Starring: Jeff Daniels, Stephen Lang, Robert Duvall, Mira Sorvino, Chris Conner
Running Time: 280 Minutes
Rated: PG-13 for Sustained Battle Sequences and Some Disturbing Images
Gods and Generals, Ronald F. Maxwell’s prequel to the critically acclaimed Gettysburg, was released in February of 2003, and met with a lukewarm critical reception, and became a failure at the box office. Many critiqued the religious overtones of the film, while some called it pro-Confederate. As someone who has loved the film since first seeing it, there are two complaints I had about it. One, the story was a little imbalanced at times editing wise. And two, the film did not seem accessible to modern movie viewers. Nevertheless, the film did a fantastic job of bringing to life the people, places and events of the American Civil War from 1861-1863.
In 2011, after being anticipated for over eight years, Ron Maxwell’s Extended Director’s Cut of the film was released on Blu-ray. A full hours worth of footage was added, bringing the total length of the film to four-hours, forty minutes. Big questions would be answered by the new version of the film. What changes would be made to the overall feel of the film? Would this version of the film be more accessible to those unfamiliar with the Civil War and its people? And finally, what scenes would be added to the film?
I’ll begin by saying this: If Gods and Generals was not the definitive Civil War epic when released in 2003, it sure as hell is now! Ron Maxwell’s full vision for the movie is a brilliantly-realized portrait of a country at war with itself, and how it affected the lives of the men who fought it, the families who lived through it, and shaped the views of one of the men who would fire the most devastating shot of the war at its conclusion. The film itself is divided into five fifty to sixty-minute parts (Manassas, Antietam, Fredericksburg, Moss Neck, and Chancellorsville), which allows for the viewer to view each segment as if watching a miniseries (Band of Brothers and The Pacific come to mind). But as Ron Maxwell says in his introduction, if you’re a huge Civil War Buff, you’re likely to watch all five parts in one sitting (Which I sort of did). Finally, the full-length cut not only gives the film a proper editorial and story balance that progresses most evenly, but also gives the film a more epic scope. The film is now very Shakespearean in tone, giving it the classical feel that Ron Maxwell intended.
For those familiar with the theatrical cut of the film, I will go over what has been added. But first, I will briefly mention that two moments from the original version have been removed entirely. The first is Jackson’s prayer before First Manassas. I loved the scene in the theatrical cut, but I will be honest, with its removal, there is no break in between the arrival of Jackson at Manassas Junction and the battle itself. We go right into it, and this actually makes the battle scene more exciting. The second is some dialogue in the Beale house, where Martha, the Beale’s slave, is talking to Hancock. Her quote from Esther is removed, but this doesn’t affect the scene all that much.
Now, here is what has been added to the film:
John Wilkes Booth
One of the major additions to the film is a subplot with John Wilkes Booth, played by Chris Conner, who features in five scenes throughout the narrative. Conner plays the character effectively, and we see Booth how he really was before his hatred of Lincoln turned him into an assassin: a passionate man torn between serving the Confederacy, and his life as one of America’s most formidable actors. But the Booth character is not just thrown in just to have him in there. The character is actually used to propel the dramatic effect of the film, and this is done effectively.
One of the Booth scenes comes in after Antietam (More on that in a moment). Historically, Booth was on stage in Chicago performing Hamlet on the evening of September 17th, 1862, the evening after the bloodiest single day in American History. In the scene, Booth is on stage giving the “my thoughts be bloody” soliloquy from Shakespeare’s masterwork, with the line that really fits what has transpired: “While’s to my shame, I see the imminent death of 20,000 men That, for a fantasy and trick of fame, Go to their graves like beds, fight for a plot , Whereon the numbers cannot try the cause, Which is not tomb enough and continent To hide the slain?” A powerful line from Hamlet used to describe what has happened. This is very effectively done.
