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Gods and Generals

  • compiled by Jeffrey Overstreet Copyright Christianity Today International
  • 2003 1 Jan
Gods and Generals

from Film Forum, 02/13/03

Fuller Seminary is teaming up with Turner Pictures to bring the upcoming epic motion picture Gods and Generals to congregations across America. That's right: congregations.

Craig Detweiler, co-director of Reel Spirituality, has penned a Bible study guide for groups who attend the film and wish to discuss its themes afterwards. Fuller Seminary President Richard J. Mouw's letter of introduction to the study exhorts pastors, "Take the time to plan a congregation-wide screening of Gods and Generals as a special event in the life of your church. … This study guide is the perfect marriage of popular culture and the church—a shining example of manifest ministries. It is faith in action. When Hollywood does it right, it is imperative that we as Christians support their efforts. Gods and Generals is a film worthy of your attention."

The Bible study focuses on questions about war, virtue, tribulation, and faith. "What is the proper Christian response to the threat of war? Does Goes choose sides in battle? How do we discern the will of God?" The film boasts many references to Christian faith as the actors play out the key battles of the Civil War, moving between historic speeches to the troops and moments of private conflict.

Film Forum will post more about the film and its potential as an outreach tool in the coming weeks.

from Film Forum, 02/27/03

It's not exactly a civil war, but religious press film critics posted starkly contrasting reviews this week of the new film by Ron Maxwell.

Gods and Generals, an epic novel of the Civil War by Jeff Shaara, chronicles the Civil War from early 1861 through the 1863 Battle of Chancellorsville. Using this book as his foundation, Maxwell has directed an ambitious, detailed, in-depth film for Turner pictures, a prequel to his 1993 Gettysburg. (You can read Dick Staub's interview with Maxwell here.)

Actors Stephen Lang, Robert Duvall, and Jeff Daniels are the headliners, portraying Confederate generals Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee, and Union Lt. Col. Lawrence Chamberlain, respectively. Their collaboration boasts an impressive array of historical information, wartime heroes, legendary battles, and famous quotations. It also offers more words to and about the Almighty than any film in recent memory.

This massive $60 million dollar undertaking has been presented to pastors as a great movie to share with their congregations. Promotional materials include an exhortation from Fuller Seminary President Richard J. Mouw, who says, "When Hollywood does it right, it is imperative that we as Christians support their efforts. Gods and Generals is a film worthy of your attention." There is even a Bible study tie-in available by Fuller's Craig Detweiler.

But enough about what the filmmakers and the church leaders say about the film. How does it fare with folks who make it their daily mission to examine and discuss movies?

Religious media critics fall into two camps with their responses. There are those for whom historical accuracy and frequent dialogues about faith are enough to qualify this film as a monumental achievement. And then there are those who say that authentic costumes and God-talk are not necessarily signs of artistic excellence.

Ted Baehr (Movieguide) can barely contain his enthusiasm. He writes, "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 … tells the powerful story of the most important event in the history of the USA in an accurate and faith honoring way." He then heaps on the superlatives: "Brilliant … magnificent … historically accurate … powerful … vast and grand in its scope … phenomenal … a monument of filmmaking which will be remembered as long as there are devices to watch such a superb historical epic. You will be rewarded immeasurably."

(Baehr does not mention in his review that he is more than just a critic this time around. He has been involved with the movie for a while. Ron Maxwell commissioned him to write a companion book to the film—Faith in Gods and Generals—published by Broadman and Holman.)

David Bruce (Hollywood Jesus) calls it "the most spiritual movie I have seen in a long time. It tells the story of faith in a very difficult time. Maxwell is a man of deep faith who is not afraid to explore issues of religious faith."

While Baehr and Bruce celebrate its faith-heavy dialogue, others rejoice for what the film does not have. Holly McClure (Crosswalk) sums it up saying, "If you're looking for language, sex, chase scenes, or gratuitous violence, you won't find it in this historical tribute." Chris Monroe (Christian Spotlight) recommends this war movie because it is "clearly not as gratuitous as … Saving Private Ryan. Furthermore, there is no foul language or sexual content." They are both impressed.

