Many, many years ago, Herbert Yates, president of B-picture- and serial-movie-company Republic Pictures, expressed a desire to make a Civil War epic to challenge Gone With the Wind. At the time, some wag inquired, “What are you going to call it? Lavender and Old Stock Shots?” It is in this spirit perhaps that media mogul Ted Turner and Civil War enthusiast Ronald F. Maxwell bring us Gods and Generals — all 229 minutes of it. It may have cost $56 million, but it’s a monument to bad special effects, worse matte paintings and laughably bad fake wigs and beards. (I would love to have had the crepe-hair concession on this thing; I could have retired comfortably.)
The film aspires to be an epic but succeeds only in being one of the most singularly butt-numbing experiences I’ve ever had in a movie theatre. The spectacle in Gods and Generals is so lamely handled that it looks for all the world like the filmmakers were let loose on a group of Civil War aficionados reenacting a battle on a Sunday afternoon. That, however, is the best part of Gods and Generals. There are far worse aspects — for example, the script. Oh, boy, is there the script.
In the world of Mr. Maxwell, people don’t talk to each other, they make speeches. And when they’re not making speeches, they’re quoting from the Harvard Five Foot Shelf of Classics. And when they’re not doing that, they’re praying — these people do a lot of praying. Unfortunately, they don’t pray for anything reasonable, like some disaster befalling the agent that got them into this mess.
You know you’re in for it when “Stonewall” Jackson (Stephen Lang) is called to war and his idea of bidding goodbye to his wife (Kali Rocha, who plays the entire film as if someone is in the wings shouting, “Eyes and teeth! Eyes and teeth!” to her by way of acting instruction) is for the two of them to sit down and read the Bible. All too often, everything stops so people can stand around a piano and sing. Not content with this, the movie also affords us what is perhaps the most jaw-droppingly bad “production number” in the history of film. You know it’s all Very Important, though, because subtitles keep telling us what division of what army we’re looking at (though they never explain just who the soldiers in the red pajamas are — I’m assuming they’re geographically challenged Russian acrobats).
The decidedly B-list cast (Robert Duvall to one side) trudges gamely through all this verbiage, but apparently without the guidance of much direction from Maxwell. The performances alternate between seeming to come from people who have just indulged in crystal meth and those who have recently dropped Quaaludes. It is, in any case, not a good mix. Only Duvall emerges with any kind of dignity (except when he’s obviously having trouble staying astride his white steed), and it’s impossible not to think that he knows he’s merely there to quote Robert E. Lee’s greatest hits. The film, however, is mostly in the hands of Lang’s “Stonewall” Jackson, and there’s no denying that his is a portrayal for the ages — the ages of the “Razzie” Awards, that is.
As conceived by Maxwell, old “Stonewall” is the sort of fellow who would nowadays be riding around with a bumper sticker reading, “Kill ’em all and let God sort ’em out.” And Lang plays him accordingly. I’m not sure it’s entirely fair to fault any actor too much who is given a deathbed scene (complete with a sanitized PG-13 makeup cribbed from Richard Chamberlain’s in The Music Lovers) that runs nearly a full reel of film, but it’s impossible not to sit there muttering, “Come on and die already,” or hope that Lang will finally blurt out, “I can’t read this rubbish,” and stalk out of the scene.
It must be bad enough to be shot by your own men, but it has to be the height of personal embarrassment to be shot by men under the command of William Sanderson’s General A.P. Hill. Granted, Sanderson probably needed the work, but he’s still stuck in giving the same performance he gave weekly on Newhart as Larry (so much so that it’s hard not to think that Jackson was probably shot by his brother Darrell and his other brother Darrell). It hardly matters, though, since it’s too much of an uphill battle to care what happens to any of these characters; frankly, my dears, you probably won’t give a damn.
I don’t know who these “gods” are that the film refers to, but the proceedings are certainly rife with generals — generals, generals, and more generals. Most of them sit on horseback as removed as possible from the battles, and all I could think of was Woody Allen’s assessment in Love and Death, “Gee, the battle looks completely different to the generals up on the hill.”
Politically, the movie is as hot a potato as you’re ever likely to encounter. The Old South appears to boast maybe half a dozen black people — only two of whom have dialogue, and most of that is less relevant than what you find in 1939’s Gone With the Wind. Even so, there’s something more than a little ironic about a Civil War drama that wants to cast doubt on Lincoln’s actions and does a less successful job of it than you find in Scorsese’s Gangs of New York, which isn’t even directly about the Civil War!
The whole thing is pretty much a shambles — and a boring one at that. With trailers, etc., it weighs in at a whacking great four hours and four minutes (complete with the threat of an upcoming companion film to finish off Maxwell’s trilogy, which began with Gettysburg). So that’s two movies’ worth of my time — and I’m considering petitioning to be paid for reviewing both!