Gods and Generals
Produced and directed by Ronald F. Maxwell
Screenplay adapted from Jeff Shaara’s novel by Ronald F. Maxwell
Released by Warner Bros.

Opening in 2003, director Ron Maxwell’s Civil War film, Gods and Generals, was swept from the multiplexes within two weeks by a torrent of critical hysteria.  “Jingoistic goat spoor,” raged one reviewer; “boring and bloated,” sputtered another.  Gentler commentators sighed it was “numbing,” “an unqualified disaster.”  It was John Anderson in New York’s Newsday, however, who best revealed what lay behind all this clamor.  He found the film to be a “shameless apologia for the Confederacy as a divinely inspired crusade for faith, home, and slave labor.”

This nearly universal condemnation revealed that Maxwell had broken a taboo.  In adapting to the screen Jeff Shaara’s carefully researched novel of the same title, he had dramatized the Confederate point of view as well as the Union’s.  Although he presents both sides as deeply flawed, this wasn’t enough for America’s mainstream press for he also suggested the South’s cause was not without justice.  Anderson was partially correct.  The Confederacy was fighting for faith, home rule, and states’ rights.  It was not, however, principally defending slavery, nor was the North principally fighting against it.  Maxwell makes it abundantly clear that many Confederate leaders, including Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, were either actively against slavery or were convinced its practice was withering away.  These facts went unmentioned in 90 percent of the reviews probably because they violate current sensibilities so intolerably.

So Gods and Generals disappeared from the theaters.  But then something unexpected happened.  The film was released on DVD and rental outlets found it difficult to stock enough copies to keep up with the demand.  It seems the public eventually decided to ignore their cultural guardians.  But why hadn’t this happened earlier when the film was still in its theatrical release?

By way of answer, the first thing to be said is that the film is not for the faint-hearted.  At more than three-and-a-half hours, its examination of the first two years of the Civil War demands a fair amount of historical knowledge and a considerable measure of patience, attributes usually thought to be in short supply among American moviegoers, trained as they are to value sensation over sense.  Add to this the complexity of a film that refuses to idealize any of its principals, lease of all its central figure, Jackson, powerfully portrayed by Stephen Lang as a courageous but often misguided leader whose fierce convictions lead him to prosecute the war with inflexible cruelty.  This leaves the viewer in the unaccustomed position of having no one to cheer for unreservedly.  Yet, despite these entertainment gaffes, Maxwell’s film did finally find its audience.  Why?  My theory is that Americans can appreciate unconventional material and unpopular opinions, but they prefer to administer the medicine to themselves in small doses.  Armed with their DVD remote controllers, they were free to watch the film at home at their own pace and in as many digestible portions as they chose.

Clyde Wilson wrote about Gods and Generals’ historical consciousness in our February 2003 issue (“Reclaiming the American Story,” Vital Signs).  I will only add my impressions of the work’s achievement as a film here.

Maxwell took on two challenges in telling his sprawling story.  First, he had to organize a massive amount of detail.  Second, as he tells us himself, he wanted to pose questions rather than resolve issues.  This meant leaving unanswered his narrative’s biggest question: Was war a justifiable response to the conflict between the South and the North?  Not answering it definitively risked leaving the general audience uncomfortable.  Maxwell solved this problem by giving his film design, clarity, and force despite its lack of resolution.

For his organizing principle, Maxwell chose a variety of pairings to achieve dramatic parallels and contrasts.  Covering Jackson’s campaigns from Manassas to Chancellorsville, the film conveys the Civil War largely from the Confederate perspective.  Yet, at the same time, it amply represents the North’s through the experiences of Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain (Jeff Daniels), a professor of rhetoric and literature at Bowdoin College who led the 20th Maine Division into battle.  These two warriors are connected by having been on opposing sides at the battle of Fredericksburg, but Maxwell has taken pains to link them in another way, also.  He introduces both men in their roles as educators—Jackson at the Virginia Military Institute; Chamberlain, Bowdoin.  Their classrooms provide a shorthand index of the difference between the two men and, thereby, the South and the North.  We first meet Jackson chastising his students for not having mastered his lesson in artillery.  “I will have to teach you again, word for word,” he informs his class with some asperity.  No one dares question his intention.  The tone of Chamberlain’s class is quite different.  He has loftier matters on his mind.  He seeks to enlighten his students concerning the laws of nature that govern the universe, including human freedom.  “Without law, there can be no freedom,” he informs his pupils.  While Jackson trains his charges in the practical arts of war, Chamberlain invites his students to participate in a disinterested contemplation of universal laws.  This contrast suggests what was at the heart of the North-South impasse.  The Southern mind strives inductively to accommodate itself to the world as it finds it; the Northern mind seeks deductively to impress abstract templates on immediate experience.  An agrarian culture conforms to perceived realities; a manufacturing ethos forces its notions on the world.

