Saturday, April 19, 2008

Editing Can't Win A War But It Might Improve This Movie

Gods And Generals
Directed by Ronald F. Maxwell

In the film "Gettysburg" Colonel Joshua Chamberlain (Jeff Daniels) utters "there's nothing so much like a god on earth as a general on a battlefield." Based on Jeff Shaara's novel of the same title "Gods and Generals" is the prequel to "Gettysburg," which itself was based on the Pulitzer Prize winning novel, "The Killer Angels," written by Shaara's father, Michael.

Directed and adapted for the screen by Ron Maxwell (as was its predecessor) "Gods and Generals" presents the first two years of the American Civil War as the Army of the Potomac and the Army of Northern Virginia struggle against each other in the battles of First Bull Run, Fredricksburg and Chancelorsville.

Much has been made of the film's historical accuracy but, little of the gore and carnage of war can been seen in its sanitized battle scenes filled with smoke, explosions, and men falling to the ground. Though the battle scenes themselves are expertly choreographed, hardly any thought seems to have gone into the cinematography of these scenes as they lack imagination in their framing and execution. Yet, I found the battle scenes alone worth the price of admission.

I cannot say the same for Maxwell's bloated screenplay which is filled with flowery dialogue, long-winded speeches, and droning soliloquies. Yes, citizens of the nineteenth century spoke differently than we do today, but the dialogue is so jarring to the modern ear that it is nearly impossible for an audience to maintain a willingness to suspend its disbelief.

The narrative in Mr. Shaara's novel is nearly equally split between four major characters: Colonel Joshua Chamberlain and General Winfield Scott Hancock on the side of the Union and Generals Robert E. Lee and Jonathan "Stonewall" Jackson on the Confederate side, while Mr. Maxwell's adaptation can nearly be considered as a Stonewall Jackson bio-pic with the other characters merely as supporting players. Shaara's book maintains a balance of viewpoints of both North and South but, Maxwell's film tilts the majority of screen time to the Confederate side.

Stephen Lang does an admirable job as the highly religious Stonewall Jackson. Indeed, the film's shining glory is that Maxwell's screenplay and Lang's performance come closest to capturing the man that Jonathan Jackson was in reality as anything yet set forth on film. Though it is hard to separate Lang from his earlier portrayal of General George Picket in "Gettysburg." Jeff Daniels competently reprises his role as Chamberlain, though he lacks screen time and is saddled with reciting Lucanus' "The Crossing of the Rubicon" as he watches elements the Union Army crossing the Rappahanock River into Fredericksburg, Virginia. The films greatest disappointment was Robert Duvall in his lackluster performance as General Robert E. Lee.

Randy Edelman's sentimental score is adequate to the task at hand, and though pleasurable to listen to it does not rise to meet the challenge of the material presented. Mary Fahl's contribution, "Going Home," played over the opening credits of windblown battle flags, in a movie which the director well knows is going to come in at 3 ½ hours, should have fallen to the cutting room floor, though I love every note of it. And Bob Dylan is as raspy as ever in his "Cross the Green Mountain" played over the end credits.

Is "Gods and Generals" the greatest movie ever made about the American Civil War? No. Is it the most accurate movie about the Civil War? Quite possibly. But accuracy could not save this movie. Editing could. Edit the screenplay. Edit the dialogue and speeches. Edit the opening credits. Edit. Edit. Edit.


Deb Goodrich said...

Alas, sad but true. I don't quite agree with you about Duvall--though I don't think Duvall is right for Lee to begin with--his size, his overall demeanor. I think Duvall tries to capture Lee as human, and as a warrior, and I don't think those qualities have been displayed well before. Okay, you're right. He's pretty weak, but, My God, it wasn't as bad as Martin Sheen!

Dan said...

It's interesting to note that "Gettysburg" itself was originally intended as a TV miniseries; indeed, though it was released as a feature film, it seems to suggest a "made-for-TV" quality on many levels. Two things come to mind regarding "Gods and Generals" and this medium:

1) Perhaps Maxwell should have considered releasing G & G as a TV miniseries? Being released from the 3 1/2 hour time-constraint (it sounds funny to consider 3 1/2 hours a constraint, but if you think as I did that a good bit of G & G came across as pressed for time, then you can perhaps understand this sentiment), Maxwell could have hewed closer to the novel (if that was his intent), giving nearly-equal screen time to Lee, Chamberlain, and Hancock, all of whom got shafted in the film. In this respect it would have been closer to, say, "Band of Brothers", where each episode focuses on a different character, allowing the audience to get to know them all.

2. If (and this is a big "if") future CW projects are ever entertained by Hollywood, perhaps TV is the only medium where these could work on their own merits. Looking back on the past 50 years, CW films have hardly done well in full-length formats (notable exceptions being "Glory", and, if one considers that it mad a decent amount of money, "Gettysburg").