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Film Review: Gods and Generals

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Aug 17 2011 Photo, Battle-field of Chancellorsville Trees..., 1865, Library of Congress

This is the fourth in a series of film reviews reprinted from the Journal of American History. These reviews model ways of looking critically at popular films, documentaries, miniseries, and other history-based features.

Long awaited by both historians and buffs, the film Gods and Generals is a prequel to the 1993 film Gettysburg. As Gettysburg was based on the historical novel The Killer Angels (1974) by Michael Shaara, so Gods and Generals is based on the 1998 historical novel of that title written by Shaara's son Jeff. The new film's purpose is to sketch highlights of the Civil War in the eastern theater from Virginia's secession through the death of the Confederate general Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson.

The need to set the stage for Gettysburg influenced the choice of what to cover in the almost four-hour-long prequel. For example, Gods and Generals covers the battle of Fredericksburg while entirely omitting the much more pivotal battle of Antietam. This omission occurs in part because Fredericksburg was the first combat experience of the key Gettysburg protagonist, Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, and because it was the event for which the Union repulse of Pickett's charge at Gettysburg was a suitable payback. One suspects that another reason the film skips Antietam is that it led to Abraham Lincoln's issuing the Emancipation Proclamation; coverage of that document might have led viewers to suspect that the war had something to do with slavery. Of this, more anon.

Actors still deliver, in spoken form, lines that their characters composed for written communication, making some scenes even more stilted than the 19th century actually was.

Like the Civil War soldiers it depicts, the film Gods and Generals has its triumphs and its defeats. In some ways it is an improvement over Gettysburg. Robert Duvall's portrayal of Robert E. Lee is infinitely superior to Martin Sheen's glassy-eyed performance in the earlier film. The makeup is better, too, so that the viewer does not see what appear to be beavers clinging to generals' chins, as in Gettysburg. And the artillery pieces actually recoil when fired.

On the other hand, Gods and Generals perpetuates some of its predecessor's weaknesses. Actors still deliver, in spoken form, lines that their characters composed for written communication, making some scenes even more stilted than the 19th century actually was. Other scenes have the feel of that favored entertainment of the mid-Victorians, the tableau vivant—but not very vivant. Sometimes it is like watching an animated wax museum.

The greatest triumph of Gods and Generals lies in Stephen Lang's splendid depiction of Stonewall Jackson. It is difficult to imagine a more authentic and convincing presentation of the renowned general. Eschewing popular mythology that makes Jackson a wild-eyed maniac, Lang presents an understandable character that is, in almost every case, true to what we know about Jackson. This is important to Gods and Generals because Jackson's role looms so large that the film might more accurately have been titled simply Stonewall Jackson.

When they wanted to do so, the makers of Gods and Generals were accurate in both detail and nuance. Unfortunately, the filmmakers preferred to spend much of the nearly four-hour running time of the movie doing a great deal of ax-grinding. The result is the most pro-Confederate film since Birth of a Nation, a veritable celluloid celebration of slavery and treason.

Gods and Generals brings to the big screen the major themes of Lost Cause mythology that professional historians have been working for half a century to combat. In the world of Gods and Generals, slavery has nothing to do with the Confederate cause. Instead, the Confederates are nobly fighting for, rather than against, freedom, as viewers are reminded again and again by one white southern character after another.

Gods and Generals brings to the big screen the major themes of Lost Cause mythology that professional historians have been working for half a century to combat.

In stark contrast, the pro-Union, antislavery view of the war is expressed only once. In one example of this unequal presentation, viewers hear the Confederate defenders of the famous sunken lane at Fredericksburg exclaiming that they are fighting for freedom and independence, but the Union attackers, members of the renowned Irish Brigade, make only trivial comments. Yet historical sources document in the Irishmen's own eloquent words why they, as immigrants, believed they ought to fight for the Union. The filmmakers did not see fit to have any of the actors mouth those lines.
Similarly, the film depicts slaves as generally happy, vaguely desiring freedom at some future date, but faithful and supportive of their beloved masters and the cause of the Confederacy. Slaveholders in the film treat their slaves like family or better, and the slaves reciprocate by doing their best to protect their masters' property from the invading Yankees. The many thousand times more numerous slaves who eagerly sought freedom and aided Union soldiers are invisible in Gods and Generals.

