Review of Old Movies: “Gods and Generals” (2003), Extended Director’s Cut

I was going to show a good work ethic and post at least one Civil War Anniversary update before reviewing this, but it keeps coming to mind so here goes.

In brief, it’s very good. I was surprised after watching to feel deep satisfaction that, yes, this is what it must have been like for people like those in 1862-63. It helps that I’ve been doing the anniversary updates, following the Civil War week by week for months now; otherwise, perhaps I might not have appreciated the philosophical and daily practical realities Maxwell wove into this complex but terrific story.

By the way, that’s “terrific” not just in terms of “WOW!” but also in terms of terror. But more on that later.

All three books

All three books (Click to see inside doesn’t work outside of Amazon).

Books and Movies

Some have criticized this as riding roughshod all over Jeff Shaara’s book. I haven’t read that. As a lover of Tolkien’s writings, though, I know how bad it feels to watch a movie version of something you’ve loved in print. I tried a couple times to watch Peter Jackson’s version of the Lord of the Rings trilogy and just couldn’t do it.

Tolkien was right in “On Fairy-stories”: Drama is one secondary creation too many. It forces you to give up your own experience of the story for that of the dramatist. This is fine in many cases, but usually excruciating for stories that have had strong emotional impacts on you.

My review of Gods and Generals, then, is based solely on it as a movie, without regard for the book (I’ll read those later – indeed, it seems like print will be the only version of The Last Full Measure we are going to get for the foreseeable future).

The Additions – Political Incorrectness

There are at least four reasons why Maxwell would have been taken out and shot in 2003, if we lived in the sort of society that Stalin built around himself. Two of these are evident in the theatrical release of G&G (but expanded in this version), and the other two never made it into theaters at all.

The first is its gritty representation of the war in modern terms. By comparison, in the first movie, Gettysburg, Maxwell presented the war just as we superficially think of it today, as sort of a Harper’s Weekly version of the war presented for late 20th century sensibilities.

General John Reynolds

The real General John Reynolds (Wikipedia – John Rothman in “Gettysburg” resembled him quite a bit!)

Just think of the gorgeously staged last image after General Reynolds gets shot (if you didn’t see the movie, that really isn’t a spoiler – you know what’s going to happen after he yells “Forward! For God’s sake forward!” – it’s that kind of movie, and knowing it doesn’t ruin anything).

In Gods & Generals, the only staged scene is – a 149-1/2-year-old spoiler is coming up – at Jackson’s death bed. Everything else is realistic (the scene where Jackson is shot, for instance), and in the extended cut even more so, to the point of having John Wilkes Booth reciting Hamlet’s “My thoughts be bloody” soliloquy from Act 4 Scene IV while the camera pans over the Union and Confederate dead (reenactors) on the Antietam/Sharpsburg battlefield.

John Wilkes Booth? Oh yes, he’s in the extended cut, too (see below).

The second incorrectness is presentation of the Southern point of view. Gods and Generals was heavily criticized for this in 2003 – wrongly, as it only balances things overall. Gettysburg is strong on the Union point of view. In the 150th Anniversary package, the Gods and Generals disks have the Stars and Bars; the special features disk, the Stars and Stripes.

Anyway, I first heard of Gods and Generals after asking, in an online Alabama forum, if there were any movies about Confederate victories – someone told me that G&G showed why the South got into the war (stirring Southern victories, like those shown in this film, are entirely different to watch when you know that Gettysburg is coming up in a couple of months, not to mention the overall outcome of the war).

It does show that motivation, and more in the extended cut which has, among other things, a slightly different ending that changes, or rather, completes everything – the cadets leave Jackson’s flag-draped casket in his old classroom with an honor guard and the camera slowly zooms in on the Stars and Bars and then rotates until those are in the form of a cross.

That won’t make sense until you see the entire extended version. Then you will understand that knowing why the South got into the war is the only way to truly understand why the Northerners are in it. That cross is for everybody we have seen in the film, as well as for Jackson personally, and . . . well, it works on many levels. It indeed completes the film.

