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DVD REVIEW

Gods and Generals  (2002)

 

Starring: Jeff Daniels, Stephen Lang, Robert Duvall

Director: Ronald F. Maxwell

Rating: R

Studio: Warner Bros.

Release Date: 7.15.03

Review Posted: 7.12.03

Spoilers: Minor

 

Reviewed by Dennis Landmann

 

Synopsis

 

A sweeping epic charting the early years of the Civil War and how campaigns unfolded from Manassas to the battle of Fredericksburg, this prequel to the film Gettysburg explores the motivations of the combatants and examines the lies of those who waited at home.

 

Critique

 

Ronald F. Maxwell returns to the Civil War genre with Gods and Generals, an almost four-hour epic-like film chronicling the events before Maxwell’s Gettysburg.

 

Aside from General Robert E. Lee’s (Robert Duvall) plotting of military strategies, "Stonewall" Jackson’s (Stephen Lang) minute-long prayers and army leadership, and Joshua L. Chamberlain’s preaching about the evils of slavery, Gods and Generals also features recreations of random early Civil War battles. Each of the battles, from Manassas, Fredericksburg to Chancellorsville, lead to the events of Maxwell's Gettysburg. The in-between is mostly historical filler and authentic jargon to create an unforgettable story of the Civil War. What results from most of this is a slow-moving, generally boring epic.

 

Gods and Generals would serve well as a history lesson type or educational video than a big-budget epic, mainly because that’s what the film is—an education of the past. That’s fine, of course, and is generally appreciated, but why bother the viewer with some truly unnecessary scenes? Following the Confederate and Union armies, plus the hard fighting men of the Civil War, is great. Seeing them in training and battle is exciting, generally. Witnessing the sadness and sorrow of these soldiers leaving their homes is heartfelt, but to what extent are such scenes necessary?

 

Beyond the emotional attachment, these scenes do not need to exist. But when these scenes do not elicit much emotion or drama, what is the point, ultimately? I understand Maxwell’s direction to feature as many sides of the Civil War as possible, but there comes a point when too much is too much. Consider the amount of characters in the film. Some are memorable, others are not. Keeping track of most of them is hard to do, and at some point in the film I disconnected with them.

 

The focus of Gods and Generals buries itself in the story somewhere, and with so much going on at different times and places, it becomes lost. Basically, the lack of focus is what drags this film below average. There is no doubt the script, by Ronald F. Maxwell, from the novel by Jeffrey M. Shaara, is authentic in detail and fact. The problem begins when too much information takes over and the drama doesn’t emerge when it should.

 

In terms of acting, Gods and Generals features a stellar cast and talent. The production is grand in scale and features some amazing battle recreations. I can’t count the number of extras playing the soldiers, but it must be a lot, and most look pretty convincing—with thanks to the costume department. Authenticity is the film’s only true success, while the focus and drama do not come through.

 

Ultimately, Gods and Generals is a tragic account of the early battles and politics of the Civil War, but most of it is boring and overly long.

 

The Video

 

Warner Bros. presents Gods and Generals in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen. Colors are pretty accurate and alive, while color detail looks fine. The print is in pretty good condition as there are no major problems to report, and there are is hardly any evidence of grain and dirt. The transfer looks pretty fine, and compressions problems do not occur—the film is spread over sides A and B of the disc, designating this release as a “flipper The film makes great use of the widescreen format, especially during the battle scenes. Dark tones and black levels are not perfect, but look decent. .” I will not get into the breaking point or intermission process here, because why bother. Since the video presentation for Gods and Generals looks accurate and generally very good, the presentation of the film itself is just a technicality.

 

The Audio

 

Warner Bros. presents Gods and Generals in English 5.1 Dolby Digital Surround Sound. Surround usage is evident in most of the battle scenes, and there are quite a few of them in the film. These make for a fun auditory experience. Rear speakers are also active during the well orchestrated film score by John Frizzell and Randy Edelman. However, most of the soundtrack concentrates on the front speakers. Dialog scenes are clear and easy to understand. Overall, the audio presentation sounds generally pretty decent, notably during the battle scenes there is some good surround sound going on.

 

The Extras

 

First up is an introduction by Ted Turner in anamorphic widescreen. Basically, he gives his thoughts and reasons for making this film. Worth noting at this point is that this release does not contain the extended version director Ronald F. Maxwell indicated in past reports, but perhaps such a version will be released at another time and date.

 

Select Scene-Specific Commentary – The back cover of the DVD lists this as a “feature-length commentary,” but it is not. In fact, only about 90 minutes worth of scene-specific commentary is provided for the 219-minute cut of the film—on both sides A and B. The commentary jumps scene to scene wherever it occurs, and it appears to be in an altogether separate section of the DVD. Providing their comments are writer/director Ronald F. Maxwell, Col. Keith Gibson (director of Military Institute Museum Operations), and James I. Robinson (a professor at Virginia Tech). The comments are generally educational and informative, but do not pertain to everybody—after all, if you don’t like the film you’re not very likely to get much out of this commentary. Overall, this approximately 90-minute commentary track (if you add it all up) is pretty decent.

 

Next up are three featurettes or documentaries. The first documentary, entitled Journey to the Past, runs approximately 22 minutes and reflects on the African-American slave experience during the time the film is set. In The Life of Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, which runs about 14 minutes, Jeff Shaara, novelist of "Gods and Generals," discusses this complex military man. Lastly, The Authenticities of the Film chronicles the film’s meticulous recreations of actual events, such as battle and courtroom scenes, for example, clocking in at about 13 minutes.

 

Rounding out the extras on side B are two music videos, one for "Cross the Green Mountain," by Bob Dylan, and "Going Home," by Mary Fahl. Also included is the film’s Theatrical Trailer, which makes the film look better than it is. CD-ROM features include the original website, extensive production and historical notes, interactive activities, civil war links, and more. Warner Bros. continues its use of the snapper case with this release.

 

You can select to view the film with optional English, French, and Spanish subtitles. The DVD’s menus are interactive, but not animated. The 219-minute feature is organized into fifty-two chapters over sides A and B.

 

Overall

 

Gods and Generals is too long and boring to sustain the attention of the viewer. With so much information about politics, beliefs, and battles, the film still lacks focus, despite being an authentic account of the times. Warner Bros. presents the film in a very nice video presentation, while the audio transfer is also good, but not remarkable. The extras provide some interesting background about the film, but overall their tendency is to give the viewer a history lesson instead of a making-of. For the sake of the film’s historical accuracy and authenticity, this disc could make an OK rental, though only if history is your major or general interest, Gods and Generals "might" appeal to you.

 

RATINGS SUMMARY

 

THE MOVIE 4
THE VIDEO 8

THE AUDIO

8

THE EXTRAS

6

OVERALL (not an average)

5.5

 


 

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