Gods and Generals

Civil War Culture

I really do hate to bring up this disaster of a movie, but I decided to show part of it to my Civil War class today.  Unfortunately, it looks like a severe case of senioritis has set in and it is not clear as to whether it can be treated.  I was actually interested in their reaction as no one had seen it.  Their reviews were predictable: based on the number of times they burst out in laughter one would think they thought it was a comedy.  The dialogue was simply too dramatic and contrived for my students; they didn’t believe it.  Perhaps we will watch a bit more before we finish the semester with a reading by David Blight on Civil War memory.

One final comment re: the movie.  It finally dawned on me that many of the scenes look alot like recent Civil War paintings by Mort Kunstler.  I know he did the companion volume for the movie, but is it possible that Ron Maxwell internalized a number of these sentimental scenes and transferred them to the big screen?  I don’t know too many movies where I grow more disgusted each time I watch it.  Of course I can only handle it in very small doses.

14 comments… add one

  • Al Bunn Apr 25, 2006

    I don’t know. There’s a couple of Kunstler pictures where Stonewall Jackson looks like Stephen Lang as Stonewall Jackson. I like his stuff generally and have a few, but I shied away from those.

    Al Bunn

  • Kevin Apr 25, 2006

    Hi Al, — Thanks for writing and interesting observation. Robert E. Lee looks alot like Martin Sheen in the prints following the movie Gettysburg. I see a pattern emerging here.

  • Dave Kelly Apr 25, 2006

    Mort Kunstler or Currier and Ives.
    Hyperbolic gentility was in fact part of parlor mores for the upper class. The movie is hysterical for having most characters constantly behaving so (I think there is a craven moment where DH Hill says something “almost” vulgar.)

    Truth be told, the south seceeded ’cause the Yankees got no manners. All the great swearers from the old army stayed in Blue apparently. (except Jackson’s QM Harmon…)

    (don’t feel bad about not liking GaG; I restrained myself until the intermission before bolting the theater – never have seen the second half.)

  • Vince Slaugh Apr 25, 2006

    If blood pressure isn’t a problem for you, take the time to view the bonus/deleted scenes which touch on slavery. I ended up feeling pretty disgusted/discouraged about Maxwell’s whole cinematographic and ideological “vision”, based on those scenes and from hearing him speak while I was on set as a curious extra.

    After watching, I felt the whole movie lacked the type of personal challenges and conflict that typically allow us to relate to characters or take in interest in them. Maybe it has something to do with battles with a seemingly predetermined outcome (Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville), but your comments about Kunstler’s paintings struck a chord with me because I felt like Maxwell’s characters (Lee, in particular) were nothing more than Kunstler paintings, which I don’t particularly like anyway.

    As I saw it, the only positive aspect of the film was Chamberlain’s pre-Fredericksburg Caesar speech. Although unrealistic as presented (I can live with it, though), seeing Civil War soldiers as historical actors who placed their own actions in an historical context is interesting and valuable–their employment of historical examples (Biblical, Classical, US Founders, Algiers, etc.) to answer questions about and capture emotions surrounding the issue of civil war.

    Thanks for blogging. As always, I enjoy reading.
    Vince

  • Kevin Levin Apr 25, 2006

    Hi Vince, — I think I’ll pass on the bonus scenes. You’ve pretty much summed it up. I love the exchange between Maxwell and a panel of historians that appeared awhile back in North and South. As for the Lee – Kunstler comparison I should note that it was Gary Gallagher who pointed it out in a talk I heard last week. Thanks again for reading and writing.

  • David Corbett Apr 26, 2006

    Dear Kevin ,
    While I cannot defend the film as a mass market , general audience film , it amazes me that the dialogue is panned when the dialogue is historical ! Some of it comes from Watkin’s “Company H ,” and Jackson’s “First Brigade” speech is verbatim !!! While I do not doubt that teenagers find it stilted , I’m sure they regard the King James Bible and Shakespeare with the same loathing. When one views American high school reading levels one can easily understand why “Gods and Generals ” seem like Latin grammar to them . They have my sympathy . It looks like some children have been left behind .
    Cordially ,
    David Corbett, Chicago ,IL

  • Kevin Levin Apr 26, 2006

    David, — I don’t doubt that some of the dialogue is pulled from actual speeches and other sources, but that just highlights the problem even more. The characters never seem to engage one another apart from their historical significance for us today. It means that every cliche or every famous phrase that we remember, including Lee’s words at Chancellorsville or Bee’s words at Manassas create an air of simplicity in the dialogue and the feeling that one is watching cardboard cut-outs.

