Lest we forget, it has been nineteen years since the film “Gods and Generals” was released to screens across the United States—to be exact, on February 21, 2003—almost ten years after the release of the blockbuster film, “Gettysburg.”
“Gods and Generals” was based on the historical novel by Jeff Shaara, while “Gettysburg” was based on a work by his father, Michael Shaara. An intended third installment, “The Last Full Measure,” which would have carried events of the War Between the States to its conclusion, was shelved after critics savaged “Gods and Generals,” citing what Wikipedia termed its “length, pacing, screenplay, and endorsement of the controversial neo-Confederate ‘Lost Cause’ myth.”
Undoubtedly, “Gods and Generals” is more episodic than its prequel, which indeed centers its action around one pivotal event in the war, the epochal Battle of Gettysburg. And, yes, it is long—the director’s cut is four hours and forty minutes in duration. Yet, “Gettysburg” in its original version is only slightly shorter. But given its thematic unity it succeeds, perhaps, as more theatrical and digestible by a public attuned to simpler plots and more compact storylines. Whereas in “Gettysburg” the viewer watches as events unfold steadily toward an eventual climax that we all know is coming and at the same time manages to engage those who experience it as if—somehow—it is happening now for the first time, “Gods and Generals” is somewhat reminiscent of a mini-series with episodic segments attempting to offer viewers an impression of how the war actually began and how, in its first two years, it was fought.
In a certain sense, then, “Gods and Generals” is akin to a docudrama. I think here of such filmed efforts as “Tora! Tora! Tora!” (1970) and the two-part drama “Hiroshima” from 1995 (which is over three hours long but in two parts). And I believe this is the best way to judge it and to see it. For throughout its episodic nature it does exactly what it sets out to do—give a broad and panoramic view of major events occurring (albeit mostly in Virginia) in 1861 and 1862 while attempting to infuse life and believability into the history it portrays.
Both films now are roundly condemned as defending “white supremacy” and engaging in “neo-Confederate ideology,” and the celebration of “the myths of the ‘Lost Cause’.” And “Gods and Generals” gets the worst of it. Yet, in many ways, given its unfolding denouement and diverse focus, it succeeds admirably in painting vivid pictures in intimate, and at times endearing, detail of major historical characters.
Some reviewers have written, and I think rightly so, that “Gods and Generals” is in large part a biographical look, a kind of portrayal of General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson. Indeed, much of the film revolves around him, his beliefs, his code of ethics, his brilliant and unparalleled generalship, and his remarkable humanity. Indeed, Stephen Lang’s portrayal of Jackson has been lauded, if begrudgingly, by some reviewers even if they dislike the film.
Then, there is Robert Duvall’s incarnation of Robert E. Lee, and, for me, he simply is Marse Robert, and far more impressive and “real” than Martin Sheen’s assumption in “Gettysburg,” which I found unnatural and too stagey.
I recall viewing the film with friends from work when “Gods and Generals” first showed up in the theaters. Back then we were able to take time off from our jobs to go—but that was 2003, and with the passing of nineteen short years since then I doubt that we could get the same benevolent permission to leave work for such an activity today. And that says a lot—far too much—about how the times and the country have radically changed. From the rumbles of political correctness so visibly apparent, yet not completely dominant, of twenty years ago, to the insane and hysterical full assault on everything, and anything, in and of our Southern heritage, we have descended into a hellish cauldron in which our culture and our people face virtual extinction.
All the more reason to return to films—and they are rare—like “Gods and Generals,” which actually assist us to both see and hear history without the accumulated ideological and poisonous dross that infects almost everything coming out of Hollywood these days. Given the extent of advancing “cancel culture” in our day, we need to treasure films like “Gods and Generals” and “Gettysburg,” as well as others such as “The Conspirator” (2010) and dozens of movies made before this age of cinematic putrefaction.