Toward the end of the film, Booth and several actors are giving a performance of Julius Caesar in Washington, with Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain and his wife Fanny in the audience. Afterward, Chamberlain and Fanny talk with the actors, including Booth and Henry Harrison, the man who became a Confederate spy, as seen in Gettysburg. Fanny Chamberlain asks Booth if he considers Brutus a hero or a villain, and after a little interlude from Harrison, Booth states one of the film’s most powerful lines: “It is for the audience to decide who is hero, and who is villain. We only play the parts allotted to us.” This is not just a statement about the characters in Julius Caesar, but also of all the characters featured in the film itself. All the characters, both North and South, are shown as they were, in their full humanity. It is up to the audience to decide who in the film the heroes are, and who are villains, if that can be done. All the characters in the film do is what their hearts and duty call them to do, or as Booth says, play the parts allotted to them.
I thoroughly enjoyed the Booth scenes in the film. Conner does a fantastic job of humanizing the character, and not creating a one-dimensional stereotype of Booth, which is very easy to do. We see him in the beginnings of his transformation into the assassin, but since that is two years away, he is a man of passion, who enjoys presenting Shakespeare to the masses. And in the scenes, we get to see Harrison, one of the best characters from Gettysburg, on screen again, while also seeing a good, though brief, appearance of Abraham Lincoln, played warmly by Christian Kaufmann.
Additional Camp Life Scenes
There are several scenes which add a lot of dimension, and character moments, to the film. Most of these scenes involve soldier camp life. One scene in particular that is fascinating to see is between Antietam and Fredericksburg, as Jackson and his staff are relaxing after a campaign. Here, Jackson receives a new uniform coat as a gift from General Stuart, and presented to him by Heros von Borke, a very animated figure played very well. As Jackson tires the coat on in front of his men, we hear the rebel yell come out of nowhere in the background, and continue for several moments. It is an eerie and powerful moment, with Jackson commenting on how that is some of the sweetest music he’d ever heard.
The introduction to the 20th Maine is also extended. We see more of Adelbert Ames, as he explains the need for discipline in the ranks, and instructs men how to load in nine times, which Chamberlain’s brother Tom does poorly at first. The whole scene feels very complete with the added footage. Ames is more of a unique character in the film, and as a Civil War reenactor and historian, we see how difficult it is to do things such as loading a rifle.
One of the most unique scenes added though involved Jackson purchasing Little Sorrel, the horse he will ride for the rest of the war, before Manassas in 1861. He originally intends to purchase the sorrel for his wife, but preferring his gait and temper, decides to keep him for himself. Although it has nothing to do with battles and waging war, it helps to humanize the character of Jackson as a man who loves to ride. And in a scene very reminiscent of John Ford westerns, we see Jackson riding the sorrel across the hills of Northern Virginia, with powerful music by John Frizzel and Randy Edleman playng along.
The Battle of Antietam
Perhaps the greatest addition to the film is, of course, the entire sequence involving the Battle of Antietam itself. From the planning of the invasion of Maryland, to the battle itself, this represents probably the best sequence in the film. The battle itself is the shortest in the movie, only about six minutes total. But for that short amount of time, we get what is probably the best and most intense Civil War battle scene ever put on film. The artillery duel is spectacular, and the fighting in the Miller Cornfield is brilliantly recreated. We see troops firing back and forth as fast as they can; whole companies falling as if done on command; stalks of corn being cut in two by bullets; all chaos and death. Those who worked on the film said the Antietam footage was some of the best shot for the film, and from what is shown, that was an understatement.
The one complaint about the scene: the date for the battle is shown as September 19th, 1862, which in reality was two days AFTER the battle was actually fought. It does seem like these films do have mistakes in their subtitles on occasion. But, this is a small complaint, and that mistake can be clarified by historians who show it in their classrooms.
It took eight years to do so, but Ron Maxwell’s full vision for Gods and Generals has finally been released, and the wait has definitely been worth it. This is almost a completely different film than what was seen originally. The additional footage not only makes this a complete film, but also manages to do what Ron Maxwell did with Gettysburg, which is create a movie that is not only historically accurate and epic and scope, but makes the story accessible to those who are not students of the American Civil War. Despite the mistake in the date for Antietam, the extended director’s cut of Gods and Generals is far superior to the theatrical cut, and makes this the definitive film on the American Civil War. Despite its length, I have no problems recommending this film to all who enjoy history and serious films!
On a scale of 1 to 10, I give the film a 10, or A+