20 February 2008

Gods & Generals 5th Anniversary

Tomorrow marks the 5th anniversary of the official release of what James I. Robertson, Jr. has called "The greatest Civil War movie I have ever seen, and I have seen them all." It was on 21 February 2003 that Gods and Generals was released with great anticipation to theaters nationwide. I, along with my youngest son, had the privilege of attending one of the Virginia premiers on the campus of Virginia Military Institute. There, sitting on the straight-backed wooden pews in Jackson Memorial Hall, we watched this epic film.

There was something very special about viewing the film at VMI--for obvious reasons. Seeing the various company flags flutter in the breeze as the film opened in the historic hall and listening to the sound of booming cannon echo off the massive rafters during the battle scenes was a unique experience which I will never forget. Experiencing it with my son made it all the more special. The black tie event was well attended and included Dr. Robertson, the film's chief historical consultant, Stephen Lang, who portrayed Jackson, and Director Ron Maxwell. There were several other cast members there as well. I was actually there on assignment doing an article for two magazines, one which was later published in Homeschooling Today Magazine. I had the honor of interviewing both Dr. Robertson and Mr. Lang.

Though there were some things I did not like about the film, i.e.- I thought some of the acting was a little "stiff" - as if the actors were trying too hard. Jeb Stuart's appearance at Jackson's tent was one of the worst examples. Nonetheless, I would have to agree with Robertson's assessment. It is the best CW film ever made.

It seems that most viewers either love or hate the film, few are ambivalent about it. I do find it instructive that many of the folks who absolutely trash the film have made it quite clear that they find little about the South and its way of life to admire anyway, thus their credibility as a critic is questionable at best. Their criticism seems to be based more on politics, prejudices, and stereotypes than anything else. Making fun of the South and her people is now officially one of the annointeds favorite pastimes. I guess that should be expected. Maxwell refused to follow the modern template which requires all public media to trash the South and all associated with it; thus he suffered the wrath of the "critics."

Ted Turner, who funded the financially unsuccessful film, was able, for the most part, to escape the wrath of the critics. He's paid his penance to enough liberal causes that he was quickly forgiven. Oddly enough, Turner's studios also produced another film which raised the ire of the anti-South crowd: The Hunley. In my mind, that is the 2nd best CW film ever produced and one I would recommend to all.

Two scenes that stand out in stark contrast in my mind in Gods & Generals is of Confederate General Jackson and Union General Chamberlain "praying" before a battle. In the first scene, Jackson is seen looking into an open field early in the morning, no sounds of war around, all peaceful and quiet. It's the Lord's Day - the Sabbath. Jackson asks God to prevent a battle on this holy day, but, if necessary, Jackson voices that he is willing to surrender to God's will. Contrast that with the scene of Joshua Chamberlain (played by Jeff Daniels) preparing to lead the 20th Maine into an engagement. Chamberlain (Daniels) draws his sword and offers this creepy statist entreaty: "Caesar, we who are about to die, salute you" - which was the
phrase traditionally used by those Roman gladiators about to die in the service or entertainment of Caesar. The message is clear: Jackson is fighting for his God, and so is Chamberlain. Its just that they have different gods.

Perhaps I'm just uninformed, (I'm certainly no film critic) but I've not seen any critic, pro or con, make note of this contrast. It is, in my mind, one of the not so subtle messages of the film. What motivated these men on both sides? Love of God? Love of country? Love of home? Love of government? Pro-slavery? Anti-slavery? Of course, there were some elements of all of these feelings in the Confederacy and the Union, but where did the various sentiments hold sway with the majority of soldiers? Some answers are obvious, some are not.

Regardless of your viewpoint, Gods & Generals is a must see for all those interested in the WBTS. The film's 5th anniversary would be a fitting occasion to do so.

PS: I'm still eagerly anticipating the release of the uncut, 6-hour, director's version. :)


Lawrence Underwood said...

Yes. What a movie. It is by far the best WBTS movie made. It had its flaws cinematically, but it was historically very well done. I took our men's group of the church I was pastoring at the time to see it. I had previewed it and was impressed by the manly Christianity and historical accuracy. It made in impact upon the men spiritually.

I used the contrast of the two 'prayers' as an illustration of the differing epistemological positions behind the primary streams of theological philosophy driving to two nations. You are the only other man I have seen point them out. I can't believe that they were written in without purpose.

I keep googling 'director's cut' on a regular basis hoping that it will be released.

One of my favourite scenes is the panning of Confederate troops in line of battle before advancing at Chancelorsville.

Jubilo said...

Dear Sir ,
I find it rather bizarre that one of the criticisms of the film is that "there is too much praying in it ." It deals with Jackson !!!!
In the film "Cromwell ," Richard Harris prays in stentorian tones as Cromwell was a praying Ironsides . I have never seen Harris panned for this . Has not Jackson been regarded as the Civil War Cromwell ?
The film's dialogue is almost totally from actual historic quotes and the "First Brigade " speech delivered by Lang is a superb address.
I'm sure a book could be written about the film and it's pros and cons but it does seem to be a magnet for applications of personal agendas and modern politics. It amazes me that a film featuring Jackson as a main character could be made at all.
In a conversation with Col. Keith Gibson ( who worked on the films ) , he said that when he woked on "Gettysburg " , people asked him how he could be associated with such a poor film and then when "Gods and Generals," was released they asked him why they hadn't made a "great " film like " Gettysburg !!!"
Cordially ,
David Corbett

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Lawrence: That contrast is so obvious, I can't believe there hasn't been more commentary on the two "prayers."

David: Excellent comments, thanks for writing. I love the Cromwell film - it is quite good, in my humble opinion. Harris played the part very well.