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Battles are won, an audience is lost

The grand war scenes are a high achievement, but the grandiloquent talk brings 'Gods' down.

February 21, 2003|Kevin Thomas | Times Staff Writer

Just as the Civil War revealed a nation divided, Ronald F. Maxwell's "Gods and Generals," a prequel to his 1993 "Gettysburg," is a film divided. With an awesome sense of authenticity and scope, he has staged three major battles leading up to the Confederate defeat at Gettysburg, but he has populated his film with paragons rather than people.

Worse, they talk and talk and talk; this film is in danger of talking itself to death before the Union and the Confederacy are able to decimate each other. The battle scenes, however, attain a level of accomplishment that is likely to intrigue and please legions of Civil War buffs, especially battle re-enactors who participated extensively in the making of this film.

But all that yapping! -- great swaths of quotations from the Bible and the classics, countless ringing speeches, endless stretches of flowery dialogue. It's as if the scores of actors are portraying people who believe their every phrase and gesture was being recorded for posterity by an omniscient documentarian. Such overwhelming self-consciousness threatens to stifle the humanity of everyone within camera range.

In adapting Jeffrey M. Shaara's book, Maxwell so clearly wants to celebrate the selflessness and bravery of the men of the North and the South and their families that everyone comes across as a saint. Gen. Ambrose E. Burnside (Alex Hyde White), presented as an inflexible dunderhead whose refusal to press his early advantage handed the Confederacy a thudding victory at Fredericksburg, is merely the exception that proves the rule. Maxwell means to humanize historical personages but ends up mythologizing them. His film plays like an old-fashioned classroom visual-aid reel as a result.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday February 25, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 29 words Type of Material: Correction
Dixie phrase -- The review of the film "Gods and Generals" in Friday's Calendar mistakenly quoted the phrase "whistling Dixie" as "whistling in Dixie."

Not helping matters is that Maxwell's pacing is, to put it kindly, elegiac, and worse, that his film is fitted out with one of those overwhelming, trite soaring scores that insistently exalt "the triumph of the human spirit" with every refrain.

None of this may bother anyone able to view a battlefield as a place of glory rather than of folly, the site of the ultimate breakdown of civilization -- of mankind's failure to mediate its differences. To his credit, Maxwell does not flinch from showing the carnage of battle but never wallows in it. Unfortunately, his legions of soldiers too often seem more heroic than human.

Even if Maxwell sees his generals as gods, his three principal actors are stalwart enough, in varying degrees, to make deeper impressions. In sheer presence, depth of character and breadth of perception, Robert Duvall is able to bring humanity to Gen. Robert E. Lee in a performance that towers over everyone else's.

The film's central character is Stephen Lang's Gen. Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson, a Virginia Military Institute philosophy professor and a profoundly religious man who, in one of the film's rare humanizing moments, actually wonders whether he should fear God's judgment. In battle, he proves a bold, implacable leader of men and a master strategist.

With his fierce-looking beard, there is something Biblical about him, especially in his moments of righteous wrath, and it's easy to see Charlton Heston in his prime tearing into this role.

Although Lang's hair and makeup people must have been Union sympathizers, he is able to show us Jackson as the Southern beau idea.

Maxwell surely means to be evenhanded, but in the emphasis on Jackson, his opposite number from the North, Jeff Daniels' Lt. Col. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, also a college philosophy professor, is slighted in the process. Daniels is a terrific, wide-ranging actor adept at playing against his all-American-guy looks, but here he doesn't have enough to work with. He's also stuck with a politically correct lecture on the evils of slavery that brings the film to a dead halt.

At least Daniels is spared the cringe-making scene in which Lang's Jackson is at pains to assure his black cook (Frankie Faison) that he's against slavery and is confident that the Confederacy will announce the abolishment of slavery sometime soon, a sentiment that like it or not brings to mind the expression "whistling in Dixie." Luckily, Daniels has stature and experience to fall back on, and he and Mira Sorvino, as his wife, the epitome of the New England bluestocking, work up some civilized repartee. Sorvino is fortunate, too, for the rest of the movie's women are largely insufferable caricatures, flowers of Southern womanhood so pure and noble as to make Olivia de Havilland's Melanie in "Gone With the Wind" seem a slacker in comparison.

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