This very long film film, 223 minutes, has just been released in DVD (July 2003). Most of the formal reviews have panned the film. I have now seen it twice and I feel compelled to make a case for it being actually a great film. I don't mean to use the adjective lightly. I mean great in scale and in its humanity: it addresses mythic material in an epic form. The initial reaction to the film was poor in the mainstream press. It was too long. It contained many subplots and themes that could have been excised to increase the pace. It did not pay enough attention to the evils of slavery. That the religiosity of Jackson and the pedantry of Chamberlain were jarring.
I think that these are criticisms of those that are so entrenched in their "modern" world view, that they cannot access the most moving of all forms of human communication- the Homeric Epic.
When I was a boy I read the Odyssey and Moby Dick. At the age of 9, these appeared to me to be only adventure stories. I think that most of the reviewers of Gods and Generals used this type of lens to "see" the film. I am going to be a bit mean now, but maybe this is the only level that they were prepared to experience life? One reviewer complained about the lack of blood! One thought that the subplot with Jackson and the little girl had pedophilic undertones? Many complained that not enough had been done to show the evils of slavery - they wanted more cruelty on the screen. In particular, many felt exceptionally uncomfortable about Jackson's faith in God and his willingness to converse with God at all times. All negative reviews felt crushed by the pace and the length of the film. Maybe if they were to read the Odyssey and Moby Dick today, would they would make the same type of criticisms? I suspect that they would find the books long-winded, slow, with too many subplots. Many would find the scene where Ishmael and the Harpooner share a bed at the beginning of the book homo-erotic. They would miss the meaning completely as they did with this film.
I fear that we, as moderns, have been cut off from the epic by the pace and the superficiality of modern life. It is hard for us to go beneath the surface any more.
Maybe the DVD and a bottle of wine can help to expand the frame. I sat enthralled and mostly in tears throughout the 3 hours plus of this film. Central to my emotion, was the interplay between choice and destiny.
At the heart of the film is the clash of two civilizations. We witness, with Jackson's death at the end of the film, the first step of the death of an heroic world where character is central. Where relationships are intense between people and where God, Place and Family are worth dying for. The South relies on imagination, flexibility and skill but is overwhelmed by a machine world where economic power is central. Where human relationships are replaced by machine parts
The first part of the film shows the issue of choice and duty. Lee cannot take up the leadership of the Union Army as he owes his greater allegiance to his "country" Virginia. I fear that many modern reviewers simply miss this point. They cannot know the role that Lee, Jackson and other southern leaders have previously played in the Army of the union in Mexico. Nor do they know of their time at the Point. Many of these men were as brothers. Armistead and Hancock are best friends. Pete Longstreet was the best man at Grant's wedding!. Lee had been a central figure in Mexico and had the enduring trust of Winfield Scott. The men who lead both sides had joined the Army of the United State and gave their oath at a time when oaths meant something. But for the Southerners, they answered a higher calling, their "country".
We who are so mobile today, Americans move on average every 5 years, have no experience anymore of what it might be like to be part of a stable society. We know little of the power of place.
The film offers a number of these choices to us at its outset. A son rejects his father's appeal to move back to the North with him. Jackson's first father in law leaves the south to wipe the dirt from his feet on crossing the Potomac. These are powerful and poignant choices. We watch Jim Lewis, a slave, sign up to serve his country too as Jackson's cook. This is no fabrication of the director. Lewis walked behind Jackson's coffin alone holding Jackson's horse at his funeral. In an epic, there is no simple relationship. The film shows the paradox of the burden of slavery in the context of the relationships. Masters and slaves were also people who shared a place and had feelings toward each other. Jim prays to be free but is also a native Virginian and is the friend and confidant of Jackson.
We witness Chamberlain in a painful confrontation with his wife. He leaves her like a Greek warrior for Troy. She can hardly bear to see him go. What wife could? We see in Chamberlain's going to war with his brother Tom another aspect of the particular acting for the general in epic.
This was the time when units of the army, especially in the south, were formed regionally. 6,000 men served in the Stonewall Brigade, all from the Shenandoah Valley. All were brothers and sons, cousins and Uncles, friends and neighbours. Can we come close to imagining what this was like in our anonymous age? So Tom and his brother, whom he constantly fails to call Colonel, are the mythic brothers for all the brothers. Only 200 of the 6,0000 who served in the Brigade survived the war. The region lost all its men. Since then the US Army deliberately does not have locals serve in the same unit.
In true epic, a single person embodies the larger theme. So Jackson embodies the South. He is a two-sided man. Much of the film explores his tenderness and also his fierceness.
