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Worth it for Gettysburg alone
on 12 December 2007
Ironies abound: while Gettysburg was made for television but ended up with a theatrical release, yet despite a $60m budget, a huge cast and being shot in 2.35:1 widescreen, Gods and Generals looks like it would have been more at home on TV. In some ways it's almost the most expensive home movie ever shot, with Ted Turner paying for this account of the early years of the American Civil War out of his own pocket. For the first hour it's almost as if the Union never existed, the film shown entirely from the Southern side, and with a very partisan view at that (all down to Yankee aggression, with Fort Sumpter conveniently dismissed in a single line). Too often lengthy quotations take the place of dialogue and even the better actors in the cast often seem ill at ease while the surprisingly weak daylight photography and poor CGi matte painting in early scenes giving it an air of storybook unreality. Indeed, Ronald Maxwell's approach at times seems pure D.W. Griffith, with a fondness for awkward tableaux and unconvincing sentiment (poor Mira Sorvino gets a couple of particularly painfully hearts-and-flowers scenes to deliver as a consolation prize for missing out on playing Joan of Arc when Maxwell's version was dropped in the wake of Luc Besson's film). There are a few moments here and there - an intimate scene between Stonewall Jackson and his wife confiding his doubts, a scene between Jeff Daniels and Kevin Conway's sergeant about friends on the other side - but as the over-ambitious film tries to cram too much history into its four hour running time (and still scenes filmed dealing with Lincoln, John Wilkes Booth and the Battle of Antietem didn't make the cut) the people just get lost.
Thankfully, the second half rallies considerably as the film reaches the Battle of Fredericksburg and the 20th Maine's disastrous charge, and the contradictions in Stephen Lang's "Stonewall" Jackson, a deeply religious man yet one who advocated taking no prisoners, become more interesting despite the film's determination to turn him into across between Jesus Christ and a vengeful Old Testament prophet. Yet sadly the lasting impression is of a film that is too sprawling and unfocussed for its own good and one that not only either needed to be a lot longer or a lot shorter but also much better written. As for the somewhat nonsensical title, it's an abbreviation of the novel's Faith in Gods and Generals. Incidentally, be warned that the DVD has one of the worst side breaks ever. Some fairly decent DVD extras, but the lack of deleted scenes implies a director's cut may be in the offing some time in the future.
Gettysburg is actually the second part in an intended trilogy that will now probably never be completed in the wake of the dismal box-office for the bloated Gods and Generals. Thankfully it gains more by having a smaller canvas, focussing on one single battle and largely on three actions - Buford's inspired initial defense on the first day, Little Round Top and Pickett's Charge - and by seeing the action from the viewpoint of both sides throughout. The characters are better drawn, the dialogue feels more natural and you get much more of a sense of what a human tragedy the war was. As a British observer on the Confederate side points out, it all boils down to "same people, different dreams."
The problem with most epics devoted to single battles or campaigns (Waterloo, Zulu Dawn, The Battle of Neretva etc) is that without a single dominating personality they often get so bogged down with history or strategy that the human element gets lost, with a succession of stars acting almost like anonymous interchangeable sports commentators only there to explain what's going on for the layman. Gettysburg has its share of characters primarily there for exposition, but by narrowing its focus to a few of them and drawing on their own letters and memoirs it's able to give them a little more depth and personality. Martin Sheen's Lee's increasingly wrong-headed strategy as he consigns more and more men to pointless deaths with a homespun rationale that leads to horrifying casualties contrasts well with Tom Berenger's more cautious Longstreet gradually realising that the tide has turned against them while Jeff Daniels' awkward but sincere Lawrence Chamberlain gives a humane and decent voice to the Union's case. Richard Jordan is genuinely affecting in his last role - his final scene is even more moving with the knowledge that he really was dying at the time - and even George Lazenby even turns up briefly. As a result, there's more involvement in what's happening and more understanding of what's at stake on a personal level to both sides during the battle. Although shot as a TV miniseries before being released theatrically, it actually looks like a feature film, and one that manages to hold the interest over its four hour running time. It's such an impressive piece of work that you can't help but wonder why so many of the same people got it so wrong so often on Gods and Generals.
Excellent extras on the double-sided DVD, but sadly none of the deleted scenes from the 270-minute laserdisc director's cut.