Gods and Generals is essentially a series of speeches interspersed with occasional battle scenes, which themselves are broken up with occasional speeches. There is little actual dialog in the movie, just a series of ten minute monologs. There is also not much in the way of an actual plot. The movie feels less like a drama than a long, windy lecture on Civil War history, told from the Southern point of view.
Like Civil War soldiers ordered to charge an enemy entrenched on the high ground, the actors do their best, but are simply overwhelmed and wasted on a hopeless task. The movie is well cast. Stephen Lang turns in a strong performance as Stonewall Jackson, and Robert Duvall makes a convincing Robert E Lee. The movie is a prequel to director Ron Maxwell’s 1993 film Gettysburg, and most of the cast from the earlier movie is back. Lang and Duvall are two notable exceptions. Lang played George Pickett in Gettysburg, while the part of Lee was played by Martin Sheen. Duvall actually gives a better performance, but has relatively little to do. Ted Turner also shows up in a cameo as a Confederate Colonel, and for some inexplicable reason Senator Robert Byrd appears as a Confederate General. Jeff Daniels, a fine actor who was nominated for an Oscar for his portrayal of Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain in Gettysburg, is largely wasted here. Unlike Gettysburg, this movie is told almost entirely from the Southern side.
This creates a few problems. The first half hour of the movie is taken up with speeches justifying the decision to secede and explaining the Southern point of view. We are even treated to speeches in the Virginia legislature. The movie also soft pedals the issue of slavery, showing slaves apparently devoted to their white masters. One of them expresses the hope that the South will start enlisting blacks so that he can fight for the Confederacy. This may help sell the movie with its target audience, which presumably includes Civil War buffs, particularly those from the South, but as history it is utterly false.
The battle scenes are certainly impressive, but cannot save this verbose, bloated, and overly long movie. Maxwell enlisted an army of Civil War reenactors, and deploys them to good effect. The hopeless Federal assault on Marye’s Heights at Fredericksburg is spectacular, though marred by too many speeches. The best battle scenes in the movie involve First Manassas, where the speeches are kept under tighter control, and the fatal wounding of Stonewall Jackson. Those few minutes of Jackson and his staff groping their way through the darkness, and then suddenly finding themselves under fire from their own men, are the most realistic combat scene in the movie. No stirring speeches, just confusion, terror, and death.
Gettysburg made most of its money on home video, and the same will probably be true of Gods and Generals as well. The best way to see this movie would be on DVD. That way one could skip over the many boring parts.