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This War Is Hell

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By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 21, 2003

"GODS and Generals" is less a movie than a meticulously, tediously accurate Civil War reenactment committed to celluloid.

Thanks to its bloated, almost four-hour length, its tone of uncritical hagiography (Look, there goes Stonewall Jackson's arm floating up to heaven!) and its tendency to bury the few real actors in its cast in molasses-thick Southern accents and bushy beards that make them look like they've glued stuffed animals to their faces, a viewing of this epic is likely to leave all but the geekiest Civil War buffs feeling as itchy and as restless as if they themselves were wearing woolen underwear -- soggy, unwashed, vintage 1860s, government-issue woolen underwear.

Staggering out of the theater into the light of downtown Washington, I felt like I'd lived through the Civil War, and I don't mean that in a good way.

Covering the years 1861 to 1863 and portraying the battles of First Manassas, Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville, "G&G" is the second in Ronald F. Maxwell's projected Civil War trilogy and a prequel to the filmmaker's popular "Gettysburg," a 1993 drama based on Michael Shaara's historical novel, "The Killer Angels." Based on the novel by Jeff Shaara (Michael's son), the new film begins with dreary, scene-setting exposition that focuses on Virginia's secession from the Union, although it fails to explain in any real way the economic, political or social roots of that decision.

"Though ah love the Union, ah love Vuh-ginia mo-ah," intones Robert E. Lee (Robert Duvall, one of the few actors who manages to avoid embarrassing himself). That's about all we get by way of explanation of why he must refuse the federal government's offer to lead its forces against the "rebels."

Most of "G&G" concerns Gen. Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson (Stephen Lang), though, a hero whose untimely death, it is implied, may have caused the South to lose the war. While the movie explains the origin of his nickname ("There stands Jackson like a stone wall," a battlefield observer is alleged to have said), it does little to make us feel anything about this man as a human being. To be sure, the conflict itself has a certain built-in drama, and we do see that Jackson loves his wife, daughter and African American cook. Still, the film, as a story, does nothing to make us care about him in any genuine way.

"Gods and Generals" has the look and sound of historical verisimilitude, down to the way the opposing forces march stiffly toward each other's ranks, shooting into the face of death. But it is best characterized by the insufferable mawkishness of a scene in which an anonymous "Billy Yank" and "Johnny Reb" share a cup of coffee and a pipe of "baccy" while facing off along the Rappahannock River.

Like that treacly scene, it is essentially a hollow exercise, full of pat ironies about former friends turned enemies and brother fighting against brother. Yes, great sacrifices were made, on both sides of the struggle, on behalf of deeply held beliefs about states rights and slavery. But for this wan epiphany, I had to give up four hours of my life?

GODS AND GENERALS (PG-13, 220 minutes) -- Contains extensive but largely bloodless battlefield violence. Area theaters.


© 2003 The Washington Post Company

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