Dir. Ronald F. Maxwell. US. 2003. 216mins.
If it were only two hours long, Gods And Generals would be a trial. But there then follows a further 100 minutes to prolong an experience as dull as it is earnest. Ronald Maxwell, who adapted and directed the well-regarded Gettysburg, is in the thrall of his production design and drugged by a luxuriant running-time. The first instalment of a Civil War trilogy, it hardly whets the appetite for parts two and three. Considering the length of the film, the box office in the US, where it opened to $4.68m from 1,533 sites last weekend, has been fair. But it is unlikely to leverage the current wave of US patriotism, given that it is a story of Americans killing Americans, while the subject matter makes it a non-starter for female audiences. Even US males lured into the cinema by a first-rate trailer are bound to be disappointed, a displeasure which could lead to negative word-of-mouth.
The title might better be God And General, as both sides seek the blessing of the same god and the plot concentrates on the personality and exploits of Confederate General Thomas 'Stonewall' Jackson (Lang). The story begins as the storm clouds gather. Secessionist speeches stir Southern blood while Northerners scowl and fulminate. But there is no insight into the politics behind the bluster and only lip-service to the dissenting voices.
The film's two big names, Jeff Daniels and Robert Duvall, have more modest roles than their billing suggests. Daniels reprises his Gettysburg character, a Union colonel, albeit at an earlier stage in his career, while Duvall plays the redoubtable Confederate commander Robert E Lee. Neither is convincing, although Daniels does his best to convey the fear of combat while Duvall shows some restraint in delivering epic lines. Still, they fare better than the hapless Lang, who stares out of a bush of facial hair spouting chapter and verse in a quavering Southern drawl. Surrounding these three are ranks of undirected supporting actors nodding wisely.
The film is at its best in the initial battle sequences, which convey the epic scale of a war that presaged WWI in its mechanical slaughter, as wave upon wave of young men march in formation to be cut down by relentless rifle fire. But the moments between are clogged with sentimental outbursts, of tearful leave-taking and dry tactical discussion, all of it delivered in boiler plate script.
The many battle scenes all look the same and while the charge could be laid against most war films it's hardly an excuse for repeating the mistake. Even when Jackson is felled by a bullet from his own side it doesn't stir a sense of outrage.
There is a distinct bias in favour of the Confederate cause: executive producer Ted Turner is noted collector of Confederate memorabilia (presumably he was wearing some in his cameo as a Confederate officer). Indeed, the entire affair smacks of a vanity project and will be treated accordingly.
Prod co: Turner Pictures/Warner Bros
Int'l sales: Warner Bros
Cinematography: Kees Van Oostrum
Prod des: Michael Z. Hanan
Ed: Corky Ehlers
Music: Bob Dylan, Randy Edelman, Bill Frizzell
Main cast: Jeff Daniels, Stephen Lang, Robert Duvall, C Thomas Howell, Bruce Boxleitner