Gods and Generals (2003) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

Basically a story of General Stonewall Jackson's contribution to the Confederacy, this is a dull film. It really isn't an entertainment movie at all, but more like one of those historical recreations that they show in museums, except that it had a monstrous budget and seems to be as long as the Civil War itself. I don't have any expertise in the area, but I have read that the history is meticulously recreated. Sigh. If only the scriptwriters had been English majors rather than history majors, the project might actually have resulted in a movie rather than a long re-enactment project.

I don't know how it is possible to make a dull movie about Jackson. He was not only a great military champion, but was a truly eccentric man. I mean not just a flaky guy, but a genuine nutcase. For example:

  • at one time or another, he had every one his major subordinates under arrest for one or another offense in his command.
  • suffering from insomnia, he often used his own men as a sedative. When he couldn't sleep, he'd muster them from their blankets, march them for a few miles until he was tired, then march them back and hit the sack.
  • he never took either credit or blame for his actions. He gave God all the credit for his successes, and he was quick to put the blame for any setbacks on his subordinates.
  • he believed that only by holding one hand in the air could he stop himself from going "out of balance".
  • he was known for constantly making pumping motions with his arms to increase circulation.

  • he ate only foods he disliked, and constantly sucked on distasteful fruits.

  • he never ate pepper because he believed that it made his left leg ache.

  • he refused to sit down, preferring to stand because standing did not put his internal organs "out of alignment".

  • he was compulsively secretive about his plans and movements even with those subordinates who needed to know. The same sense of paranoia applied to almost everything else he did. "If Mr. Perfect had bothered to tell me how he wanted the damn thing fought, I would have done it that way" said one of his subordinates after a lashing from Jackson's tongue. Jackson's explanation: "If I can deceive my friends, I can certainly deceive my enemies."
  • although he was a notoriously slow learner, he applied himself diligently enough to gain entrance to West Point. Struggling near the bottom of his freshman class, he focused single-mindedly on his courses, and eventually graduated 17th in his class.
  • he was a hypochondriac.
  • he was a contentious subordinate.
  • he was an incredibly boring and ineffective teacher.
  • he was a pious, self-righteous man who condescended to everyone with biblical citations.
  • he saw everything in stark black and white terms.
  • he had no sense of his own vulnerability or capacity for error.
  • he was unable to co-ordinate or co-operate with other commanders.
  • he was a harsh and unsympathetic taskmaster who constantly quarreled with and berated his staff.

On the surface, the pious, dignified, slow-thinking Jackson didn't seem much like the profane 20th century genius, George S Patton, but the two great generals had a lot in common. Both were focused, single-minded, and aggressive warriors who didn't care much for sitting back and waiting for the enemy to make decisions. Neither had any sense of the possibility that he could be wrong. Subordinates hated them both as men, but loved the fact that they produced victory after victory. Above all, both men were nutty as fruitcakes, and often held imaginary conversations with non-corporeal beings.

Madness, a lack of subtlety, a lack of thoughtfulness, and an inflexible mind-set can be liabilities in certain professions. Hell, in most professions. But there are a few places in the world where a man with no self-doubts, no hesitation, and no predictability can succeed where rational, balanced thinkers fail. A boxing ring is one such place. A battlefield is another. Military strategy is a profession where even lunatics can achieve great successes, because their sane opponents simply can't anticipate irrational strategies. Hitler's perfectly sane generals were completely astonished by the successes of the Fuhrer's "insane" strategies in the early part of WW2.  Stonewall Jackson himself summarized it beautifully in his prescription for military success: "Always mystify, mislead, and surprise the enemy."

Although Lee was the real strategist behind them, Jackson's military campaigns were incredibly successful, and Jackson was the battlefield tactician. From the first battle of Bull Run until he sustained his fatal wound at Chancellorsville, Jackson fought battle after battle without defeat, often battling theoretically superior forces to a standstill, or even defeating them. Whether Jackson was directly responsible or not, the South was kicking some ass until Jackson died, and started losing immediately afterward.



