Even the Kids Think Gods and Generals is a Little Strange

1 Flares 1 Flares ×

In this final week of my Civil War Memory course I am showing sections of some of my favorite and not so favorite CW movies.  Today we watched the first part of “Gods and Generals” up to First Manassas.  I was curious as to how they would respond given the course content.  Within about ten minutes they understood that much of it is straight-ahead Lost Cause.  Virginia is depicted as pretty much pro-secession and pro-Confederate and slaves are shown as obedient servants.  Given what they know about “Stonewall” Jackson they thought the movie did a pretty good job of capturing his religious zeal, but they couldn’t stop laughing at the overly-dramatic dialog and music.  It is pretty funny.  One of my students asked if the movie spends as much time on how white northerners viewed the war as it does on the white south.  Good question.  Another student noticed that the first time you even see a “Yankee” is on the Manassas battlefield, which reinforces the notion that they were invaders set to destroy Virginia rather than fighting to preserve the Union.

Here is one of the segments we viewed this morning.  I particularly love the parlor scene.  The ladies just happened to finish stitching the flag for the two boys just as the song is finished.  The mother’s address which follows is a bit too long-winded, but the doozy is the kiss goodbye from the house servant.  Mort Kunstler could paint any of the scenes in this movie.  Gotta love it.

Tomorrow I am going to show some scenes from the movie, “Ride With the Devil”, which does a much better job of capturing some of the complexity and confusion of war in Missouri.  We will also have a chance to talk about how race is dealt with in the movie.

27 comments… add one

  • Chris Evans Feb 23, 2009

    I wish that somehow despite the flaws in ‘Gods and Generals’ and the financial failure of it someone would have gone ahead and made “The Last Full Measure’. I rather liked the ‘The Last Full Measure’ by Shaara and felt that it was a step up from ‘Gods and Generals’ and a solid second behind ‘The Killer Angels’. I think a movie version could have been and still could be quite great from a military perspective. You would have Lee vs. Grant. You could show just as much of the perspective from Grant and Chamberlain so you wouldn’t have the southern perspective overbalanced just for Lee and criticized for a southern bias. The director could depict The Wilderness, Spotsylvania, Cold Harbor, The Crater, and much of the Petersburg and Appomattox campaigns. That could be some truly epic stuff if done right. I think that it would have to be a miniseries instead of a theater movie. But the failure of ‘Gods and Generals’ killed that one dead. I hope someday that this incredible part of our history that is depicted in ‘The Last Full Measure’ can be done. Grant is just such an untapped source of richness in a movie depiction that I can’t believe that he hasn’t been done justice to. Think how accurately the meeting at Appomattox between Lee and Grant could be done. Sorry to go on a bit but I just fill that it is a shame that we might never see these things competently depicted in the cinema.
    Chris

    • Kevin Levin Feb 23, 2009

      Chris,

      I’ve set it before. I hope Ron Maxwell never has the opportunity to make another movie.

  • Chris Evans Feb 23, 2009

    I also wanted to say that I agree with you on ‘Ride with the Devil’. It is a really underrated and also very realistic movie on the Border war. I think that it is one of the best movies done on the Civil War.
    Chris

  • Larry Cebula Feb 23, 2009

    Ride With the Devil is almost a great film, but I can’t get past the character of the black bushwacker. What the hell was Ang Lee thinking? I have used the film in teaching though, in conjunction with T.J. Stile’s magnificent book on Jesse James.

    • Kevin Levin Feb 23, 2009

      If I had more time I would definitely supplement the movies with primary and secondary sources. Stiles’s book is indeed very good.

  • John B. Amos Feb 23, 2009

    Kevin – Bad as the movie is, Gods and Generals does have a terrific Dylan song, written just for the soundtrack, titled “Across the Green Mountain.” Teach well. Take care.

    John A

    • Kevin Levin Feb 23, 2009

      Yes, the only redeeming part of a movie that goes on and on and on…

  • Greg Rowe Feb 23, 2009

    I watched it again the other day and wondered why I ever thought the movie was any good. I think Ron Maxwell joined the SCV and got a blood transfusion from Mort Kuntsler between making “Gettysburg” and “Gods and Saints…oh, I’m sorry, Generals.”

  • Chris Evans Feb 23, 2009

    The character of the black bushwacker is also in the novel that ‘Ride with the Devil’ is based on: ‘Woe to Live On’ by Daniel Woodrell. The novel is also quite good. It is always fun to see what is taken out or kept when a book is translated to the screen.
    Chris

  • matt mckeon Feb 23, 2009

    I actually couldn’t watch “Gods and Generals” all the way through because it was so bad, as a movie.

    Unlike the racist “Birth of a Nation” which was good movie making(for 1916). G and G had appalling politics, and is an utter crapfest.

  • Jarret Ruminski Feb 23, 2009

    Hey Kevin, if any of the students get out of line, you could make them sit and watch the entire God-awful movie and I guarantee they won’t act up anymore.

    • Kevin Levin Feb 24, 2009

      Even I’m not that cruel, Jarret.

  • Toby Feb 24, 2009

    I like “Glory” and would count it as the best Civil War movie, historical inaccuracies, forced worthiness and all. At least it has some great actors – Denzel Washington and Morgan Freeman, while Matthew Broderick and Cary Elwes are not bad either. It’s the antidote to “Birth of a Nation”.

    In fairness, I have yet to see “Ride with the Devil”, and “Gods and Generals” did not make it across the Atlantic (thank God, by the sound of it).

  • Sherree Tannen Feb 24, 2009

    I haven’t seen Gods and Generals, and after viewing this clip, I am certain that I won’t be seeing it in the future. Looks like a remake of Gone With the Wind, except with terrible acting. One of my favorite movies about the Civil War was “Shenandoah” with Jimmy Stewart. I haven’t seen “Shenandoah” in a long time, so I don’t remember if the movie is accurate in its depiction of the times or not. I just remember identifying with it. Thanks, Kevin.

  • Chris,

    You mean that Harry Morgan’s masterful portrayal of Grant in “How the West Was Won” or the more updated version of the General in by Kevin Kline in “Wild Wild West” were not enough?
    the
    Didn’t Rip Torn play Grant in “The Blue and The Gray?”

    Craig

  • Crystal Marshall Feb 24, 2009

    Kevin,

    Could you please clarify for me–I understand that you don’t appreciate Maxwell’s movie version of Shaara’s book, but does that also mean you don’t like Shaara’s works as well (I’m including Jeff and Michael Shaara), or is your complaint just against the movie adaptations of the Shaara books?

    Watching “Gods and Generals” was actually the catalyst that first sparked my interest in the Civil War. It certainly does spark interesting discussions as to how the Civil War is portrayed and remembered in our modern time. However, I do think that there may be a slight point of agreement between you and Maxwell (I hope that wasn’t a sacreligious statement :0) You have mentioned several times on your blog–and I am in complete agreement here with you on this point–that the Civil War wasn’t just about economic or political issues, but also about slavery, which came to the forefront as a the main issue of the war following the Emancipation Proclamation. There is a scene in “Gods and Generals” I believe about halfway through the movie, where Chamberlain’s character talks to his brother Tom and reiterates your same point:

    “Well, Tom, you know my position. I signed up to preserve the Union. The president did the right thing [signing the Emancipation Proclamation]. What’s the use of uniting the country by force and leaving slavery in place?…Freeing the slaves wasn’t a war aim when this began, but war changes things. It sorts things out…We have seen more suffering than any man should ever see, and if there is going to be an end to it, it must be an end that justifies the cost. Now, somewhere out there is the Confederate Army. They claim they are fighting for their independence, for their freedom. Now, I cannot question their integrity. I believe they are wrong, but I cannot question it. But I do question a system that defends its own freedom while it denies it to others, to an entire race of men. I will admit it, Tom, war is a scourge. But so is slavery. It is the systematic coercion of one group of men over another. It has been around since the book of Genesis. It exists in every corner of the world. But that’s no excuse for us to tolerate it here, when we find it right before our very eyes, in our own country…[And] if your life or mine is part of the price to end this curse and free the Negro, then let God’s will be done.”

    This scene was not done in a patronizing way–Maxwell obviously respects Chamberlain and this moving dialogue provides a good “point of balance” for the movie, so to speak. I think you have to give credit where credit is due :0)

  • Chris Evans Feb 24, 2009

    Craig,
    No those were far from the best that can be done on Grant. I found Kline’s very laughable. And yes Rip Torn played Grant in ‘The Blue and the Gray’. Plus Grant was portrayed in the miniseries ‘North and South’ by Anthony Zerbe and in a particularly terrible movie ‘The Lone Ranger’ by Jason Robards who also did the voice of Grant in Ken Burns’ ‘The Civil War’. Clearly there remains much room for improvement in a cinematic depiction of Grant. I’d have to think about which actor now could do justice to the role.
    Thanks for the reply,
    Chris

  • Andy Papen Feb 24, 2009

    The black bushwacker in “Ride With the Devil” (and evidently in the novel referenced above, although I have not read it) was based on an individual named John Noland. I know virtually nothing about him, but he is referenced a couple of times in Edward Leslie’s biography of William Quantrill “The Devil Knows How to Ride”. He attended reunions of Quantrill’s raiders after the war and was apparently along on the Lawrence raid, but that’s the extent of my knowledge of him. Whether or not he was a free man or accompanied Quantrill’s raiders along with an owner, I don’t know. Anyway, the character in the movie was based on an actual individual; the extent of his participation with Quantrill would be interesting to know more about. Unfortunately, I doubt there’s much documentation out there. There are experts on the Missouri bushwackers out there; I’m certainly not one of them but maybe Noland’s story is known by someone.

  • Kevin Levin Feb 24, 2009

    Crystal,

    Thanks for the comment. I enjoyed The Killer Angels, but everything the son has written is absolute crap. The movies are even worse. Yes, there are a few scenes where the Federals get to explain what it is all about, but the movie is mainly about Stonewall Jackson. Overall, it reduces the war to a worn out set of cliches and overly-simplistic generalizations. It proved to be perfect for my classes which have been studying the memory of the Civil War for the last 10 weeks. They were appalled by it.

    Today I showed about 50 minutes of Ride With the Devil. Now, of course, there are issues with any Hollywood depiction of the past, but this movie actually tried to deal with the complexity of loyalty and race in Missouri. My students had a very different reaction. For one there was much less laughter.

  • Eric Roy Feb 25, 2009

    I am not a film scholar, but “Glory” and “Ride With the Devil” are, by far, the best Civil War movies I’ve ever seen. Last Saturday — the eve of the Academy Awards — Turner Classic Movies showed the Oscar-winning “Gone With the Wind” (1939), followed by the Oscar-winning “Glory” (1989). A perfect set of bookends.

    GWTW is, as all know, the mother of all popular culture Confederate apologias even to this day, portraying the Southern secessionists as noble, romantic, naive, idealistic victims of evil, vicious, rapacious, aggressive Yankee invaders. GWTW conveniently overlooks the fact that the South started the war and, by definition, those who start a war are the aggressors. And, not to mention, that if you start a war, you can’t whine about it being somehow unfair if you lose. But, even more offensive is GWTW’s portrayal of slavery as a benign institution actually preferred by its victims. There are several scenes where fearful “darkies,” panicked by the imminent approach of U.S. troops threatening to bring freedom (!), tearfully beg their white masters to protect them from such a dreadful fate. Nice try. And, certainly bitter fruit for GWTW’s Jim Crow/Depression-era African American cast members, who had an even more desperate time finding jobs than their white counterparts.

    On the other hand, “Glory,” — a much more realistic and sobering war movie — shows that the black freedmen and ex-slaves who fought for the Union faced not only immediate execution or impressment into slavery if captured by the Confederates, they did so while enduring harsh racism, discrimination and just plain old sh*t spooned out by any number of Northern white soldiers and officers, who had little more regard for them than did Southern whites.

    As to Toby’s remark about historical inaccuracies in “Glory,” I confess my ignorance and would crave enlightenment.

  • Chris Evans Feb 25, 2009

    ‘Glory’ is another movie I quite enjoy about the Civil War. No one has brought up ‘Andersonville’ but I’d like to mention it as a great example of Civil War cinema story telling. I think it is greatly underrated in the pantheon of good Civil War movies.

    ‘Glory’ has some inaccuracies that I don’t believe in the end take away from the film. They include: the position of Fort Wagner is depicted at the opposite end of Morris Island than it really was. I believe also that the regiment was made up mostly of free black men. I remember reading that Frederick Douglass said that he didn’t want men who had been in slavery. He wanted free black men of the North and Canada. His own sons were in the regiment and they are not depicted also. Carney who bravely carried the flag out of Fort Wagner is not depicted. He won the Medal of Honor for his actions. It is a shame that his very real story was not depicted. In the movie only Denzel Washington is shown picking up the flag after Shaw is shot. The characters that are played by Elwes, Freeman, and Washington are composites. The regiment was not completely destroyed at Fort Wagner as basically depicted in the movie. Many survived to fight again in such battles as Olustee and Honey Island. Shaw’s growth as commander was different in actuality. At first he didn’t have much respect for the men. He used the ‘N’ word many times. This is not shown in the film. But by the end he was willing to die with them. That is very powerful stuff. There could be a completely different movie made that was truer to the actual facts. Would it be as good? I have no idea. Hope that answers some of your questions.
    Chris

    P.S. Definitely read Shaw’s actual book of letters Blue-Eyed Child of Fortune: The Civil War Letters of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw by Robert Gould Shaw and Russell Duncan. Excellent book!

  • Mannie Gentile Feb 25, 2009

    Somebody take that sword away from Boo Radley before he goes and kills someone again.

  • Vicki Betts Feb 26, 2009

    No one has mentioned “Pharoah’s Army” set in the mountains of Kentucky. An excellent small film based on a Federal foraging party going onto a small farmstead that has already faced tragedy.

    Vicki Betts

  • Bob Pollock Feb 26, 2009

    This has been a very interesting thread for me. At Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site we decided to show a few feature length films in the visitor center theater this year as special events. The first question was which to show. My immediate suggestion was “Glory,” which fit well because February is African American History month. We are scheduled to show the film this Saturday afternoon. I have been preparing to give a short talk before the film and for a discussion period after. I still think Glory is a great film, but it is far from historically accurate. Aside from the characters who make a brief appearance at the party in the beginning, only Shaw and Montgomery are actual historic figures (and Montgomery is completely mischaracterized). This is a shame because, as Chris mentions above, there were real African American heroes like Carney, the Douglass sons, Second Lt. Peter Vogelsang, and Second Lt. Stephen A. Swails.
    Furthermore, almost the entire training camp experience at Readville is inaccurate. The 54th was the fulfillment of abolitionists’ dreams. This was their opportunity to show that what they had been advocating for years, namely that African Americans were capable, intelligent, and deserving of citizenship, was true. Governor Andrew staked his political reputation on their success. These people made financial contributions , and as Russell Duncan wrote in “Where Death and Glory Meet,” : “As the Governor’s ‘model’ regiment the men were well supplied and cared for by the state. Everything was first rate, as Shaw’s regiment got the newest and best of everything in quantities that made them want for nothing.” In addition, they were housed in ten wooden barracks (not tents) with plenty of firewood to keep them warm. This was all in sharp contrast to the experience of the majority of black Union soldiers however. I could go on here, but this would be a long comment. The point is, I think the film itself, and not just the individual characters, has to be looked at in many ways as a composite of the black soldier experience. When viewed in this way the film stands up. Most importantly, unlike the way African Americans had been portrayed in previous Civil War films, Glory brought them front and center, and made them complex human beings.
    As I watched the movie again last night, I was struck by the comment Denzel Washington’s character makes at one point: “I was running for President… Didn’t win, though.” This, of course, prompted laughter from his tentmates. We have come a long way, haven’t we?
    By the way, we have not decided what film we might show next. Again, as Chris mentions above, there is no good movie portrayal of Grant.

  • Peter Mar 3, 2009

    I have to agree that God’s and Generals portrayal of Jackson was at times comical. I only sat through it to try and spot some reenactor friends who where extras. It’s strange that a conflict that has so many thousands (tens of thousands?) of books written about every minute aspect is represented by so few good movies. In addition to a couple mentioned here, I also liked “The Red Badge of Courage” ….the Richard Thomas version.

  • EB Jun 3, 2010

    Please, the film Gods and Generals is incredibly biased towards the Confederacy with no apology given to a movement that wished to destroy a democratic union and propogate slavery.

  • Falcon Taylor Feb 28, 2011

    I sent a reply to Kristen who was studying the Border War as I am & I forgot to ask for notification to my e-mail…

Leave a Comment

1 Flares Twitter 0 Facebook 1 Google+ 0 LinkedIn 0 Email -- 1 Flares ×