If you thought the white South got a raw deal during the Civil War, Gods and Generals is your movie. Ron F. Maxwell’s mammoth, technically competent but artistically uninteresting war picture may be the most sympathetic to the Confederacy’s idealized view of itself. Maxwell’s screenplay suggests that the war was largely about Yankee greed to acquire Southern resources and property, and that the slavery issue was a mildly hypocritical afterthought. (John Brown and Frederick Douglass might beg to differ.) It also expends a great deal of effort showing white Southerners to be more gallant, more loving, more geographically rooted and more pious than their white Northern foes. Granted, when you’ve got Robert Duvall playing Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, you’ve won half the battle. But Maxwell, who adapted Jeff Shaara’s same-titled novel, doesn’t leave it at that. He goes further, deploying strong actors, evocative landscapes, heart-tugging music and melodramatically contrived scenes to bolster what might be the most unabashedly pro-Confederate film since The Birth of a Nation.
Fans of this sprawling picture, which runs four hours including intermission, will point out that Maxwell gives at least a third of the picture’s running time to the North. They might also point out that Maxwell lets the North’s official antislavery sentiments be represented by teacher-turned-warrior Col. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, played by Jeff Daniels, one of American cinema’s humblest actors (and a costar of Gettysburg, the film for which Generals serves as a prequel). But these facts, while notable, are red herrings. There’s no zip in the Northern scenes; you get the sense that Maxwell is marking time and keeping critics at bay, but he doesn’t seem too happy about it; he’s dutifully clearing his side plate of arugula so he can get back to his fried chicken and biscuits. The tumescent score, enchanted Mason-Dixon landscapes and misty-eyed close-ups during the Confederate sections should tell even the dimmest viewer where the film’s heart resides. And if you’re still in doubt, pay attention to the film’s notable black characters–two house Negroes who hate slavery but sho’ do love their white families, lawd knows.
Generals might be the most reactionary movie ever bankrolled by a famous liberal. The driving force behind it is Ohio-born Atlanta folk hero and AOL Time Warner mogul Ted Turner. Turner’s boutique film company, Ted Turner Pictures, put up the money for Gods and Generals (Turner plays Southern officers in both it, and its 1993 prequel, Gettysburg). Generals’ closing credits promise a third movie, The Last Full Measure, but I have my doubts. Turner left AOL Time Warner a couple of weeks before this film was scheduled to hit theaters, which prompts the unanswerable question: Did Turner’s bosses drive him out because they suffered through this movie at a preview and decided they’d had enough of his Civil War bullshit?
All right, I’m from Texas, so I’d better calm down; I don’t want to sound like a Village Voice writer. But it won’t be easy. Watching Generals, I felt as if I’d accidentally pushed a button somewhere that time-warped me back to 1915–except Generals is not as fluid and assured as The Birth of a Nation. Nation was indisputably racist, but its technical innovations made it worth watching long past the point where its hateful imagery became impossible to rationalize away. Generals has no such virtues; it’s just another super-long tv miniseries, technically better than most, but artistically and politically far less sophisticated than, say, TNT’s Andersonville. Aside from its stunning array of fake facial hair–a major step up from the dead-badger beards of Gettysburg–the film’s only notable elements are its fair-to-middling Cinemascope photography, its "Yay, Confederacy!" cheerleading and a few fine lead performances.
Speaking of which: The film’s heart and soul is represented by Stephen Lang, who, as Gen. Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson, gives one of the greatest performances I’ve ever seen in a boring movie. The essence of the Southern gentleman, Jackson is devoutly religious without ever seeming holier-than-thou. (He even manages to survive several scenes opposite a sickly moppet, who approaches Jackson during a Christmas party, points to the tree and peals, "Do you know what these decorations signify?") Jackson’s faith in God and the Confederacy are as one; on the battlefield, he betrays no fear, because he knows the Lord has already chosen the hour of his death and he can do nothing to change it. A similar logic governs Jackson’s attitude toward slavery; like many of the movie’s intelligent, lovable Southern whites, he recognizes that slavery is wrong, but insists it will end soon anyway, and war will do nothing to hasten its collapse.
Jackson seems representative of Napoleonic aristocratic moral certitude–a man so innately good that he is entitled to his sense of entitlement. A more sophisticated film might have given Jackson his goodness and serenity while letting us see how his personality reflected the collective delusion of the Southern aristocracy: that it was the heir to God’s kingdom, or a defender of God’s plan. Generals needs a fat dose of Glory or Beloved. Imagine if Maxwell had contrasted his non-ironic, loving portraits of Southern military officers with images of black men and women being whipped, raped and worked to death by plantation owners. Like the Amon Goeth scenes in Schindler’s List, which were entrancing and sickening at once, the result might have conjured truly mixed emotions, and evoked some of the moral complexity of real history. But Generals doesn’t dare try. It is truly a whitewash of the past–one that the United Daughters of the Confederacy will show at fundraising events for decades to come.
Badge of evil: It’s been at least a couple of months since the last high-profile cop corruption movie, so why not see Dark Blue? Because it’s not satisfying. Aside from Kurt Russell’s electrifying lead performance as crooked cowboy L.A.P.D. detective Eldon Perry, a few good moments of righteous glowering by Ving Rhames as his bureaucrat enemy, Arthur Holland, and a chaotic climax set during the L.A. riots, it’s a screwed-up, meandering, politically vague piece of work. James Ellroy is credited with the story, and David Ayer (Training Day) gets script credit, but the director is Bull Durham and Cobb filmmaker Ron Shelton, and the result has his usual virtues and flaws. He likes actors, and he’s not afraid of politics or racial themes, but his movies are too long and unfocused, and they waver between moral fervor and a near pathological determination to excite the audience at all times. Even if it means chucking realism in the toilet.
This one is no exception; its idea of cop corruption is a high-ranking officer personally masterminding a convenience store robbery. And its method of rectifying the corruption is to have a white cop show up drunk to his own promotion ceremony and tell off his crooked superiors in front of the assembled media. When a movie hauls out that old chestnut, it might as well save itself extra shooting days by putting up a black-and-white title card that reads, "We give up." The college basketball corruption movie Blue Chips, which Shelton wrote, had a nearly identical ending. Apparently, nothing ages better than a cop-out.