What I’d like to do, then, following the accusation that “Gods and Generals” is overly long, episodic and perhaps too diffuse, without a certain thematic unity, is to take seven pivotal scenes from the film, each around two or three minutes in length, and offer them in succession (though not necessarily chronologically). Each scene and representation offers, I would suggest, a “key” to the underlying objectives of the movie; that is, what it is attempting to portray, both cinematically and historically. Certainly, there are other significant scenes and moments in a four and half hour film that can be highlighted; but those I have chosen, I believe, are essential in understanding the personalities and critical issues “Gods and Generals” hoped to examine when it appeared in 1993.
So, let’s take a look via YouTube at the scenes I have in mind. Although they take only a total of about 18 minutes, seen in succession they form a natural progression of themes in “Gods and Generals,” and an enticement to go back and spend the time to view the entire film, with perhaps a keener appreciation of its objectives and how they relate to the whole.
First, there is the magnificent scene with Robert E. Lee (played with absolute realism and believability by Robert Duvall), refusing command offered to him of the entire Federal army intended to suppress the “cotton states” and succinctly stating his reasons why (April 1861) (3:55):
Then, in logical order Lee’s acceptance (after he had resigned from the US Army and after Virginia had seceded—so there is absolutely NO question of treason at all) of command of the troops of the independent State of Virginia (2:51):
Both clips in a few well-chosen phrases give the viewer a basic refresher in constitutional theory as understood by the Framers of the Constitution—and enunciated by Lee and the Virginia assembly, essentially framing why there was a war and why Southerner were completely justified in resisting the usurpations of a reckless Federal government, intent on violent anti-constitutional subjugation.
The third clip shows General Jackson before the First Battle of Manassas, invoking the assistance of Almighty God, and connecting the Confederate cause with Godliness and the necessity to defend those God-given rights conferred on his fellow citizens. The YouTube excerpt captures Jackson’s fervent faith, a faith that was shared by his fellow Southerners (1:50):
Now, we see General Jackson’s depth of patriotism and devotion to the Cause, and his comprehension that what the new Confederacy was attempting was truly a “Second War for Independence.” One cannot help but be moved by Jackson’s address to the First Brigade. His words resonate today as they did back then (2:31):
Here we have what we may call the Confederate General Staff as assembled at Fredericksburg for Christmas, 1862. And once again Stonewall Jackson, interacting with a young girl, is moved to encapsulate many of the sincere wishes and longings of Confederates under arms in defense of their homeland and their families (3:29):
Next we have General Lee (Duvall), before the Battle of Fredericksburg, poetically recalling his history, his family, and fundamental beliefs that course in the veins of every thinking Southerner whose memory has not been destroyed or polluted by the dominant American culture (1:10):
As a final scene in my series, and a defiant reminder of the importance of our heritage and our present duty, I pass on perhaps the most inspiring moment in the film—“The Bonnie Blue Flag,” as sung by the assembled Confederates in winter quarters. Even as “Dixie” is, in a sense, “the national anthem of the South,” “The Bonnie Blue Flag” represents an exultant and militant Southland and its citizens, ready always to do their duty to family and country, under the guidance of and obedience to Almighty God (2:28).
Thus my vision of how we can see and comprehend some of major points in “Gods and Generals,” and relate to the film historically, by becoming part of it, seeing with the eyes of its characters and fathoming what they were able to recreate historically. Not just a “re-enactment,” but a window into the lives and minds of our ancestors, and a path to a greater understanding of what they did and why they did it.
This piece was originally published at MyCorner on June 8, 2022.
Boyd D. Cathey holds a doctorate in European history from the Catholic University of Navarra, Pamplona, Spain, where he was a Richard Weaver Fellow, and an MA in intellectual history from the University of Virginia (as a Jefferson Fellow). He was assistant to conservative author and philosopher the late Russell Kirk. In more recent years he served as State Registrar of the North Carolina Division of Archives and History. He has published in French, Spanish, and English, on historical subjects as well as classical music and opera. He is active in the Sons of Confederate Veterans and various historical, archival, and genealogical organizations.