Gods and Generals (2003) Ronald F. Maxwell

Production Budget: $80 million
Worldwide Gross: $13 million
Subsequent Earnings: $1.3 million

Gods and Generals was the dream project of Ted Turner, who invested most of the $80 million to get it made.  I guess with the lack of studio support, you could call this an independent film.  G & G is a kind of prequel to Gettysburg and its supposed to be very historically accurate (I honestly have no idea).  So Turner rounded up many of the usual re-enactors (many called as reserves to the war in Iraq) and the film in total cost about $55 million.  A good chunk of the movie went to re-creating the Southern states.  Another $30 million was put aside to market the film.  The problem was people didn’t want to sit down for four hours and watch a boring history lecture (most people anyway).  Critics hated the movie for its length, its two dimensional characters, its self-righteous ramblings, and what some perceived as a pro Confederate slant.  Poor word of mouth has given it zero life on DVD.

Is it any good?  This is actually the first movie I have listed that I haven’t seen all the way through (my copy was so scratched up it locked up after an hour). Maybe I should thank that man for ruining the disc because the first hour was sooooo slooooooooooooooooooooow.  You wanna know how slow it is.  I was staring at a shot of an open field for a full minute before I realized the movie locked up.  I thought it was another long shot.  The direction is sloppy and slow.  The dialogue is dreadful, I don’t care about the characters, and the writer’s attention to detail, while it may be a Civil War buff’s idea of a wet dream, is tedious and boring to everyone else.  I would rather watch all of the Ken Burns Civil War documentary before picking this up again.

Revisit

This movie took over three weeks to watch.  Three weeks!  It is bad when I have to schedule time to watch a movie like I’m putting away 30 minutes to do exercises and whatnot.  It was with only with complete resignation I would pull myself from anything more interesting (in this case everything) to sit through all 4 hours of Gods and Generals.  Or what I like to call “Ted Turner’s Wanking Material”.

Now I criticize many people when they just say a movie is boring because that is not descriptive.  Many times people refer to length when they mention that although that does not fit.  There are many long movies that are engrossing all the way through because it is so well written and you need all that time to tell the complex story.  So why do I find this movie so boring?  Well, it’s because this isn’t a movie.  Ok, technically speaking it is but it’s not at the same time.  I swear I’m not trying to do some Zen riddle.  What I mean is this is more a dry college lecture with some action scenes spliced in.  I don’t care how many squibs you set off, I’m still gonna fall asleep to Ben Stein talking about voodoo economics.

This was done by the same director of Gettysburg (as part of a proposed trilogy) and you would think he would have a firm grasp on how to handle the material.  So what went wrong?  Hoo boy, that is a long list so let’s get started.

I believe a major issue is they were trying to put the entire civil war in one movie.  Gettysburg was, well, just about Gettysburg.  Well that is not completely trueIt is a character study with the battle as a backdrop.  But here they want to go into Bull Run, Antietam, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville.  It wants to talk about Lee and Jackson and Chamberlain and wants to go into historical background and the reasons for the war and talk about the constitutional issues with secession and what the true debate topics were and *head explodes*.  One of those topics is enough for a feature film.  All of those topics is barely enough for a Ken Burns documentary.  You see endless shots of people marching around showing off all the period costumes and there are even more text cues of “This is the Maine’s 225th brigade” and “Gen. Whatthewhoozitts Fightin’ 35th from Virginia” and we spend so much time on minutiae.  I’m sure there are dozens of Civil War buffs that were fapping to this in the theaters as it came out.  Meanwhile you are wondering to yourself what the big f*cking deal is.  I’m sorry I’m being so insensitive but as long as there aren’t incredible gaffs like people wearing Ray Bans I don’t care.  You shouldn’t care about that either because ultimately it doesn’t matter.  Learning history isn’t so much about the microscopic details but it is still about the story.  At the end of the day, this is still a movie with characters and a plot.  It’s like making a movie about Caligula and focusing so much on the actual togas they wore and what chariots they rode around in that you forget all about the incest and the horse f*cking.