Another aspect of Lost Cause mythology depicted in the film deals with religion. Echoing pro-Confederate claims since the war itself, the movie represents the South as being uniquely and sincerely Christian, while the North has at most a vague spirituality. In fact, both sides had about an equal representation of Christianity. Once again, Gods and Generals presents a skewed depiction of history through judicious omission. While the film—for the most part accurately—presents Stonewall Jackson as a saint in every sense of the word, viewers never learn that Oliver O. Howard, the Union general whose troops Jackson's men so savagely attacked at Chancellorsville, was an even more fervently evangelical soldier.

Jackson's attack at Chancellorsville is the dramatic climax to the film and a neo-Confederate's dream of paradise. As Jackson rides boldly forward flanked by staff officers, the mounted party gallops toward the viewer, larger than life, and the score swells, simultaneously triumphant and otherworldly, a fittingly Wagnerian style of accompaniment for this ride of the Confederate valkyries. Any lingering doubts as to the filmmakers' sympathies promptly vanish.

The final scene at Jackson's deathbed is meant to be sad, and it is indeed very moving. Yet I left the showing quite sad in a different way. Despite the makers' large expenditures and serious efforts toward accuracy in some details, they marred the result by their willingness to perpetuate a distorted view of the Civil War.


This review was first published in the Journal of American History, Vol. 90, No. 3, 1123–1124, 2003. Reprinted with permission from the Organization of American Historians (OAH).

ahhh, i don't think that in

ahhh, i don't think that in moments of hot combat one is likely to get the various participants political viewpoints, at least not during or closely following the fighting. Sometime afterwards, yes, probably; but in the moments leading up to combat and and during the fighting itself a man is likely to be pre-occupied with other more prosaic thoughts. It's hot, smelly, with an air full of tension. Lack of reaons of the War Between the States as a matter of conversation between the teo sides would be a natural lack.

Mr. Woodworth has written an

Mr. Woodworth has written an excellent review of this movie. I just watched the film last night and was hugely disappointed. It appeared to be more in the line of a religious film with the Civil War as a backdrop. While Chamberlain's wife recites poetry to him before leaving, Jackson's dialogue is buried in religious and biblical quotes. God is on his side. Kill 'em all! This may indeed have been an accurate depiction of Jackson, but it was way over the top for my taste. In one scene, he hands the bible to one of his officers and tells him it will help him write the daily reports. And like the Woodworth said, all the slaves depicted in the movie were like family members to the slave owners, but "I wants to be free...someday" is thrown in as a token wish.

I really didn't mind that it had a pro-Confederate view. Most movies I have seen regarding the Civil War were pro-Union, so this was a unique perspective and I enjoyed it. Having just visited Virginia this past summer, I recognized many of the locations in the film and subsequent museums.

Bottom line: I felt like I was in church with an over bearing pastor shoving the bible down my throat, while at the same time he was killing everyone (and with intense hostility) in a union uniform. Thumbs down, big time.
Paul D. McInerny

to Mr McInerny, From your

to Mr McInerny,
From your secular views of the movie and your seeming discomfort with religious overtones, it would be wise to perhaps do some individual research on Stonewall the man. He became seriously interested and effected by religion while fighting in Mexico and it became quite the focus of his life afterwards. I found nothing out of the ordinary concerning Stonewalls leanings depicted in G & G.
You must also remember, in the 19th century, religion WAS a centerpiece of daily thought by most and "political correctness" was not a concern (thank God-oops!!)

Professor Woodworth: " the

Professor Woodworth:

" the movie represents the South as being uniquely and sincerely Christian, while the North has at most a vague spirituality. In fact, both sides had about an equal representation of Christianity."

Are you serious? The South's "version" of Christianity was much more orthodox. The North's were heavily influenced by Unitarianism and Transcendentalism. They're worlds apart. Please, how about some reality here.

