Every few years another war movie of epic proportion is released. Some are incredibly memorable, like “Saving Private Ryan” or “Band of Brothers”. There are others that are completely terrible such as “Battlefield Earth” or “The Conqueror” – a movie so bad it caused John Wayne’s cancer due to being filmed in a radioactive part of Utah! There are also those movies that look new but are really just fresh paint on an old story, like “Avatar”.
Then there is “Gods and Generals” … a touchy-feely movie masquerading as a civil war movie oozing with reasons for speechification. Released in 2003 with the screenplay and director credits belonging to Ronald F. Maxwell and based off the amazing book of the same name by Jeff Shaara everything seemed like a surefire success.
The movie becomes a prequel to the successful movie “Gettysburg”, released 10 years prior in 1993. Jeff is the son of Michael Shaara, author of the book “Killer Angels”, which was the basis for the movie “Gettysburg”. Which means the source material and authenticity of “Gods and Generals” should be a great starting point for Ronald’s adaptation. Ronald was responsible for the screenplay and directing of “Gettysburg” as well – another plus. Finally, with almost all the original cast and crew reprising their roles from “Gettysburg” – how could you go wrong?
And perhaps this is why everything did go wrong…
Let me start this off with a confession: The movie “Gettysburg” is one of my favorite movies of all times. I loved the book it was based off of and even wrote a major paper about the battle of Gettysburg itself. Which meant I wanted to love this movie just as much. I approached this as a fan of everything the previous movie had done. Which is what made the experience so painful.
Let me continue to confess: I watched the last 40 minutes of this excruciatingly long 3.5 hour movie in 1.5x speed. It HAD to be done just so I could get through it. The battle scenes went on and on and on. There was almost no dialogue, dramatic tension or ability to understand what was happening in the battles. Did they just assume that because everyone knew the South lost the Civil War (ya’ll know that, right?!) that any level of dramatic tension was pointless? Soldiers are constantly dying by gunshot, bayonets, or cannon. One soldier remarks that it is a challenge to differentiate between the North and South uniforms at one point – but does it have to be so confusing for the viewer? If the intention was to make us feel like we’re just as confused as the soldiers – it worked. I found myself wishing there was a little video game map in the upper right with a CNN ticker along the bottom to tell me how things were progressing in the battle.
They could have also made the battles much shorter if they didn’t use the same shot over and over and over again. It almost became a drinking game to see how many times the same shot could be used. I know it is expensive to film this stuff but perhaps find an alternative to extending your war scene and tighten it up through better editing and pull the camera in closer to touch on the emotions of the actual soldiers. Just a thought…
The length of this movie is felt through almost every scene as the viewer is drug along (probably because they fell asleep) from one long speech after another. The dialogue and accents used are the eloquent, educated, and elevated stereotype that has become some prominent with Southerners. Whether this is actually what they would have said and how they would have said it, it feels like a caricature of itself that makes the content almost impossible to digest. Conversations in the movie “Gettysburg” felt dramatically less forced then they did in here.
I loved that many of the same actors were back to reprise their roles from” Gettysburg”. Getting the same cast and crew to reprise their roles is probably the most impressive achievement this movie was capable of doing. It would allow for a more seamless viewing experience to go from one movie to the other – except in one place. Stephen Lang, who many probably know from “Avatar” or “Terra Nova”, reprises his role in this movie – except as a completely different character! This is one of the most confusing things I think I have ever seen in my movie viewing history. In “Gettysburg”, the movie many people probably saw prior to this one, he played the doomed General Pickett (of the infamous Pickett’s Charge) and in this movie he plays General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson. They’re both popular Southerners and their affect, appearance and portrayals are different – but it is incredibly difficult to not to separate the differences between the two characters. In terms of trying to create a larger movie trilogy continuity, it is jarring and strange. He was great in the role but it was strange.
As in “Gettysburg”, some of the best lines are spoken by the only fictional character in the trilogy – Buster Killrain. The irascible Irishman lends an aged, old-world, “been there, done that” sensibility that directly contrasts with the North/South sensibilities seen in the movie. Once again, Killrain reprises his role of delivering short and pointed quips that have deeper impact on the viewer than 5 minute long monologues by other characters. I could listen to him verbally smack characters around all day long!
In the end the movie was a failure – costing $60 million to make and only bringing in $12 million. The plan was to film the 3rd book in the trilogy “The Last Full Measure” but with the abysmal failure of “Gods and Generals” – we will most likely never see that movie made.
Skip this movie and watch some of the other civil war ones mentioned here. If you like historically accurate and good character study books, make sure to check out Jeff Shaara’s other war-centric books. Coming soon I’ll share the paper that I wrote about Gettysburg back in 1993!