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Gods and Generals(2003)
A sweeping epic charting the early years of the Civil War and how campaigns unfolded from Manassas to the Battle of Fredericksburg, this prequel to the film Gettysburg explores the motivations of the combatants and examines the lives of those who waited at home.
For more about Gods and Generals and the Gods and Generals Blu-ray release, see Gods and Generals Blu-ray Review published by Kenneth Brown on May 18, 2011 where this Blu-ray release scored 3.5 out of 5.
Starring: Robert Duvall, Stephen Lang, Jeff Daniels, Mira Sorvino, Bruce Boxleitner, Kevin Conway
Director: Ronald F. Maxwell
» See full cast & crew
Gods and Generals Blu-ray Review
Maxwell's extended cut is more on par with 'Gettysburg,' and its solid AV presentation only helps...
Reviewed by Kenneth Brown, May 18, 2011
Up, men! Up, Virginians! Hold your fire until they are within fifty yards, and then give them the bayonet! And when you charge, yell like furies!
I've long held a deep love of Civil War history, a sentiment I feel the need to brandish like a red badge of courage before charging into the nit and grit of Gods and Generals, particularly considering the film has frustrated me since its 2003 release. For twenty-one years, my backyard was, quite literally, the Antietam National Battlefield. I attended school five miles from Sharpsburg; the university I chose lay a mere five miles in the opposite direction. I moved out of my childhood home more than ten years ago, but Antietam remains a breezy bike ride away. If I hop in my car, I can be at Gettysburg in less than an hour; Fredericksburg in two, if I take my time. Simply put, I've submersed myself in the Civil War's most fascinating places, most absorbing tales and bloodiest battles for as long as I can remember. To suggest I have nothing invested in the region, its history or the films that depict either one is, for lack of a better word, silly. I say all that to say this: while Gods and Generals is a wonderfully researched, handsomely shot, smartly performed Civil War period piece, it isn't as strong or focused a film as it could be, nor does it deliver on all of its promises or potential. It has value, to be sure, and I would take issue with anyone who brushed it aside based on its 280-minute length alone. As an educational tool, it has even more to offer. As a film though, even via Ronald F. Maxwell's superior Extended Cut, its struggles and shortfalls prevent it from being as powerful, resonant or haunting as it could be.
A human life, I think, should be well rooted in some spot of native land, where it may get the love of tender kinship for the face of the earth, for the labors men go forth to, for the sounds and accents that haunt it, for whatever will give that early home a familiar unmistakable difference amidst the future widening of knowledge. The best introduction to astronomy is to think of the nightly heavens as a little lot of stars belonging to one's own homestead.
While Gettysburg splits its focus between the Union and Confederate armies, Gods and Generals -- Maxwell's more episodic prequel -- spends the majority of its time with the soldiers and commanders of the Confederate forces; primarily General Robert E. Lee (Robert Duvall, replacing Martin Sheen) and Lieutenant General Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson (returning actor Stephen Lang, tackling a different character than he did in Gettysburg). Union Lieutenant Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain (Jeff Daniels) earns a storyline of his own, as do other Northern natives, but theirs are largely secondary, minimally developed character-driven tales used to string connective tissue between Maxwell's Civil War films. But the filmmaker's celebration of the South and his fascination with the nobility of the Confederacy's oft-vilified gods and generals drew a tremendous amount of criticism upon its release in 2003 -- Baltimore Sun critic Michael Sragow called it "a story Trent Lott could love" -- and continues to spark debate among filmfans and history buffs. Such widespread negative views aren't entirely unfounded, of course. Maxwell's prevailing tone, romanticism and poetic embellishments make it difficult to discern adulation from objectivity, and it's easy to see why Gods and Generals ruffles the feathers it does.
Still, to simply label Gods and Generals as Southern propaganda is equally problematic. The film is an examination of the conflicts that raged in the South, devoid of the sermonizing most other filmmakers would instinctively (perhaps rightfully) infuse into the narrative. Specifically, the conflicts that stirred within the hearts and souls of the Confederacy's military men and history-makers; strategists, warriors and, in what will only fuel the existing critical fire, future presidential assassins (Chris Conner plays John Wilkes Booth in a significant subplot reinstated in the extended cut); Southerners who aren't necessarily good or evil, but rather fully realized human beings torn between God, country and... well, country. Lee, Jackson and the Confederacy aren't cast in a heroic light, at least not in the traditional sense. Instead, Maxwell attempts to paint a more complex portrait of men dedicated to their heritage but disheartened by the need for civil war; men who have a difficult time striking a balance between duty, honor and moral integrity.
