Sunday, September 12, 2004

Gods and Generals. Having recently finished reading Grant's Personal Memoirs and Carol being out of town for the weekend, I picked up this 3.5 hour video produced by Ted Turner and saw it yesterday. I had seen Turner's production of Gettysburg several years ago, and it was pretty good. Gods and Generals, however, was disappointing.

The story centers around Stonewall Jackson, who seems a parody to me of a 19th century Christian. A better word for him would be a "primitive". We first meet him teaching artillery at VMI. The movie contrasts Jackson's allegedly Old Testament view of about everything except, maybe, marital sex (we see him three or four times in bed with his wife), with that of the reasonable Major chamberlain, a Union officer from Maine, whom we first meet teaching philosophy at his college in Maine.

There is a thoroughly unbelievable relationship between Jackson and a black man named Jim , who volunteers to be his cook. Now let me get this straight, Ted. Jim wants slavery to be abolished, but will serve one of Lee's best generals and become such close friends with him that in one scene they pray together out in the bitter cold. (Oh, I get it now. The slave's name is Jim. Jackson is a type of Huck Finn. Of course.)

I was fascinated by Robert Duvall's Lee. He looked like Lee - a great make-up job. And Duvall had the accent down just right. I couldn't believe him as Lee, of course. It was always Robert Duvall playing Lee. But he did a simply terrific job on the accent. It showed a lot of hard work and a great ear. If you didn't have to watch the rest of the movie to see Duvall do his thing with the make-up and the accent, it would be worth the price of admission.

The reviews I read of this movie were pretty critical, but most of them gave it at least a B on the battle scenes. Well, maybe. I guess I have read too much of John Keegan to appreciate a war movie that focuses on the officers to the detriment of the soldiers. As to the "common" soldier, Turner mainly gives us stereotypes you've seen in every other B grade war movie that Hollywood has pushed out. There is the grizzled old sergeant; there is the soldier who announces that in the battle that is about to commence he is going to die.

On the other hand, I was moved by one battle scene in which an Irish unit on the Union side advances on an Irish unit of the Confederate side. Each of the opposing units has a battle flag with the same harp symbol of Ireland on it. They recognize each other as Irish, and keep on firing away. At a lull in the battle, one of the Confederates weeps.

The movie's thesis is that Virginia fought because it was invaded by the National army and the war was not about much else. Lincoln, to the extent he is considered by the movie, is not very competent and is out of touch. There has been a lot written about the various causes of the Civil War, and maybe its fair to pick one that you like, boil it down to the point that it sounds like propaganda, and make it the intellectual back-bone of your movie.

I can certainly say that Ted took this movie very seriously, as he did the movie Gettysburg, which I heartily recommend. At the end of Gods and Generals there is an announcement that Gods and Generals is part of a trilogy with Gettysburg. I will definitely go see the third one when it comes out. But my expectations will not be that high.

As a footnote let me add something about the books on which the movies Gods and Generals and Gettysburg are based. Gettysburg is based on a book by Michael Shaara entitled "Killer Angels". This is about the best historical/military novel I have ever read. It ranks right up there with Steven Pressfield's "Gates of Fire", which to me is the best. The movie Gods and Generals is based on a book by the same name that Michael Shaara's son, Jeffrey Shaara, wrote. I could not get into son Jeff's book nor his book on the revolutionary war entitled, the Glorious Cause. Son Jeff has another book out on the Civil War, "The Last Full Measure". It is this book upon which Turner's third movie in the trilogy will apparently be based. I haven't read that book and probably won't.

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