Gods and Generals
You vs. The Critics
If you are open to the possibility that the Confederacy was not entirely evil, then you should see "Gods and Generals." Yes it has some serious flaws, but it is also excellent in many ways. In case you haven't noticed, it's hard to find a professional movie critic who has much good to say about the film. In general, people either love it or hate it, and as you can see, public opinion is much more favorable than the opinion of critics. Critics do point out the movie's actual flaws, but for many of them I suspect there are other reasons for their scorn. Let's take a look at what some of them have to say.
The Critics Rave
Darrin Keene of ChartAttack.com: "One has to wonder if bible-thumping U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft edited the script. Instead of questioning the religious rhetoric that fuelled the war on both sides, this film wholeheartedly embraces it. Aside from being poorly shot, the film reconstructs U.S. history as ultra-Christian myth ; it may be in vogue with this Bush era, but it's misleading and manipulative."
Matt Zoller Seitz of New York Press: "Imagine if Maxwell had contrasted his non-ironic, loving portraits of Southern military officers with images of black men and women being whipped, raped and worked to death by plantation owners." And he also writes, "There’s no zip in the Northern scenes; you get the sense that Maxwell is marking time and keeping critics at bay, but he doesn’t seem too happy about it; he’s dutifully clearing his side plate of arugula so he can get back to his fried chicken and biscuits."
Mary F. Pols of Contra Costa Times: "It's hard to imagine any African-American not taking affront at "Gods and Generals," which doesn't even get around to the controversy of slavery until more than halfway through the movie, and then covers it in only a cursory fashion." Later she writes, "During the intermission, I turned to a male colleague and asked, "Am I too much of a chick for this?" He shook his head vigorously. "I'm a guy, I was a history major and I'm ready to slit my wrists."."
David Sterritt of The Nation: " "It is well that war is so terrible, or we should grow too fond of it," says Confederate leader Robert E. Lee in "Gods and Generals," the new Civil War movie. This is a strange remark. On its face, it appears to suggest that sending men into battle is lots of fun, so military officers would do it all the time if not for collateral damages like agony and death."
Eugene Novikov at Ultimate Movies: "This Civil War epic ... works so deliberately and persistently to prevent us from following our natural inclination to sympathize with the North, that it becomes somewhat of a whitewash..." And also, "I would just like to mention something to director Ronald F. Maxwell, parenthetically and completely as an aside: the South lost."
I Rave at the Critics
Another critic, Jack Warner of Gannett, repeats a common theme, saying, "Everything is big about the Civil War epic "Gods and Generals" except its emotional impact." It is obvious that there was quite an emotional impact - on some critics. You almost have to feel sorry for them. Instead of being exposed to diverse viewpoints on the history of their nation, they could have been doing something constructive like protesting the upcoming liberation of Iraq or promoting the legalization of marijuana.
In a much more thoughtful piece in the National Review, Rod Dreher sums it all up when he says, "... the movie appears to have struck historically and theologically illiterate reviewers as showing little more than a bunch of Bible-thumping rednecks sitting around talking about Jesus while fighting to keep the slaves back on the plantation." He later explains the sympathetic presentation of Confederates like Lee and Jackson. "What Maxwell is trying to do here is show contemporary audiences why good men would take up arms to defend a government and a culture that enslaved other men. It is for much the same reason that black GIs fought bravely in World War II for a country that still didn't guarantee them their full rights: because their homeland asked them to."
Another possible annoyance to critics is that the two main black characters do NOT hate white people. What could possibly be more offensive? Maybe the scene in which Jackson prays with his black cook. If Nathan Bedford Forrest had been so portrayed, there would be reason for scorn and ridicule, but with Jackson it is believable. In the town of Lexington, Jackson taught black children to read in Sunday school - a violation of Virginia law. In appreciation for this, a black church in my hometown just an hour 's drive from Lexington has a stained glass window of Jackson. How many movie critics do you suppose know this? For that matter, how many non-fiction books do you suppose movie critics read?
The Union cause is not treated with sympathy equal to the Confederacy, but most historical illiterates have never doubted the justice of the Union cause. For that matter how would Maxwell explain the cause of "saving" a Union that wasn't really lost? With convoluted logic or a purely emotional appeal? It would be the only way. Sadly, historical illiterates are unlikely to even consider seeing this movie, and instead watch "Daredevil" - even though as one of its character claims, "There is no evidence that Daredevil even exists." You said it pal. He doesn't.
A scene which must annoy critics is Lincoln's message to the army mentioning the "relatively light" casualties at Fredericksburg. This makes Lincoln look like a weasel, a fool, or a liar. Worse still is that the characters of Chamberlain and his wife come off as uppity and elitist, even more so than our modern day NPR. This hardly appeals to my sympathies. Further, discussing Caesar while approaching the battlefield could be seen as a sign of mental illness. A later discussion Chamberlain has with his brother gets to the heart of the matter. He implies that the Union army is a power used for coercion, and that a war to force the Confederate states back into the Union is not worth the cost of hundreds of thousands of lives. Only ending slavery could make the war worthwhile. Shocking! Who comes up with this scandalous material?
We all know the Confederacy was far from perfect, but could it be that the Union cause was not completely just? Could reaction to this revelation be the root cause of some of the negative reviews? Could left leaning critics be intolerant of the views of others? Yes. Yes. Yes.