Students have reason to quarrel with the ‘Gods’

On Jan. 28, Bronfman Auditorium was packed with eager students drawn to watch what was advertised as an “advanced screening” of the upcoming Civil War film Gods and Generals. Many students, like me, were perceptibly excited by such an event, rare for towns such as Williamstown. Students anticipated a post-screening discussion with director Ron Maxwell and, schedule allowing, the participation of two of the actors featured in the film. The advertising, regrettably, proved to be inaccurate on more than one count.

Gods and Generals tells the story of two accomplished soldiers from the opposing sides of the Civil War: Stonewall Jackson of the Confederacy (Stephen Lang), and Lt. Col. Joshua Chamberlain of the Union (Jeff Daniels). A cast of literally hundreds supports them, including Robert Duvall as Robert E. Lee. The film aims to examine the different beliefs held by major participants in the Civil War, looking at how they used faith to carry them through challenges, how they legitimized their actions and, ultimately, how they were changed by the ordeals of war.

After dragging through various stages of planning for nearly ten years, the film is now being released as the prequel to Gettysburg, Maxwell’s widely-acclaimed account of the epic battle between Gen. Meade and Gen. Lee in rural Pennsylvania. Fans of Gettysburg and history buffs alike have highly anticipated Gods and Generals, as evidenced by the enthusiastic audience at Bronfman. Unfortunately, the event failed to fully satisfy this anticipation. Although the weekly calendar advertised the coming of Maxwell, we were instead presented with Dennis Frye, an associate producer. While Frye proved to be a very interesting guest lecturer, he could not make up for the inevitable disappointment of meeting, well, an associate producer. Having gotten over that initial frustration, we had to endure a second one: rather than watching the entire movie, we would be watching a thirty minute collage of scenes constituting roughly one sixth of the finished product to be shown in theatres. We were shown, in essence, a thirty minute trailer.

By the closing sequence, however, I considered myself lucky not to have to sit through the 216-minute epic. What we saw was an amalgamation of battle scenes interspersed with dramatic moments – all of which featured entirely unconvincing performances by Lang, Daniels, and Duvall. At one point, Daniels, about to lead his brigade into battle, looked at the battle scene, puffed out his chest and yelled, “Hail Cesar, we who are about to die salute you!” with such verve that he was utterly ridiculous. I nearly burst out laughing. And we also suffer through Duvall and his series of scenes on horseback, atop hills and mountains, spouting out life lessons about the “horro’s of wah.” Mira Sorvino is featured in a couple of scenes as well, but remains completely forgettable.

The discussion that followed was equally disappointing. We learned how difficult it was to find period costumes and good filming locations. Two actors in minor roles, Scott Cooper and Steven Spacek, accompanied Frye and fielded questions about the problems associated with coordinating such a large cast of extras. They also addressed their personal interest in making the film, as both had relatives who fought in the war. They then concluded by asking audience members to recommend the film to others. If you are a Civil War buff, then you probably will want to see this film, if only for the elaborate historical accuracy dedicated to the production, which was indeed commendable. If you aren’t, then don’t force yourself to sit through three-and-a-half hours of Jeff Daniels trying to be serious and profound.

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