Ron Maxwell’s Gettysburg takes place over three-and-a-half days in one place. This prequel to that film uses nearly four hours of screen time to cover a two-year span of early Civil War conflicts beginning in April 1861. The film opens with Francis P. Blair meeting privately with Lee, extending an offer on behalf of President Lincoln to lead the Union army. Lee will have no part of it: "I have no greater duty than to my home of Virginia." Thus, when his state votes to secede from the Union, he dutifully agrees to head up the Confederate troops.
Far more detailed (and much longer) than your average war movie, and similar to Gettysburg in the way that movie followed Gen. James Longstreet and the two Chamberlain brothers, Gods and Generals peeks into the private lives and behind-the-battle-scenes events of Lee, as well as Gen. Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson and Lt. Col. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain. We see Chamberlain instructing his class at Bodwin College. We see Jackson teaching at the Virginia Military Institute. We’re in the room as a frustrated Fanny Chamberlain fruitlessly tries to point out to her husband that there’s another aspect to war he seems reluctant to consider—its effect on their relationship ("Go ahead and get yourself killed," she weeps). We’re there as Jackson and his wife pray together before heading to battle.
Those who prefer war movies that strictly get inside the heads of those on the "right" side will be disappointed with Gods and Generals. Although Chamberlain underscores the righteousness of the Union’s cause, the movie primarily revolves around Jackson, Lee and other Confederate officers. It’s sympathetic to their cause (except when it comes to slavery) and paints them as true heroes. Some would argue the issue of slavery cannot be removed from a discussion of the Civil War. Others will maintain that it had very little to do with its origins. This film assumes the latter, using Lee and Jackson's comments to reveal that they firmly believed their justification for war to be the matter of states' rights, not slavery. It makes a point of revealing that Jackson, Lee and Chamberlain all felt they were in God’s will and fighting on God’s side. Maxwell never answers the question of who was right and who was wrong, or if they all were misled; he does, however, reveal the horrors of war by re-creating this dark period of American history. He peels back the layers of men who deeply cared for the soldiers under their command, their families back home, and who were willing to lay down their very lives for that which they believed.
positive elements: In addition to a wealth of positive spiritual content (see below), all three leaders are shown to be virtuous heroes (this works positively within the context of the film which doesn't see any of them as fighting for something as morally reprehensible as slavery). A deeply moving scene finds Jackson distraught over the death of his soldiers ("I’ll never forget these men"). He weeps in the presence of his men after a five-year-old he’s become fond of dies from scarlet fever. One officer comments to the surprised soldiers that "I think he’s cryin’ for them all [who have died]." General Lee muses, "It is well that war is terrible or we should grow too fond of it." Indeed, Gods and Generals does a fine job proving him right. Personally, I was once again impressed—as I was with Gettysburg—that war is ugly on and off the battlefield. At the same time, I wasn't overwhelmed with gore as audiences of Saving Private Ryan, Black Hawk Down and We Were Soldiers have been. I was re-reminded that true heroes are cut out of the cloth of sacrifice. And while it can be effectively argued that Gods and Generals is biased toward the South, and it can be easily criticized for not focusing more attention on the issue of slavery, I feel strongly that it does not applaud slavery. Chamberlain rebukes a soldier for referring to blacks as "darkies," pointing out that although the institution of slavery has been around since the Book of Genesis, it’s "no excuse to tolerate it." Chamberlain then declares he’s willing to sacrifice his life to abolish the practice. As for the South, (rightfully or not) it's intimated that Jackson is sympathetic to the plight of his African American cook. His already freed servant asks God (using his prayer to send a message to the receptive general) why some people "can tolerate our brothers in chains." One woman remarks, "I was born a slave, but I want to die free."
