Onward, Christian soldiers

Culture | The United States is preparing for battle, but does it have the culture to handle the Civil War epic Gods and Generals?

Issue: "Attacking the future now," Feb. 22, 2003

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.

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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?

Epic conventions

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.


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