Running Time: 162 mins
Rated: MA 15+
During the 1990s, audiences had the opportunity of going back to the American Civil War and, in a five hour film, experiencing the details of the battle of Gettysberg. The film was entitled, simply, Gettysberg. The writer-director was Ronald F. Maxwell. Now, almost ten years later, he has made the first part of what he hopes will eventually be a trilogy of films covering the whole of the war. Gods and Generals begins in early 1861 with the Lincoln government's request that General Robert E. Lee of Arlington, Virginia, take command of the American forces who would be ready to invade the states who decided on secession from the Union, including Virginia.
Lee refused. Soon after he was the Commander in Chief of the Confederate forces.
This is a four hour film. Once the background of the war is established, especially by the sitting of the Virginians state assembly, and secession is announced, battles begin. Maxwell immerses us in the battle of Manasses. However, the important section of the first part is the battle of Fredericksberg, shown in painstaking detail. He has prepared us for more emotional involvement in this battle by introducing us to General Thomas Jackson (who was given the nickname Stonewall because of his steadfast stance at Manasses) who then becomes the central character of the film. We meet a Southern family and see their lifestyle, including a benign attitude towards their slaves. But we also go to Maine to see the family of Laurence Chamberlain, a philosophy professor, who will become one of the significant players in Gettysberg.
In the second part, there is more attention to the characters, especially Jackson, as well as pictures of how the Confederates lived in camp and regrouped after Fredericksberg. There is a long battle at Chancellorsville, but the blow to the South in the death of Jackson, with Lee regretting that he had lost his right arm (when Jackson's left had to be amputated). This is the eve of Gettysberg.
The dramatic style of the film is that of rather prim and proper 19th century manners and speaking styles, the Southerners being explicitly religious and Bible-quoting (especially the warlike books of the Old Testament). Sometimes this seems very staid and contrived, perhaps difficult for a modern audience, but representing the ways of the times.
The Northerners are more worldlywise, able to quote the Roman classics as well as voice the reasons for the Abolitionist stance on slavery. Robert Duvall is a fine embodiment of Lee and Stephen Lang brings Jackson life in a most convincing way.
Fr Peter Malone MSC is the International President of SIGNIS: the World Association for Catholic Communicators and is an Associate of the Australian Catholic Film Office.