Gods and Generals

Ronald F. Maxwell is apparently a big fan of the Civil War. Good for him, I say. Everyone needs a hobby, and while I personally don’t understand the pleasure to be gained in analyzing and reliving a horrific war that took place 150 years ago, far be it from me to criticize someone else’s pastime.

That said, I do wish Maxwell would stop making movies. I didn’t see his “Gettysburg” (1993), but by all accounts it was a tolerable, albeit very long, sort of film. His new one, “Gods and Generals,” a prequel to “Gettysburg,” is less so. I can only imagine that his planned third installment will be worse, according to the law of diminishing returns.

There is almost no dialogue in “Gods and Generals,” which clocks in at 3 hours and 40 minutes. When people converse, they are always either giving a speech, or else waiting silently until it’s their turn to give a speech. When no one’s talking, it’s because they’re shooting each other on the battlefield. Sometimes, people give speeches WHILE they’re shooting each other on the battlefield. Both activities — speaking and shooting — are done with a good deal of pomp and bombast.

The central character is Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson (Stephen Lang, who played Gen. Pickett in “Gettysburg”), a deeply religious man dedicated to states’ rights. “Though I love the union, I love Virginia more,” he says through his thick, thick beard, one of many thick, thick beards to occupy the film. And so he takes up charge of the confederate army, under the command of Gen. Robert E. Lee (Robert Duvall, a descendant of Lee), in the spring of 1861.

Though Maxwell is more earnest than skilled as both a writer and a director, he deserves credit here for presenting the South as the heroes, despite their espousal of several ideas — most notably slavery — that modern audiences are not liable to agree with. Indeed, in every battle sequence, it’s the confederacy we’re rooting for, even though a) we know they’re ultimately going to lose, and b) we’re glad they did.

Unfortunately, the battle scenes are often marred by the presence of non-actors in the ranks. Maxwell got hundreds of those guys who do Civil War re-enactments in their spare time to do their thing for the cameras, and it shows: The battles look like Civil War re-enactments, not like the bloody nightmares they actually were. Someone gets shot and sort of falls over, while the guy next to him gets a mild look of unconvincing surprise on his face; repeat that sort of hamminess over and over again and you get the idea.

Off the battlefield, Stephen Lang is very good as Jackson nearly bringing the man to life despite the two-dimensional manner in which he is painted. Robert Duvall is also wonderful to watch in the smaller role of Gen. Lee, giving an award-caliber performance in a mediocre film.

Maxwell appears to lack confidence in himself. When Jackson breaks down and cries at one point, it is not enough for us to see it and realize what it all means; there have to be two men standing to the side TELLING us why he’s crying. It ruins any poignancy the moment might have had. Maxwell shouldn’t be afraid of a little silence every now and then; he uses it much more effectively in a scene between a rank-and-file Yankee and a rank-and-file Reb who swap coffee and tobacco at a river crossing.

The director also ought to learn that it is not necessary to film everything. So concerned is he with getting all the details right that he includes things that could have been omitted, omissions that would have streamlined the story and eliminating extraneous characters.

“Gods and Generals” is not poorly made; it’s just over-made. Three hours and 40 minutes is excessive even for a great movie, and if the movie’s only so-so, it’s enough to make you want to secede from the theater.

C+ (3 hrs., 40 min.; PG-13, a lot of battlefield violence, though little is gory or graphic.)