DVD info from Amazon

  • Commentary by writer/director Ronald F. Maxwell and 2 technical advisors, Col. Keith Gibson & James L. Robertson, Jr.

  • Introduction by executive producer Ted Turner

  • 3 making-of documentaries: "Journey to the Past," "The Life of Thomas 'Stonewall' Jackson," and "The Authenticites of the Film"

  • 2 music videos from Bob Dylan and Mary Fahl

  • Widescreen anamorphic format, 2.35:1

A man like this should make for a great biopic. On the one hand, he was one of the most successful generals in the history of the world. On the other hand, he was as nutty as a fruitcake. Those very same two factors made Patton a great and complicated movie, one capable of pleasing both pro- and anti-war audiences. Unfortunately, Gods and Generals barely touched on those elements and spent most of its time on battle re-enactments (this film is a masturbatory fantasy for those guys who love Civil War re-enactments, and many of the re-enactment societies participated in the film, often on the actual terrain where the battles were fought). The film did touch on the fact that Jackson was a figure to be ridiculed in peacetime, yet the very same personality characteristics made him a formidable hero in wartime, but the script barely scratched that contrast, and played out more like a hagiography. Jackson didn't even seem very eccentric in this film, but rather just an incredibly boring, patronizing, self-righteous, deeply religious windbag.

The Critics Vote

  • General USA consensus: one and a half stars. Ebert 1.5/4, Berardinelli 2/4.

  • General UK consensus: one stars. Guardian 2/10, Times 4/10, Mirror 2/10, Express 2/10, BBC 1/5

The People Vote ...

  • Box Office Mojo. It was a financial disaster. Warner gave it the old college try, with a promotional campaign and a 1500 screen run, but it was to no avail. It managed to gross only $12 million, despite $50-$90 million worth of production costs and another $30 million spent on promotion/distribution expenses. (Because of its running length, more than four hours including trailers, it could be shown only once per evening per screen.)


Special Scoopy awards for excellence in criticism go to:

Order of merit in style: John Beifuss of gomemphis.com. "If D. W. Griffith's 1915 Civil War stunner, The Birth of a Nation, was "history writ with lightning," in the famous phrase of then-President Woodrow Wilson, then Ted Turner's Gods and Generals is history writ with sorghum, as outlined by a pious Mississippi schoolteacher who still insists she voted for George Wallace because of his stance on states' rights. "

Order of merit in accuracy:  Marjorie Baumgarten of the Austin Chronicle. "Full of windy speeches about honor, god, fealty, and so on, the movie comes to a literal standstill whenever one of these noble addresses is about to be delivered. Motion halts and the flowery words take center stage – and hog it like there’s no tomorrow. It comes off like so much poppycock – to use the vernacular of the day. In its bearing, Gods and Generals most resembles an old-fashioned Hollywood biopic about gentlemen warriors in which generals speechify, wives are brave, young men become hardened by battle, and armed conflict is always the last resort of honorable men."

Order of merit in humor: Liam Lacey of the Toronto Globe and Mail. "General Boredom meets Major Tedium on the Civil War fields of Virginia"

The meaning of the IMDb score: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence equivalent to about three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, comparable to approximately two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, equivalent to about a two star rating from the critics, or a C- from our system. Films rated below five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film - this score is roughly equivalent to one and a half stars from the critics or a D on our scale. (Possibly even less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. (C+ means it has no crossover appeal, but will be considered excellent by genre fans, while C- indicates that it we found it to be a poor movie although genre addicts find it watchable). D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well. Any film rated C- or better is recommended for fans of that type of film. Any film rated B- or better is recommended for just about anyone. We don't score films below C- that often, because we like movies and we think that most of them have at least a solid niche audience. Now that you know that, you should have serious reservations about any movie below C-.

Based on this description, this is a classic C+ movie by our rating system. If what you want is historically accurate battlefield recreations, this is your movie. It is the ultimate filmstrip for history teachers. For the other 99.9999% of you, this film is duller than listening to a pious sermon in a foreign language.

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