  • David Corbett Apr 26, 2006

    Dear Kevin ,
    Perhaps you do not appreciate the nuances of Victorian speech ? People did not speak with the familiarity of modern society . The pop -history of Mel Gibson’s “Braveheart” and The Patriot ” seem popular enough with the current generation , but then again they are filled with gratuitous violence and anachronisms . Consider the famous speeches of Churchill and Roosevelt : they are hardly “down home” Bill Clinton style expressions . For all its faults , “Gods and Genrals ,” has excellent scenery , battle scenes, incredibly accurate weapons and uniforms , and several very accomplished actors . Perhaps it’s the is the glass half full or half empty syndrome. To produce that much effort to create an historic panorama ought to be encouraged not belittled . Who else has the passion or the courage to do so ? The same criticisms were leveled at Ken Burns for his “Civil War’” , yet nothing before or since approaches it for substance.
    Cordially ,
    David Corbett

  • Kevin Levin Apr 27, 2006

    David, — Thanks for the response, but I assure you that I do not need a lesson on the “nuances of Victorian speech.” My point had to do with the content of the dialogue, which is a concern expressed by many respected historians. The scenery is indeed beautiful, but I disagree that the battle sequences were well done. I should say that the quality of the battle scenes is not something that I really even care much about. I don’t know what a Civil War battle looked like. As for the overall interpretation that the movie presents I am going to resist getting into this one as I’ve commented on it already in previous posts. Needless to say that the movie is more appropriate for audiences in the 1890′s than in the 21st century.

  • David Corbett Apr 29, 2006

    Dear Kevin ,
    Well it is apparent we will never agree ! I cannot imagine that you teach history yet do not care about what Civil War battles ! Perhaps Political Science would suit you better . In the interest of diplomancy and world peace I’ll just read your postings and not reply and save us both some effort . Thank you .
    Cordially ,
    David Corbett , Chicago, IL

  • Kevin Levin Apr 29, 2006

    I have absolutely no idea why you think that I have no interest in Civil War battles. There is an article by me on the Crater in the most recent issue of the popular magazine _America’s Civil War_ and I am close to completing a book-length manuscript on the same battle for publication.

  • alvan St Jacques Oct 28, 2007

    i was called to be in the film as an extra (medical side ) part of the films failings were due to political patronage, and the county that put up some of the expenses, As a makeup artist, I found that much of the cast was too clean to be real, no sweat, most of the general’s were portrays by young men, with clean unlined faces, was was wrong with hiring characters of the age of the real leaders,? Jeb Stewart beard was a disaster, Burn-sides ditto, Jackson dying of Pneumonia, he should have been drenched in perspiration, the little girl dying of typhoid, again no sallow face, sunken eyes, dry pillow. the film was upgrades to get a “g ” rating, losing it’s credibility, advertising in theaters was kept at a minimum, civil war re-enactors were discouraged from promoting the film, i think the film was meant to be written as a loss, for my part, they could have sent me home and applied better makeup techniques, on the up side we were well treated , treated courteously and it was an enjoyable experience.

  • Kevin Levin Oct 28, 2007

    Alvan, — Thanks for sharing a bit about your experience with the movie. That movie was a disaster on so many different levels. Visually it was a disappointment, but more importantly, as interpretation it was an absolute disaster. The script sounded as if it was written by a 10-year old. I do hope that Maxwell is not in a position to make the final installment of the series.

  • alvan St Jacques Oct 28, 2007

    As a member of a civil war medical group, I was asked my opinion for the next (tentative ) installment and relay same to the producer, i gave my opinion, as a former soldier, i viewed the movie of numerous clean scrubbed faces as one might enter a bordello, the troops all had clean, unbloodied uniforms (Mc Clellan’s group ? ) these were supposed to be battle hardened troops, the only trooper that was real was the Irish sergeant he was real and gritty, it’s true that re-enactors don’t want to have their uniforms damaged at @ 1400. 00 US., but Wardrobe has adequate spares’ for my part the characters were not believable.

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