Our rating: 4 out of 5
reviewed by: Charity Bishop
"The duty is ours; the consequences belong to God."
- Stonewall Jackson
The mainstream critics have a lot of complaints against this film. It's not hard to see why. Out of every film I have ever seen, there is no finer example of godly manhood than General Stonewall Jackson. Gods & Generals is the boldest, most touching and must fulfilling war epic to come out in a long time. It's not ultimately about the Civil War. It's about one man's journey of faith through wartime. What better lesson for our nation at this pivotal time in history than to walk in the shoes of General Jackson. Every man or woman who wants to be all they can be should see Gods & Generals.
The film opens in the weeks prior to the choice of secession by the state of Virginia, who does not wish to be governed by the laws of the Union. Colonel Robert E. Lee (Robert Duvall) has been called into the office of Lincoln's secretary to be offered the position as Major General of the Union army. Although he loves his country, his first loyalty is to his home state of Virginia. He will not fight against his family and friends. Lee chooses instead to alliance himself with Richmond as they prepare for war. Gathering his forces, Lee calls upon an old comrade in arms to accompany him... General Thomas Jackson (Stephen Lang). Leaving his beautiful young wife behind, Jackson takes command of the brigade and they begin to fight their way north, defending the homeland against the invading Yankee regiments. Jackson's first loyalty lies with his God; Virginia comes second in his heart. Willing that 'Thy will be done, Lord' before each battle, he prays diligently for success. All across Virginia, similar prayers are being uttered as tearful but proud mothers send their husbands and sons off to war. But the south does not fight itself. In the state of Maine, Joshua Lawrence, a former college professor, has chosen to join the Union army to fight for the United States, his president, and the abolition of slavery. Accompanied by his brother Tom, Chamberlain is given command of one regiment and journeys south.
They serve one God, but from opposite sides of the war. Eventually the two armies will collide in a bloody skirmish with devastating results. Brother against brother. Friend against friend. General against general. There are two sides to every war, but only ever one outcome. As the powerful film unfolds, we are given profound glimpses into the hearts of the men who fought with equal bravery for what they believed was God's will. Faces and names from the pages of history leap into our hearts forever. General E. Lee. Stonewall Jackson. General Longstreet. General Hancock. Real men with real values and a real passion for what they believed to be right. I've never seen such a film. It's a masterpiece, an epic undertaking. There hasn't been a movie this religious to come out of Hollywood ever. We learn to love and respect Stonewall Jackson as we follow his distinguished career borne out of devotion for the cause.
As a Christian, even coming from a steadfast Yankee background, I found myself ardently admiring Jackson, Lee, and other confederates... primarily for their faith in God. The film revolves heavily around prayer, scripture, and discussions on life and death. Jackson reads a passage of scripture with his wife before departing for war. On her birthday (also, consequently, the first day of battle, and a Sunday) he goes out into a field early in the morning and prays deeply for her, as well as pledging that should it be God's will that he 'come home' (die) on that day, he is ready and willing. It's touching to witness Jackson's sorrows and joys. He joyfully thanks God when the news comes that his wife has been blessed with a healthy baby girl. He runs to meet the train bringing them south during a rare peacetime. He befriends a little girl whose daddy has gone off to war (arguably the film's most touching scenes) and weeps deeply for his fallen comrades after a personal tragedy. His wife is also deeply faithful and godly. She tells him that they have no reason to fear... for they serve a loving God. When faced with the possibility of her husband's death, she wills his spirit to her heavenly father. The Yankees also show some religious leanings, but not as deeply as the Southern generals. Intermingled with the battles and lengthy patches of meaningful dialogue are moving speeches about slavery, war, fighting for what one believes in, and occasional poetry. The courage is mounted by not only the armies, but the families of the soldiers forced to flee their homes, even a Negro woman determined to protect her mistress' plantation. 'I was born a slave,' she says. 'I love the family who lives here. But I want to die free.'
It could be argued that the film is a little one-sided, and to some extent, it is. It does, after all, revolve around the life of Stonewall Jackson. We have to remember that this is part one of a three-part trilogy, which begins with Gods & Generals, is followed by Gettysburg, and ends with the final chapter, no doubt which will highlight the Union soldiers. But as it stands, if you want a glimpse into what life was like during the Civil War era -- from the ideas of morality, faith, and honor to the politics, mindset, and challenges faced by each army -- this is an ideal choice. The casting is brilliant. The costuming and cinematography are precise. The dialogue is gorgeous. My only real complaint comes with the running time. Nearly four hours long, and with dramatic cuts to splice it down from the original six-hour series, another hour could have been shaved off battle scenes alone. The war sequences are too long and drawn out. We know many men were killed in battle. Do we have to see every gun fired and reloaded thirty times each?
The monotony of the extended war sequences water down what is in every other way a superb triumph. The most fatal flaw in all Hollywood directors (and for that part, many writers as well) is that they don't know when to quit. This aspect will be a major turnoff to a lot of people, particularly women who will wait patiently for the video and fast-forward most of the action. The content problems are minor. A half dozen mild profanities. Some tender kissing between Jackson and his wife. There is some blood, but only in hospital tents or wounded soldiers... the actual warfare is lengthy but kept to a PG13 rating by eliminating all possible gore. The smoke from canon fire obscures the resulting hail of bullets. Men fall by the hundreds with each blast of gunfire. Horses are toppled by explosions, sending their riders flying. Some don't get up again. Emotionally, the film packs quite a punch. Two Irish brigades on either side of the war, forced to fight in a reluctant skirmish. Former friends meeting on the battlefield. Losses coming from not only battle, but scarlet fever as well. Yes, it is too long and I did glance at my watch a couple times during lengthy battle sequences. But the wealth of the film's deeper aspects, including the shame I felt for my own pale faith in comparison to those who have come before me, make Gods & Generals a journey which any American and every Christian should take, no matter what their background.