The Civil War Returns


Mr. Lincoln said he liked his speeches short and sweet, so here it is: The new Warner Brothers picture "Gods and Generals" is not only the finest movie ever made about the Civil War, it is also the best American historical film. Period.

Writer-director Ron Maxwell's prequel to his epic Gettysburg (1993) is so free of cant, of false notes, of the politically conformist genuflections that we expect in our historical movies, that one watches it as if in a trance, wondering if he hasn't stumbled into a movie theater in an alternative America wherein talented independents like Maxwell get $80 million from Ted Turner to make complex and beautiful films about what Gore Vidal has called "the great single tragic event that continues to give resonance to our Republic."

I watched Gods and Generals with a jackhammer headache coming off a sleepless night plus half a day wandering through suburban Charlotte, North Carolina, hardly a den of wonderment and charm. Not ideal conditions for sitting down to a three-hour-and-45-minute movie, yet Maxwell's magnum opus bowled me over. Beside Gods and Generals, such previous treatments of the War Between the States as Edward Zwick's civics lesson Glory (1989) and the soap operatics of Gone With the Wind are revealed as arrant juvenilia.

Come February 21, Gods and Generals will invade the nation's theaters in a commercial gamble by Warner Brothers that could be a masterstroke, � la Lincoln's maneuvering at Fort Sumter, or a disaster on the order of Pikett's Charge. The four-hour-plus Gettysburg was a commercial and critical success, but that and six dollars will buy Maxwell a cup of coffee in Hollywood.

Over eggs and toast in Charlotte, I spoke with the writer-director on the morning after his film was screened for one of those putatively Middle American "test audiences" that corporations solicit to grade shampoo, new flavors of M&M's, and big-budget movies. Maxwell is intense yet personable. He feels the obvious exasperation of a filmmaker who has created a masterpiece and is being told to slice and dice it so that teenagers who arrive at the cineplex too late to catch Dude, Where's My Car? III might be tempted by the "awesome battle scenes" of Maxwell's film.

"They operate from fear and loathing and a complete lack of understanding of what this film is about," says Maxwell of studio executives. "They might as well be looking at hieroglyphics." In test markets like Charlotte, the film scored spectacularly high with men over the age of 35 and not so well with teenage girls. Which, in the cockeyed logic of the studios, meant that the film must be shorn for the legion of Britney's incapable of sitting still for 225 minutes, even with a nose-powdering intermission. "They want to cut, cut, cut to make it more palatable for everybody," says Maxwell with disgust.

I ask Maxwell why so few films are made about American history. "There's a feeling in Hollywood that the audience doesn't care," he answers. "I think that's because those who make the decisions don't care about history. Their field of view is contemporary. Many studio executives, because they aren't interested in looking beyond their own lifetimes, draw the conclusion that no one else is interested, either. They don't understand that an audience is out there. Of course, they haven't catered to that audience for decades."

The epigraph to Gods and Generals is from George Eliot: "A human life, I think, should be well rooted in some spot of a native land, where it may get the love of tender kinship.� The best introduction to astronomy is to think of the nightly heavens as a little lot of stars belonging to one's own homestead." Maxwell thus tips us off even before the first strains of the powerful John Frizzell-Randy Edelman score that what we are about to see is not the Hollywood-squared version of the Civil War, in which Father Abraham and the purehearts vanquish blackguard slaveowners and the drooling proto-Klansmen who fight for them. We are in for a challenging and uncommonly intelligent film. In conversation, Maxwell cites as influences Edmund Wilson's Patriotic Gore, Gore Vidal's Lincoln, and the Southern poet Allen Tate — works in which the war is rather more complex than the simple-minded morality play of a social-studies text.

The abolitionists, God bless them, were right on the big issue of the day: 'tis a painfully incomplete "freedom" that includes the right to own men, women, and children. To the extent the Confederacy was built on man-owning, it was repellent. But as Maxwell understands — seemingly alone among those few who have deemed the Civil War worthy of celluloid — this was not the only issue, and to some Southerners, it was not even the major issue.

Gods and Generals is loosely based on a novel by Jeff Shaara, son of Michael Shaara, whose beloved novel The Killer Angels was the source of Gettysburg. In the earlier film, Maxwell's rendering of Pickett's Charge and the Battle for Little Round Top were shattering in their depiction of valor and carnage. But if Gettysburg is an absorbing film, it is very much an anatomization of that famous battle.

