They said the South would rise again, and here it is in Gods and Generals, rising like a loaf of bread in the oven ' i.e., very slowly. Clocking in at nearly four hours, this glorified (and I do mean glorified) Civil War reenactment takes us through the battles of Bull Run (the first one), Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville; and it may be the most deliberately paced movie I've ever seen, plowing over us like an advancing army. Battle scenes alternate with scenes of flowery rhetoric, and writer-director Ronald Maxwell can't seem to decide which is mightier, the pen or the sword. But the movie itself is nearly devoid of drama, Maxwell erroneously assuming that all the battling and prattling would carry us through. No such luck. At the screening I attended, one guy was snoring so loud he sounded like a piece of artillery.
A prequel to Gettysburg, the television miniseries that reminded us just how awful the fighting was during the Civil War, Gods and Generals is likewise brought to us via the purse strings of Ted Turner, who's apparently never gotten over the burning of Atlanta. And because this section of what will eventually become a trilogy covers the early years of the war, it's an opportunity for the South to kick some Northern butt. But like General Lee after Chancellorsville, the movie doesn't stop there. It's determined to revise our thinking about the Civil War, bending over backwards to give the Confederacy a fair shake, bending so far that it often loses sight of the boys in blue altogether. Not since Birth of a Nation and Gone With the Wind has the very idea of the antebellum South been presented in such favorable terms. (Never mind that pesky thing called slavery.) When the titular generals aren't fighting to defend it, they're embodying it in the way they look and act. With their magnificent beards, they're like biblical patriarchs who speak in complete King James paragraphs.
As Gen. Robert E. Lee, Robert Duvall does an excellent impersonation of a statue. But it's Stephen Lang, as "Stonewall" Jackson, who suggests what might have been if the filmmakers had chosen dramatic development over historical reenactment. Burning with religious fervor, Lang's Jackson appears to carry the Myth of the Lost Cause on his muscular shoulders; and when he dies, the South seems to die with him. Gods and Generals is, at best, a great-man history lesson, the kind of thing you could inflict on a high school class because, however boring, it sure beats listening to the teacher yak on about the War Between the States. Otherwise, the only audiences I can imagine for this movie are Civil War buffs and anyone whose eyes filled with mist when the Confederate flag was removed from South Carolina's capitol dome.