The American Civil War may have lasted five years and taken many lives, but writer/director Ronald F. Maxwell's "Gods and Generals" makes it feel much longer than that, and is just as deadly, at least from a moviegoing experience.
Although this prequel to the filmmaker's 1993 film, "Gettysburg," only covers a little more than two years of the conflict, it feels like an eternity. That's due to glacial pacing, stilted dialogue, some bad acting, too much piousness, flat drama and, with one exception, boring battle scenes.
In fact, there aren't enough fingers to go around in pointing out the various culprits of why this is such a disappointing and drawn-out mess. The earlier film, while not without its share of problems, was at least an engaging and interesting affair. Sadly, that's not the case here and most of the fault should be leveled at Maxwell ("The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia," "Little Darlings") and editor Corky Ehlers ("Gettysburg," "Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man").
While thankfully not the rumored (or is that threatened) six hour version that will arrive on video once this effort quickly retreats from the theaters, it still clocks in at nearly four hours. It's not the first and probably not the last time a film will be this long. Yet, it's only acceptable if a) there's an intermission (there is), b) the story and characters are engaging or interesting (they're not) and c) the material warrants such a massive amount of film (that's open to debate).
It doesn't help matters that Maxwell - who's adapted Jeff Shaara's novel of the same name - has seemingly put more emphasis on appeasing Civil War buffs and historians than in delivering a well-made or entertaining historical drama. Most every person, place and time are identified by onscreen titles - which will likely make the layperson think they're something they should note - but after a while one eventually realizes none of that matters (particularly when various identified figures are never seen again).
The result is a filmed piece that plays like a never-ending auditorium film at some Civil War battlefield's visitor center. That's especially true since it's easy to pick out the myriad of Civil War re-enactors from the real thespians and most everything comes off like a history lesson but without much passion or heart. It's history from a clinical perspective and, for the most part, comes off as dramatically inert and certainly less than engaging.
Another problem is that Maxwell and company are far too reverent to the South this time around (and this coming from someone who grew up in Richmond, VA). While "Gettysburg" was more of a balanced approach, only a few token characters from the North are present (beyond lots of extras who are around to get shot on the battlefield).
Jeff Daniels ("The Hours," "My Favorite Martian") reprises his role from the earlier (but temporally later) film, but is saddled by some awkward moments and dialogue. Mira Sorvino ("The Grey Zone," "Summer of Sam") plays his wife but thankfully isn't onscreen for very long, while C. Thomas Howell ("Red Dawn," "The Outsiders") plays Chamberlain's brother. One would expect some decent familial material between their characters (considering the maelstrom into which they're riding), but what's offered is flat and unconvincing.
Far more time is given to the various characters from the South, which shouldn't come as a surprise considering that the "mouth of the South," Ted Turner, produced and briefly appears in the film. While Robert E. Lee -- Robert Duvall ("John Q" "The 6th Day") taking over the role from Martin Sheen but mostly phoning in his performance - occasionally shows up, the story is obviously all about Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson. He's embodied by Stephen Lang ("Trixie," "Fire Down Below") who played a different character in "Gettysburg," but the film mostly drops the ball in exploring this one.
While we see that he's a deeply religious man (always stopping to pray to God for this or that), little else is detailed and we never really get inside his character. There are some decent moments between him and his wife - played by Kali Rocha ("White Oleander," "Autumn in New York") - but other material - including scenes where he interacts with Frankie Faison ("Red Dragon," "Showtime") as a black cook he's hired - feel far too contrived and stilted.
In fact, the overall portrayal of black people in the film - as happy supporters of the South - is a bit insulting and probably not historically accurate, much like the film's portrayal and whitewashing of the Southern cause and way of life.
Speaking of accuracy, history buffs will probably wonder what happened to the bloody Battle of Antietam that occurred smack dab in the middle of this film's temporal range (1861 to 1863). The answer is that it was inexplicably left on the cutting room floor, in favor of all of the slow dramatic moments that easily could have been jettisoned or at least shortened to make room for it.
That said, for those not up on their Civil War history, none of the posturing and onscreen titles probably will be of much help in following who's who and what's occurring. In fact, very little of what led to the conflict is addressed. Instead, we're simply dropped into the story that's already in progress.
After all of the static drama, things pick up a bit - at least in terms of pace - when the battle scenes finally roll around, but they aren't as engaging as the should be. Granted, there's only so much one can do with the stand and shoot fighting style of the period, but other films such as "Glory" have managed to make them work. While presumably historically accurate - but hemmed in by having to maintain a PG-13 rating that prevents "Saving Private Ryan" style realism -the sight of thousands of fully attired re-enactors doing the battle thing simply isn't as exciting, moving or horrifying as it should be.
That is, until near the end of the film when the Confederate forces attempt to sneak up on Union ones camped out near Chancellorsville. At that moment, the film suddenly comes alive and most everything about it - including the score by composer John Frizzell ("Ghost Ship," "Thirteen Ghosts") and Randy Edelman ("Shanghai Knights," "National Security") that otherwise pummels the viewer/listener with forced and often melodramatic emotion - works terrifically.
Despite that and a few other memorable and engaging moments, the film obviously needed another run (or 2 or 3 or 4) through the editing booth to trim away the excess material and tighten the pacing. Far too long, static, pious and reverent to the material and characters, the film might be a dream for Civil War buffs and historians. For everyone else, however, it's likely to be a bust due to its various problems.
If you want to see a Civil War movie done right, go out and buy or rent the fabulous, moving, engaging and inspiring "Glory." On the other hand, if counting sheep doesn't cure your insomnia, this film certainly will. "Gods and Generals" rates as a 3.5 out of 10.