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|3 reviews in total|
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Most of the good and bad of this film comes directly from the source
material. When you boil down the script, based on "The Killer Angels",
Michael Shaara's excellent novel, you are left with two main plots:
Longstreet's reluctant leadership of Pickett's Charge, and
Chamberlain's desperate defense of Little Round Top. Throw in some
eloquent prognostication from General Buford, voiced here by the grave
and gravelly Sam Elliot, and you've got a focused narrative that
unwinds over the course of four and a half hours.
What neither the book, nor the film deal with, is everything else. Sure, we are left with General Trimble's dire predictions concerning Culp's Hill, but the audience doesn't see one frame of that particularly bloody spot of the battlefield. Similarly, the Wheat Field and Peach Orchard, where an entire Corps was misled to a gruesome fate, serves only as a fleeting prelude to a single Regiment's bayonet charge.
These are not bad editorial decisions: any lucid historical narrative has to dispense with some important details to get at the heart of the overarching plot. The proof is in the pudding: "Gettysburg" is a better-constructed story than the meandering, pointless "Gods and Generals." So much for plot. Viewers must accept that this film only scratches the surface of the pivotal battle. Repeated viewings may help crystallize the characters, but the battle is still largely nebulous, with lots of "Go over there" or "They're over that way". One needs a map to truly understand the battle, and this film puts us very much in the shoes of the common soldier, who had no idea what was beyond each ridge.
So, is it a good MOVIE? For starters, it's definitely a good story. Joshua Chamberlain exercised enormous poise and control in the midst of a hellacious set of circumstances. Here we truly see a commander snatching victory from the jaws of defeat. Longstreet's contrasting inability to do so makes him a pitiable character. Buford's appearance is significant in that it helps establish how and why the two armies settled into their positions.
As for the acting, Jeff Daniels is marvelous as Chamberlain. Tom Berenger is equally good as Longstreet, though his performance is necessarily more nuanced, his already stoic facial expressions hidden by all that facial hair. One of the biggest weaknesses of this movie is the inexplicable casting of Martin Sheen as Robert E. Lee. Sheen, the erstwhile amazing president, gives the monumental general a mousy and diminutive quality. Robert Duvall did much better in the otherwise horrendous prequel. Perhaps no one can portray Lee, much as no woman ever made could hope to portray the quintessential Elizabeth Bennett. But Sheen doesn't even come close.
Gettysburg is equally favorable towards both North and South. Both have good and bad leadership, and the film manages to be sympathetic towards many of the opposing participants without descending into hyperbolic exultation.
This is not a film about slavery. The issue is certainly discussed by both sides, but it was of no immediate importance to the action unfolding at Gettysburg. Any criticism leveled at the film on that score misses the point. Those who are genuinely offended should watch "Glory" and note how many times the word "slavery" is mentioned there. There are heroes and villains on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line. To charge a movie as being racist simply because it deals even-handedly with both sides is idiotic. Simply put, America deserves to see both sides, because America WAS both sides. America was both the conqueror and conquered, and the history must reflect that dichotomy.
Ultimately, what recommends this movie is more than what detracts from it. The representations, ranging from uniforms and equipment to the actual engagements, are dead-on accurate. But a better portrayal of Robert E. Lee would have helped show what kind of personality Longstreet was up against, and how his objections never had a chance, even after he was proved right. The film's understated use of metaphors is easy to miss. The fictional Kilrain has much to say regarding his place in America, and viewers should pay attention to where he fits in by the film's end. Also of note is the interplay between the two Chamberlain brothers, and what they're doing in the final scene of the movie.
It's a good movie, sure, but not a great one. We'll just have to keep waiting for that definitive Civil War movie to come along.
This "documentary"'s only positive quality might be as a comedy. But
then, it's hard to laugh when you can barely stand the shaky cameras,
the overtly jarring editing and supreme close-ups that would make even
Stanley Kubrick cry out "enough!"
Bad cinematography aside, there's the acting. Apparently all men from the 1860's were jittery, ugly, and maniacal. Yes, War is Hell, and it makes demons out of normal people, but the people in this program are caricatures. This may have something to do with the fact that they hired a cast of Europeans, who do not speak a lick. They only grunt, yell, carry on, and generally make fools of themselves.
It's puzzling why the producers cast their gaze to Europe for reenactors. Apparently they didn't get the memo that the last Civil War movie was a dud, and that American Civil War reenactors are just dying to help someone get it right. For FREE. Movie producers have a ready-made cast of extras, who only want the privilege of portraying Civil War soldiers ACCURATELY.
And this documentary is horrendously inaccurate, not only in the minutiae of what the soldiers were wearing or what they looked like (Monty Python's rule about high-ranking people not having crap smeared all over them does not seem to apply here), but also in more important ways. Such as how cannons operate, or when the Federals reinforced the Round Tops, or who was making the decisions about the Federal left flank.
There is growing research about "negative knowledge." This is the idea that what some people say can actually DETRACT from the sum of knowledge in the world. This program fits that theory. It can only misinform, and one would do well to ignore this unqualified disaster.
Not a scene passes by without some combination of over-the-top
"fiddle-dee-dee" old-timeyness, anachronisms, outright factual errors,
deplorably overdone acting, or overlong exposition mostly serving to
remind us for the thousandth time that Stonewall Jackson was a
religious person. And, my God, the singing.
What the movie fails to reveal, despite its penchant for useless exposition, is that Stonewall was insane at worst, and a callous, miserable tyrant at best. Robert E. Lee miraculously starts the war as the head of the entire Confederate Army, though his absence at Manassas goes unexplained (hint: he wasn't head of the Confederate Army at that time, but don't tell the film makers. We don't want facts to get in the way of the idyllic portrait of the glorious, noble south the film works so hard to hit us over the head with). I could go on about officers wearing badges of rank they would only earn several months or years from the time they are portraying, geographical mistakes, both large and small (Washington College's Colonnade is about a half mile from VMI's parade grounds, not right outside the window, for example), or any other number of errors made in regards to Robert E. Lee's interactions with either Washington or Richmond. Suffice it so that this movie's fidelity to historical fact is about as close as "Pirates of the Caribbean" comes to showing us a real sailing ship.
Horrendous fact-checking aside, "Gods and Generals" is a landmark in bad film-making. Scenes that add little to the plot go on for ages, while the actors give us a ridiculous parody of "Gone with the Wind". One half expects Scarlett O'Hara to burst in and start moaning "Oh Ashley" before the first half hour is over.
"Gods and Generals" also seems to forget that Americans fought on both sides of the Civil War. The film instead chooses to concentrate all its attention on the noble, polite southern folk. Hell, at least the overtly racist "Birth of a Nation" showed the agony and heartbreak felt on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line.
It's hard to find a bright spot amidst so much carnage in this wreck of a movie, but Robert Duvall's Robert E. Lee is much more believable than Martin Sheen's from "Gettysburg". And...that's about it. There is absolutely nothing else to recommend this film to anyone except the reenactors who were in it. Ironically for them, this movie was so horrible it killed any chance for a sequel.
The real tragedy in "Gods and Generals" is not that some glorified, fictionalized version of Stonewall Jackson meets his doom. The tragedy is that this travesty was ever made. It destroyed any hope for further movies based on Jeff Shaara's books, and was an unfitting follow-up for the good, but certainly not great "Gettysburg".