Those Christian film critics who talk in more detail about pacing, writing, performances, and technical aspects are taking a different tone. Their most frequent complaint is that the film should have been a television miniseries, not a big screen event. After all, the movie requires a four-hour commitment and includes a 12-minute intermission. Further, they criticize it as being too ponderous while it lacks complex characters.

Cliff Vaughn (Ethics Daily) writes, "Gods and Generals is slightly shorter than the actual Civil War. There's nothing wrong in theory with a long movie, but any film premised on dramatic action should hold the viewer's attention. Gods and Generals … had me looking at my watch a few times—even during battle scenes. [The movie] feels more like a staged re-enactment and less like a major motion picture."

Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) says, "Though individual segments are interesting and the attention to detail impressive, we remain unsatisfied. It never fully engages the audience emotionally, reducing the experience to a very long but incomplete history lesson."

Robert Jackson (Decent Films) goes so far as to criticize the storytelling as "one-sided." He writes, "It isn't one-sided in the sense of favoring one side over the other. Instead, it's one-sided by portraying only the good and the noble on both sides. Everybody is so good and decent that it's hard to tell where the generals leave off and the gods start. That makes for bad cinema. Was nobody on the Southern side a racist and in favor of slavery? Weren't some [Northerners] motivated by baser economic and political interests? There is no substantive exploration of these complicating issues."

Phil Boatwright (The Movie Reporter) is on the fence. He admires it as a heartfelt effort with "an enlightening message" and high production values. But he adds, "Profundity is generally more so when offered in small doses. In other words, less is more. And therein lies the film's trouble—it's just too much: too verbose, too long and too politically correct."

Mainstream critics are even less tolerant of the film's flaws. You will find very few admirers of the film in the Rotten Tomatoes or Metacritic online review archives. Some confessed that they could not endure it, and left even before intermission. Rob Blackwelder (SplicedWire): "If [this] epic … is any indication, the Union and the Confederate armies must have talked each other to death." Robert Koehler (Variety) says Maxwell "consistently [makes] the flawed human characters at the heart of the Civil War into flawless figures Olympian in their statuesque remoteness." Michael Atkinson (Village Voice) says it "might qualify for a comedy screenplay Golden Globe next January." Even Nell Minow,'s "Movie Mom," writes, "Sometimes, what is best for history is not best for drama. The filmmaker's relentless even-handedness removes whatever drama the story might have had." Jonathan Foreman (New York Post) writes, "There is … something rare and refreshing in the unashamed way it shows characters with Christian religious beliefs. But it is so lacking in flesh-and-blood characters, so unclear in its depiction of battles like Bull Run, and so nauseating in its gruesome sentimentality that it is all but unwatchable."

Upon reading about the film, a friend of mine made an observation that is worth sharing. He remarked, "I am somewhat amazed that Christians are most fascinated with the military aspects of the Civil War, but give scant attention to some of the most dynamic Christians in history, ignoring people like Theodore Weld, Angelina and Sarah Grimke, Arthur and Lewis Tappan, to name a few. As 'deeply felt' as the religious devotion was on both sides by soldiers, it's the actions (not just the sentiments) of the abolitionists and other amazing evangelicals of the 19th century that should receive our careful attention and reflection. For that matter, has anyone ever made a major English-language film of William Wilberforce's life? Wesley's? Jonathan Edwards?" (Actually, a Wilberforce film is reportedly in the works.)

from Film Forum, 03/06/03

Bob Waliszewski (Focus on the Family) calls Ron Maxwell's Gods and Generals (Turner Pictures) "fascinating history, but you'd better like your movies long. And you'd better not be adverse to embracing the Southern psyche as a means to an end." Also disappointed in the film, Denny Wayman and Hal Conklin (Cinema in Focus) turn in a review: "Maxwell's intentions are to create a film which is concerned with the theology of war. Taking this enterprise seriously has caused him to create a film which takes itself too seriously, as evidenced by requiring an almost four-hour commitment from the viewer and presenting a regrettable lack of personality or passion on the part of the 'generals.'"

REVIEWGetting It Half-Right
What's worth celebrating in Gods and Generalsand what's Mark NollBooks & Culture, July/August 2003