Political Film Society - Newsletter #162 - March 10, 2003

March 10, 2003


A prequel of Gettysburg (1993), the recently released film Gods and Generals, directed by Ronald F. Maxwell, is a semi-docudrama that tries to ape the novel (and film) Gone with the Wind but succeeds only in providing nearly four hours of transparent propaganda. Based on the 1996 novel by Jeffrey M. Shaara, the docudrama part of the film begins with General Robert E. Lee (played by Robert Duvall). Through an intermediary, an obviously maladroit move, President Abraham Lincoln offers Lee the command of the Union army. Two days earlier, with the "cotton states" already having seceded from the Union, Lincoln requested the Virginia state government to supply troops to put down the insurrection. On the day when Lee receives the offer, the Virginia House of Delegates in Richmond begins debate on Lincoln's request, which is rejected out of hand in favor of secession; Lincoln's prior decision to mobilize a military force rather than seeking diplomacy is criticized for so escalating tensions that Virginians believe that their only recourse is to defend their homeland. Lee declines, saying that his loyalty to Virginia is higher than to the United States. In the next part of the film, we see the mobilization of Virginia's troops, especially those at the Virginia Military Institute (VMI). Later, we see the mobilization of Maine troops under the Union flag, notably Lt. Col. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain (played by Jeff Daniels), a philosophy professor at Bowdoin College.

In due course battles are fought, and various commanders are identified by subtitles in a reenactment of some events in military history, including the battles of Bull Run, Fredericksburg, and Chancellorsville. Instead of the incompetent Union army General Ambrose E. Burnside (played by Alex Hyde White), the commander most in front of the camera is VMI philosophy professor General Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson (played by Stephen Lang), whose syrupy family life plays a significant and increasingly boring part of the story. The nondocumentary part of the film is rife with propaganda. In addition to the anti-Lincoln portrait already noted, Southerners are depicted as more affectionate, more cultured, more genteel, more intelligent, more religious, and more sensitive than Northerners. The boldest disinformation relates to the relations between the races; a Northerner who vents anti-"darkie" prejudice is corrected by Lt. Col. Chamberlain, his anti-slave commander, while house slaves in Virginia are effusively loyal to their collegial masters, who in turn piously hope that slavery will in time obsolesce. Moreover, while the story concedes that some in the North were fighting to fight to free the slaves, the South believes that the real motive is for the North to make money, in part by subjugating the South economically. (After all, the North was competing with England to buy cotton from the South.) Gods and Generals is the first in a trilogy, so we now await the third film. MH

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Gods and Generals
by Jeffrey M. Shaara

Jeff Shaara explores the lives of Generals Lee, Hancock, Jackson and Chamberlain as the pivotal Battle of Gettysburg approaches.