February 21, 2003


Film of the Week: 'Gods and Generals' (Steve Sailer, 2/20/03, UPI)
Recounting the first two years of the war, "Gods and Generals" tracks three heroes. Two are natural warriors from Virginia: Robert Duvall as Robert E. Lee and stage veteran Stephen Lang as Stonewall Jackson. The other is a painfully self-made one from Maine: Jeff Daniels as Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, the professor of rhetoric who may have single-handedly saved the Union at Gettysburg. [...]

[L]ang's Jackson, the central character, stands in battle like the proverbial stonewall, serenely convinced that his fate is in God's hands, but also ferociously willing to help as many Yanks as possible meet their fates. Lang's volcanic performance as this Old Testament prophet-conqueror demonstrates that Stonewall was a great man indeed (although perhaps Jackson was not so common and boring as to be wholly sane).

In a Hollywood that lusts after the under-25 demographic, Maxwell has done something very strange. He has made "Gods and Generals" in the style that his 19th century characters would have thought fitting. The pace of this nearly four-hour film is bucolic, the dialogue reverent, the people heroic, and the vision romantic.

Modern audiences will have particular trouble with the literary formality with which characters address each other. They speak in ways that seem unnatural to us -- they read the Bible aloud together and quote from memory 17th century poetry and Suetonius' Roman history.

Yet, that's how the educated classes talked in the 1860s. They read more than we do now, but owned less printed material. So, they read classics over and
over. Lincoln, for example, was marinated in the King James Bible and Shakespeare. They were adept at high rhetoric and loved orations.

"Gods and Generals" embodies what Greil Marcus, biographer of Bob Dylan (who contributes the closing song), called "the old, weird America:" those peculiar little communities that existed before mass media, rapid transportation, and widespread military service rationalized and homogenized our culture.

Perhaps Hollywood noticed that the top 6 grossing films of 2002 were essentially based on the themes of "old, weird America": Spider-Man; Star Wars: Attack of the Clones; The Two Towers; Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets; My Big Fat Greek Wedding; and Signs. They are steeped in ideas like the struggle between good & evil; responsibility; loyalty; respect, even adoration, for tradition; the orderliness of the Universe; etc.. Hollywood may be a den of iniquity, but they do notice what sells, and traditional Western values are moving product right now.

Posted by Orrin Judd at February 21, 2003 7:18 AM

Well, I thanks the Gods they went with Robert Duvall this time for Robert E. Lee. Jeff Daniels recreating his role as Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain is a nice touchstone.

Posted by: Erik at February 21, 2003 7:48 AM

Roger Ebert says that it treats accuracy as a virtue instead of an attribute. I think he would have been more happy had Oliver Stone directed the film.

Posted by: Tom at February 21, 2003 3:05 PM

The 6 top grossing movies you list have nothing whatsoever to do with "old, weird America." They have everything to do with mindless, unchallenging entertainment, usually including special effects (4 of 6, 5 if you include Signs which has aliens.) You reading of some sort of cultural zeitgeist is completely wrong. Just put lots of action and noise into something and it'll sell.

Posted by: at February 21, 2003 3:41 PM

I don't thing G & G is going to be for either the casual movie-goer (too long a movie, archaic talk)...or the history buffs, who will wonder why so much attention on a man like Chamberlain, when there is no mention in the movie apparently of Antietam, McClellan, Hooker and others. Just like the Gettysburg movie...no sign of the Peach Orchard, Dan Sickes or day 2. I guess they are going for the appeal of the citizen soldier Chamberlain. If you read the history books he isn't a major figure.

I enjoyed Martin Sheen in a weird way last time...he's a total commie in real life but I like his acting style. Duvall is one of the sure things in movies though, look forward to seeing him in G & G.

Posted by: ronjon at February 21, 2003 6:05 PM


Like Battlefield Earth?

Posted by: oj at February 21, 2003 6:38 PM