Movie review, 'Gods and Generals'

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The South rises again in "Gods and Generals," an often striking 3 1/2-hour Civil War epic that has the unfortunate effect of overtipping the dramatic scales in favor of the Southern generals and turning almost everybody into waxen idols who spout flowery rhetoric. Despite remarkable battle sequences and faithful research, "Gods" so idealizes the Confederates, especially wise Robert E. Lee (Robert Duvall) and brave Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson (Stephen Lang), that the finished film tends to suggest that the Southern rebellion was a noble cause and its leaders were Olympian heroes. It's a canonization politically correct Northerners like Lt. Col. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain (Jeff Daniels) don't quite receive. (He did get his canonization in "Gettysburg," however.)

Surely this wasn't the intention of writer-director Ronald Maxwell, the maker of the widely admired "Gettysburg." "Gods and Generals" is part of Maxwell's dream project, a massively ambitious and definitive film trilogy on the American Civil War that began back in 1993 with "Gettysburg," and would carry the war from inception to conclusion with unprecedented detail and accuracy. This film, the prequel to "Gettysburg," shows the buildup to the war, and the battles of Manassas, Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville -- the conflicts right before Gettysburg. (The last installment, "The Last Full Measure," will carry the war to its conclusion.)

"Gettysburg" was Maxwell's adaptation of "The Killer Angels," the Pulitzer Prize-winning historical novel by Michael Shaara. "Gods and Generals" and "The Last Full Measure" are based on novels and written by the late novelist's son, Jeff Shaara. The younger Shaara's book splits time between Jackson and Lee on the Southern side, and on the North, Col. Chamberlain and Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock (Brian Mallon). The Hancock scenes have been largely lost here.

I liked "Gettysburg," and I'm sympathetic to the grand design and ambitions of the Shaara-Maxwell trilogy. But the movie we see here, though admirable in parts, is numbing as a whole, and it definitely loses the dramatic balance between North and South that Maxwell achieved in "Gettysburg." That was a main reason for that film's huge TV success and renown: It effectively split our attentions between the warring sides. But Stonewall Jackson is definitely the focus of attention here, though that wasn't the case in Jeff Shaara's book and may not be in the eventual six-hour TV version of "Gods and Generals."

A dashing hero with a faraway expression, given to flights of passionate rhetoric, the movie's Jackson is so sentimentalized, he seems a mythological being -- God's own general. Devoted to religion, the Confederacy and wife Anne (Kali Rocha), he's a spotless warrior, and that's the way Lang (who played Gen. George Pickett in "Gettysburg") plays him. The movie takes Jackson from his pre-Civil War tenure at Virginia Military Institute through the first battle of Bull Run (where he earned the name "Stonewall") and, later, Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville. His legend keeps growing until we get 20 minutes of lamentation after Jackson is felled by friendly fire at Chancellorsville -- this movie's equivalent of a Viking funeral.

Even the element that might seem Jackson's Achilles' heel -- his devotion to a state that sanctioned slavery -- is softened by the presence of sympathetic Southern black characters like Jackson's devoted cook Jim Lewis (Frankie Faison) and the regal, faithful house servant Martha (played by Donzaleigh Abernathy, daughter of civil rights leader Ralph Abernathy). On the opposite side, we get one eloquent anti-slavery speech by Chamberlain, but that's not enough.

"The battle scenes in "Gods and Generals" are its high point. They have the same virtues as the war scenes in "Gettysburg": They're mapped out and staged with such historical accuracy and clarity, we can always follow the tide of battle. Some directors, like Sam Peckinpah, excel at the fury and chaos of battle, but Maxwell, closer to the D.W. Griffith of "Birth of a Nation," is better at re-creation and grand design. That's what makes this movie special -- along with Duvall's restrained, majestic portrayal of Lee. (Duvall inherited the role from Martin Sheen, whose "West Wing" schedule made him unavailable here.)

It would be easy to blame the pro-Southern tilt of the movie on the fact that it was financed by Civil War buff and famous Georgian media mogul Ted Turner, who appears here in a cameo role as Col. Walter Patton (Gen. George Patton's great uncle). But Turner may have wanted a balanced approach, too. More than likely, "Gods and Generals" became too much of an event and festival for the many Civil War re-enactors who took extras roles, and for visiting politicos like Senators Phil Gramm, George Allen and Robert Byrd, who also play cameos. Perhaps that's one reason this movie seems so much more reverent -- and to a degree, paralyzed by that reverence.

There's so much that's good about "Gods and Generals," one hopes the TV version will correct the big flaw and restore the balance of power and sympathies. Maxwell's Civil War trilogy is still a work in progress, and though Stonewall Jackson may deserve a tribute, he and the Confederacy don't deserve the Valhalla treatment they get here. War is hell, and the old slave South, after all, was no paradise.

2 1/2 stars (out of 4) "Gods and Generals"
Directed and written by Ronald Maxwell; based on the historical novel by Jeff Shaara; photographed by Kees Van Oostrum; edited by Corky Ehlers; production designed by Michael Z. Hanan; music by John Frizzell, Randy Edelman; A Warner Brothers release of a Ted Turner Pictures presentation; opens Friday, Feb. 21. Running time: 3:25. MPAA rating: PG-13 (sustained battle sequences).
Lt. Col. Joshua Chamberlain -- Jeff Daniels
Gen. Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson -- Stephen Lang
Gen. Robert E. Lee -- Robert Duvall
Fanny Chamberlain -- Mira Sorvino
Sgt. "Buster" Kilrain -- Kevin Conway
Sgt. Thomas Chamberlain -- C. Thomas Howell
Jim Lewis -- Frankie Faison
Martha -- Donzaleigh Abernathy
Jane Beale -- Mia Dillon
Anna Jackson -- Kali Rocha Gen. James Longstreet -- Bruce Boxleitner

Michael Wilmington is the Chicago Tribune Movie Critic.

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