TROOPS HEADED TO IRAQ WERE given an advance screening of the new Civil War epic Gods and Generals. As part of the promotion of the film, Warner Brothers brought in stars to sign autographs and put together care packages for the departing troops. Promoters apparently believed that a movie about the Battle of Fredericksburg would be relevant to soldiers-and a nation-headed for the Battle of Baghdad.
The movie, written and directed by Ron Maxwell, is a prequel to his earlier Gettysburg, and features historically accurate recreations not just of Civil War battles but of the men who waged them.
Today, most fictionalized treatments of history-and even academic studies that profess to be nonfictional-tend to project current preoccupations and mindsets back into the past, as if our ancestors were as cynical, jaded, and politically correct as we are. But Mr. Maxwell's approach is to attempt to portray historical figures as they were, with personalities and a culture distinctly different from what we have today.
Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, and Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain-as well as other denizens of the 19th century-were motivated by honor, duty, patriotism, and an explicit, unapologetic, and unself-conscious belief in Christianity. When Gen. Jackson, like the troops headed to the Middle East, receives his deployment orders and has to say goodbye to his beloved wife, they read a Bible verse together (2 Corinthians 5:1) and kneel down to pray.
It is surprising, almost shocking, to find so much Bible quoting, Jesus-praising, and conviction of everlasting life in a contemporary Hollywood movie, presented without a shred of irony or condescension. (Even more so for a movie bankrolled by Christian-basher Ted Turner.)
The spectacle of watching thousands of soldiers in close formation marching up close to each other and blasting away, inflicting and suffering horrific casualties on both sides, is shocking too, of course. How could anyone have that kind of courage? What cause is so great that men would die-and kill-for it? And if both sides could boast such honorable men and such devout Christians, how could the nation have become so divided, and why were they slaughtering each other?
What were the troops headed for Iraq thinking when they watched Gods and Generals? Maybe they found it inspiring, but it does raise troubling questions: Is our nation today really united, or is it still torn with paralyzing divisions? Does our nation today have the culture necessary to fight a war? Does our nation today have the culture to handle this movie?
Gods and Generals presents the most pro-Southern point of view in any movie since Gone with the Wind-or maybe since Birth of a Nation. The Confederates in the film make the case that they were fighting "the second War of Independence." The Yankees represented the forces of banks and "commercial interests." The Confederates are defending their homeland-not some centralized government, but their farms, towns, and homes; their states, representing a tangible, close attachment and sense of place, as opposed to the abstraction of a distant union.
Slavery, in this film, is not the issue. The main characters, Gen. Lee (finely rendered by Robert Duvall) and Gen. Jackson (Stephen Lang), express their disapproval of the institution, expressing confidence that it will wither away. Col. Chamberlain, in his pre-war vocation as a classics professor at Bowdoin and later as an officer, makes the case that slavery is a contradiction in a nation grounded in the ideals of freedom.
At one point, Gen. Jackson prays with his black cook, Jim Lewis (Frankie Faison), who is bold to ask the Lord to stop the bondage of the slaves. A slave woman, Martha (Donzaleigh Abernathy), protects her owners' house when the Yankees enter Fredericksburg, telling one of them that she yearns for freedom for herself and her children and that she is glad they have come (even though they are pillaging the town).
But no slaves are shown to have been mistreated. Most of the slaves in the movie show loyalty and even affection to their masters.
Abraham Lincoln comes off poorly, to say the least. He is the president, in the words of Gen. Lee, who invades his own country. The union troops suffer untold carnage at the Battle of Fredericksburg, due to the incompetence of their commander, Gen. Burnside, who, in turn, is depicted as having been micro-managed by Washington. After the battle, the battered and bloody troops are mustered in formation so that they may hear a letter from President Lincoln, who praises their general and congratulates them for suffering so few casualties.
There is even an appearance by John Wilkes Booth, who puts on a show for the Confederates, singing a song about "Southern rights." Ted Turner appears in the scene in a cameo, joining in the chorus. (Something he is entitled to for his $61 million investment, plus the $30 million he has kicked in for promotion.)
Southern partisans will love this movie. Mainline historians will complain about the Southern bias, unlike the relatively balanced Gettysburg, while the politically correct will sputter with indignation.
The film centers on the character of Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson, by all historical accounts a fascinatingly complex character, simultaneously pious and ferocious. In the movie, Gen. Jackson is a gentle family man, doting on his wife and plantation children, who, without missing a beat, calls for "the black flag-no quarter!" against the Yankees and sends deserters to the firing squad.
Mr. Lang plays Stonewall in a surprisingly low-key, mellow way, as if his seeming contradictions and notorious eccentricities were just normal traits of a nice guy. One would have liked to see him played with more manic energy-say, like Daniel Day Lewis in Gangs of New York-which would only have enhanced his appeal.
Much of the dialogue is taken from actual words these figures are known to have said, whether in letters, speeches, or as reported by witnesses. This heightens the authenticity, but at times it makes the dialogue seem stilted and unrealistic. People, especially back then, do not speak at the same rhetorical register of their writings. Sometimes it seems as if the characters are making speeches, rather than having conversations.
Sometimes the scenes seem to be tableaux-formal set-pieces presented for their own sake-rather than facets of an unfolding action. There is a scene of Southern belles sewing a flag; a Christmas celebration; a Rebel and a Yankee crossing the river to share a cup of coffee and a pipe. Combined with the technique of cutting back and forth between North and South, and the various points of view of characters, the effect is to make the story episodic, a collection of episodes linked loosely together, rather than a unified drama.
The most satisfying parts of the film were the battle scenes. Mr. Maxwell used a cast of thousands of Civil War reenactors, all clad in authentic uniforms and using actual tactics of the time. The battle scenes were filmed on location (though not at the actual battle sites) in the fields and woods of Virginia, West Virginia, and Maryland. In faithfully depicting the Battles of First Manassas, Fredericksburg, and Chancellorsville, the film brought 19th-century combat-and the heroism of the troops on both sides-vividly to life.
The earlier movie Gettysburg was based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Killer Angels by Michael Shaara, who mastered the use of fictional techniques, particularly recreating the points of view of key participants in the event, in the service of history. Mr. Shaara died in 1988, but during the making of the film version in 1993, he was represented on the set by his son Jeff.
Mr. Maxwell asked him if he would consider writing a prequel, using his father's techniques, which resulted not only in the novel Gods and Generals but The Last Full Measure, on the final battles of the war. Mr. Maxwell is currently at work on preproduction for the film version of this final work in the Civil War trilogy.
Lessons from history
So what might our troops and a nation going to war learn from this cinematic history lesson?
War is indeed hell, to use the words of another Civil War general. The bright anticipation and earnest patriotic zeal at the first call to arms soon gives way to the hardship, fear, and death on the battlefield. So it was for both the North and South, as shown in the movie, and so it may well be today.
It takes strong character, for both the troops and the nation supporting them, to bear up to the suffering and to fight with courage. And foundational to that character is a worldview that gives meaning to one's cause, to one's life, and to one's death.
Do our troops headed for conflict in the Middle East have that foundation and that character? Apparently, a good number of them do. Does their nation? That remains to be seen.
There are, of course, significant differences between the War Between the States and the conflict with global terrorism and with Iraq. The former was a tragic internal conflict between fellow Americans who shared basically the same faith. The new war is between people of very different cultures, political ideals, and religions. The danger is that our enemies seem to have far more zeal for what they believe than Americans and contemporary Christians do. To stand up to Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein, we need some new Stonewall Jacksons.