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Reviving a long-forgotten 'God'

Riddled with contradictions, Confederate Gen. 'Stonewall' Jackson hasn't been an easy subject for Hollywood, but a new movie gives him a central role.

February 21, 2003|Robert W. Welkos | Times Staff Writer

His military feats during the early years of the Civil War have elevated him to almost mythical proportions. He was adored by his troops, he was feared and admired by his foes, and he is still considered an icon in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, where his body is laid to rest. Yet as far as Hollywood is concerned, Gen. Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson has been a forgotten man.

His allegiance to the slaveholding Confederacy coupled with his Old Testament-style religious zealotry made him an uncomfortable subject for a movie. It took the maverick media mogul Ted Turner to give Jackson the full big-screen treatment, spending $90 million to produce the nearly four-hour "Gods and Generals," which opens today.

In recent years, the studios have steered away from making pictures about the Civil War, largely because it remains a controversial period in American history, highlighting deep racial fissures then tearing the country apart. "I think that Hollywood does not want to get into controversial things....Hollywood's primary function is to entertain, not to educate," said James I. "Bud" Robertson, author of the book "Stonewall Jackson: The Man, the Soldier, the Legend," who served as an advisor on "Gods and Generals."

By all accounts, Jackson was a walking contradiction. "He's extremely religious, yet he wants to kill everybody, kill the enemy," Turner said. "He thinks that's the only way the South can win, and he's probably right."

It was this multilayered personality, combined with Jackson's heroics in such battles as First Manassas, Fredricksburg and Antietam, that gives him the central role in the film.

"He's such a colorful character," said Ron Maxwell, who wrote, directed and co-produced "Gods and Generals" and who has spent the last 25 years researching the Civil War. "He is such an extreme character. Very harsh. A very hard man. Yet at the same time, a very tender, loving and compassionate man."

While some critics have hammered Maxwell's PG-13-rated film for its melodramatic dialogue, its no-warts characterizations, and battle sequences that seem to go on forever, they have hailed Stephen Lang's portrayal of Jackson. One Virginia newspaper critic wrote of Lang: "His compelling performance is easily one of the best parts of the movie. Jackson is portrayed as a tremendously complex character who shows his religious devotion by frequently praying out loud, something we don't often see in Hollywood films."

Earlier this month, 1,300 people overflowed the student ballroom at Virginia Tech to attend a Q&A with the filmmakers. "Everybody is getting an interest in Jackson now," said Robertson, noting that the general's fame will only grow after the film comes out. "He will be a greater figure than he has ever been in American history. He would not like that at all, but I am so pleased for him."

In researching the role, Lang was aided by a rich trove of historical material. "Jackson was, in his time, the observed of all observers," Lang said. "He was such a compelling man and, in a way, such a charismatic figure that people looked at him and wrote about him, so there is a tremendous amount of firsthand accounts of him to glean from.

"He was a man of singular character, carriage and gait. His look, the wonderful ice-blue eyes, unblinking when looking at someone addressing him. All these things were remarked upon and written about. The way he rode a horse and sat in a chair.... He was a cultured man, which is difficult to consider in this very confined, provincial fellow."

A man ahead of his time

He was large for his era -- 6 feet tall and 170 pounds, when the average man stood 5 foot 7 and weighed 135 pounds. He won appointment to West Point only because another man dropped out. He took part in no activities and studied day and night for four years, graduating 17th out of 59 cadets in the famous class of 1846, which saw 21 graduates go on to become generals.

He developed maxims to make a better man of himself. "You may be whatever you will resolve to be." That statement is now engraved on the marble gateway at the Virginia Military Institute in Lexington, where he taught artillery along with natural and experimental philosophy, a mix of physics, magnetism, astronomy and calculus.

"He was the worst teacher at VMI," Robertson said. "If a cadet asked him a question, he was helpless. Yet no one disputed his expertise with cannons."

"We tend to think of him as an Old Testament figure, yet there's a lot about him that we'd be very at home with today," Lang said. "For example, he was an absolute believer and practitioner in self-improvement. He was into holistic medicine and calisthenics far ahead of his time."

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