Gods and Generals Reviews
As a standalone film, it's very hard to like. As a sequel/Prequel to Gettysburg (1993) it's very easy to like and be engaged in.
Probably the single worst aspect of it all, though, is the fact that there is no dialogue, in the true sense. The characters speak to each other in melodramatic, long speeches. It would be awkward to watch even if it weren't so incredibly boring.
I watched Gods and Generals thinking it was going to be similar to Gettysburg: historically accurate, full of realistic battle scenes, and a wide and even spread of characters from both sides, with characters deep enough to understand their motivations, and the motivations of either side in the Civil War. With the same producers, director and many of the same actors, Gods and Generals promised to be similar.
While the movie was historically accurate and the battle scenes quite realistic (though not to the point of Saving Private Ryan, say, ie it avoiding being gory), the characters were not evenly spread, mainly concentrating on Southern generals, and in particular Stonewall Jackson. The movie seemed more like a Stonewall Jackson biography than a recounting of the first 2 years of the war, up to Chancellorsville, which it pertains to be. Yet, if it is a movie about Stonewall Jackson, why not include Jackson's Shenandoah campaign, surely, after Chancellorsville, his greatest contribution to the Southern cause?
The other problem I had with concentrating on Jackson was that Stephen Lang was probably not the best choice of actor for the role of Jackson. His acting seemed wooden and forced, like many of the actors in the movie, and I could not stop myself from thinking of him as Major General George Pickett, the character he played in Gettysburg. Pickett was a very different character to Jackson, and to think of Jackson as Pickett does Jackson no favours. Clearly the producers wanted to retain as many of the Gettysburg cast as possible, an admirable idea when they are playing the same characters as before (eg Jeff Daniels as Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, the same actors for Gen Hancock and the 20th Maine sergeant), as one recognises them immediately and can fathom how their characters fit in the time-line of the war. Yet having Stephen Lang play Pickett in Gettysburg and Jackson in Gods and Generals makes no sense, for the reasons outlined above. Maybe they wanted to reward him for his role in Gettysburg, and he couldn't play Pickett here, as Pickett was not a significant figure in this part of the war.
Another miscasting was Jason London as Jackson's adjutant, Captain Pendleton. He was not believable as a military character, especially one in authority.
As Jackson was the central figure, there seemed not enough time, or inclination, to develop the other characters involved. Jeff Daniels probably has the 2nd most screen-time and does a good job of showing us Chamberlain's motivations and philosophies. Nobody else really appears for long enough for us to get a handle on what they are about. I thought Robert E Lee would be explored significantly, as he was a more important figure than Jackson or Chamberlain, especially in the context of the entire war, and especially as a he was played by a major actor, Robert Duvall, but we just scratch the surface of his character. Robert Duvall did an excellent job in the role, though.
The most irritating aspect of the entire film is the amount of grandiose speeches. Hardly a scene goes by without someone waxing lyrical about what the war is all about, and means to them, all with accompanying stirring music. It all becomes so predictable after a while - the movie starts starts to resemble a musical, with every scene geared towards leading into a speech/song. While each sides motivations for fighting the war need to be explored, there are more subtle and less pretentious ways of going about it.
The producers clearly wanted to fit in as many of the famous quotes of the period too, sometimes they seem to appear in dialogue for no rhyme or reason, and, like the speeches, whole scenes are geared toward just being a platform for the quote.
This all said, there is a lot of good to be said about the movie too. As mentioned, it was historically very accurate and it does stay pretty much on track as regards the flow of events, only wandering off for the inevitable speech-scenes. The battle scenes are very well re-enacted and do give you a good insight into the battles of First Manassas/Bull Run, Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville. Fredericksburg was especially good, as one got to really experience how futile, pointless and courageous the Union attack was, and see how the topography of the area played a major role. The confrontation between the two Irish brigades was an especially emotional moment.
The book by Jeff Shaara was far better. It covered a wide spread of characters, and didn't get bogged down in sentimentality and speeches, unlike the movie.
Overall, a reasonable attempt, but it could have been a lot better. By spending less time on speeches and more time on the battles (maybe adding Jackson's Shenandoah campaign, to show where he really made a name for himself, and Antietam, the ultimate demonstration of callous death and destruction) and the major characters involved, and getting the right actors for the parts, the producers would have had a great movie on their hands.
This is a very bad movie. There really isn't any other way to put it. It's just bad. Historical accuracy doesn't make a film automatically good, in the same that making a film about the Civil War doesn't make it automatically interesting.