"Gods in Generals" is the 2003 prequel to the superior 1993 film "Gettysburg." Written by Jeffery Shaara, the father of "Gettysburg" scribe Michael Shaara, "Gods and Generals" is a slow-moving three and a half hour epic that looks at the early days of the Civil War through the eyes of the Confederacy. The story moves along at a snail's pace and glorifies the views of the Confederacy. Watching "Gods and Generals" made for a long evening for this Pennsylvania Yankee. What bothered me and put off my interest in "Gods and Generals" wasn't the Southern point of view used in the film, but the manner in which the main characters spoke amongst themselves. I cannot imagine Civil War generals discussing the politics of the Roman Empire and discussing this historical conflict in language that is over the heads of a run-of-the-mill English Professor. The rhetorical nature of these discussions ill-fit the story and just added to the heavy weight of watching "Gods and Generals."
This three hour film depicts events that occurred from the forming of the Federal and Confederate armies up until the march towards Gettysburg. Some early scenes in the film depict Robert E. Lee (Robert Duvall) being asked to be the commander of the Union army. He rejects this offer and moves to the south of the Potomac River to lead his beloved South against the northern aggression. Joshua Chamberlain (Jeff Daniels) discusses with his wife his desire to join the Federal army and help fight against the rebellious South. Tom Jackson (Stephen Lang) lies in bed with his pregnant wife and he talks about leaving the Virginia Military Institute and taking a position as a General with the Southern Army and join the fight for the Southern State's rights.
The central focus of the film is on Lt. Colonel Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson. Some of the other main characters are given their due time in this near-four hour epic. Both Joshua Chamberlain and his brother Thomas Chamberlain (C. Thomas Howell) are featured in various scenes. General Robert E. Lee is shown driving the war effort by the South against the North. Many of the other generals are included in "Gods and Generals" and the film does strive to portray as much of the early part of the war as possible. Scenes between Irish brigades from both the North and the South help paint a portrait that soldiers on each side of the Mason Dixon line had brothers and friends they were fighting against. With a large cast and many colorful characters, "Gods and Generals" is not lacking, but the film homes in on Stonewall Jackson at every opportunity.
"Stonewall" Jackson is a professor at VMI. He is a family man that has suffered his own personal tragedies, but has found a happy home life with his wife Anna Morrison Jackson (Kali Rocha). When he is thrust into the war, the deeply religious Jackson believes that God will protect him from harm and his ability to stand like a stone wall during the most ferocious fire fights earns him the nickname "Stonewall." Jackson reads from the bible and has his Adjutant (Mark Aldrich) write battle reports using passages from the gospel. His cold and stern exterior has resulted in a man that does not cry and does not show a lot of emotion. He is highly intelligent and Lee considers Jackson his right hand man. Jackson eventually befriends a family and their young daughter. They treat him to lemonade and Jackson shares the knowledge that he has yet to see his newly born baby girl.
Jackson finally sheds tears when he learns that girl has died from Scarlett Fever. He had just visited the little girl and given her a hand-carved angel for their Christmas tree and whereas the little girl served as a reminder of life beyond the war, his comfort and enjoyment of the time with the girl is broken and Jackson can only sit on a stump and weep at the news that his young friend has passed away. Soon afterwards, Jackson plans an attack on the Potomac army in a daring sneak attack on the Northern army's encampment. The battle is confusing and soldiers have difficult telling who is friend and who is foe. "Stonewall" Jackson is nearly killed. He survives the fight, but loses and arm and becomes infected with pneumonia. Jackson's wife visits him and he learns that his time is now limited and that he will die.
There are a number of glaring problems with "Gods and Generals." First and foremost is the tepid pacing of the film. The film starts out painfully slow and although it does pick up the pace for periods of time in "Gods and Generals," it slows back down and challenges the viewer to remain awake. The battle scenes of this sixty million dollar film are wonderfully handled and flow nicely. When bullets are not flying, "Gods and Generals" seems stuck on ‘reload.' The heavy dialogue is another major problem with the film. I found "Gods and Generals" to be as challenging in dialogue as some of the William Shakespeare plays I have seen. A movie about Yankees and Rebels in the Civil War should not be as demanding to understand as "Hamlet." The character of Lawrence Chamberlain was the one to hold most responsible for this complaint. Some of the dialogue also comes across as being tacky and feels more like it was meant for a low-budget television mini-series than for a major Hollywood production.
Where "Gods and Generals" does succeed, it does so nicely. The battle scenes are great. The film used Civil War re-enactors and their veteran understanding of the War's battles to faithfully recreate the fight in a line style of combat. Watching the muzzleloaders fire throughout the scenes and the cannon fire and other elements of Civil War battle looked incredible. There were so many soldiers lined up during these battle scenes that the film felt truly epic. Aside from my complaint that the movie sided too heavily with the Southern point of view, "Gods and Generals" does spend some time showing the confusing nature of the war. Two scenes stand out as being nice little touches in this lengthy picture. A scene where a Southern soldier trades some pipe tobacco to a Northern soldier for some coffee during Christmas was a very nice little touch. Another scene showing the reaction of a Southern Irish unit being forced to fire upon a Northern Irish unit showed how conflicted the soldiers were. There were many nice little touches in the film that were sadly lost to the painful dialogue and pacing.
