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REVIEW: ‘Gods and Generals,’ a faith-filled epic

HOLLYWOOD, Calif. (BP)–Rarely does a big-budget Hollywood movie come along that reflects history and the Christian faith of the protagonists in an historical event accurately and faithfully.

“Gods and Generals,” based on the best-selling book by Jeff Shaara, is such a movie. It tells the powerful story of the most important event in the history of the United States in an accurate and faith-honoring way.

There has never been an historic event which influenced the American people as much as the Civil War, or the War Between the States or the War of Northern Aggression, depending on your point of view. This tragic and yet heroic event pitted brother against brother on an immense and tragic scale.

Ron Maxwell, the renowned director of the critically acclaimed epic movie “Gettysburg,” wrote and directed Gods and Generals. His new movie, which opens nationwide Feb. 21, accurately portrays the history of the war, the human characters and the faith of the key players, up through the death of Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson. Because the book is so vast, the movie focuses on General Jackson, with Gen. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain and Gen. Robert E. Lee featured as dictated by history and by the arc of the movie’s storyline.

Gods and Generals is the prequel to “The Killer Angels,” the novel on which the movie Gettysburg was based. Jeff Shaara (son of Michael Shaara, author of The Killer Angels) wrote the prequel. Using his own script of Jeff’s book, Ron Maxwell filmed Gods and Generals in and around Sharpsburg, Md., the site of the Antietam Battlefield, and on actual historic locations in Virginia and West Virginia. Many of the actors from the movie Gettysburg reprise their roles in the new movie, which also features the new characters Stonewall Jackson, Mary Anna Morrison Jackson, Myra Hancock, Mary Custis Lee and Fanny Chamberlain.

From the Battle of Fredericksburg to the Battle of Chancellorsville, when Jackson is mortally wounded by his own men, Gods and Generals paints a brilliant portrait of the lives of these great leaders during the tumultuous years leading up to the Battle of Gettysburg. It is a magnificent epic about the Civil War, historically accurate in nearly every respect, yet powerfully entertaining and emotive. Everybody in the screening audience of industry professionals was moved to tears at points and swept along by the power of the presentation by Ron Maxwell and his team.

Gods and Generals opens with a quote by George Eliot about the importance of a sense of place. It is on the eve of the War Between the States. General Lee, played superbly by Robert Duvall, is asked by U.S. Secretary Blair to take command of the United States Army to put down the rebellion. Lee points out that his house is just across the Potomac. He will not lead troops to invade his home state. Very soon thereafter, Lee is summoned before the Virginia legislature and called to command the armies of Virginia, to defend against the invading troops from the north.

Col. Thomas Jackson is called up to recruit troops from western Virginia while teaching at Virginia Military Institute. He leads them to the battle of Manassas. There, he stands, and so do his troops, like a stone wall, thus acquiring his name. The movie traces his career from the classroom through his significant victories against overwhelming troops to his untimely death. In the process, it also features Joshua Chamberlain preparing his troops in Maine and General Lee leading the Confederate Army.

Gods and Generals is vast and grand in its scope. This movie has a powerful unity which brings history magnificently alive.

The most amazing part of Gods and Generals is its recognition of the deep spiritual values of those involved in the Civil War. Prayers are sincere and heartfelt. References to Scripture are constantly invoked. Jackson tells his orderly to write his reports based on the format he can find in the Bible. He says those are the best battle reports ever. The characters often lift up the name of Jesus Christ. A constant refrain throughout the movie is that God’s will be done.

War is not pleasant in this movie, and it would be impossible not to weep for those caught in this conflagration. One of the most poignant moments is the Irish troops from the North fighting the Irish from the southern states, many of whom came over on the same boats when they fled the Irish famine. At the end of the killing, the Irish fighting for the South cheer for their brothers, who are fighting for the Union and who exhibited such valor against all odds.

Gods and Generals does not whitewash the evils of slavery or of mercantilism. It exposes human passions, and reveals compassion and kindness in the worst of situations. The strength of character of the women and the children is phenomenal.

The Washington Post reporter who visited the set of the movie last year commented that he had never seen such a powerful love scene as Jackson praying with his wife. The religious fervor of Jackson and Lee in the movie is a commentary on the war fervor of the South in general. How could one fight to dissolve the Union without asking God to be on one’s side?

Gods and Generals is a monument of filmmaking which will be remembered as long as there are devices to watch such a superb historical epic.

If you have seen Gettysburg, then you must see Gods and Generals. If you have not (or even if you have), go see Gods and Generals first, then immediately rent, buy and watch Gettysburg. You will be rewarded immeasurably.
Ted Baehr is chief executive officer of the Christian Film and Television Commission. (Intended audience for Gods and Generals: Adults and teenagers. The movie’s content includes strong Christian worldview with powerful moral moments and profound moral resolutions including a baptism, numerous prayers and many invocations of God’s grace; less than 10 very light obscenities, many rebuked, and 5 exclamations to God; wartime violence in Civil War setting complete with blood and body parts but much milder than many contemporary war movies; two bedroom scenes of married couple with no sexual activity displayed; upper male nudity, very brief, in naturalistic situation; alcohol use as an anesthetic and other anesthetic uses; narcotic as an anesthetic and smoking; and, nothing else objectionable.)

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  • Ted Baehr