Is it not strange that the descendants of those Pilgrim Fathers who crossed the Atlantic to preserve their own freedom have always proved the most intolerant of the spiritual liberty of others?
— Robert E. Lee, letter to President Franklin Pierce (27
There is no such thing as memory: the brain recalls just what the muscles grope for: no more, no less: and its resultant sum is usually incorrect and false and worthy only of the name of dream.
— William Faulkner, Absalom, Absalom!
The history and the events that propel this story are true.
— Jeff Shaara, Introduction to Gods and Generals
Dreamy historical narrative is big business. Witness, for example, the stream of docudramas on the History Channel, 2000’s The Patriot, or Warner Brothers’ 1993 retelling of one of the defining battles of the Civil War, Gettysburg. Even PBS has cashed in, with Ken Burns’ exhaustive, and exhausting, miniseries, as well as Freedom: A History of Us, narrated by Katie Couric.
Now, at the end of Black History Month and in the midst of debates over the U.S. war against Iraq, comes the Civil War saga, Gods and Generals, the prequel to Gettysburg. Both films, directed by Ronald Maxwell and adapted from popular novels by father and son authors Michael and Jeff Shaara, offer familiar war movie images (rousing speeches by generals on horseback, à la Braveheart or Henry V), while raising questions about the justifications of holy warriors, as well as ideological conflicts yet simmering in the U.S.
For all its potential relevance, however, Gods and Generals lacks narrative logic, suffers from poor direction and awkward editing, and features cardboard cutouts who utter lengthy sermons in place of convincing dialogue. Many scenes resemble small screen dramatic reenactments, and might benefit from expository voice-over, given that it is impossible to grasp the various battles’ historical significance. Where its predecessor (or sequel) had focus and coherence, Gods and Generals is slipshod and self-righteous.
While Robert E. Lee was a pivotal character in Gettysburg (then played by Martin Sheen), in Gods and Generals, he is peripheral, which gives the great Robert Duvall (a direct descendent of the General, by the way) precious little to do. The film centers on the stalwart and pious General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson (Stephen Lang). He is fearless in battle, demonstrated in an early scene at the Battle of First Manassas, where he sits upright on his horse as cannon fire rains around him, thus earning his famous nickname.
Jackson is also given to frequent assertions that everything that happens is the result of God’s will. His Christian fatalism is contrasted, on the Union side, to Colonel Lawrence Chamberlain’s (Jeff Daniels) secular humanism. Both men are college professors, Jackson at Virginia Military Institute and Chamberlain at Bowdoin College. The film might have been more compelling, and pertinent, had it tightened its focus on these two men, exploring their divergent beliefs and ideologies, instead of simply having them, and others, speechify at every opportunity. Their preachiness is often indistinguishable from the film’s.
Gods and Generals lumbers for almost four hours, tracing events from the first days of the war to the crushing Union defeat at Fredericksburg. The script takes some liberties with the source novel in the introduction of two black characters — a free man named Jim Beale (Frankie Faison), and a slave, Martha (Donzaleigh Abernathy, daughter of Ralph Abernathy) — who apparently represent the “black” “point of view” during the war. Unfortunately, the film avoids examining the underlying cause of the Civil War — the South’s terror of abolition — and instead remembers the Confederacy as a noble army defending its “homeland.” Jim and Martha are but slight reminders of a nation’s racist legacy.
Jim petitions General Jackson for a job as a cook. He serves his employer faithfully, but then, in an intimate scene where Jim feeds Jackson’s horse while the General sits astride, he has the cheek to ask how the Confederacy, supposedly fighting a war for freedom from Federal tyranny, can, at the same time, justify human bondage. Jackson responds by looking to the stars and asking God to answer the question, a dodge consistent with the Southern leaders’ actual rhetorical strategy. Bobby Lee, for instance, in his prewar letter to President Pierce, wrote, “How long [slaves’] servitude may be necessary is known and ordered by a merciful Providence.” Jim does look to the stars. And God leaves it up the armies to decide the issue.
Jackson’s Christian piety is no more a hindrance to his battle tactics (which he draws directly from the Old Testament) than to his politics. After an ecstatic prayer at Bull Run, he orders his officers to “Raise the black flag” (equivalent to “Show them no mercy”). After visiting his wounded men in a battlefield hospital, he declares of the enemy, “We will kill them, sir. Kill every last one of them.”
The Union army, on the other hand, appears much less sure of itself and its cause. Are they fighting to preserve the Union, or, as Sergeant Tom Chamberlain (C. Thomas Howell) puts it, “free the darkies”? Tom echoes the sentiments of many Union troops who are resentful of blacks, feeling that political controversy over Southern slavery has dragged them unwillingly into war.
Meanwhile, “representative” slave Martha remains in Fredericksburg to defend her owner’s home. When three Union troops arrive at the door to loot and pillage, she bravely guards the door and tells them, “This is my home.” Later, when the house is requisitioned by the Federals for use as a hospital, she quotes some anti-slavery verses from the book of Esther and passionately tells a Union General, “I was born a slave, I wants to die free, and I wants my children to be free.”
Martha’s ambivalence — both her devotion to her owner’s home and yearning for autonomy — is manifested again, when black folks, along with white ones, applaud the marching Confederate Army. This dilemma, of dual allegiance, has been addressed by authors from Frederick Douglass and W.E.B. Dubois to James Baldwin and Ralph Ellison. Unfortunately, Gods and Generals glosses over its complexities, and instead, gazes at the stars. Even though Jim and Martha dare to toss in their two cents about freedom, they remain good servants.
If, as Rosa Coldfield asserts in Absalom, Absalom!, “The brain recalls just what the muscles grope for,” then memory is a muscular act of the will. In selectively remembering the Civil War, Gods and Generals does little more than glorify the defenders of slavery, who, although they lost the war, won a permanent place in the public consciousness, while the Jims and Marthas are, at least in mainstream memorializing, only recalled during the shortest month of the year.