I think that maybe people are

I think that maybe people are losing sight of the fact that the movie is entitled "Gods and Generals" which gives the idea that the movie is not going to be about the Civil War, its causes & how people felt about it, but the people, the individuals involved in it. I believe the idea behind the filmmakers were to make a very historically accurate film about the people of the Civil War. Obviously portraying the characters accurately was more important to them than winning over people. We all know slavery was terrible. We know the slaves wanted their freedom. Many movies have been made about these perspectives of the Civil War. But, not a lot has been said about the key players of the actual war, which is what this movie is depicting. I truly love the movie. It is one of my favorites. I'm not judging it from a movie critic's eye, but from a normal person who loves history & is very intrigued by the Civil War & all that came with it. I appreciate the difference in perspective & an opportunity to see the people of the war as human beings & not just actors in a much larger play. But, maybe I'm just too ignorant to know better. :)

The southerners talk about

The southerners talk about freedom and liberty throughout the movie, but they were not fighting for anything concrete..... the movie completely skips the buildup to secession

some people today will tell you the war was about "states' rights"

But there was only ONE right that they were afraid of losing...
their "right" to hold slaves.

In truth all Lincoln ever said he would do was restrict the growth of slavery to new territories. He firmly believed that slavery in each state was not something the federal government had any business with (or any constitutional power to deal with). However, because of the precedent set by the founding fathers when they restricted the spread of slavery to the northwest territories, he felt that he could restrict slavery in territories, that's it.

The real problem arose because southern politicians and the elite planter class were worried that if slavery could not spread and new "slave states" could not be admitted to the union, they would be overwhelmed by "free states" in congress and in the electoral college, which might one day down the line lead to an administration that WOULD try to touch slavery (or at least southern politicians with any sort of brain came to this conclusion)

But instead of facing up to this fact, there was a lot of ho-humming about how Lincoln was a radical (he wasn't) and how all their rights were going to be taken away.

Which right? What right other than slavery was in any way threatened?

The confederate politicians were smart. They spun the war as a war of northern aggression. They convinced poor whites (who had no real interest in slavery) to fight their war for them; men who owned 20 or more slaves (aka rich whites) were exempt from conscription in the confederate army.

Confederates were indeed defending their homes and their way of life; but their way of life was fundamentally based--socially, economically, politically--on slavery.

Alexander Stephens (VP of the Confederacy) broadcast this to the world in his "cornerstone" speech
(use control + f and search for "not equal to"; then read that paragraph... disgusting)

And yes much of the war was fought on southern soil, but the confederates fired on fort Sumter first....

I think John Bell Hood makes my point better than I can.....
(another man portrayed as daring, brilliant and heroic in these movies...)
In a letter to W.T. Sherman, he complains that Sherman is trying to elevate "an inferior race" over the southern whites and therefore vows to keep on fighting Sherman as long as he can--saying:

"Better die a thousand deaths than submit to live under you or your Government and your n**** allies!"

I do know that General Lee disapproved of slavery (and secession) but in defending Virginia he was defending the a social, political and economic system that was based on slavery, the subjugation of a huge number of people based on the color of their skin.

Perhaps he and men like Jackson wanted to save their native state (their "country") from experiencing devastation. But the best way to have avoided the destruction of the civil war would have been to stay in the Union army, get the states back in and then tell the white slave-holding elite to calm down.

Now northerners were no saints either at this point; racism and prejudice were rampant there as well.

Lincoln certainly did not begin the war to free slaves. He issued the emancipation proclamation because he believed it to be a military necessity to deprive the southern war effort of slaves as a resource.
He also wanted to arm black troops as willing recruits were becoming harder and harder to come by.

When the war was over, reconstruction was a disaster, and blacks were forced into a system that was nearly as bad as slavery because southerners were willing to impose their will (KKK) and northerners still could not imagine a society where blacks and whites were equal in any concrete way. They were ok with saying that "all men are created equal" but when it came to acting on those words, VERY FEW people NORTH OR SOUTH were ready before, during or after the war to back up their abstract philosophies.

It took another hundred years to fix some of the problems that contributed to the war, and I believe that a movie like this that presents a skewed, brainwashed version of history are a step in the wrong direction.

Lee, Jackson, etc. Knew damn well that the only real issue was slavery, and that by defending the confederacy they were defending slavery. Longstreet(?) said the confederates should have freed the slaves then gone to war; but the confederacy never would have existed without slavery, and if all the slaves were free, there would no longer be any reason to have the confederacy. As their own vice president, Alexander Stephens, said, the cornerstone of the confederacy was slavery and the subjugation of blacks

Although I will grant that once your home is being invaded, the only motivation you need is "you're down here"-- to repel the invaders is a worthy goal; but the filmmakers pretended it was all about "freedom" and "justice" and that is just wrong (in fact it is the opposite of what the confederates were fighting to protect).

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