If you only see one movie this year, let it be the new Civil War film from Warner Bros. and Ted Turner Pictures, Gods and Generals. A prequel to the critically acclaimed Gettysburg, Gods and Generals is the second film in a trilogy about the national trauma that writer and director Ron Maxwell calls, “America’s Iliad.”
It is a stunning and powerful film; the kind of epic cinematic journey that is mostly absent from movie theaters these days. In a moment when terrorism has provoked our country into a new war of ideology, Gods and Generals offers perspective and solace from the sufferings of a generation of Americans long gone but still close to us in faith and heritage.
At a length of nearly three and a half hours, Gods and Generals showcases the same meticulous historical and character research that was so fascinating in Gettysburg. Basically created as a cable movie for TNT, Gettysburg ended up getting a limited theatrical release because it turned out much better than the network anticipated. Gods and Generals will also air eventually in a six-hour version on TNT, but this film was designed for the big screen in every sense. The battle scenes are nothing short of masterful and will be the new standard for period war films. The score is haunting. The production design and performances are first rate.
Beyond its technical artistry, Gods and Generals is also powerful storytelling. Writer/Director Maxwell, knows where his real power lies as a filmmaker. “As a medium, film is poorly equipped to answer questions, but magnificently equipped to pose them,” notes Maxwell. “In this trilogy, I am not sitting in judgment of these characters. I present them in the full-throated authenticity of their own words. The audience can make their judgment.”
Maxwell acknowledges the synchronicity of developing a film about America’s defining struggle at this moment in history. “I wrote the script for this film early in 2000, many months before the events of 9-11. It is essentially a meditation on patriotism, and it raises many questions among the characters first and foremost and by inference to ourselves and our world. What did it mean to be a patriot in that time, and what does it mean in our time? This runs through the whole film.”
Gods and Generals suggests that the prerequisite to patriotism is thoughtfulness. From the Confederate legends Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson to the abolitionist-scholar turned Union officer, Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, each of the characters struggles within himself as to his duty to God and country. These are serious, dedicated men who choose to be engaged in history, and not just swept up in its wake. Maxwell’s film suggests that heroism may not be so much in being on the right side of history as much as in being on the right side of one’s own conscience. “Much of the struggle in the characters comes from the fact that even though they have different, conflicting views of patriotism, these views obviously overlap. There is a patriotism that is a sense of home or place. There is a sense of people. And then there is the sense of aligning oneself with the ideals of the nation.”
The role of religion in leading men to the battlefields and validating their conflicting views of virtue is one of the most challenging aspects of the film. Like Maxwell himself, all the main characters in the film are deeply committed Christians, they just have completely different understanding of what is holy and good. “They are all quite preoccupied with their own personal conversations with God. A more appropriate title for the film might be “God and Generals,” muses Maxwell.
The film also points out the contrast between two views of God’s Will that will still resonate with contemporary viewers. “For the Southerners, everything is preordained. So Jackson says at one point, ‘The reason I am not afraid to die in battle is the same reason I’m not afraid to die in bed. I’ll die whenever God decides to take me.’ That belief system also has to do with slavery. He knows it is awful and pernicious, but he believes it will be ended in God’s time.”
Chamberlain’s character, by contrast, represents the Christian social change movements that were sweeping through the Northern states in the early 19th Century. He believes that men are called to be instruments of God’s Will. Maxwell, who has also written a four-hundred page screenplay on Joan of Arc draws a parallel from her story. “There is a quote from Joan, in which she is asked, ‘If God is on our side then why do we need to give you an army?’ And she replies, ‘If we give God the army, then he will give us the victory.’ I think that is Chamberlain.”
As with Gettysburg, Gods and Generals leaves viewers with an overwhelming sense of loss. Scene after scene of courageous young men dying on the battlefields, forces the question, “Why?” For Maxwell, there is a direct line from the hateful rhetoric that led up to the Civil War, to the ugliness of civil discourse in our own time. “It seems to me that if we are going to avoid violence in fact, we first have to avoid violence in our speech. We must hold ourselves back from the tendency to dehumanize those with whom we disagree. If it goes unchecked, violence in our speech will lead to the slaughterhouse. How can I say that? Because it does. Every single time in human history it has. So we have to be civil with one another, we have to be tolerant. It starts with my personal relationships, it extends to the group and then finally to the Nation.”
(Gods and Generals opens in theaters today. Parents should be cautioned that the film contains realistic battle scenes.)
Barbara Nicolosi teaches screenwriting to aspiring Catholic writers at the acclaimed Act One: Writing for Hollywood. You may email her at [email protected].