Gods And Generals

The battle scenes in Gods And Generals, a prequel to the 1993 film and cable TV fixture Gettysburg, have a harrowing quality that shows just how cheap life becomes during wartime. As soldiers move forward in Napoleonic line formations, one rank after another falls victim to the volleys of gunfire. As daytime battles fade into night, their bodies become useful only as human shields. These horrors have been captured better elsewhere, but it never hurts to be reminded of the ugliness of war, and the hundreds of extras–mostly Civil War re-enactors–capture that ugliness well. Now, the bad news: Gods And Generals is playing in theaters when it belongs on television, where snacks and bathroom breaks can counteract its punishing dryness, and the option of watching something else doesn't involve driving home. It's the sort of film loved by lazy history teachers: long and loaded with enough information that it can pass as education. Characters enter the story with subtitles announcing their names. They speak in dialogue packed with facts and statistics. They discuss battle plans at length. They talk about relevant newspaper stories. Viewers may be unsure whether to eat popcorn or take notes. Defiantly uncinematic, the nearly four-hour johnnycake of a film follows the American Civil War and its major players from the days following the attack on Fort Sumter to the death of Stonewall Jackson, using Jackson, played by Stephen Lang, as its focal point. Adapted by Ronald Maxwell from the book by Jeff Shaara (whose father's novel The Killer Angels served as Gettysburg's basis), Gods has a lot of ground to cover, and doesn't cover it too well. When not piling on the trivia, it moves from one speech to another, all to the accompaniment of music so dramatic that only footage of the world's creation could match it. Its quieter moments are little better, dominated by condemnations of slavery (from generals on both sides), shots of black people looking concerned as their masters march to war, a scarlet-fever-prone moppet, a hymn or two, and, oh Dixie, some delicious-looking lemonade. Robert Duvall and Jeff Daniels class the joint up a bit, but they're stuck in a film that aspires to be nothing more than a collection of dramatized historical incidents. Given that Gods And Generals feels as long as the war itself, there's only so much they can do.

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