spiritual content: Quite a bit, with the majority of it positive. Men read scripture aloud. They quote it. And they pray. The three leaders are God-fearing and deeply religious. For instance, before heading off to war, Gen. Jackson and his wife, Anna, read aloud II Corinthians 5 ("For we know that if our earthly house of this tabernacle were dissolved, we have a building of God, an house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens"). Then they pray together for peace. Jane Beale, a Fredericksburg socialite, quotes a portion of Psalm 23 as her sons head off to battle. In his sermon, a southern minister reads Psalm 27. On the first day of the Battle of Manassas (Bull Run), Jackson eloquently and sweetly prays for his wife, whose birthday happens to fall on the same day. He tells the Lord he is ready to come home (die) should he fall during the fight, while expressing concern that his army may be forced to fight on the Sabbath. Asked by another officer why he is so peaceful in battle even when the bullets fly so closely, Jackson responds that God has fixed the time for his death. (This poignant scene led me to think about my own belief about death and God’s timing.) When Lee is blown to the ground by a canon blast, he is quick to remark that it is "not yet our time." An Irish officer uses a dead man’s body as a shield, saying, "I know you’re in heaven, but you've got work down here to do." Later, Jackson admits to Anna that he fears he won’t see her again or any offspring they may conceive. Anna gently rebukes him ("We serve a loving God. ... You must not fear, Thomas"). When Jackson reads a letter from Anna saying she has had a baby girl, he instantly thanks God. On Christmas day, 1862, Jackson tells a little girl (and the houseguests nearby) that the Star of Bethlehem "showed the Wisemen where to find baby Jesus." Later, the group sings "Silent Night." Making a point about battle tactics, Jackson refers to Joshua and the Amalekites and encourages a soldier to read II Samuel and I and II Kings. With Jackson’s death pending, Lee explains that he prayed for the general "like he never prayed" for himself. Elsewhere, four howitzers are named after the four Gospels. A preacher compares the South to David in his battle against Goliath. A slave woman remarks, "Yankees are coming sure as Jesus." One major theological jump happens when Jackson attempts to comfort a dying man by telling him that he has enough faith for both of them ("I will believe for the both of us").
sexual content: Jackson and Anna are shown in bed twice (modestly clothed in nightwear). They kiss briefly, but passionately.
violent content: The MPAA gave the film its PG-13 rating because of "sustained battle sequences." That is accurate. But while the body count is high with hundreds of soldiers getting shot, most of the action is suggestive, not explicit. For those who’ve not seen Gettysburg (which is similarly violent) and need a point of reference, think classic television shows like Combat and The Rifleman, or the film The Dirty Dozen. Only a few scenes struck me as gory. One shows a close-up of a man whose eye has been shot out. Another shows Jackson watching the execution of three of his own Stonewall Brigade who are guilty of desertion (a crime Jackson believes violates God’s law). Another zooms in on an injured man’s blood dripping on to the keys of a piano he is laid across. A few others show men with bloody faces, missing arms, etc. True to the period, warfare includes opposing lines of men marching shoulder to shoulder with muskets in hand, firing, reloading and firing again. Meanwhile, canon fire raises the death toll on both sides. As a result of explosions, soldiers are catapulted into the air; many more simply fall to the ground. It’s somber. It's sobering. And it's painful to watch. But it’s not gruesome. There are prolonged scenes showing hand-to-hand combat. Soldiers are punched, pummeled, gun-butted, stabbed with bayonets and wrestled to the ground. Jackson gets shot through the hand. The wounded crawl across the ground, seeking safety. Some use their dead comrades as shields against the volleys of lead. Stonewall Jackson is accidentally gunned down by his own troops. Weakened, with his arm amputated, he eventually contracts pneumonia and dies. Before he takes his last breath, Anna assures him, "By the time this day closes, you will be with the blessed Savior."
crude or profane language: A handful of "d--ns." "My Lord" and "My God" are uttered.
drug and alcohol content: Jackson asks a lieutenant if he uses tobacco and finds he doesn’t. "Neither do I," quips Jackson. "I find I like it too much." Generals smoke cigars. Soldiers and officers smoke pipes. One general gets upset when his troops party too heartily in Fredericksburg. Some of the wounded are given whiskey (occasionally mixed with morphine). Jackson is knocked out with chloroform.
conclusion: With Gods and Generals, two films in this Civil War trilogy based on the writings of the Shaara family are complete. Revered for their narrative style and attention to detail, Jeff Shaara and his father Michael's work makes for fascinating history, but you'd better like your movies long. And you'd better not be adverse to embracing the Southern psyche as a means to an end. Congressman Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), who had a cameo role in this film, believes as I do that there is great value in making sure young people understand the sacrifices people endured in order to secure freedom. "All of these wonderful things that we enjoy didn’t just happen—they happened because regular people sacrificed to make them happen," he emphasizes. And perhaps despite its fixation on Southern values, that—along with a strong Christian worldview—becomes Gods and Generals' greatest contribution. Of course, our nation is unified today because the Confederates were defeated. This film, as a stand-alone piece, doesn't point that out. Gettysburg moves closer toward that goal. The third film will surely have to give Lincoln and his armies the credit they are due.