The problem with having read the book on which a film is based is that no matter how hard you try, its hard to divorce that book from its adaptation playing out before you on the big screen. So it is with GODS AND GENERALS, the prequel to GETTYSBURG, and based on the novel by Jeff Shaara, son of Michael who wrote THE KILLER ANGELS on which GETTYSBURG was based.
Now I am perfectly aware that a movie is not a book and that there will of necessity be changes. Hence, I can almost live with screenwriter/director Ronald Maxwells decision to not begin GODS with Robert E. Lees arrest of John Brown at Harpers Ferry. For many historians, this is the unofficial beginning of the Civil War and its also an opportunity to see Lee in his Union army days. It would also have been a nice opportunity to expand on Lees conflicted views about slavery. Sympathetic to the peculiar institution he was not.
Still, being in a generous frame of mind, I thought to myself as I settled in, Maxwell has three hours and forty minutes (not counting the 12 minutes intermission) to give us over two years of turbulent history. Something has to go. We do get Lees eloquent refusal to lead the Union troops after Fort Sumter is fired on, and in the person of Robert Duvall, it is a deeply moving speech full of melancholy duty from a man who is faced with a choice that is clear, but heartbreaking.
Would that this were the only misstep and would that it were the most radical departure from the book. It is not. Maxwell has subverted both the novel and history by essaying a revisionist reading that defies all logic, above all from a cinematic point of view.
Robert E. Lee is the most written about general of the Civil War. Arguably, the only general to have more words written about him is Napolean. Thus, I can almost fathom why Maxwell would want to shift the focus of GODS AND GENERALS from him to another fascinating character, Stonewall Jackson. With so much already said about Lee, Jackson must have seemed a wonderful, undiscovered country ripe for film. Here was a general who struck terror even in his own men, a ferocious warrior who believed that he was doing God’s will no matter what the body count, an eccentric of note in a part of the country known for not only tolerating them, but cherishing them.
How could it all have gone so wrong?
It was frighteningly easy. Maxwell has made the, shall we say interesting, decision to change Gods hellcat into a warm and fuzzy teddy bear. This was a man who subscribed to Torquemadas view of Christianity, the kind that offers bloodshed and retribution as the key to salvation. Yet the scenes of him invoking his deity, and there are many, are not, as one would have hoped, a oratory verging on madness, but instead the sort of saccharine that evokes not awe, but a nervous shifting of the audience members in their seats as they wonder why the film has changed from fact-based historical fiction to a Sunday school filmstrip. And a badly produced one at that. Why indeed? Where is the fire? Where the passion? Where the lemon-sucking zealot who habitually kept one arm extended skyward in order to be closer to his God? Not here.
And unfortunately, everything else is secondary to Jackson. Duvalls superbly tortured Lee is scarcely a cameo role to which we cling. As for anymeaningful depiction of the war itself, the entire logic of why soldiers are marching anywhere in particular is eschewed in favor of yet another scene of Jackson, in the earnest person of Stephen Lang, who when not praying, is sweet-talking his wife (Kali Rocha) or staring rigidly straight in front of him as others talk, fight, or both.
Another change I cannot fathom is the relationship between Joshua Chamberlain (Jeff Daniels returning as the college professor turned thoughtful, courageous citizen-soldier) and his wife (Mira Sorvino). In the book, it was love match gone wrong, making Chamberlains longing for her all the more poignant. Instead, we have them reciting poetry to each other the night before he leaves. Oh please.
I’m sure that all involved pinned their collective hopes on the director’s vision and the sort of magic that post-production can conjure with its scoring, editing, and other such. All of which once again proves that denial ain’t just a river in Egypt. In moments of what I’m sure all involved hoped would be high emotion, even gut-wrenching, tear-jerking drama, what appears on the screen can be most charitably desribed as turgid. The sort of self-conscious seriousness found in the more earnest, if misguided, of high-school productions.
Now, heres why I havent given up entirely on the next installment of the trilogy, THE LAST FULL MEASURE, which will take us from just after Gettysburg to Appomattox Courthouse. There is a scene in GODS AND GENERALS where two soldiers, one Union, one Confederate, meet between the lines to swap tobacco for coffee, a common occurrence during the war. As they stand there silently, one smoking, one sipping, they regard each other with polite curiosity, as if to say, Hell of a mess we’re in the middle of. It is a perfect moment and a perfect commentary on this and all other wars. If Ronald Maxwell can pull off that scene, maybe he can pull off the next movie, too. Here’s hoping.