The most striking -- and most accurate -- scenes in the newly released Civil War movie "Gods and Generals" are the three Virginia battles, in which endless waves of soldiers march across the screen toward the enemy and end up in great piles of bodies strewed across open fields.
Although the movie, filmed in this area and much publicized here, has been treated roughly by the critics, Virginia's tourism industry anticipates that it will draw more visitors this spring and summer to the national parks that bear those battles' names -- Fredericksburg, Manassas and Chancellorsville.
That's the good news. "For those people who don't have an image of what war was like, the movie will help," said John Hennessy, National Park Service historian. "I think people will shop this movie and pick out of it what intrigues them."
And then, he hopes, they'll shop for the battlefield parks.
But there is a drawback, because some visitors who were informed -- misinformed, many historians say -- by an epic movie come to the battlefields with outsize expectations. What they need to bring, Hennessy said, are active imaginations.
The dilemma the moviemakers faced -- how to stage a battle as it was fought 140 years ago -- is the same one the Park Service faces in making monument-studded parks come alive to visitors. In the case of the Battle of Fredericksburg, they have had to create a battlefield in visitors' minds.
Most battlefields trade in vistas, vast open spaces such as those at Manassas, Gettysburg in Pennsylvania and Antietam in Maryland, where rangers can take visitors to the exact places where this regiment was victorious or that general was shot and let them feel what it must have been like.
At Fredericksburg, they have to imagine the vista, too.
"We try and paint a visual picture," said Donald Pfanz, Fredericksburg staff historian. "Right away, we tell them this is not what it looked like in 1862. Back then, there was very little cover, just a few fences."
He means that there were no houses on the 40-foot rise that leads to Marye's Heights, the Confederate stronghold, as there are now, and that the sunken road used by the Union as a defense wasn't paved as it is now -- though it is still about four feet lower than everything else around it.
Pfanz said the rangers begin tours with a film and photographs and then show visitors what little remains of the battlefield, which also includes part of stone wall and a house pocked with Minie balls.
The movie spends half an hour with its cameras on the gentle plains outside Fredericksburg, watching regiment after regiment of Union soldiers line up, move onto the field and die. The final scene is a sea of blue-clad bodies lying on the field.
Those familiar with Fredericksburg may notice something odd about the movie version of the battlefield, with its rock outcroppings and harsh terrain. It was shot in Washington County, Md., because Fredericksburg has run out of open space. So was the Battle of Chancellorsville, because the real site was too densely overgrown for filming. The Manassas and Antietam battlefields were too full of monuments, so those battle scenes were shot in Rockingham County, Va., in the more remote Shenandoah Valley.
"Gods and Generals," a 3 1/2-hour marathon that opened Feb. 21, isn't getting the rave reviews enjoyed by its predecessor, "Gettysburg" -- which came later in history. But like "Gettysburg," it is getting a mediocre ride at the box office -- and Hennessy recalls that tourism at Fredericksburg increased 10 percent after the release of "Gettysburg," a sort of Civil War bounce that he expects to be repeated.
He and many other historians note, however, that park rangers will have to do some correcting of the record. Although the film's director, Ron Maxwell, said he stands behind its accuracy, he has been challenged on several fronts.
One of them concerns an alleged sin of omission -- cutting the all-important Battle of Antietam, one of the war's Big Three followed by Chancellorsville and then Gettysburg. Maxwell said he was concentrating less on the war's progress than on Confederate Gen. Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson, who gained his reputation at Manassas, was brilliant at Fredericksburg and received his fatal injury at Chancellorsville.
Hennessy, the interim superintendent of the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park, was bothered more by the portrayal of events on his home turf. In the film, a panicked mass of Fredericksburg residents is shown stumbling along the narrow streets with their belongings and screaming as Union soldiers shell the town.
In fact, he said, the exodus was much more orderly and took place over several weeks as residents anticipated the Union advance. That scene was filmed in Harpers Ferry, W.Va., where the tiny town has been preserved by the Park Service.
Beyond logistics and geography, historians have criticized the director for romanticizing the war -- all the women are beautiful and lonely, all the officers dashing, all the children charming -- and failing to show its grinding difficulty and its intricate texture.
American University history professor Ed Smith said he was concerned about misrepresentation of the relationship between Jackson and a freedman named Jim Lewis, who was his cook and groom.
"There was a richness to their relationship," Smith said, "and the movie people missed a real opportunity to show that, to explore the complexity of black and white relationships. The fact is that this black guy was a part of Jackson's inner circle."
And if Maxwell was concentrating on Jackson, Smith said, why did he show Jackson's wife by his side at his death, which was attended only by his doctor and Lewis? Because, Maxwell maintains, she was there. "I didn't hire 12 experts to make those kinds of errors," he said.
Evergreen trees block the view of shopping centers across the street from the Old Salem Church.