No one ever wins a civil war, but in our American Civil War, the right side lost for the entire country to come out ahead on that. Don’t ask me to explain that in words. Read this, instead.

A third incorrectness that never made it into the theatrical release is the subplot involving free black Confederates; we got a little of that in theaters when Jim Lewis signed up and in his shared prayer with Jackson, but there is much more. These men balance out Martha’s telling General Hancock that she wants to be free and her children to be free. I like it, especially considering that no black actor got a speaking part in Gettysburg. Here, they not only have extended roles; they also have differing viewpoints on the war. This also underlines and amplifies Joshua Chamberlains talk with his brother about the “darkies” and the shift in emphasis for the North after the Emancipation Proclamation was released.

The fourth incorrectness involves two actors, Booth and Harrison. They come across as the only two characters with modern viewpoints (i.e., they’re way ahead of their time). Both are elitists, just like some actors we know today, but instead of influencing events as much as they think they’re doing at the start of the film, their entire futures are shaped by the powerful drama playing out on the nearby battlefields.

Harrison’s future course changes after his post-stage performance meeting with Mr. and Mrs. Joshua Chamberlain, while Booth, over the course of the movie . . . goes . . . quietly but irrevocably . . . insane. I think it happens through a sense of ineffectiveness just like Hamlet.

But now I’m getting into the fun parts of the extended cut.

JW Booth and Chris Conner as Booth

JW Booth and Chris Conner as Booth (Source)

Fun!

Chris Conner brings a definitely creepy feel to the movie as John Wilkes Booth. I didn’t like it at first, but it fits so well . . . after all, I don’t like seeing how little time is left, either, when I go to the Lincoln Log when doing the anniversary weekly posts. A look at Booth is definitely workable into this story.

And he pals around with Harrison! If you didn’t see Gettysburg, you’ll wonder why the excitement over Harrison. Actually in a sense Gods and Generals is the story of how Harrison finally ended up doing what he’s doing when Gettysburg starts. And among other insights into Harrison, we get to see him in a lady’s wig, slumped in an easy chair, smoking a see-gar (probably not good Southern backy), being cynical.

But his is only one of the character arcs in this extended cut, which feels much more complete, like a tapestry viewed with more threads. That’s fun, too. The whole charge of the 20th Maine at Fredericksburg is shown, including the tense waiting, slow walk into fire and then the double quick; in fact, the whole development of Joshua Chamberlain is shown, not just a few of the high points as in the theatrical release. There are many more good ones here. And Colonel Ames comes across as much more human, not the two-dimensional martinet he appeared to be in the shorter version. There is also a scene where Ames picks on Tom Chamberlain to train the men on how to reload on the battlefield – it’s hilarious (especially if you remember C. Thomas Howell’s character in Red Dawn), but we’re reminded of it seriously at Fredericksburg.

Other fun additions: General Lee meets his son on the battlefield; Jackson’s aides sit around the campfire one night and have a punning contest (there was no TV or Net back then); and there is Jackson’s wife and aides tricking him into having his picture taken by telling him General Lee wouldn’t have his own picture taken unless Jackson had his done first. I don’t know if that’s historical or not, but if so, it certainly explains why the real Jackson looked so grim at this sitting:

General Thomas Jackson (stereograph - Library of Congress)

General Thomas Jackson (stereograph – Library of Congress)

It’s a visual pleasure to watch this film, too. Maxwell used the same lighting that would have been used in 1862, including candles for Booth’s stage performances. It’s very dim, of course, but seen in that light, the painted backgrounds that appear hokey to us today look realistic. The interplay of light and shadow during the many night scenes make this version of G&G very accessible.

And yes, of course, war should be filmed in darkness and dim light whenever possible. Which brings up an uncredited player in this drama.

