It’s been a critical Antietam for the film Gods and Generals, which opens in theaters Friday. Ron Maxwell’s Civil War epic got massacred by reviewers. “Turgid, textureless and endless … history as punishment,” was the Associated Press verdict, typical of so many others. “Stiff, ponderous, fluttering in its ‘poetry,’ and crudely simplistic as an apologia for the Confederate ideology,” says Entertainment Weekly. Declaims New York Press: “It is truly a whitewash of the past.”
Well. If the four-hour battlefield epic doesn’t work for reviewers on an artistic level, it’s hard to make a case against that kind of judgment. But the moral and political indictment of the film as a “whitewash of the past” is politically correct slander. Gods and Generals commits the unpardonable sin of depicting the Confederate generals not as prototypes of Goering and Rommel, but as noble, tragic men whose motives for fighting were complex and fully human. The movie invites understanding of the historical south, not outright condemnation, and that’s something that the present age will not tolerate.
Gods and Generals, which is loosely based on the Jeff Shaara novel of the same name, concerns itself with key battles in Virginia during the first half of the Civil War. It focuses on three characters: Union Col. Joshua Chamberlain (Jeff Daniels), later a hero of Gettysburg; Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee (a stunning Robert Duvall); and most especially, Lee’s right hand, Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson (Stephen Lang). While there is a great deal of battlefield action, the film takes care to show the thinking that went into each great man’s reasons for fighting the war. The Southern side gets much more screen time, perhaps because Maxwell leaned toward the north in his previous film, Gettysburg.
The film is about conflicting ideas of patriotism, God, personal conscience, and history. Its basic point is that Lee and Jackson (like many southerners) fought not because they loved slavery or detested the Union, but because they felt honor-bound to defend their homeland.
What is one’s homeland? To mid-19th-century Americans, most of whom never traveled more than a few miles from the place of their birth, the United States was an abstraction. In those days, it was much easier and more natural for them to feel loyalty to their state and its people. The rock singer Little Steven has a great song called “I Am a Patriot,” the chorus of which captures this deeply personal sense of nationalism: I am a patriot/And I love my country/Because my country/Is all I know/I want to be with my family/With people who understand me/I got nowhere else to go.
Lee opposed secession, but once the decision was taken, it was this sense of duty that bound him to fight for the Confederacy. If you or I had been Virginians back then, how many of us would have had the courage to have gone north to fight for the Union, or even had the imagination to conceive of such a thing? What Maxwell is trying to do here is show contemporary audiences why good men would take up arms to defend a government and a culture that enslaved other men. It is for much the same reason that black GIs fought bravely in World War II for a country that still didn’t guarantee them their full rights: because their homeland asked them to.
Maxwell takes a big risk in downplaying questions of race and slavery here. You can understand why he may have done this; do modern audiences really need to be told that slavery was evil? We see now how vicious and evil slavery was, but if you’re trying to show audiences why Lee and Jackson behaved as they did, you’re simply not going to put slavery front and center, because it didn’t figure prominently in their own deliberations, certainly not compared to the centrality of the claims their native soil had on their loyalties.
Perhaps this explains why some critics find it phony that the film’s two black characters, a house slave named Martha (Donzaleigh Abernathy) and a cook named Jim (Frankie Faison) relate so affectionately to whites. It’s easy to see these portrayals as Confederate clichés of happy black folks watched over paternally by their masters. This would be wrong, and unfair. However paradoxical, it’s simply true that whites and blacks in the south loved each other despite the structural sin in which they were mired.
Anyway, Martha and Jim both express a desire for freedom, and a clear awareness of their people’s oppression. There is a lovely scene in which Jim, who prepares meals for Jackson’s camp, prays under a starry sky with the general. Jackson is an extremely pious Presbyterian, and prays constantly. Standing next to Jim, with whom he is close, Jackson asks the Lord to protect Jim’s family. Jim, also addressing the Almighty, prays, “How is it, Lord, that good Christian men, like some men I know, tolerate they [sic] black brothers in bondage?” The general stands next to Jim, looking heavenward, beseeching God to “show us the way, and we will follow.” Jim’s face falls. He knows the general, his friend and a good man, just doesn’t get it.
That scene serves to illuminate a particularly tragic aspect of Jackson’s character. We see him throughout the film intensely praying, seeking to do the will of God. You cannot doubt his sincerity, nor the uprightness of his character. Yet there is a blindness there, an inability to grasp that his ways are not necessarily the Lord’s ways. He can be absolutely merciless. One moment he is having gentle words of prayer at the bedside of a dying soldier, and in the next breath is chillingly calling for the total slaughter of the enemy. He is both tender and ruthless — again, a paradox, but a very human and very believable one.
Religion is an integral part of Gods and Generals, particularly on the southern side. Lee and Jackson are forever talking about God’s will — Jackson at one point refers to his men as “the Army of the Lord,” as he is about to execute deserters — but don’t seem much troubled by the question as to whether or not their cause is just in His eyes. Jackson is a true Christian Stoic, believing that man’s role was to be largely passive as the will of God worked itself out through history. His conception of God was austere and tribal, as in the Old Testament. Jackson thought God ordained slavery for inscrutable reasons, but in time would end it, if that was His will. Man’s role is to wait on God, and accept everything he sends to us.
A convinced Calvinist, Jackson believed God had predestined each man to die on his appointed day. “My religion teaches me that I am as safe in battle as in bed,” he says here. “That is the way all men should live, then all men would be equally brave.” Yet this same noble conviction that allowed him to bear misfortune with equanimity also kept his conscience untroubled in the face of the unspeakable cruelty of slavery.
By contrast, the god of Col. Chamberlain is the more universalist and egalitarian vision we see in the New Testament. Chamberlain here gives voice to a vision of a God who expects His followers to act as His agents to bring justice to the world. If that should mean war, then we must make sure the ends we’re fighting for justify the suffering war will entail. Unfortunately, Chamberlain’s view, which I’m guessing is Maxwell’s, gets short shrift in the film. Nevertheless, Chamberlain has a good monologue in which he explains that even though slavery has always been with mankind, it is intolerable, and if he has to die to “end this curse and free the Negro, then God’s will be done.”
There were tremendous historical consequences from this clash of religious visions. A soldier in battle must believe God is on his side in order to bear the pain and suffering of war, yet there is great danger in presuming that the Almighty endorses your actions. He is infinite; we are finite. Gods and Generals is filled with challenging theological questions, but the movie appears to have struck historically and theologically illiterate reviewers as showing little more than a bunch of Bible-thumping rednecks sitting around talking about Jesus while fighting to keep the slaves back on the plantation.
Maxwell told me he made Gods and Generals “without judgment of that generation” of men who fought the Civil War. It wouldn’t have been true to history to make a film depicting a simplistic conflict between good and evil. Slavery was completely indefensible, but there was more to that war and the men who fought it than race hatred.
“It’s easy to judge [antebellum southerners] because of slavery,” Maxwell said. “At the same time we should recognized that they were incredibly faithful people, of incredibly strong fiber. We’ve descended from those people, and we can take solace from that.”
Solace? Maxwell seems to have no use for the au courant idea that all decent people, southerners in particular, must repudiate and be ashamed of their ancestors to be morally and socially acceptable. Brave man. He’ll pay.