A reviewer pours scorn on the scenes in the film where Jackson develops an intense relationship with a 6 year old girl. Maybe he, the reviewer, needed more context. Jackson had been orphaned at 7. His greatest fear was the loss of loved ones. The girl's greatest fear was that her Daddy would not come home. There is a remarkable Christmas scene, where Jackson asks her what she wants and she tells him that she wants her Daddy to come home. He embraces her and says "All the daddies will come home" - Of course Jackson means that they will all come home to God. Everyone that Jackson had loved has died. His parents, his first wife and his first child. What he fears the most is that his current wife will also die with their child. When this little girl dies of scarlet fever, he breaks down and weeps in front of his staff. One asks how can he weep for this girl when he has not wept for any of his men and even for his friends. Dr McGuire answers that he is weeping now for them all.
We also see his fierce side. He advocates taking no prisoners. He, like Grant, knows that war is not a game. That it should only be pursued with great force so that it can end as soon as possible. Jackson is a man whose life is an adventure. His enduring faith in God enable him to accept his destiny. He fears not his own death knowing that it is inevitable. So he is quite fearless and hence inspiring in battle. This sense of destiny and the immanence of God pervades the film and offers us all a other way of being in the world.
The film, like the Iliad, is an intermix of intense human vignettes with grand battle scenes. A reviewer noted that Ron Maxwell should look at Private Ryan for lessons in how to make a battle scene. Really? This is a different time. Here the issue is to show how men summoned the courage to march into a hail of bullets - to stand yards away from your enemy and to return fire and reload when completely exposed. I found the battle scenes enthralling. 7,000 re-enactors who really know what they are doing knock the spots off any CGI effect. Witnessing the Irish Brigade charge up the hill in a foreshadowing of Gettysburg was a great moment of film. The men accelerating through the fire, crouched as they ran as if they were trying to shelter from rain. Men standing shoulder to shoulder 30 yards from the wall and their enemy. What we see is pure courage.
Ironically we then we see Armistead and Pickett, who were to do the same only 4 months later, comment on the bravery and the folly of such an act. We know that Armistead will die on a wall just like this and that Pickett will have his division and his life destroyed on a wall just like this.. The cheer of anguish and salute of the Irish brigade of the CFA at the wall after they had slaughtered their brothers of the Irish Brigade of the Union was a Homeric moment. This cheer too foreshadows another moment in the future. In the years after the war, a great tradition emerged at Gettysburg. At the reunions, long lines of grey-coated old man would walk stiffly up the hill to Cemetery Ridge where at the wall a long line of old men in blue awaited them. When they reached the wall, their union brothers would reach across and pull them over the wall into their embrace.
The flanking attack at the end of the film just before Jackson's shooting, is also a great moment. For me it is the blend of action with thousands of extras and the score. In silence, the men stand still at the edge of the Wilderness. Then they walk and then run still in silence as the score picks up the pace. It is balletic!
The film takes maybe 20 minutes to show us Jacksons' death. Too long? What we witness is the death not only of one man but the death of the South. From this moment it is downhill all the way. In his single death we see the death of all the 600,000 who died who left their wives and children, their fathers and mothers, their brothers and sisters all behind. In his death, we also see the end of any chance that leadership in itself could make the difference. Now it will be only a game of mathematics where the numbers and the economic might of the North will grind the South down.
My advice for Ron Maxwell and Ted Turner? The complaint heard regarding both films was that they were too long. Yet we see 13 hours of Band of Brother as being OK. Maybe HBO is the venue of the Last Full Measure? LFM demands an even grander canvass. I cannot see how a 3 hour film can do justice to the scale of the last year 2 years of the war where the scale expands and the drama deepens so much Maybe these films are in fact too short? The modern audience cannot easily take a 3 hour film in a cinema but can take a 13 hour series at home if well made. HBO have shown that they are the masters of this format.
Ron and Ted - please do not give up. I know that you want to make a difference. Having the 3 films made would be an act of great historic import. The birth story of the US is the Civil War. This is the furnace from which has come our modern age. LFM above all shows how Lincoln and Grant understood this and how our own time was created. We have to see how these titanic forces were mobilized and applied to understand who we are today.
We have to go to the Mississippi. We have to follow Sherman to Atlanta. We have to go into the Wilderness again and we have to end up at the entrenchment, at the first mine and we have to find our way to the small courthouse where we have to witness the meeting of Lee in his best uniform and Grant in his dusty clothes. We have to see that all of Lee's brilliance was of no avail once a new leader emerged that understood what the real job was - to wear Lee's army down to nothing. We have to see how Lee was bled not just of numbers but of talented subordinates and friends. We have to endure all of this with him to see why at the end he can make the choice not to throw away the last remnant of his army. We have to see that he did give indeed the last full measure. We have to see how, in spite of all of what has happened, all the horror and slaughter, that honour still remains. We have to see the supreme moment of coincidence, when Chamberlain leads the guard of Unions troops in salute their defeated brothers as they march off into history.