One Man’s Opinion

Dick Nicholas

Volume 11, Number 4
April 2003

For the past few weeks I have been besieged with questions about Gods and Generals. Have you seen it? Did you like it? What do you think?—and countless other variations of the same theme.

I hesitate to plunge into this commentary because I’m not a qualified movie critic, rarely attend the cinema, and am only a very amateur historian. But in today’s world, the lack of qualifications doesn’t appear to be much of an impediment to expressing opinions on any and all subjects. For what it’s worth, my answer to the questions is in two parts.

Let’s try the movie angle first. I thought it was at best a mediocre movie that will never win any artistic award for acting, screenplay, or any other attribute commonly associated with movie-making. They’ll be lucky if the theater version breaks even financially, and the only way that Ted Turner will recoup his loss will be through the post-theater six-hour DVD edition. In addition to being too long, it lacked continuity and a real theme that connected the ongoing plot and characters. Perhaps my expectations were too high; especially given my personal interest in the subject, and the fact hat so much of the movie was filmed in our part of the country. Then, maybe I was hoping unrealistically for a modern variant of Gone With The Wind, but I’m afraid that commercial epics of that nature and period of time have, indeed, “gone-with-the-winds” of political correctness and the publics’ obsession with science fiction, reality shows, and mindless sex and violence.

The second answer is that from an historical perspective of someone who has read many books, heard many talks and lectures, and walked over most of the Civil War battlefields of Virginia and nearby areas, I enjoyed the movie.

I start with the premise that you have to give Hollywood a modicum of poetic license when they try to tell us something about history. But there’s also the expression: “the devil is in the details!” My good friend Bob Tatum was the first to point out several glaring inaccuracies in the film—the first being the early scenes of Robert E. Lee in Washington with Francis P. Blair, and in Richmond before the state convention dressed in a Union Colonel’s uniform and wearing a very conspicuous and well-groomed white beard. The historical record shows that for most of 1861 Lee’s hair was mostly black with only a sprinkle of gray and that he was clean-shaven except for a short mustache that was wholly black. It was not until the fall of 1861 that he grew the beard after the military fashion of the time, and as his was gray, it gave him a paternal not to say patriarchal look in the eyes of the public and his youthful troops. The record also shows that when Lee accepted the leadership if Virginia’s defense in Richmond on April 23, he was dressed in civilian clothes and carried a silk hat.

Bob, with his keen eye for such things, also pointed out that the sun was shining from the wrong direction during the Federal attack across the Rappahannock at Fredericksburg in December of 1862. There were other inconsistencies throughout the movie, but I cut the movie-makers a little slack there and elsewhere, and commend them for doing a pretty good job of sticking to the primary facts.

Some scenes were very authentic. Jackson’s stirring and emotional farewell address to his beloved 1st (Stonewall) Brigade on the afternoon of November 4, 1861, near Manassas was one of them. Seated in an open field on “Little Sorrel,” he rose in his stirrups and exclaimed in a loud voice for all his men to hear: You were the First brigade in the Army of the Shenandoah, the First Brigade in the Army of the Potomac, the First Brigade in the Second Corps, and are the First Brigade in the hearts of your generals. I hope that you will be the First Brigade in this, our second struggle for independence, and in the future, on the fields on which the Stonewall Brigade are engaged, I expect to hear of crowning deeds of valor and of victories gloriously achieved! May God bless you all! Farewell! Tears welling in his eyes, “Old Blues Eyes” wheeled his horse and galloped off to hide his emotions and to the deafening roar of his men. My only regret is that the actor playing Jackson just didn’t have the presence or strength that I imagine Jackson to have had. I guess I was looking for someone, maybe like George C. Scott as General Patton.

Another memorable scene that I thought was done authentically was the pillage and plunder of Fredericksburg during the 1862 battle. Francis O’Reilly in his new book on the Fredericksburg Campaign devotes an entire chapter to the sacking of the town. The destruction was horrific with chilling scenes of wanton destruction, pillaging, and callousness to the helpless civilian population. The movie scenes did not exaggerate the depredations and plundering. Fredericksburg became the first American city to be sacked since the British burned Washington in the War of 1812. Even worse, the city was the first American city ransacked by Americans. To their credit, many of the Union soldiers condemned the wanton mayhem. As shown in the movie, the provost units of the Union army tried their best to stem the destruction, but they had other duties and were simply overwhelmed.

Although the movie had a distinctly Southern flavor to (imagine seeing a Hollywood production in 2003 in which the South wins three battles!), I think some of the fundamental issues such as slavery. Southern independence, and freedom were presented fairly. For once the Southerners weren’t presented as ignorant, bigoted, redneck racists. That’s a real “plus” in my book. On the other hand, I do object to constantly reinforcing the stereotypical image of all us folks living south of the Mason and Dixon line speaking in some corn-porn Hollywood dialect!

From a casting standpoint, Robert Duval gets a “C+” for his portrayal as Robert E. Lee. He looked like the Lee we know from photographs, but Duval’s character lacked the strong and commanding personality that all historians attribute to the general. On the other hand, Stephen Lang as Stonewall Jackson just didn’t make it in my opinion. Again, he looked a lot like Jackson, but I think that Lang made him into too gentle a man. Maybe it was more the fault to the scriptwriters, but Jackson was hard, and tough most of the time. Some historians have gone so far as to call him a cold-blooded killer. A complex personality, he was also deeply religious as portrayed, but his eccentricities were legend. From my perspective, the character in the movie seemed like a pretty straightforward man.

Summing up: Bad movie, but pretty good history. If I were teaching a class of students about the Civil War in Virginia, I’d use this film as a starter. If I’m trying to make money or win an Oscar, well, forget it.