- The Washington Times - Friday, February 21, 2003

The elegiac mood of "Gods and Generals" is established during the opening credits, as Mary Fahl sings the ballad "Coming Home" while a succession of Civil War battle flags dissolve into one another, beginning with state military banners and concluding with the flags of the Confederacy and the Union. For the most part, screenwriter-director Ronald F. Maxwell sustains the solemnly stirring opening mood of this Civil War epic for its entire 230 minutes.
The second film in a planned Civil War trilogy produced by Ted Turner and written and directed by Mr. Maxwell, "Gods and Generals" is a prequel to "Gettysburg." If "Gods" performs well at the box office, the trilogy will be completed by "The Last Full Measure." (Both "Gods and Generals" and "The Last Full Measure" are adapted from identically titled historical novels by Jeffrey M. Shaara, the son of the late Michael Shaara, whose Pulitzer Prize-winner "The Killer Angels" was the inspiration for "Gettysburg.")
The film is unhurried and sometimes prosaic to a fault as Mr. Maxwell duplicates the admirably unfashionable blend of sincerity, dedication and human interest that he brought to historical spectacle in "Gettysburg" a decade ago. The new film chronicles the first two years of the war, concentrating on the legendary Confederate general Thomas Jonathan Jackson, nicknamed "Stonewall" after an indomitable battlefield performance with his 1st Brigade at Bull Run, or Battle of First Manassas.
To the role of the Confederate hero, Stephen Lang brings a distinctive and fascinating mixture of pious, introspective, belligerent, vulnerable and courageous attributes. A character in "Gettysburg" alluded to generals as the closest things to gods on Earth, but the movies observe the burdens of command closely enough to complicate that mocking evaluation. They can, indeed, play god by sending men to their deaths, but the generals remain inescapably mortal while doing so.
The two-year time frame here poses structural difficulties that Mr. Maxwell never confronted in "Gettysburg," because the four days of that battle afforded enviable temporal unity. "Gods and Generals" may disappoint some Civil War buffs by leaping over Jackson's heralded, will-of-the-wisp campaign in the Shenandoah Valley and they'll have to wait for the DVD edition to evaluate Mr. Maxwell's re-enactment of the Battle of Antietam, cut to reduce the film's running time from six hours to a mere four.
Mr. Maxwell has settled for generous re-enactments of the Battles of First Manassas, Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville, where the South suffered the loss of Jackson, mortally wounded by his own men the night after he shattered the unsuspecting right flank of Gen. Joseph Hooker's army. Once again, the director has relied on his own volunteer army of Civil War re-enactors to simulate the battles, each of which is pictorially distinctive.
However, there is a deliberate and emotionally effective correspondence between Fredericksburg and Gettysburg. The resistance that thwarted Confederate troops in the first movie has become an insurmountable obstacle to Union columns in the second. The chronology is reversed, of course, because Gettysburg was the later battle, but one of the units conspicuously mauled at Fredericksburg is the 20th Maine Regiment, again prominently represented by Jeff Daniels as Lt. Col. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain. Destined for martial glory in defending Little Round Top on the second day at Gettysburg, here the unit falls to withering rifle fire from opponents on high ground.
Chamberlain, one of the survivors, spends an eerie night on the battlefield, using the bodies of dead comrades as cover for sniper fire. Although working backward, Mr. Maxwell has linked his two movies in a powerful thematic and aesthetic way by rediscovering the 20th Maine at a time of defeat.
Robert Duvall has replaced Martin Sheen as Gen. Robert E. Lee, a vocal improvement but perhaps a temperamental loss. There was something more sympathetic and compelling about the sheer gentleness of Mr. Sheen's personality in "Gettysburg." Stephen Lang as Jackson easily outclasses the Confederate high echelon in "Gods and Generals."
Commendably but only sometimes effectively, Mr. Maxwell attempts to enlarge the focus beyond the battlefield, incorporating domestic scenes between Jackson and his wife, Anna, played by Kali Rocha, and between Chamberlain and his wife, Fanny, played by Mira Sorvino. Because the Jacksons are much closer to home during the war in Virginia and can be reunited physically on certain occasions, their relationship is easier to sustain.
The Chamberlains must rely on letters. Conveniently, a sounding board for Mr. Daniels is available within the regiment: C. Thomas Howell, again cast as Chamberlain's younger brother, lends a ready ear to Mr. Daniels' eloquent summary of the argument against slavery and for resorting to war.
Mr. Maxwell also incorporates episodes with two minor black characters, Frankie Faison as Jackson's cook and Donzaleigh Abernathy as a domestic slave who encounters the Yankees while protecting the abandoned house of her Southern mistress in Fredericksburg.
The scenes have merit on their own terms, while illustrating the merits of emancipation from within the Southern social context itself. But to the extent that Mr. Faison and Miss Abernathy make an impact, they cry out for more elaboration, so Mr. Maxwell may not elude complaints of tokenism. There is quite a bit of time out from war in "Gods and Generals," but not every furlough is well-spent.
Nevertheless, Mr. Maxwell has returned to his post as a Civil War chronicler with a full measure of devotion. He also has improved immeasurably on the stilted dialogue in Mr. Shaara's novel, which sorely lacked the ear for Victorian rhetoric and sentiment that distinguished both "The Killer Angels" and "Gettysburg."
What an enviable career fluke to be a movie director with the Civil War as an abiding subject when you could be preoccupied with comic-book adventures or contemporary dating games, like the profession at large. It would be gratifying to see Mr. Maxwell get a chance to soldier on and complete the trilogy.

***
TITLE: "Gods and Generals"
RATING: PG-13 (Prolonged and sometimes graphic depictions of Civil War battles)
CREDITS: Directed by Ronald F. Maxwell. Screenplay by Mr. Maxwell, based on the novel by Jeffrey M. Shaara. Cinematography by Kees von Oostrum. Production design by Michael Z. Hanan. Visual-effects supervisor Thomas G. Smith. Editing by Corky Ehlers. Music by John Frizzell and Randy Edelman.
RUNNING TIME: 230 minutes
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS


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