Gods and Generals is a character study: not merely of men at war, but of specific men in a specific war. Maxwell follows four of the war's best officers — Confederates Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson and Robert E. Lee, and Joshua Chamberlain and Winfield Scott Hancock of the Union army — through three battles leading up to Gettysburg: First Bull Run, Fredericksburg, and Chancellorsville. His focus settles on Jackson, seemingly the most forbidding of the quartet, a strange, distant, severely religious lemon-sucking man of the western Virginia mountains.

This is a film of marvelous parts: Meagher's Irish Brigade advances into the hellfire of a rebel Irish unit on the fields of Fredericksburg. A reb and a Yankee wordlessly share a cup of coffee and a smoke on a rock in the Rappahannock River. In a delightfully playful scene, an exotic pair of camp troubadors — a kind of CSA Sonny and Cher — belt out a rollicking version of "The Bonnie Blue Flag" to a hand-clapping knee-slapping audience of Confederate brass, including Robert E. Lee, who mumbles the lyrics, obviously caught up in the exuberance of the tune but always so damned mindful of his dignity.

Like the Civil War nurse surnamed Whitman, Maxwell's sympathies lie on all sides, on every side. How perfect, then, that Bob Dylan sings the haunting "Cross the Green Mountain" over the closing credits, his plaint sounding like Appalachia by way of Hibbing, Minnesota, as abolitionist folkie meets Jewish Confederate in the great song that is America. If Maxwell seems to be of two — or 22 — minds about the war, that makes him all the more deeply dyed in the American grain. For what man born with a living soul cannot see both the moral imperative of abolition and the nobility of men defending their homeland?

Robert Duval as
General Robert E. Lee

Shelby Foote's only complaint about Gettysburg was that Robert Duvall, the great American actor, did not play Robert E. Lee. (Martin Sheen was Marse Robert the first time around.) This time, the Virginian Duvall gets his chance to play the general who is his matrilineal ancestor. Borrowing from Michael Shaara's title, Maxwell suggests, "It would be fair to say that Martin Sheen emphasized the angel and Robert Duvall emphasized the killer." Maxwell expects to draw flak for his depiction of Confederate soldiers as human beings rather than the racist caricatures which the viewer expects in a modern film. "The culture has stiffened into a politically correct straitjacket," he says. "People don't feel they have permission to question certain shibboleths: among them that the Civil War was fought only for slavery."

Maxwell provides the fairest, most eloquent exposition of the Southern point of view ever presented on film — and yet as counterpoint we have always Joshua Chamberlain, the fighting scholar of the 20th Maine and the conscience of the movie, reminding us that black-skinned Americans are being held as chattel. "I do question a system that defends its own freedom while it denies it to others," Chamberlain tells his brother, and here we have the paradox of the CSA.

Contra Chamberlain, General Jackson frames the war as a question of competing patriotisms: "Though I love the Union, I love Virginia more." He explains to his Shenandoah Valley volunteers at the war's outset: "Just as we would not send any of our soldiers to march in other states and tyrannize other people, so will we never allow the armies of others to march into our state and tyrannize our people." Jackson describes the fight as a conflict between the industrial North and the agrarian South. Defeat means not just the liberation of slaves; it would augur "the triumph of commerce, banks, and the factory."

Maxwell makes Jackson, played by Stephen Lang in a careermaking performance, the film's emotional and narrative centerpiece. His Stonewall is devout and adamant, but also quite capable of tenderness, as we see in a lyrical passage depicting Jackson's fondness for a doomed five-year-old girl.

Among Maxwell's great virtues as a filmmaker is his honesty. His respect for his subjects never slips into hagiography. Just as even the most hardened Yank in the audience has warmed to Jackson, three Confederate deserters are hauled before the general. His aide gently suggests a policy of mercy, but the commander will have none of it. The boys are quickly tried and executed; Jackson watches impassively as their bullet-torn bodies tumble backwards into their hastily dug graves. To measure the distance at which Gods and Generals stands from most movie histories, compare Maxwell's complex Jackson with the cartoonish John Quincy Adams (good guy!) and John C. Calhoun (bad guy!) in Steven Spielberg's jejune Amistad.