"Gods and Generals" is a wonderful history lesson. The film introduces many characters that are familiar in "Gettysburg" and many actors have returned to reprise their roles in this film. It was refreshing to see Jeff Daniels and C. Thomas Howell return as the Chamberlain brothers. Stephen Lang appeared in "Gettysburg" as Major General George E. Pickett, but assumes the role as "Stonewall" Jackson in this film. I believe Robert Duvall to be an upgrade over the talented Martin Sheen. The big names do stand out against the droves of lesser known talent that portrays other soldiers and officers of the two armies. This massive cast and the epic scale of the film lends better to being a lengthy history lesson than it does to being an entertaining cinematic experience. It just isn't entertaining enough to sit through during one sitting and keep completely focused on the film. This is one of those movies that prove how wonderful a ‘Pause' button truly is.
"Gods and Generals" is presented in a fine looking 2.40:1 transfer that is mastered at 1080p with the VC-1 codec. The film is detailed and colorful and ranks among the better catalog releases to have hit the Blu-ray format, but it cannot compete with the upper echelon of Warner Bros. catalog releases. There are a number of scenes present in the movie that are overly soft and give an appearance that the camera was out of focus during the filming of that particular scene. It tends to be slightly distracting, but isn't a showstopper. The colors of "Gods and Generals" are superb. Reds are amazing and the multitude of blue and gray hues in the film each show up perfectly in the film. Part of the confusion of the Civil War was in the colors of the uniforms and the hodge-podge manner in which the Southern troops were dressed. You cannot confuse the various hues in this transfer. Black levels are very strong and the source materials used were pristine. When the transfer is having a ‘highly detailed' moment, it really shines. However, when it is struggling with its definition, the transfer suffers and keeps "Gods and Generals" from becoming visually exceptional.
With its supplemental materials and 219 minute length, I can assume there wasn't a lot of room for a high tech soundtrack and "Gods and Generals" is left with only an English Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack. Subtitles are provided for English, French and Spanish, but no foreign language support is provided in soundtrack form. Thankfully, the Dolby Digital mix is superb and does a masterful job of conveying the sounds of Civil War era battle. Cannons wallop through the .1 LFE channel and the muzzleloaders have a faithful sounding pop with each fire. The sounds of the drums and flutes used by the soldiers are also nicely captured. The front three channels handle much of the duty of "Gods and Generals," but the rear surrounds are not forgotten and plenty of sound can be heard from each of the five directional speakers. Movement is very nice between each speaker and the viewer is nicely placed in the center of the combat sequences. The visuals of the Blu-ray release leaved a little to be desired, but the sound is top-notch.
A running commentary track and over an hour of additional supplementary material is provided on the dual-layer 50-gigabyte Blu-ray disc. The Behind the Story section contains an Introduction by Ted Turner (3:00). Presented in widescreen, this bit shows Turner describing his love of history and especially the Civil War. Sadly, Turner sold the rights to the third film in the trilogy and didn't show enough love to have all three Civil War films produced. The Commentary with Writer/Director Ron Maxwell, Director of VMI Museum Operations Keith Gibson and Va Tech Alumni Professoer James I. Robertson features three people providing their voice to the commentary, but they couldn't quite fill up the track. Only about half the film is filled with words from the men. When they do feel the need to talk, it is informative. However, the long delays between sections made this a difficult commentary to listen to.
A few other segments are also provided. A Journey to the Past (21:59) finds director Ron Maxwell and star Donzaleigh Abernathy sitting down to talk with each other about the Civil War and the making of the film. Robert Duvall and
others share their thoughts as well. A lot of conversation is based upon the notion of 'freeing the slaves' and the impact that Lincoln's first address had on the nation. The Authenticities of the Film (12:53) finds the films director talking about Harpers Ferry being used for the sets in the film and how they worked to make the film as authentic as possible. Information about the re-enactors was also provided. The Life of Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson (14:28) is a nice little feature that looks at information on the focal point of the film. Under the header of Additional Footage, an odd promotional piece for West Virginia tourism, West Virginia (:31) is included. Finalizing the extras are two music videos: Cross the Green Mountain - Music Video by Bob Dylan and Goin Home - Music Video by Mary Fahl as well as the Theatrical Trailer.
I didn't dislike "Gods and Generals," but I had a hard time to be consistently entertained by the film. It felt more like a history lesson than it did a movie. The movie trudged along slowly for much of its running time and its overly heavy dialogue was tedious to the ear and distracting. You should not have to decipher what the generals are talking about and I'm still not sure why everybody was so fascinated by the Romans in this film. The heavy Southern view presented in the film made "Gods and Generals" feel one-sided and I would have preferred a more agnostic view of the war, but supposedly the third movie will have the Northern view on things. The Blu-ray release features a nice looking picture that is not great because of softness in a number of scenes. The soundtrack is exceptional and brings life to the Civil War era battle scenes. The bonus materials are nice and give a good look into the making of the film. This is a good release, but "Gods and Generals" is a movie that will take two nights to comfortably sit through.