This basic difference in outlook set the stage for the Civil War and its incredible waste of human life—620,000 dead and numberless maimed and wounded.  And this raises Maxwell’s question: Was this carnage justifiable?  He refrains from answering for the very good reason that there can be no final response.  What he does instead is provide as vividly as he can a range of answers from those involved, from the leaders to the field soldiers.  We are then left to assess matters for ourselves.

Here is my assessment.  It only needed the instigation of small-minded men primarily concerned with preserving their power and wealth to catapult large-souled idealists on both sides into a conflict that still bedevils this country.  Maxwell’s film is a treatise on the mendacity and myopia that make war possible.  Even as the narrative pays tribute to the courage and honor of such men as Jackson and Chamberlain, it never lets us forget that their heroism came at the expense of wanton slaughter.  To make this point, Maxwell echoes the original pairing of Jackson and Chamberlain throughout the film.  At Fredericksburg, two Irish brigades—one Union, the other Confederate—battle each other.  The Confederate side has the high ground and the benefit of a stone barricade.  Thus protected, they readily massacre the Union soldiers while taking relatively few casualties themselves.  Afterward, a Confederate officer remarks on the incredible bravery of the Union Irishmen who marched so hopelessly into the unequal battle: “Those fellows deserved a better fate.”  With these words, we recall an earlier remark made by Kilrain, an Irish sergeant, played sardonically by the always excellent Kevin Conway.  He had pointed out to Chamberlain that many of his Irish friends were on the other side, adding, “We left tyranny at home to end up shooting at one another in the land of the free.”  Conway tosses off this irony as if to say, What else can you expect in a world gone this mad?

We find similar counterpointing in a Christmas Day cease-fire scene when a Confederate captain and a Union private greet each other cheerfully across the Rappahannock River and then wade to its middle to swap tobacco and coffee.  The clash of opposites ultimately resides in the figure of Jackson himself, however.  He is a fierce, unsparing warrior driven by honor and patriotism to give the enemy “the black flag,” as he puts it.  Kill them all is his constant counsel.  Yet he is the same man who reverently joins his black cook in prayer, assuring him that his people will soon be free.  He can with equanimity send boyish deserters to the firing squad and then openly weep for a five-year-old girl he barely knows when she dies from scarlet fever.  You can admire Jackson for his personal bravery, but his mercy seems unwarrantably selective.  Maxwell correctly foregrounds Jackson’s Presbyterian faith in predestination, for this was an especially dangerous creed.  It permitted all manner of cruelty in the name of the Almighty’s foreordained will.  The wisest generals have always made room for mercy whenever doing so posed no risk to their cause.  They have recognized that mercy has both a virtuous and practical role to play in war.  Showing concern for your enemy is not only a good in itself but also eminently sensible.  Needless brutality in victory only breeds its like in the defeated.

It is an historical fact that Jackson received the wound that would ultimately kill him from Confederate soldiers who mistook him for a Union officer, and so the episode belongs in the film.  But Maxwell does more than include it; he underlines it.  Jackson was shot on the evening following his spectacular sneak attack on the Union troops at Chancellorsville.  After routing them, he was determined, despite his subordinates’ misgivings, to follow his black-flag policy, hunting down and killing as many of their fleeing ranks as possible even if it meant highly risky night fighting.  Maxwell wants us to savor this last irony, to taste its ashen flavor fully.  Jackson’s valor was finally self-destructive.  Just so we do not miss the point, in an earlier scene, we get something bitterly analogous as Chamberlain’s troops listen to an officer who reads them a letter from President Lincoln.  Maxwell has used the actual text in which Lincoln commends the men for their bravery in defeat and for having sustained “comparatively few casualties.”  Kilrain—who, by this time, has become the film’s one-man chorus—snorts at Lincoln’s presumption and, under his breath, asks with withering contempt, “Comparative to what?  The Scots at Culloden, the French at Waterloo?”  It is one of the film’s best moments.  This, Maxwell makes clear, is war: a bloody, insane business dressed up by distant leaders to look nobly patriotic.

Today, we continue to live with the Civil War’s consequences as no doubt we will continue to endure the aftereffects of our current Middle Eastern adventures.  Dulce et decorum est, indeed.