Characters in the Civil War re-enactment saga Gods and Generals do not hold conversations with each other; they direct speeches at one another, in prose so florid and strenuous you expect their jawbones to snap in half due to the extreme weight of the words. The plot—or the history book lesson of names, dates and places—lacks even the most remote feeling of human spontaneity, as if all of the soldiers were marching into battle not to fight for beliefs but instead to satisfy a conclusion so forgone that everyone knew what was going to happen long before it did. (The film tellingly has several characters correctly predict their own deaths just beforehand, probably meant to suggest the sorrow of the inevitable but instead clinching the blatancy of the film’s rote, stagy narrative. And how the Confederates project such faith in their ability to drive off the Union “invaders” makes them seem not dedicated to their land and their freedom, but emotionally paralyzed with fits of delusion.)
Gods and Generals is based on Jeff Shaara’s novel of the same name and was directed by Ronald F. Maxwell from his own script, and as he was previously at the helm of Gettysburg, it’s difficult to speculate on what went so disastrously wrong. Gettysburg was made for broadcast on TV, yet it was an intimate and rigorously cinematic portrait of the complex strategies of battle and the humanity found within its participants; it more than deserved the theatrical release it received in 1993. Ten years later Gods and Generals arrives made for cinematic exhibition (based on either the surprise success of Gettysburg or exec-producer Ted Turner’s continuing obsession with outshining Gone with the Wind), but the result is the polar opposite: a movie that barely belongs on TV.
This is a film as remote and unyielding as an untouched textbook, often so much so that its academic fanaticism causes it to resemble a spectacular parody of daytime television’s breathy, on-the-fly awkwardness with theories of performance, story and camera placement. This could have something to do with the use of thousands of Civil War “re-enactors” as extras, people who enjoy getting together and staging famous battles of the time. The film usually resembles little more than a re-enactment, especially as regiment after regiment marches into the fight accompanied by a subtitle informing us where they’re from and which commander they belong to, all of them “characters” we’ve never heard from before and will likely not see again. I don’t doubt that this archaic principle of favoring a stiff set of facts over an involving story will appeal to some, but it can’t be called a movie; the way in which it presents itself is decidedly of a time before motion pictures were invented.
Perhaps Maxwell didn’t understand how to give two-plus years of events the same confidence and detail that he gave to four days in Gettysburg, but even so, Gods and Generals isn’t suitably distended in its scope—despite the returning presence of Jeff Daniels as Union Col. Chamberlain and Robert Duvall (swapping with Gettysburg‘s Martin Sheen) as Gen. Robert E. Lee among many other decorative roles, the film could almost be branded a biography of “Stonewall” Jackson, the Confederate general who was a prominent figure in the war until he was accidentally gunned down by his own troops. Played by Stephen Lang in an obscenely devout performance, Jackson has a gluey glint of optimism in his eyes and such an unflappable reaction to brutality that you suspect he would have made a great serial killer had he not become a lauded military strategist. Lang’s performance is the film’s lynchpin—he’s the only actor who doesn’t look as though he’s been dipped in wax for display at Madame Tussaud’s—but his presence no doubt benefits from the sterility of his surroundings.
And despite spending a good bulk of the nearly four-hour running time with Jackson, Gods and Generals still misses a direct portal into what could be labeled his divine faith or his out-and-out fantasy; it’s only interested in using the character’s conviction as another ornament on its tacky parade float. The film ends with his death, but Maxwell and his re-enactors will live to see another day—the closing credits scrawl indicates their intent on returning with Last Full Measure. If that implies that Gods and Generals is not itself a full measure, but instead only a half or third, Maxwell will have accomplished the impossible of giving us spectators a complete understanding of what it was like to suffer through this war.