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Gods and Generals  

Review: written 2006

Early Years of the American Civil War, brilliantly portrayed

This is a stunning depiction of both battles and personalities of the early Civil War, using primarily the story of the brilliant General `Stonewall' Jackson as its `hook'. It is based on the book by Jeffrey Shaara, which was the first in a trilogy. The second of the books has already been filmed, as Gettysburg, by the same team that made this movie.

The movie did not fare well at the box office, putting the movie of the last in the trilogy in doubt - which is a shame, as there is a lot to be admired here. Where Gettysburg was first and foremost a historical re-enactment of the pivotal battle of the Civil War, this movie focuses far more on the characters and personalities, and even home life, of the main protagonists. Yes, it's a mite long - it covers a lot of ground though. It takes us from the start of the war, with Robert Duvall as Robert E Lee rejecting the overall command of the Northern army to join the confederate army protecting his home state of Virginia, through to the battles of Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville.

The battles scenes are as authentic as could be, and satisfyingly achieved not through Lord of the Rings style CGI, but actual historical battle re-enactors (over 7000 were used). The best thing about these battles is that the sense of strategy and purpose behind them is much clearer than normally seen in movies such as these - you always have the idea that above the ground level horror and confusion there is a reason for it all. This is in keeping with the second half of the title, the generals view on warfare and battles.

The first half of the title, God, permeates the entire movie. Stonewall Jackson was an intensely religious man (as the excellent short documentaries available on the UK DVD release show), whose views and talks with God had a profound effect on his style of command and personal courage. Most of the characters have some relationship with God, as both sides claim to have God on their side and both pray for victory.

The movie is full of memorable moments - the two soldiers from opposite sides who meet on the river on Christmas Day to share tobacco and coffee, the time in Fredericksburg when the Irish divisions on both sides are forced to fight each other, the moment when Jackson finally breaks down in tears - not at the death of his soldiers, but when he receives tragic news of an individual youngster fallen prey to illness. This all brings a sense of humanity to the movie that Gettysburg had in smaller amounts.

The language may be one of the factors that put people off - it is archaic to the point of sounding pompous to our ears, and yet sounds authentic to the period. There are many apt and well voiced quotes from poems and scripture - which certainly drag the movie out, but to my mind at least make the movie a more complete one.

Finally, credit must go to the score of Randy Edelman and John Frizell - the combination of stirring and emotional music, with songs of the day and new songs in the titles, make for an entirely perfect combination.

All in all, a definitive version of the early Civil War and General Jackson's life, which while flawed in terms of length and pace, is a rewarding viewing experience.

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