It is no accident that "Gods" precedes "Generals" in the film's title, for God is a constant and pervasive presence in the film. Jackson and Lee invoke God's name, and see themselves as instruments of His will. As Jackson tells his wife upon his deathbed, "Pray for me. But in your prayers, never forget to use the petition, 'Thy will be done.'" We wait for the kicker: In modern films, religious men must be exposed in all their hypocritical sanctimony. Surely Jackson's piety will be lampooned, or revealed for the oleaginous sham that it is. But no. Maxwell even has the gall to depict Jackson committing a wholly unexpected act of...tolerance!

As Stonewall sits at the deathbed of General Maxcy Gregg, Jackson urges Gregg to "turn your thoughts to God." Gregg patiently replies that he is "not a believer." Jackson answers, "Then I will believe for the both of us." It is a quiet moment that resounds.

Jackson's relationship with his cook, Jim Lewis, a freeman of color, is rich and unsentimentalized. They shake hands upon meeting — Jackson calls him "Mister" — and if the times leave no question as to Lewis's social subordination, Christian morality has a way of confounding matters. As the men pray on a winter's eve, Lewis offers an impromptu petition: "How is it Lo'd, can you 'splain sumpin' to dis ol'Virginy man? How is it a good Christian man like some folks I know can tolerate dey black brothers in bondage? How it is Lo'd, dat dey don't jes break dem chains?" The tragedy of American politics is that the South hadn't an answer.

Lewis (subtly played by Frankie Faison) and the film's other significant African-American character, a domestic slave named Martha (played by Donzaleigh Abernethy, daughter of civil rights titan Ralph), are not the usual ahistorical cardboard cutouts, but complicated human beings actuated by love, loyalty, and a yearning to be no man's vassal. Yet, I tell Maxwell, he's in for it. Contemporary etiquette requires movie slaves to speak the King's English, outwit their cruel and thick-skulled white masters, and have the rebellious gleam of Nat Turner in their eyes.

Maxwell wonders if audience members will think that Lewis's status as a freeman is a put-on: "They'll just have this received wisdom that all blacks in the South were slaves." Yet "how can you not have Jim Lewis" in the film? "He was with Jackson all the time. He was in the inner circle."Viewers will be jolted by the sight of black men laboring in the Confederate cause. "Ninety percent of the cooks, quartermasters, or wagonmasters were African Americans," says Maxwell. "The Confederate Army couldn't have crossed the street without African Americans, let alone fight a war."

Jim Lewis speaks in dialect. The black and white actors in Gods and Generals studied with dialect coach Robert Easton to achieve lingual verisimilitude. "We're not making people look like uneducated hicks or emphasizing racial stereotypes," protests Maxwell, whose film is awash in what he calls a "symphony of dialects" with sources ranging from the Mississippi Delta to the crags of Maine. "You're dealing with specific places and a specific time," says the director. "There is no air travel, no Internet, no television. People lived their lives within a few miles of where they were born."

One of the film's signal virtues is its respect for place. In a beautiful moment written by Maxwell, Robert E. Lee surveys the lovely land around Fredericksburg from atop a hill, before the battle. Lee explains to his adjutant that this is where he met the woman who would become his wife. He muses, "It's something these Yankees do not understand, will never understand. Rivers, hills, valleys, fields, even towns: To those people they're just markings on a map from the war office in Washington. To us, they're birthplaces and burial grounds, they're battlefields where our ancestors fought. They're places where we learned to walk, to talk, to pray. They're places where we made friendships and fell in love.� They're the incarnation of all our memories and all that we love."

This film asks the vital question: What is patriotism? "For Chamberlain, the fundamental unit of patriotism is the United States of America," says Maxwell."For Jackson and Lee, it is their state. The men are equally patriotic; they are admirable in that they have a sense of the group that transcends their individuality. But what are the borders of that country?"

In an earlier Civil War epic, Ross Lockridge, Jr.'s forgotten novel Raintree County (1948), Professor Jerusalem Webster Stiles confidently predicts, "The new generations will look back on the Civil War with great calm. It's hard to feel sorry for folks who died a hundred years ago." Sorry, professor. The war seems to grow in the national imagination as it recedes in time. I ask Maxwell why.

