Gods and Generals

Feb 26, 2003 at 12:00 am

A more appropriate title would be The Great Whitewashing of the Rebellion. And just how is that done? Take the American Civil War, primarily from the perspective of the warmer side of the Mason-Dixon line, and instead of having the Confederates communicate in dialogue, have them use a kind of heightened (and tranquilizing) Hallmark Card-speak to express their vacuous loyalty to the South. Show them continually clutching the Bible and leaving the majority of responsibilities in God’s hands.

This is director Ronald Maxwell’s prequel to Gettysburg, and he repaints the gruesome battles at Bull Run, Antietam, Fredericksburg and Chancellorville as if touched by an angel. G and G parades the big-screen faces of Robert Duvall (as Gen. Robert E. Lee), Jeff Daniels (as Lt. Col. Chamberlain) and the not-so-well-known face of Stephen Lang (as Gen. Stonewall Jackson). Judging from the cardboard-heroic results (with some hints of human warmth coming from Mira Sorvino as Fanny Chamberlain and Kali Rocha as Mrs. Jackson), you’d swear Maxwell told his actors, “You are in something momentous and epic. Hold up your chin and look solemn.”

The script is based on the “coming out” novel by Jeff Shaara, a man with no previous writing experience, unless you count genetics — his father, Michael Shaara, is the author of The Killer Angels, the novel Gettysburg was based on. Like its title, the film tries to deify rebel leaders and intentions, but luckily it’s far too tedious to be considered propaganda.

It never occurs to these men, who profess to be fighting their “second war of independence,” that they’re fighting for the freedom to keep others from freedom. Even the Southern slaves possess this uncontrollable loyalty to their home, although they eventually admit — without being reprimanded — that freedom does have an appeal. But any food for thought is lost as you watch a film shot through the eyes of a Harlequin romance with a dreamy “glory to God, glory to war” sound track throughout.

Gods and Generals lacks any connection to the breath and bite of actual human beings, as if you were watching a chess game — with pieces wearing bad beards and muttonchops — for almost four hours.

Anita Schmaltz writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected].