“A nation that does not know its history has no future”.
After sitting through three hours and forty-five minutes of Ron Maxwell’s Civil War film “Gods and Generals,” I could not decide whether I was watching “Gone With The Wind” all over again, or a satire on the time weary justifications for war. I was enthralled, angry, disgusted, bored, moved, emotionally drained, and painfully aware of the paradoxes of human behavior: the Lord Is My Shepard theology used to justify war, the flag waving patriotisms (never mind which flag), the relentless horror of men parading in a stupor towards their deaths with bugles blowing; the cannons shredding bodies, the rifles bludgeoning heads, the bayonets tearing away flesh and guts. An intractable, atavistic magneticism towards killing, where no one is left unscathed, and generals declare victory. Shakespeare would have had a hard time describing it. I can, with one word: insanity.
Yet many well-tempered critics have praised the film for its even handedness. The South is treated on an equal basis with the North. Southern military leaders like Generals Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson are seen in their complexity for who they were and what they stood for. Privately decent people fighting for their homeland, their families, their culture, and not necessarly for the shackled institution of slavery. Well, that’s kind of hard to take, but there is some truth in it. Clearly there were, at times, warm relationships between masters, mistresses of the house, and their “servants” – a euphemism used throughout the film for slavery. In the North servants were indentured, or they were paid miserable wages. In the South slaves were bound to “serving” in the house, or working themselves to death on the plantation. Families were always at risk of being torn apart, forcibly taken way from their loved ones, and sold to someone else. And that puts it mildly, because slavery is barely touched on in the film. It becomes dampened background and quietly moves throughout the film as a secondary theme. Director Ron Maxwell uses that contrast to great advantage – for better and worse.
The primary focus of the film is on the nature of the War Between The States (as traditional southerners are prone to call it). The generals organized the war on maps of the landscape, deciding where and when the battles took place. The grunts died by the hundreds of thousands following orders, killing each other under the Union flag, the Confederate flag, and a myriad of state flags. As if having the right kind of flag made a difference when you were left to rot on a battlefield or thrown into a grave.
As soldiers tell us, over and over again, they fight to keep each other alive – not for God, Country and the Righteous Cause. Although indisputably there are those who fight for chest thumping ideas – despite the repetition of history and the repeat performances, and the fact that 600,000 soldiers died in the Civil War, and 400,000 were maimed, wounded or permanently scarred, scars that we still bear today, soldiers continue to fight for the best of reasons; well intentioned, willingly – they die in our name. Thank God it’s in Our Name and not Theirs, right? To the victor belong the spoils.
Take General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, for example; the central figure in “Gods and Generals”. Jackson got his nickname because he stood up straight on his horse and didn’t budge an inch confronting the overwhelming fire power of the Union army. Jackson was a professor at the Virginia Military Institute, and when the war started, he put his theories into practice and brought his students along with him. His soldiers trusted and respected him and would follow him to the grave. He loved Virginia more than the Union, as did Lee (played with a keen sense of weary sorrow by Robert Duval). Lee turned down an offer from Lincoln to lead the Union army because he refused to invade his home state: Virginia. Despite a Constitutional contract between the states, Lee’s decision to stand for Virginia and not invade his homeland is understandable and deep seeded.
Virgina was a state of boundless beauty; and still is. It was also a place where people safely and lovingly raised their families, practiced their faith, developed deep commitments and fellowships, and were moved and sanctified by the land they owned and lived on. Land that was taken from the Indians, like the lands of the North, and worked over for maximum economic potential by their slaves. Nonetheless Jackson represented the best of what many Virginians had become: dignified, respectful, trustworthy, fiercely courageous, and, to his credit, enormously faithful to his wife and commitments.
Actor Stephen Lang’s deeply realized portrayal of Jackson reveals the man’s paradoxical behavior. We witness Jackson praying to God for strength on the curve of the lusciously beautiful Shenadoah valley. We see him and his wife throughout the film gazing at each other with loving, mutually respectful eyes. We see him lifting his baby for the first time with inestimable tenderness and fatherly gratification. We see him playing with a young five year old friend, talking to her with kindness, rather than down to her with lessons to be learned. We see him and his fellow officers listening to a Southern lady playing Chopin on the piano in between the breaks in the war; or singing together “Silent Night” during Christmas. The Prince of Peace had his way at least one day during the year.
In one of the best moments of the film, Jackson kneels to pray with his faithful black cook, Jim (Frankie Faison). I nearly said his faithful companion, Tonto. They kneel down together and pray, with shared faith and honest feeling; like brothers. Jackson prays for God to take care of Jim’s family. Jim feels free enough to pray for the liberation of his people. He wonders out loud why the masters do not take it upon themselves to free their slaves. Jackson hopes that it will happen some day, and then he rises, satisfied, moved by their friendship, without ever comprehending the deeply painful irony of their shackled relationship. Jim is left to swallow the gall of having brought up the subject of his freedom to his master. At such a time, at such a place, with such a man, Jim is finally forced to resign himself to the inevitable. Jim is an Invisible Human. Worthy of a prayer but not yet worthy of freedom.
On the other hand, Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain (Jeff Daniels), a professor at Bowden College in Maine, offers his services to the Union army with the best of intentions. With his wonderfully trim blond beard, in contrast to General Jackson’s dark, bushy conflagation of hair, Chamberlain justifies his fighting in the war despite his pacifist inclinations. He defends his choice because he is fighting to set a people free. He is committed to freeing the slaves because it is the right thing to do. He fights in the name of a God of Justice and Humanity, not a Calvinistic God of fierce demands and a strict code of honor. Chamberlain is righteous for all the good reasons in a war that apparently is being fought on someone else’s premises for all the necessary and deadly reasons; a war that will eventually know no bounds.
In Ron Maxwell’s earlier film, “Gettysburg”, Joshua Chamberlain is seen leading his troops on the flank of the linch pin battle of the Civil War. Here he speaks again about why he is fighting. Despite the enormous blood shed, he talks with an older, wiser, low toned, carefully worded passionate intensity. His blond mustache is now turned up at the corners; like the wings of a battered angel. He now speaks his mind about freeing the slaves with a fierce, hard won concentration of purpose, grounded by battle into clay.
Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation has officially freed the slaves (under the prodding of people like Frederick Douglas). The Army that fought for a Union has been turned into an Army of Liberation in order to save the Union. In New York the draft rioters lynch the “niggers” and the men of the Army of Liberation are deserting in droves because they don’t want to fight for the “darkies”. The Union needs a victory in order to sustain its cause. The Emancipation Proclamation is an integral part of that weaponry – it is what gives Chamberlain and his fellow idealists renewed purpose. Chamberlain and his men help supply Lincoln with the necessary victory – in the most astonishing of ways.
Out of ammunition, they charge the Confederates. With bayonets attached to their rifles, they fight in hand to hand combat. The Rebs “lose”, the Yankees “win”. Contrast this frightening charge with the one General Lee orders General Pickett to take with his men. Despite advice that an attack on Union forces lined up behind a barricade is unnecessary, General Lee, up on a hill, looking down through a spy glass, watches Pickett and his men march to a drum beat and the sound of “Dixie”. Through a green pasture, under a bright sun, under an umbrella of bombs bursting in air, and bullets flying into their heads, the soldiers commit themselves to a sure death. Winning and losing become Mutually Assured Destruction. In an amphitheatre of the absurd, its sporting to be MAD.
I wanted the film to work. When it did, I applauded it. When it did not, I sank into the familiar resignation of more of the same. Dualing emotions that inevitably grow out of a sense of having seen it all before; a sense of futility. Gods and Generals enabled me to see, through a rear view mirror, of where we are coming from: out of a place where the dead pile up and the weight of history slumps into mass graves.
We have learned to love the clash of mighty armies. Whether it be World War I or World War II or Lawrence of Arabia, we admire the art that goes into the making of films about wars. Now we also prize the technology that allows us to kill from a distance because it seems so much like the inevitable development of the art of recording contemporary history: Television. The awesome attraction of explosions moving across the landscape of Fredricksburg and Gettysburg, like butter cups blooming in the lavishly green hills of the Shenadoah, are no match for the murky, green night-vision spectaculars of the Mother Of All Bombs in Iraq; or, for that matter, the war films of the future.
These dead shall not have died in vain, said Lincoln in his Gettysburg address. I have second thoughts about dying in vain, and third and fourth thoughts about the future. How about you?
©2003 Ned Bobkoff
For more commentary and articles by Ned Bobkoff, check the Archives.
© 2003 Aviar-DKA Ltd. All rights reserved (including authors’ and individual copyrights as indicated). No
part of this material may be reproduced, translated, transmitted, framed or stored in a retrieval system for
public or private use without the written permission of the publisher and the individual copyright holder.
For permissions, contact firstname.lastname@example.org
All articles are archived on this site.
To access the Archives