In one of the finer moments on “The Simpsons,” Apu, while taking a citizenship test, is asked to identify the cause of the Civil War. Apu’s lengthy speech highlighting cultural and economic differences between North and South is interrupted when he is told, “Wait, wait. Just say slavery.”
The joke is likely lost on Ron Maxwell, whose Civil War epic “Gods and Generals,” a prequel to 1993’s “Gettysburg,” is obsessed with historical accuracy and painfully drags out every detail of the war’s early years.
One of the joys of “Gettysburg” was that, despite its length, the film remained unwaveringly focused, concentrating solely on the three-day battle. With “Gods,” Maxwell tries to tell dozens of stories that take place over the span of about three years, and he winds up failing on nearly all fronts.
Based on Jeff Shaara’s book of the same title, “Gods and Generals” accounts for the events leading up to the war as well as early battles at Bull Run, Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville.
Much of the action focuses on Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson (Stephen Lang, “Tombstone”), who divides his time equally between praying with his eyes cast to the heavens above, reminding everyone how much he loves his home state of Virginia and leading his division of the Confederate army.
In a surprisingly small role, Gen. Robert E. Lee (Robert Duvall) turns up from time to time to offer bits of advice – platitudes like “It is well that war is so terrible else we should grow too fond of it” occur with disturbing regularity.
On the Northern side, Lt. Col. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain (Jeff Daniels), a professor at Maine’s Bowdoin College, is torn from his studies and his loving wife, Fanny (Mira Sorvino), when duty calls. Not to worry, however, because there’s ample time for an agonizingly long farewell scene in which husband and wife find time to discuss politics and the dangers of war before saying their final goodbyes. If you miss the point of that one, fear not, because there’s a similar scene when every other character leaves home.
The film’s length (nearly four hours including intermission) allows for many lengthy speeches, and it’s not hard to detect when a character is preparing to launch into an extended discourse. The speeches themselves range from Jackson’s teary-eyed prayers to Chamberlain’s rousing pre-battle oration, in which he quotes Julius Caesar. Sometimes dryly informative, occasionally ludicrous (as when a former slave quotes Napoleon to Jackson) and often superfluous, the speeches do little to aid the film’s already sluggish pace.
“Gods and Generals” presents North and South with impartiality, and goes to such great lengths to explain the Confederate cause that the film borders on being a Southern apologia. In the midst of all of this exposition, slavery is overlooked, save a perfunctory anti-slavery speech and a pair of token black characters. One of them, a Southern cook named “Big Jim” Lewis (Frankie Faison, “Hannibal”), looks upon Jackson with wide-eyed optimism as the general promises that one day he will be set free. And somehow that makes it all right.
1 1/2 Stars