‘Gods and Generals’ a true disaster of epic proportions

Ted Pigeon

The 1993 four-hour war epic “Gettysburg” is among the best films of the past decade and endures as one of the finest war movies ever made. Despite its lengthy running time, the film moves along briskly and provides an enriching and thorough study of one of the most monumental battles in American history. The film’s dedication to historical accuracy is reflective of the book that inspired it, Michael Shaara’s “The Killer Angels.” Ronald Maxwell’s epic film was only the first in a trilogy that will cover the duration of the entire Civil War before and after the pivotal battle of Gettysburg.

The second film in the trilogy, “Gods and Generals,” chronicles the events that transpired before Gettysburg, from Robert E. Lee’s refusal to take command of the Federal Army to the heroic stand of Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson at the Battle of Fredericksburg. Over the course of its almost four-hour running time, three major battles are portrayed — the battles of Manassas Junction, Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville. The film opens with the secession of Virginia and spans the first two years of the Civil War, capturing some battles in elaborate detail but strangely makes no mention of others, such as the battle of Antietam.

“Gods and Generals” mostly serves as a biography of Jackson, played by Stephen Lang, who is depicted as an overtly religious thinker who is both a perfect family man and a vigilant commander on the battlefield. Most of the time he is praying or making references to God. The film follows other officers, such as Gen. Lee (Robert Duvall) and Col. Lawrence Chamberlain (Jeff Daniels) of the Federal Army, but none of these officers receive as much screen time as Lang, who played Gen. Pickett in “Gettysburg.”

With this film, Maxwell has attempted to squeeze two years’ worth of history into four hours, which is hard to do given the director’s attention to the most intricate details. This is one of the film’s many weaknesses. Because the film takes place over a much longer period of time, it feels more drawn out and slow-moving, unlike “Gettysburg,” which took place over three days and kept a high level of interest.

One has to wonder how a film that is trying to cram so much information has room for long, boring sequences in which a husband and wife are reading poetry to one another before parting. There are also a number of scenes in which soldiers gaze at the stars during the night making various dramatic statements.

Unlike the many war stories in which the actual war is a backdrop to the human story, “Gettysburg” was about battle and strategy, soldiers and generals. There were no melodramatic speeches about the wrongdoings of slavery, no conversations chock-full of quotes from poetry and the Bible, no unneeded subplots that show the human side of the characters — in other words, the kind of things that infest “Gods and Generals.”

Maxwell’s attempt to bring the war to the home front is an absolute disaster, and his film suffers horribly from it. The scenes in which generals strategize are usually well-done and interesting, surely accurate from a historical perspective, but they too often take a backseat to the preaching that goes on by many of the film’s characters. Such ludicrous moments destroy any kind of positive momentum that the film begins to build several times.

Though there are admirable moments in the film that are reminiscent of “Gettysburg,” this movie as a whole is uninspired and boring. It wants to be so many things, but in the end isn’t able to accomplish them.

The script is disjointed and poorly written, which is part of the reason that the entire movie is devoid of any real emotion. “Gods and Generals” is nothing more than an insipid melodrama with a couple of well-mounted battles scenes. It is a colossal misfire and, relatively speaking, a disappointment of enormous proportions.