Movie Review - Gods and Generals

NOTE: This review was written under a previous rating system. Some of the older reviews may express opinions and judgment calls that are not in line with our current standards.
Ronald F. Maxwell
Turner Pictures
for sustained battle sequences

A storyteller once said to me that his favorite story was about a particular series of events, a true story from the American Civil War, because there were no bad guys. Both sides had a hero. Well, that may be an advantage when you can balance out the inherent tragedy of those circumstances with a perpetual smile from the storyteller, but you can’t very well make Ambrose Burnside and Robert E. Lee wear a perpetual smile when you bring those stories into the movies, can you? It’s small consolation to the heroes—or to the audience, either—that both sides get to be the good guy, when they’re blowing each other to pieces. When it comes to a Civil War movie, the absence of a villain (on the personal level; let’s not get into politics here) is a decided disadvantage. Add to that the heartrending choice to end the story with the death of its most admirable hero, and Gods and Generals sounds like the perfect doom-and-gloom movie. That it isn’t, considering all those disadvantages—and that it managed to depict so many battle sequences without showing us much of the actual blowing-to-pieces—is quite the triumph. But, of course, as all those battle sequences testify, there are usually losses to deal with even in the greatest triumphs.

Gods and Generals is, on the positive side, a tribute to the religious life of Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson. The depth of his faith in Christ, the reverence of his prayers, the delight he took in reading the Word of God and obeying it, and the degree of trust he placed in the sovereignty of God, are portrayed as the foundation of his character, and of his strength as a leader. Other principal figures in the story give brief but sincere references to their allegiance to God. In this respect, Gods and Generals is quite an inspirational film, balancing, or rather uniting, the patriotic devotion of the soldier with the religious devotion.

However… General Jackson’s failure (in the movie) to defend the necessity of faith in Christ, in his response to a dying unbeliever—“Well, then I will believe for the both of us.”—mars the effect of the movie’s emphasis on his own faith. And a lengthy quote from Julius Caesar, which includes references to numerous pagan gods and goddesses, and even claims that Rome is “equal to the highest deity,” does the same to Unionist Lt. Col. Chamberlain’s faith. The almost history-worshiping refrain, “Hail Caesar. We who are about to die salute you,” is recited twice.

Jackson’s relationship with his wife is admirable (so there’s another positive element of the movie), but Chamberlain’s quoted “I could not love thee, dear, so much, loved I not honor more,” to his wife, is more questionable; as is his statement to his brother, “As God is my witness, there is no one I hold in my heart dearer than you,”—not even his wife and children. Lee claims that “As a Christian man, my first loyalty is to God, then to my state,” connecting his high view of his native state to his religion (even though his position is not demanded by Scripture), and (hopefully, unintentionally) ignoring allegiances to his church and his family.

The political and military side of Gods and Generals (which makes up, unsurprisingly, almost the whole movie) is hardly neutral, but it might have been worse. A greater emphasis is given to the Confederate perspective, but it is limited to the views of men like Lee and Jackson, whose positions on secession and slavery were milder, and not representative of the Confederacy at large. Secession is viewed as a necessary evil. Slavery is devoid of its Uncle-Tom’s-Cabin chains and whips, and given a generally humane appearance—the relationships between slaves and masters being positive—but the slaves themselves are consistently portrayed as desiring freedom, nevertheless. Abolitionist Chamberlain makes a number of remarks on the issue of slavery, while admitting that freeing the slaves was not the goal when the war started.

The movie’s emphasis on Lincoln’s initial call for volunteers to invade the rebelling Southern states leads the Confederate characters—most of whom lacked any connection to the original “cause” of the rebellion—to speak of their cause in terms of “freedom,” “our country,” “our second War for Independence,” and a war which, without victory, Jackson would not desire to survive. The alternative to this southern “freedom” is described as “anarchy, infidelity, the loss of free and responsible government.” On this basis, Jackson claims that “The Bible is full of such wars,” (presumably comparing the Union with the enemies of Israel), and demands “the black flag”—no quarter. Desertion is considered by him “a sin against the Army of the Lord.”

The fact that the Civil War was Christian against Christian, and American against American, is brought up, but not made very much of. That it was Irish immigrant against Irish immigrant? That’s a big deal, now. But more on that in Violent and Intense Content.

There is a mild joke about four canons being named Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, Jackson being assured that the men will “spread the gospel wherever they encounter the enemy.” The movie opens with a quote from the anti-Christian1 George Eliot (though religion was not the subject of the quote), and there is a reference to “the good fairies,” and to Santa’s sled. Jackson promises a little girl that her father, and “all the daddies” fighting for the Confederacy, will come home again.

Sexual Content:
The relationship between Jackson and his wife is touching… in both senses of the word. There’s nothing about the sexual content that’s going to be defiling for the audience, but the actor and actress are another question. Jackson and his “esposita” (or rather, a married actor and an unmarried actress) are shown lying in bed in the morning, embracing tenderly enough that you just about forget you’re not watching a real married couple. They kiss about half a dozen times, sometimes in bed, very convincingly. Mrs. Jackson is shown in a nightgown that has fallen off one shoulder, and a woman dancing at a patriotic entertainment is dressed in a low-cut costume, though only shown briefly. The flag of Virginia, featured during the credits, depicts a scantily dressed woman triumphing over tyranny.

