Ross Nelson column: Civil War movie is example of filmmaking at its best
The recent release of the movie "Gods and Generals" on VHS and DVD brings back to mind the extraordinary split of opinion the show created. The movie is the second of a proposed trilogy on the Civil War and is largely from the Confederates' point...
The recent release of the movie "Gods and Generals" on VHS and DVD brings back to mind the extraordinary split of opinion the show created. The movie is the second of a proposed trilogy on the Civil War and is largely from the Confederates' point of view in the battles of Manassas, Fredericksburg, and Chancellorsville. Therein, apparently, lies the rub.
The Forum carried a reviewer who panned the movie and gave it one star. Other reviews were harsher yet. On the other hand, Christopher Jacobs of the "High Plains Reader" gave it a more nuanced and intelligent look while movie critic Michael Medved awarded it a four star rating and tongue-in-cheekily said it covered a host of Ted Turner's (who financed the film) sins. Bill Kauffman called it the best Civil War movie ever made. What gives?
It seems to me that the harshest critics simply couldn't bear a movie that doesn't portray Civil War Southerners as knuckle-dragging apes fighting to keep slaves underfoot. It must have been quite a shock to their bigoted worldview to see the Confederates shown as honorable and decent men who viewed the Union incursions as invasions of their homes and homeland. There's a scene where Gen. Robert E. Lee (well played by Robert Duvall) looks out across Fredericksburg as his army digs in and remarks that while the town is just a mark on the map to the Northerners, to him and others it's a place where they were born and raised, where they played and married and buried their dead. Home, in other words. And a home threatened by an alien army.
Many critics no doubt needed smelling salts at the movie's portrayal in particular of two slaves, one a housemaid and another Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson's cook. They and those they serve are shown as loving and concerned about each other, but director Ron Maxwell also makes clear the ambiguity the slaves feel. They love their homes and feel threatened by the Union forces, yet at the same time they understand that those same invaders hold the key to setting them free. Some critics apparently think, however, that all slaves were Nat and Natalie Turners, ready to slice their masters' throats at the nearest opportunity.
A bright line separates the two camps on the movie's oratory: some said the language used was impossibly flowery and preachy; others said that that is how English was spoken by the educated of that time, given how they were steeped in Shakespeare and the King James Bible. I found the speaking to be eloquent and sometimes greatly moving. In one scene, Union Colonel Joshua Chamberlain (a professor of the classics in civilian life), played by Jeff Daniels, intones verses from the Roman poet Lucan to dramatic effect as Union forces march up the hill at Fredericksburg to be pitilessly scythed by the Confederate armies.
Leaving aside political incorrectness, the movie can still stand on its own, for whatever flaws it may have. Stephen Lang as Stonewall Jackson gives an Oscar performance in which it seems you're not watching an actor play Jackson but watching Jackson himself. Then there's a winter scene in which lone sentries from each side meet on rocks in a river's middle to swap coffee for a pipe of tobacco. A maudlin director might have had the men muse on how they'd be buying a beer for each other but for the war. Instead the men savor their satisfactions wordlessly, uncomfortably, never looking directly at each other. They then quietly return to their respective banks. This is filmmaking at its best.
Run, don't walk, to rent or buy this movie.
Nelson is a Fargo postal worker and regular contributor to The Forum's commentary pages. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org