Friday, February 21, 2003


Salvation in war

'Gods and Generals' is a
philosophical look at the Civil War

Burl Burlingame

In 1993, the movie "Gettysburg" was created out of Jeff Shaara's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel "The Killer Angels." It was an ambitiously epic film about the three days in July 1863, in which the high-water mark of the rebellious Southern Confederacy was dashed against something never before encountered - competent generalling by Union commanders.

"Gods and Generals"

Rated PG-13
Playing at Consolidated Kapolei, Koolau, Pearlridge and Ward; Signature Dole Cannery, Pearl Highlands and Windward

From that point, the Confederacy was largely in retreat. The union called America passed its greatest test, and the country as we know it today was founded. Never before had a nation marched to war to set men free. The South fought on faith that states' rights superseded those of the nation, and that the "tyranny" of the North had to be resisted so that their individual liberties remained inviolate. Never mind that those rights included the notion that human beings were property.

Although the movie (and the novel) were battlefield primers that brought to life the horrific costs of waging war, it was really an examination of the dueling natures of man - creator and destroyer, sanctified and damned, capable of the most noble, doomed gesture and the most petty horrors. This depth gave "Gettysburg" tremendous resonance, and it is today considered one of the finest pictures ever made about the cruel nature of armed conflict.

Although there were some niggling technical problems with the film (mainly because it was made on the cheap), it had some tremendous performances, in particular Jeff Daniels as the 20th Maine's Joshua Chamberlain and Tom Beringer as Robert E. Lee's "strong right arm" James Longstreet.

Which brings us to this weekend's opening of "Gods and Generals," one of the most highly anticipated films of the last year - and not just among Civil War re-enactors. Can they do it again? It has the same writer, director and producer, a much higher budget and virtually the entire cast has returned in the same roles.

Shaara's son Michael wrote a best-selling prequel to "Killer Angels" called "Gods and Generals," which this is the source material. His novel sequel, "The Last Full Measure," goes into production this summer, unless the current film is a total bomb. The three films together will constitute an epic story as rich and detailed as Peter Jackson's "Lord of the Rings," except that it's not fantasy. It's a realistic study of America's national obsession with individual rights vs. the common good, and how we're willing to shed blood over it.

Unlike the fine focus of "Gettysburg," this is a sprawling epic that covers the first two years of conflict, including many philosophical debates.

Bo Brinkman, left, stars as Maj. Taylor and Robert Duvall as Gen. Robert E. Lee in "Gods and Generals."

EARLY reviews indicate that the incredible sweep and complexity of the plot - edited down into a four-hour movie! - causes narrative numbness. Too much, too rich, too detailed, too pedantically, historically accurate.

Other critics were offended that some of the historic characters have a direct and personal relationship with God and are overwhelmed with religious piety in the midst of horror. (The book is called "Gods and Generals," for God's sake!) Almost all complained that the characters were too well-spoken; that their dialogue had an antique and genteel cadence to it. And that the Rebs don't talk like "real Southerners." (An educated population only a generation or two removed from Ireland or Scotland is unlikely to talk like NASCAR rooters.)

Well, duh! This is history presented as a philosophic dialectic, instead of as a entertainment spectacle. Do you want your movies to transport you into the past, into the minds and feelings of those long ago ("Gladiator," "Glory") or be entertained by modern-thinking action heroes popping up anachronistically in a colorful "past" that exists only in the fever dreams of Hollywood set dressers ("The Patriot," "Pearl Harbor")?

All of what was cut from "Gods and Generals" will resurface in a six-hour DVD edition, a technology that wasn't available for the first film. The ability to do this - to have a second chance at storytelling, free of the strictures of theatrical showtimes - must come as a great relief to think-big filmmakers like Ron Maxwell and Jackson.


"Gettysburg" was concerned with the choreography of a three-day battle. The characters don't even get a chance to change their clothes. "Gods and Generals" actually covers several separate battles, particularly the confused mess at Chancellorsville (where "Stonewall" Jackson fell to friendly fire) and the bloody uphill debacle at Fredericksburg.

This corner of Virginia is hallowed ground, site of more American casualties than any other battlefield in North America. Another battle, Antietam, was filmed but will appear only on the DVD.

So much shoot-'em-up may cause combat fatigue among viewers, particularly since the nature of these engagements was smoke and confusion. Like "The Two Towers," the nature of the big beast may not emerge until repeat screenings, if viewers can handle it.

"Gods and Generals" takes place at a unique period in world history, the first time federated troops fought to free their fellow man; the first time any military was educated and placed stock in expressing themselves through words and images; the first mass conflict of the industrial age. It was both a dreadful slaughter of innocence and a blossoming of an educated citizenry.

It would be interesting to compare "Gods and Generals" back-to-back with "Gangs of New York." Both take place in the same time period; both take great pains to immerse the audience in a fully realized world much different from our own; both focus on the same issues of salvation and redemption through conflict. The primary difference is in the eye of the filmmaker toward human beings in the past - our great-great-great-grandparents were either flawed human beings with a yen toward nobler aspirations, or they were little better than brawling gorillas.

Somewhere in between is rich territory for filmmakers.

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