As American Civil War films go, any ten minutes of Sergio Leone's masterpiece The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966) is worth more than the entire three and a half hours of the epic Gods and Generals, a leaden, interminable piece of patriotic chest-beating.
Based on Jeff Shaara's bestseller, this film rolls out history with a capital H. Key figures, including "Stonewall" Jackson (Stephen Lang) and Robert E. Lee (Robert Duvall), appear as if posing for statues, in full military garb and uttering the lines for which they are best known.
The film is picturesque and static. A scene of Colonel Chamberlain (an uneasy Jeff Daniels) earnestly reciting the "Hail, Caesar" speech before battle is its nadir. Not even a blast of Bob Dylan in his Americana mode over the closing credits can save proceedings.
Although it contains much disturbing and largely unironic invocation of righteous, religious belief in the name of war – offering an uncomfortable parallel with the American present – Gods and Generals tries to be politically correct to a fault.
Women and African-Americans become saintly, wise figures on the periphery of the action, the true heart and soul of the nation. And of course, whenever the mournful pipes start wailing on the soundtrack, we are reminded for a split second or two that war is, after all, hell. In a gruesome way, a special Bob Dylan song at the end stands for this pile-up of progressive intentions and conservative capitulations.
Director Ronald F. Maxwell has come a long way down since the salad days of Tatum O'Neal and Kristy McNichol in Little Darlings (1980). Of course, he would not see it this way. In Gods and Generals he has huge resources and an enormous canvas at his disposal.
With Gettysburg (1993) and this under his belt, Maxwell is now aiming for a trilogy. The eventual ten-hour DVD compilation is sure to be a slog.
© Adrian Martin October 2003