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Movie Review:

Gods and Generals

reviewed by Tom Beall

You know, long ago I stopped taking to heart what critics had to say about both television shows and movies. I have found that we differ greatly in our views so just because someone says something is good or bad, that's THEIR opinion, not necessarily mine. Perhaps I like movies that critics have denigrated, just out of spite.
So, after reading some really scathing reviews of Gods and Generals, I went to the theater with what I hope was an open mind...or did I go to spite the critics? Either way, here's how I felt about the movie. First however, I would like to mention that I have read Killer Angels, the Pulitzer Prize novel by Jeff Sharra's father Michael, that prompted the movie Gettysburg. I've also read the sequel, The Last Full Measure. I have not read Gods and Generals, so I really went into the movie with my mind a blank. Additionally, I've been to Gettysburg, toured the battlefield, and listened to the depiction of the battle by experts. I have a fair understanding of what transpired, and found that Michael Sharra was very true to history. I believe Jeff Sharra followed in his father's footsteps.
I was frankly very pleased with Gods and Generals. Yes, it was long, possibly too long, but that's a small issue. I also noticed a couple of scenes that were repeated, but again this is minor. The problem so often stated about the movie being biased toward the Southern perspective I believe to be incorrect. Gods and Generals takes place prior to Gettysburg. And prior to Gettysburg, the South was typically whipping the butts of the North right and left. At this time in the war, the Union was trying the abilities of several Generals who tended to be incompetent, with Ambrose Burnside as a good example. The South however, for the most part, had competent leadership in key roles from the get-go: Lee, Jackson and Longstreet, to name a few. If the South was winning up to this point, it's time that the reasons are aired, and this movie does a good job of that without coming off as a Southern sympathizer. I felt that speaking to the South's strong military leadership at this point, and the North's weak military leadership was an important statement of fact. In neither case was there any apparent effort to justify, or vilify the moral position of either side, but an attempt was made to state their positions.
I don't know if the scene with General (then Colonel) Jackson reading verses from Corinthians right after he was notified that he must go to war ever really took place, but he was a very religious man, and I could easily envision his dedication to his faith creating a scene such as this, and I did not in any way find it to be out of place. People do different things when suddenly faced with their potential mortality. Perhaps this was their way of dealing with the situation. It certainly wasn't repugnant.
All too often movies dwell excessively on the carnage that wars inevitably bring, perhaps because it's difficult to balance that carnage with the human sides in a conflict. In the case of Gods and Generals I found that the attempt at achieving that balance although not perfect was perfectly acceptable. I would imagine that attempting to deal with too many individuals not only extends the time necessary to tell the stories, but perhaps provides too much to digest. So, telling Stonewall Jackson's story is a great prelude to Gettysburg. It's arguable that had he survived to play a role at Gettysburg, it's possible that the outcome could have been different.
Yes, there was much carnage in this movie, but not a whole lot of it was depicted in really graphic scenes. Some folks flew through the air when cannon rounds exploded near them, but unlike in Saving Private Ryan, where you also witnessed body parts flying, you couldn't see that here. Some bloody scenes were shown, but little that would make anyone turn their heads. I thought that a good balance was reached that allowed the viewer to understand how bad it was, without having to wade through the blood and guts that surely marked each confrontation.
To balance the views, the early story of Colonel Lawrence Chamberlain was, I believe, a good choice. As opposed to profiling in depth, another incompetent northern General, choosing Chamberlain provided a good background for his participation at Gettysburg where he became known as the "Hero of Little Round Top", and earned the Medal of Honor, for very good reasons. He's also featured in the sequel, The Last Full Measure in which he recall's vividly his participation at Fredericksburg as shown in Gods and Generals.
I believe we need to remember that this is a work of "Historical Fiction", and no matter how closely if follows historical records, it must of necessity contain much that is conceived in the mind of the author. No one knows what the conversations were between husband and wife, or between soldiers as they awaited the dawn and a new battle unless it was contained in the few diaries that survived the war. So, being overly judgmental about what might have been is wasteful.
In summary (I know I was long winded, but what the heck, it's my review), I frankly enjoyed the movie very much. I'll read the book now, and no doubt be disappointed by what was left out or changed, but that happens all the time. My advice is to read all the reviews, including mine, that you want, then disregard them and go see this fine film. If I've learned one thing from reading the Sharra novels it's this: they are as historically accurate as it's possible to be given the material available to weave the story from, so give it a little slack, and know that the big stuff is true, and the little stuff might be.
Regards, Nose-out-of-joint Tom
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