Gods and Generals
Produced and Directed by Ronald F. Maxwell
Screenplay by Ronald F. Maxwell from Jeff Shaara’s book 
Released by Warner Bros.

The war of 1861-65 is still the pivotal event of American history, despite all that has passed since.  In the extent of mobilization, casualties, and material destruction on American soil, in the number of world-class events and personalities, and in revolutionary consequences, nothing else can equal it.

That is why Ronald F. Maxwell’s epic portrayal of the first two years of the conflict, a prequel to his 1993 Gettysburg, is more than just another film or a good recreation of history.  It is an American cultural event of major significance.

The cataclysmic bloodletting of the war left a gaping hole in the American psyche.  Late in the 19th century, we began to achieve a kind of healing by rendering the tragedy as a common ordeal of North and South.  The Great Reconciliation went something like this: The victorious North agreed to stop demonizing  Southerners as an inexplicably and irredeemably evil people, to recognize the courage and sincerity of their effort at independence, and to adopt the Confederacy’s heroes, such as Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, as American heroes.  

This had been anticipated by Joshua Chamberlain’s respectful salute to the defeated at Appomattox.  His sentiment was shared by most fighting Union soldiers, though not by their political superiors and ideological masters.  (Ambrose Bierce and other combat veterans said they never met an abolitionist in the  Union Army.)  Because of deliberately whipped-up political hysteria, it was not until late in the century that much of the Northern public overcame their Southern-devil idea of the war.

In return for respect finally granted, Southerners agreed to be thankful that the country had not been broken up and to be the most loyal of Americans in the future.  In other words, the war, instead of being a morality play of the triumph of virtue over evil, was accepted as having had good and bad on both sides and as a necessary trauma out of which had arisen a new, more united, and more powerful nation.  This is why Southerner D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation, with its sympathetic recounting of Southern experience coupled with an admiring portrayal of Lincoln, was a great success.

The Great Reconciliation prevailed for half a century.  Gone With the Wind was immensely popular.  The Confederate Battle Flag was carried by American fighting men to the corners of the earth in World War II (which today would subject them to security investigation and court-martial).  Harry S. Truman chose a romantic portrait of Jackson and Lee for the lobby of his presidential library, and Dwight D. Eisenhower and Winston Churchill chose Southern expert Douglas Southall Freeman to show them around the field of Gettysburg.  That Gods and Generals has Stonewall Jackson as its central character would have been considered, not too many years ago, as American as apple pie.  Today, it is a feat of insight and courage.  What Maxwell has done in this stunningly crafted and epically expansive recreation of the first two years of the war is nothing less than to restore American history to the Americans.  

Although Southerners have kept and continue to keep their part of the bargain, the truce was broken around 30 years ago, and the Southern-devil theory re-emerged—and has been gathering force ever since.  The average historian’s explanation is that Americans have achieved a new realization of their heinous history regarding African-Americans and can never go back to the callous views of previous generations.  This rests on the unquestioned assumption that the African-American experience—or, rather, the current interpretation of it—is the central or even the only important experience of American history.

The real explanation for the revival of Southern demonization as a national pastime is actually more complicated and has nothing to do with the discoveries of “expert” academic historians.  It reflects, first of all, the triumph of Cultural Marxism—of history at the service of a fanatical agenda.  The mainstream academic interpretation of the Civil War—and of much else in the American past—that prevails today institutionalizes views that, 50 years ago, were current nowhere except in the communist neighborhoods of New York City.  Our history has been rewritten under the rubrics of Race, Class, and “Gender.”

The worst thing about this is not, as countless neoconservative publicists have wailed, that it makes for divisive politics.  The worst thing about it is that it cuts us off from our history, rendering our forebears alien and dead abstractions.

With regard to the Civil War, there is another element of distortion that relates not to leftist politics so much as to the penchant of too many Americans to assume their own unique righteousness, which has been a problem ever since the first Puritans stepped ashore at Boston.  If Sherman burning his way through Georgia and Carolina was a righteous exercise against evil, then obviously the bombing of Christian Serbs and the starving of Iraqi children reflects the same unsulliable mission of American triumph.

The classic illustration of this is Ken Burns’ celebrated documentary on the Civil War.  Surrounding his thesis with intrinsically attractive materials, Burns revived the portrayal of the war as a morality play in a way that was widely appealing.  In Burns’ interpretation, the war was about the benevolence of the Union and emancipation and the evils of treason and slavery.  At bottom, this rests upon a convenient fantasy—the fantasy of Northern racial benevolence.  It is child’s play to demonstrate that such benevolence never existed before, during, or after the war.  This historical fabrication—that a war of conquest was gloriously, unselfishly benevolent—remains a seemingly ineradicable foundation of the American amour-propre.

By contrast, Maxwell has largely given us a dramatization of Americans, including African-Americans, as the real people in the real context in which they loved, perspired, wept, struggled, suffered, and died.   That context truly was epic and, like all great historical events, morally complex.  I could go on at length about the many marvelous aspects of Maxwell’s creation: the battles, the well-drawn characters from history, the recognition of the importance of Christianity in the lives of our forebears, and much else.  Though based generally on Jeff Shaara’s novel of the same name, Gods and Generals follows the book less closely than Gettysburg did The Killer Angels, which is all to the good.

There can be no perfection on this earth, which brings me to the one small flaw in this dazzling gem.  Southerners, generally—and, for all I know, Civil War students, too—found fault with Martin Sheen’s portrayal of Lee in Gettysburg.  I thought the condemnation excessive; Sheen did a good job, given the impossibility of recreating Lee in a world where not even a model remains.  Many happily greeted the news that Robert Duvall would portray Lee in Gods and Generals.

Now, I am risking being ridden out of town on a rail for this, but I would rather have Sheen or, even better, an unknown performer as Lee.  Duvall is a fine actor who has portrayed many Southerners with verisimilitude.  As Lee, he is a failure.  At the beginning of the war, Lee was a vigorous, late-middle-aged man with an audacious military genius lurking just below a placid surface.  Duvall plays Lee from the start as a worn-out old man—as Lee must have been after Appomattox—and with an overdone Deep South, rather than a Virginian, accent.

I was privileged to view a pre-release screening of Gods and Generals.  It was way past my bedtime and a hundred miles from home, but I kept hoping the screen would never go blank.  The film, I understand, has been cut considerably for theatrical release.  I deliciously anticipate both the complete six-hour version that is  to be released on DVD and the final installment of Maxwell’s trilogy, The Last Full Measure, which is already in production.  Gods and Generals is an arresting example of how a people’s history should be told—which ought to have a healthy effect on Americans’ idea of them-selves.