God’s name is taken in vain once, and, though probably not meant irreverently, a woman says, “Them Yankees is coming, sure as Jesus.” There are five obvious misuses of “d---”, two of “h---”, and a couple of each that might possibly be considered legitimate uses of the words.2 There are a couple of mild minced oaths.

Cultural Stumbling-Blocks:
Men of both sides smoke pipes and cigars. Whiskey, morphine and chloroform are given to dying men to ease their pain.

Violent and Intense Content:
Yes, well, about that idea of heroes blowing each other to pieces.

Gods and Generals is a war movie, after all, so you’re going to see dead men lying on the battlefield, occasionally separated from one of their limbs. During a night on the battlefield, living soldiers use the dead ones for protection from enemy fire. There are canon shots, and pistol shots, and shots of every kind, and they take effect pretty often—not very graphically, usually. Scenes in which a more prominent character is shot may be more emotionally disturbing, though not more graphic. In one of the more intense scenes, deserters are shot—they’re frightened, they hear, “Ready. Aim…” and then they fly backward with the impact of the bullets. Hallucination may be emotionally intense to watch, as may be the image of the sobbing Confederate Irishman, shooting his “brothers”, the Yankee Irish Brigade at Fredericksburg.

Graphic images include a scene of a man in shock requesting permission to return to the rear, his face covered in blood and his arm blown off. Another man falls over, dead, with one eye shot out and the other open. Blood is regularly shown on hands and faces.

For all Jackson’s emphasis on the bayonet, the actual combat is mostly made up of men firing their weapons, and other men falling to the ground, so there isn’t a great deal of gore in the battles. There’s just a great deal of battle; and the constant combat is more wearying—depressing, even—than exhilarating, especially as you approach the three-and-a-half-hour mark.

Women and children are seen running in the midst of a battle in the town, and a little boy is hurt (though not badly) in the canon fire. General Jackson weeps over the death of a young child, and references the deaths in childbirth of his mother, first wife and stillborn daughter.

Gods and Generals may or may not have a villain when you see the movie, depending on which side of the war you’re on. Or, it may have two. Whatever your position (short of pacifism, maybe), this movie has put in a good word for it, somewhere… And it’s blown your hero to pieces.

It’s amazing that Gods and Generals isn’t more depressing than it is. And if it is a little on the discouraging side, it’s not the fault of the movie, but of the subject. The encouragement you receive from the movie is almost completely owing to the faith of General “Stonewall” Jackson, and as a portrait of such a great Christian leader, Gods and Generals doesn’t feel quite long enough, even with its two hundred and some minutes—and, if you love Christian history, you know that that isn’t the fault of the movie, either.

My caveats about this film are few (when I get to generalize, of course). The Christianity is a very welcome and very strong aspect of the movie, but isn’t entirely pure. The tenderness between Jackson and his wife was a little too realistic for comfort. The political side of the film left a gaping hole, when it came to the original secession movement and southern “cause”. And, while verbally emphasizing the violence, and showing us the dead and wounded men, Gods and Generals, to preserve a PG-13 rating, stops short of portraying any personal combat—leaving us (or, more specifically, young men in their early teens) with an apparently complete concept of war, without making anyone stop and think about actually sticking a bayonet into the ribs of another American, or even another Christian.

With those caveats, and with the understanding that “Enjoyable” is indeed an odd word to apply to a movie that ends with the death of your main character, I believe that Gods and Generals will meet with the approval of almost any history-loving Christian audience. Owing to the at-times intense and graphic violence, I recommend Gods and Generals only for men twelve and up, and for women fifteen and up.

2 The reference points for the objectionable language:
1) Star-gazing soldiers - “You’ll be humming a different tune when it’s raining, you’re covered in frost, or when you need me to dig you out of a snow drift.” “So d--- dark the bats run into each other.”
2) When the men charge before ordered to. “We have no orders to advance! Get back in the ranks! Steady, men. Steady. D--- it.”
3) Chamberlain, to his wife, “They need serving officers. Five new regiments are being formed now. Main has already sent fifteen. How could I refuse?” “Poor Lawrence, d--- you, you’ll be good at it, too.”
4) Chamberlain’s wife, “That poem of Lovelace. That beautiful, horrible, d---able, lovely sad poem.”
5) Immediately after Jackson and his wife are in bed, “We will survive this war. And we will have a child, so help us, God.” Transition: “This is a h--- of a regiment.”
6) Union officers, planning. “Fredericksburg is now the only place we can cross. If Burnside doesn’t cross here, he might as well resign. That wily gray fox has outmaneuvered our command again. And there’s going to be hell to pay.”
7) During the Battle of Fredericksburg, a Union Irishman, “Fall back! Fall back, men!” When it turns again to the Confederate Irishman, “Go to h---! Go to h--- and d---ation!”
8) After the Battle of Fredericksburg, after General Hancock requisitions the house as a hospital. Back on the battlefield, a soldier says, “You there. You wounded? Truly sorry, old fellah. D---.
9) When Tom Chamberlain startles Joshua Chamberlain in the Fredericksburg battlefield at night, after the scene in which Martha quotes from the book of Esther. “D--- it, Tom. You scared me half to death.”
10) After the Union troops have been completely routed at the battle of Chancellorsville, and they are coming up to “Major General Joseph Hooker’s Army Headquarters,” when the officer comes out of the building, “My G--! Give them the bayonet!”

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