyone else lacks a certain amount of passion or conviction. Lawrence explaining his patriotism to his wife really saps the energy out him, whereas in GB the scholarly earnestness he shows while asking Buster about mankind and equality is one of the defining moments of the book/film. I know people have Feelings about the cause of the war and it would be hard to explicitly engage in discussion through this medium, but boy did they try. It tries to have the same ideological explorations that Gettysburg had, but falls short of the mark.
There were parts I appreciated. Marye’s Heights at Fredericksburg, the scenery around Manassas, the details as far as set dressing goes, the relationship between Jackson and the little girl. Interestingly, while looking for images to include, it appears many scenes were live-action interpretations of paintings by Mort Kunstler, an extremely talented artist whose style is vaguely but not entirely pleasing . There were enough parts I enjoyed that I’ll probably rewatch this film for fun, although it might take me another dozen years to get there.