God

You may remember Lee’s saying several times in Gettysburg that everything is in God’s hands? Well, both Jackson and Chamberlain say it in this movie. We watch the deserters praying frantically until the very moment they’re shot. There is that moving prayer Jackson and Lewis make on a cold winter’s night as they gaze up into the impersonal and weird night sky.

On the Fredericksburg battle field, God shows up as aurora streamers in the sky after the carnage. We start out from the Federal perspective as Chamberlain and the others are lying out on the field; then we are brought up into the lights themselves; finally we return to Earth to find ourselves beside General Lee and his officers, who are also watching the sky.

Both sides are in God’s hands, in other words.

We also get an intimation of that after Joshua’s talk about the darkies with Tom, but only really, really understand it in that closing scene as the camera turns the Stars and Bars into a cross.

By the way, that aurora really happened, but I think a day or two after the battle, as Chamberlain and the 20th Maine were burying their comrades, not using their dead bodies as shields right out on the battlefield.

The Terror

Maxwell didn’t shrink from the difficult questions in the extended version of Gods and Generals. The result is quite an emotional rollercoaster (we need to see Jackson’s aides punning around the campfire, because we have also seen a brokenhearted Martha watching the Army of Northern Virginia riding back into Fredericksburg, reestablishing her family’s status as slaves, as well as the crazed old man asking General Lee where the Yankees put his house [they burned it down]).

Remember that scene behind Confederate lines after the first day’s fight at Marye’s Heights, where Jackson, in a dark mood, says they should kill all the Yankees and stalks through the camp like a shadow of death? There’s a bit more of that elsewhere – more on the theme of “no quarter” when he interviews General Stuart, for example – and then at Chancellorsville, Lee unleashes him, telling him to smash the Yankees. Jackson’s face changes only slightly, but you know exactly what sort of hell Federal troops are going to experience the next day.

Yes, he played horsey and let little Jane Corbin ride him and then cried when she died of scarlet fever. Yes, he did serve as a father figure to his aides and helped Pendleton get ready to deal with the deserters. But General Jackson was also crazy and dark, and terrified of God, and that shows up more in this cut.

There is also terror of a different sort raised by the presence of the black Confederates and Martha. Freeman or slave, none of them really has many options, and when the assistant’s boss is killed in battle (not a spoiler), what is not said in the discussion he has with Jim Lewis over the casket is more powerful than what the two men actually say in their discussion of the future.

Finally, there is the living terror on the faces of the men of the 20th Maine, including the two Chamberlains, Buster and Ames himself, as they march forward into their first battle – one of the worst ones of the Civil War: Marye’s Heights in Fredericksburg. There is that transition from terror to fighting to survival to aftermath. Also, Joshua Chamberlain talks truth to Power on the way back from the battlefield, and Power just has to sit there and agree with him. I don’t know if that happened in real life, but it’s pretty good. That whole extended scene is excellent, every bit as powerful as Pickett’s Charge in Gettysburg – they really should have included the whole thing in the theatrical release.

What’s Missing

Besides the large numbers of reenactors that made Gettysburg so visually breathtaking (thanks to 9/11, many had been called up to active service and Maxwell had to use CGI for some long shots), basically just more of General Hancock.

I read that Brian Mallon was not happy that so many of his scenes in G&G were cut. They must have been substantial, given his pivotal role at the end of Gettysburg, and also since we do get to see General McClellan giving Hancock a battlefield promotion. However, that scene is the only new one for Hancock in Gods and Generals. Let’s hope that we don’t have to wait 25 or 50 more years for another anniversary version to be released with the whole six hours.

More From Maxwell

There was a dearth of information from and about Ron Maxwell in the mid-2000s (it’s never good to tick off Ted Turner, I suppose), but that seems to be changing quickly. People are starting to realize just how good Gods and Generals is. While researching this post, I learned that he has a new movie coming up, Copperhead, based on a story by Harold Frederic.

That looks promising.



Categories: American Civil War, Reviews of old movies

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