Gods and Generals, the prequel to Gettysburg and the first episode in an epic but non-sequential Civil War trilogy, is only slightly shorter than the war itself. Once you factor in the trailers, the commercials, and the intermission, this will be an over-four-hour movie experience. I wouldn't even want to make out with Jennifer Garner for more than, like, three hours. Who in their right mind would want to endure this, besides 11th grade American History teachers and those diehards who spend their weekends re-enacting Civil War skirmishes?
After kicking things off with a George Eliot quote and a montage of period state flags (what better way to prepare an audience for one-sixth of a day of utter tedium?), writer-director Ronald F. Maxwell drops us in the post-Fort Sumter South and shows us the important events leading up to Gettysburg in 1863 (where the trilogy's second film, which was also made by Maxwell, takes over). His is a choppy, fractured story line that tries too hard to encompass everything, unfortunately telling not one of its many tales very well.
Anyone who managed to make it through Gettysburg (the movie, not the battle) might be a little confused by the casting here. Martin Sheen played Robert E. Lee in that film, but the role has been taken over here by Robert Duvall. Jeff Daniels reprises his role as Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, but Steven Lang, who played George Pickett in the first picture, appears in Generals as Stonewall Jackson. As if that, or the 158 speaking roles (according to the official site) weren't enough to confuse the bejesus out of a normal person, wait until you get a load of the lack of cohesive uniforms worn by the two bickering sides. Even the Dead Rabbits were able to get it together and dress alike. Authentic? Maybe. Confusing as hell? Absolutely.
The three main characters here are Chamberlain, a college professor who gave it all up to enlist; Jackson, a religious nut from VMI with a tricked-out beard; and Lee, the US Army vet who found himself caught between country and state (wait, you mean Robert E. Lee isn't just a car that Superman's dad drove?). We see them take part in exciting events, like Virginia's vote to secede from the Union (ever watch C-SPAN?), and wordy soliloquies about the history of battle and, of course, God and His almighty goodness. But I guess that's better than the battle cry of today ("Let's go get us some A-rabs, Cletus!"). Fortunately, none of the Southerners had yet acquired NASCAR accents, so it could have been a lot more irritating.
If you're looking forward to Generals for its battle scenes, you may be in for a rude shock. The War Between the States must have taken place back before men were made of flesh and blood, because there is precious little of either to be found here. No flying body parts or decaying bodies. No deadly projectiles whizzing by anybody's head. But there are cheesy battlefield explosions and laughable miniatures attacked by carefully placed smoke bombs and fireworks. Reloading of weapons? Hoo, there's plenty of that, too. One endless battle becomes completely indistinguishable from the next. Braveheart, this is not. It's not even Gangs of New York. Want an entertaining Civil War flick? Rent Ang Lee's horrifyingly forgotten Ride With the Devil, or just wait for ColdMountain to come out at the end of this year.
Maxwell spared just about every expense in Generals, save the costumes, the apparently bottomless supply of film stock, and the scores and scores of extras, who were largely comprised of those aforementioned weekend warriors. As long as this train wreck is, we don't learn much about any of its characters, aside, possibly, from Stonewall's apparent and extremely uncomfortable courting of a five-year-old girl. And just when you think it can't get any worse, in marches a beaming Ted Turner (he produced the film), in what will likely be the most unintentionally funny moment in cinema this year. Who does he think he is, Hitchcock?
Still, Generals could have been worse. The Jeffrey M. Shaara-penned book (his dad wrote the 1974 Pulitzer Prize-winning The Killer Angels, which was the basis for Gettysburg) focused a lot more on Winfield Scott Hancock (played here by Brian Mallon), but, thankfully, we don't see much of him in Generals. Like The Lord of the Rings novels, the Shaara books come complete with maps, which help pull the story together and make actions easier to understand. There are no maps in Generals, but once you see the wooden performances, the lack of maps probably won't matter too much.
Those of you brave enough to stick it out until the very end might think the South actually beat those evil-doers from the other side of the Potomac (Generals ends about two months before the Gettysburg battle), but you'll also be treated to the film's lone highlight --- Bob Dylan's "Cross the Green Mountain," which he wrote just for the movie. And then you'll get to go home, which is the best part of all.
Interested in raw, unedited movie ramblings from Jon? Visit his site, Planet Sick-Boy, at www.sick-boy.com, or listen to him on WBER's Friday Morning Show.