GODS AND GENERALS went down in ignominious defeat in 2003, lacerated by volleys of abuse from critics, and was dealt a mortal wound at the ticket booth. The prequel to the successful and very well done Gettysburg from a decade earlier, it had the same director and screenwriter (Ronald F.Maxwell), and several cast members from that epic. Bringing the second book in author Jeff Shaara’s Civil War trilogy to the screen, Ted Turner sank at least $56,000,000 into mounting it, with perhaps another $30,000,000 required for distribution and advertising. Receiving blasts of canister from reviewers was one thing, but staggering into 122nd place for the year with a gross of just $12,924,000 amounted to a massacre. It’s a dud; even the big-scale battles are boring (seriously, why else watch something like this if even the fighting leaves you unmoved?), and its glacial pacing along with excessive length seems to take as long as the Civil War itself. Released theatrically at 219 minutes, the director’s cut adds another 61 for a total of 4.6 hours. *
Unlike Gettysburg, which split its focus fairly evenly between both the Union and Confederate sides (mostly interpreted through the officers, as Shaara did with his books), this turgid prequel gives much more weight to the Southern side. Since the battles portrayed here were Southern victories could be considered fair enough, but the speech-stuffed script has a decided syrupy slant toward the worshipful (Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson might as well be from Mt.Olympus) and the downplay of slavery—kind of a big deal—is galling. Lopsided, retrograde, corny, disjointed, preachy. And dull as laundry to boot: the battles are big but unexciting, literally and figuratively bloodless. **
Shot in Maryland and Virginia. There are 159 speaking parts, and over 7,500 extras (or rather, re-enactors) swarm the fields. In the cast: Stephen Lang (vital as George Pickett in Gettysburg, waxen as Jackson here), Robert Duvall (replacing Martin Sheen as Lee, he’s as vibrant as a fossil, and twenty years too old for the part), Jeff Daniels, Mira Sorvino, Bruce Boxleitner, William Sanderson, Andrew Prine, Alex Hyde-White, Matt Letscher, Kevin Conway, C.Thomas Howell, Cooper Huckabee, and a half-dozen politicians of the day elbowing their way in, including Robert Byrd, George Allen (yuck) and Phil Gramm (beyond yuck).
* The longer version adds the Battle of Antietam (or part of it) to the recreations of First Manassas/Bull Run, Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville.
Author Jeff Shaara: “…I’ve heard from literally thousands of people through my website, and I get emails every day and try to be as accessible as I can, and the overwhelming percentage of those that wrote me said, ‘How could you let them butcher your book like that?’ I have no answer to that because I had no control or power to change what came up on the screen.”
The flop put out to pasture the intended final chapter “The Last Full Measure”. It was ten years before Ron Maxwell directed again, another Civil War effort, Copperhead: it also fared badly with both reviewers and public.
** Critical slaughter and box office debacle to the side, when it was released on disc it sold 600,000 copies in one week, proof that plenty of Civil War buffs were still eager to skirmish—just be-Cause. As for returning to the good old days when we mowed each other down en masse, while this movie was graded retrograde in ’03, its viewpoint-selective story of a split-nation’s tragedy in the 19th-century could just as well have come out in the second decade of the 21st, given that millions of history-ignorant citizens and their shameless representatives are hellbound to shun reality, reverse progress and deny rights to other Americans, making sure to wave the flag and Bible while they do so. Way too many are spoiling for a fight.