Gods and Generals (2003) Warner Brothers
3 hrs. 49 mins. (movie includes intermission)
Starring: Robert Duvall, Jeff Daniels, Bruce Boxleitner, Bill Campbell, Stephen Lang, C. Thomas Howell, Malachy McCourt, Mira Sorvino, Royce D. Applegate
Directed by: Ronald F. Maxwell
Gods and Generals
E-MAIL FRANK OCHIENG
Unequivocally, they say that war is hell. Well, what do they say about a monotonous marathon of a movie pertaining to a historical war that split a troubled nation in 1861? In writer-director Ronald F. Maxwell’s labored and bloated Civil War spectacle Gods and Generals, the moviemaker oversees a rambling four-hour disjointed period piece of showy gunpowder theatrics between the Union and Confederate armies in excruciating scattershot fashion. History buffs and Civil War re-enactors may find this painfully long-winded epic a gem worth exploring but others will most likely prefer to go dancing in the active battlefields of Fredricksburg as opposed to enduring this detached costume drama.
Gods and Generals is the prequel to the far superior but flawed 1993 motion picture Gettysburg in which Maxwell also directed a decade ago. Gettysburg was a lengthy picture to sit through in its own right but it didn’t suffer from the blatant confusion and remote emotional impact that is the cumbersome and overwrought G and G. Maxwell’s original film was adapted from Michael Shaara’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Killer Angels. If anything, Gettysburg used its long running time to neatly present the complexities attached to the psychological and physical demands of the three-day battle. The characterizations were mildly compelling and we invested our attention in the dramatization of the proceedings in spite of all the projected pageantry. The performances were reasonably riveting and you felt a sense of nostalgia in that Gettysburg was audacious to put you front and center in the colorful yet rueful action taken place.
Gods and Generals simply has an assembly line storyline in that it methodically rolls out the impressive production values and indulges in the indistinguishable battle sequences (you would have to be the most patient and astute individual to tell whether the fighting took place at Fredricksburg or Chancellorville—it’s hard to make out since the common-looking uniforms and hairy faces of the participants are one great big grainy mixture) not to mention dull characters and tricky late 19th century dialogue that is borderline laughable in its cheesy melodramatic mode. Maxwell’s choppy narrative has the strange task of being carelessly overstuffed yet somehow it lacks the necessary ingredients to incorporate this flag-waving snoozer as anything significantly stimulating. It’s pretty much like preparing a special soup you fussed over diligently for hours only for the taste of your food to be compromised because you forgot to include the necessary contents to make it appetizing. Notoriously inert and inexcusably inept in its presentation, Gods and Generals is an extemporizing and prolonged undertaking that never really grasps its sluggish, overzealous focus.
Media mogul and well-known Civil War enthusiast Ted Turner produced this clunky exposition to the meaty tune of over $60 million and although his passion for this chapter in American history matches his golden-laced deep pockets, the cost of this garrulous monstrosity was fixated more on the flashy battle confrontations than that of the actual entity of a potentially prolific project that could have gelled as a viable cinematic blueprint for the startling tension that prevailed between the North and South. Sure, it’s nice to shell out big bucks for a glorified dress rehearsal featuring loud artillery but Turner didn’t have the sufficient money to support the unstable direction of his scattering film that takes a bewildering stab at some shoddy poignancy.
The belaboring structure pertaining to Gods and Generals is an unevenly whopping and festive account that includes a smorgasbord of random themes: clashing Northern and Southern soldiers settling a score with aimless force, outlines of strategic military plan in motion, conflicted families having to deal with the absence of their men and their constant struggle and contribution for the on-going war effort, the plight of African-Americans and the vile institution of slavery, marital discord amongst the military minds, feel-good and moody speeches to accompany the main principles behind the bloodshed, the religious connotations being promoted through prayer and spiritual guidance amidst the politics of war, etc. As a filmmaker, Maxwell shows some nobility in his insistence on weaving almost every conceivable topic into this vast and vacuous vehicle. However, he completely gets lost in trying to competently convey the thorough sentiments of his various subplots. Hence, the overall film loses its desired luster as Maxwell jeopardizes the solid continuity and concentration of his massive, meandering showcase.
We are introduced to the complex world of Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson (played with effortless believability by Stephen Lang), the Southern leader with a burning quest to conquer on the battlefield but behind his fighting façade lies a man who’s driven by his spirituality. Northern leader Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain (Jeff Daniels reprising his role from Gettysburg) is Jackson’s warring counterpart. The two indomitable military men and their Blue and Grey followers battle endlessly in warm-up matches at both Manassas and Fredricksburg thus leading up to the hideous showdown in Chancellorsville.
The battle scenes almost resemble a vicious and tedious chess game with both factions making their deliberate deadly moves when the occasion calls for them to do so. There are some gruesome close-ups of disfigured soldiers here and there. But for the most part, you never really sense a valid portrait of horror since Maxwell skirts over the combat sequences without thoughtfully investigating the extended and deep-rooted physical and psychological scars that must have weighed heavy on each soldier’s damaged psyche. If anything, the only hint of solace that we ever draw from the tortured convictions of these embittered participants are falsely infused in the overly manufactured soliloquies and empty-minded fiery platitudes of the film’s pseudo-passionate panache.
With the exception of Lang’s terrific performance as the perplexed Stonewall Jackson, the rest of the extensive cast is basically on cruise control. Daniels, who previously played Col. Chamberlain with such poetic forethought in Maxwell’s Gettysburg, feels rather subdued and indifferent in the skin of the plagued Northern leader. Robert Duvall certainly doesn’t disappoint as Gen. Robert E. Lee but his presence in the film is regrettably limited. And Oscar-winning Mira Sorvino is on hand as Chamberlain’s wife. As a couple, the chemistry is questionable between Daniels and Sorvino on screen. The fact that they manage to get tongue-tied by the demanding jargon of that particular era is the least of the problems that hinder the plausibility of this pairing. There’s a rousing notion behind padding the characterizations with slabs of peppy verbiage but this pronounced show-and-tell approach doesn’t begin to effectively echo any genuine jingoism that uplifts this bombastic bore session.
Gods and Generals proves that size doesn’t matter. One can appreciate its generous length in trying to serving up a hearty examination of America’s historical turbulent past. By definition, an epic is broad in its scope and expansive by nature. However, when you present a product marred by the escalating flaws of undisciplined editing, wayward and clumsy-looking computer-generated images, glimpses of lackluster acting, a lack of a concise and rigid storytelling spark, blatant pocketful of sagging dramatic arcs and a hokey brand of protrusive patriotic propaganda then you’re seriously begging for inevitable criticism.
Maxwell’s tiresome and extemporaneous exercise does remind us that war is hell alright--but for completely different reasons entirely.
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