"It's the only major war fought on our soil," he replies. "It ravaged our country, especially the South. The other American wars were fought against 'aliens': This was a family feud. Americans who can trace their ancestry back to the nineteenth century have a direct relationship to the war. And the tension between individual and local decisions and federal government decisions is still with us today."

Maxwell says that his Civil War films "would be impossible to make" without the thousands of dedicated re-enactors who compose his cinematic armies. He attributes the popularity of re-enacting to a desire "to return to what people think was a simpler time, a time of greater moral clarity." He says this without condescension; in fact, with sympathy. "These are particularly confusing times because of the rapidity of change. We no longer live our lives in one locality. We're moving all the time, changing jobs. Our children and parents are spread out over continents. Through television we are kept in a state of constant agitation. No generation before ours has been under such assault on what many believe to be traditional values. So I think people want to retreat: to leave the whole bloody twentieth century behind" — even to find solace in the bloodiest fields of the nineteenth century.

A decade has passed between the release of Gettysburg and the appearance of Gods and Generals. I ask Maxwell if his understanding of the war has changed.

"Yes," he instantly replies. "My sense of the tragedy of the war has been deepened. That's why I wanted Shakespeare to comment on the war through Booth."

Yes, that Booth.

In a device as audacious as it is brilliant, Maxwell has a pair of traveling Southern Shakespearean actors, James Harrison and John Wilkes Booth, offer a running commentary on secession, war, and the duty of the artist. Booth had a flair for Shakespearean regicides. "It's almost as if he was trained by the greatest writer who ever lived to kill the monarch," marvels Maxwell. The Booth scenes are witty and foreboding. There is an unnerving moment when Booth, playing MacBeth at Washington's Grover's Theater, locks eyes with Lincoln as he declaims, "I see thee still, And on thy blade and dudgeon gouts of blood."

Fanny Chamberlain, wife of Joshua, asks Booth after a performance of Julius Caesar whether his Brutus is a hero or villain. Booth replies, "It is for the audience to decide who is hero, who is villain. We simply play the parts allotted to us."

Maxwell understands just how startling it will be for an audience to see Southerners presented as men who believe they are fighting a defensive war against Yankee imperialists. But Fanny's question, he says, really applies to this entire astonishing film.

The phrase "great American novel" was coined by John W. De Forest, who wrote the first important novel of the Civil War, Miss Ravenel's Conversion From Secession to Loyalty (1867). From Stephen Crane to the Shaaras, American writers have engaged this central event in our national history with wit and fury and imagination, but our filmmakers have largely scorned it as a tedious interlude in a school textbook. Until Ron Maxwell.

As for the eternal war of artist versus philistine? Win some, lose some. Warner Brothers will release the film at three hours and 30 minutes, with an intermission. To save those measly 15 minutes, John Wilkes Booth is gone. His marvelous scenes, so critical to the movie, have been excised, though they will be restored when the DVD of Gods and Generals is released this summer.

Whether or not Maxwell completes a Civil War trilogy with The Last Full Measure/, in which Booth plays his last regicide, "totally depends on the box office," he shrugs. The most recent Civil War movie, Ang Lee's commendable Ride With the Devil (1999), flopped, despite the winsome presence of the pop singer Jewel. If there is not an audience of American adults for the gem-like Gods and Generals, then maybe Hollywood is right to hold us in contempt.

Ron Maxwell has given us an American masterpiece about the most myth-laden, destructive, and regenerative episode in American history. Who are the heroes? Who are the villains? You decide.




Bill Kauffman. "The Civil War Returns." The American Enterprise March 2003.

Reprinted with permission of The American Enterprise, a magazine of Politics, Business, and Culture. On the web at Call 1-888-295-9007 to subscribe.


Bill Kauffman is the associate editor of The American Enterprise Kauffman is now finishing two books, and is the author of four books already published: Every Man a King (1989), a novel; Country Towns of New York (1994), a travel book; America First! Its History, Culture, and Politics (1995); and With Good Intentions? Reflections on the Myth of Progress in America (1998). He also contributes to the Wall Street Journal, the Spectator (the English one, that is), the Independent (also of London, oddly for an America Firster), Chronicles, and many other newspapers and magazines. Gore Vidal, Kauffman's favorite writer, has dubbed him "the sage of Batavia."

Copyright © 2003 The American Enterprise

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