The movie feels dry and stuffy as if the dialog is out of a textbook and acted by re-enactors.  Yeah, I said re-enactors and not recreationists or whatever the hell you call yourselves nowadays.  I got sent a few emails correcting me like I used some un-PC term.  A person who colors in a drawing without doing any original work is a tracer, and someone who dresses up in period clothes and wastes a weekend playing soldier is a re-enactor.  Where was I going with this?  Oh yeah, this dialog doesn’t work with real people in the real world.  Take this quote of a mother saying goodbye to her children who are going off to war:

“We must not fear the final result of this war but many a loved one will fall and many a heart will throb in anguish before we can breathe the exhilarating atmosphere of freedom and feel the sweet assurance of safety and peace once more.  There’s nothing in this life more dear to me than my children except the memory of your once father.  When you go to Richmond and wherever this war takes you; you must not fear for us.  We will be with you wherever you will go. Surely goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life.”

What mother would say that to her kids who are probably going to die in a war?  You may have found something like that in a letter (which they might have recreated).  But there is a difference between what people write and the prose they use, and simple language used by regular people.  I don’t care what age I lived in, if I were going to war my mother would not be saying stuff about her heart throbbing or feeling the “exhilarating atmosphere of freedom” but telling me not to get killed…and to always wear clean underwear.  But mostly about not dying!

Another problem with this movie is we don’t really have a main protagonist.  Welllllll again we do but we don’t (more Zen).  Despite Robert Duvall getting top billing he is really not in this movie.  He says like one speech and then he’s out of the movie.  And even though he has been in movies after this and has looked younger, he looks like he is one step away from the nursing home in this movie.  Jeff Daniels is in this movie as Lt. Chamberlain and they do absolutely nothing with him.  The only person I can say qualifies as a protagonist is Stonewall Jackson who is played by Stephen Lang (Avatar).  The reason I say Stonewall isn’t a protagonist is because his character is stark raving mad.  Lang does a good job, but I think the director needed to reign his performance in.  Jackson is supposed to be a quirky, uptight but lovable individual but here he is nuttier than a can of Planters.  He literally believes he is on a mission from god to kill Yankees and has the intensity that can only be matched by a psycho from a Kubrick movie.  Now this may be accurate, but it doesn’t exactly make him someone we want to follow for the majority of the movie.  The performance is more an oddity which I never really related to as the movie played out.

Now onto what most people seem to have a discussion about when they talk about this movie.  Every review seems to start off in the exact same way.  In fact, when I was bitching to a co-worker about the movie I was seeing his eyes lit up and he gave me the same freaking spiel.  “We finally get a movie that gives the REAL reason behind the civil war instead of what Hollywood shoves on us!”  This movie is pro south with the thesis being the Civil War isn’t about slavery as it is about state’s rights.  Now, I’ve had some discussions and asked for advise from some fans so I am fairly confident in that this is a lot of hot air about semantics.  True, Lincoln never declared an official war on slavery.  Nor do I think Hollywood (faceless straw man that it is) proposed that also.  It is about states rights, but the topic which drove those discussions was about slavery.  The South was worried the federal government was going to abolish slavery and the debate was about states being able to rule for themselves without the meddling of Congress.  So while the war wasn’t ABOUT slavery, it was the impetus of many actions which led to the Civil War.  It seems a lame debate topic and it doesn’t make this movie any more entertaining.  It is still painfully dull.

I just kept wondering through this movie why they just didn’t make a documentary.  Why couldn’t you spend all the time you want talking about the Civil War in however much detail you want and you can even put in the re-enactors in as a real life simulator of what the battle was like.  Hell, most of the History channel you see now is exactly that except the battles are done using computer mock ups.  The makers wanted to have their cake and eat it too.  They wanted an exhaustive study on the Civil War but also have good acting and cool action scenes.  In the end, they get neither.  The acting is stilted, the action isn’t all that memorable, and the factual stuff grinds all action to a dead stop.  In the end, I’ll just put a Civil War doc in my queue before ever watching this again.

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