If only Maxwell had pulled it off. As meticulously researched as Gods and Generals is, as authentic and historically accurate as many (not all) aspects of the film may be, it meanders, plods along and employs sleight-of-hand whenever trickier subject matter is introduced. Maxwell's pacing is terribly uneven, exposition is overused and overextended, slavery is mishandled with kid-gloves (as are the only African American characters featured), and scenes like Booth's much-too-convenient encounter with Chamberlain, after a production of Julius Caesar no less, reminds us yet again that Maxwell is as much a filmmaker prone to stage histrionics as he is a historian seeking the truth. Other distractions invade as well. Maxwell's script tends to dwell on ideas that could be more succinctly dissected, many of his characters' exchanges seem directed at the audience more than each other, a sense of heaviness seems to loom over every other line (as if each were the most important bit of dialogue in the film), a handful of actors are miscast and, frankly, in over their heads (history is looking at you, Jeremy London) and the serviceable CG used to expand some of the battle sequences often undermines the contributions of the flesh-n-blood reenactors Maxwell has assembled.
Gods and Generals has quite a few things going for it as well, most of which are in a constant tug of war with the film's lesser qualities. Lang, Daniels and Duvall are phenomenal and the majority of the supporting cast -- a thoughtfully cast band of character and stage actors -- carefully till the soil of the fathers, husbands and brothers they've been given. Lang's performance is nothing short of captivating and I remain, as always, dismayed that he isn't offered more leading roles. Daniels is so good I wish he were a more featured player than he is. And Duvall, terrific as Martin Sheen is in Gettysburg, proves himself a more convincing, more conflicted and ultimately more tragic Robert E. Lee. More importantly, many of the scenes resurrected by the Director's Cut -- chief among them the Battle of Antietam sequences Maxwell had to trim from previous versions -- fill out the 280-minute runtime nicely and extend Gods and Generals with an hour of meaty, challenging material fans of the film will be ecstatic to see return.
The cinematography, though a tad weepy and homesick, is sweeping, stirring and graceful, even if it takes a few too many cues from Gone with the Wind and dusty old Civil War paintings. The battle scenes are far more compelling this time around too, thanks in large part to the film's extended cut. Gone are many of the lazy extras who bumped into each other with dull indifference in Gettysburg. Maxwell's second batch of reenactors, while not impervious to background and foreground apathy, seem more committed, more invested and really sell their battle cries, troop movements and deaths. Gone too are the bloodless wounds and tame costs of war. Gods and Generals doesn't offer an R-rated depiction of authentic Civil War violence, nor should it I suppose, but it doesn't shy away from bloody bandages, bullet wounds or battered corpses of the PG-13 variety either, lending the film just enough backbone to shoulder its dramatic battlefield burdens. Maxwell even commands each clash more commendably than before, staging charges and large-scale skirmishes with a more experienced eye and more capable cinematic flair.
If it sounds like I'm caught up in a love-hate affair with Gods and Generals, it's because I most certainly am; more so now, with the release of Maxwell's vastly preferred extended cut, than ever before. In many ways, it's a more able-bodied film than Gettysburg. In many ways, it's much weaker; a film ironically at civil war with itself. It seems no matter how much tinkering, trimming or reinstating Maxwell indulges in, Gods and Generals is destined to remain divisive for the rest of its natural life. It's a shame really. Hollywood doesn't have much interest in the war that shaped our nation more than any other, and filmfans are left with little choice but to latch onto whatever productions leak through the cracks of the Hollywood machine. If there were dozens of masterclass Civil War films to be had, I doubt debate over Gods and Generals would rage as fiercely as it does, if at all. It would be passed over; appreciated for what it accomplishes but forgotten for what it fails to do.
Gods and Generals Blu-ray, Video Quality
How long is too long? At what point does a BD-50 begin to groan and creak under the strain of a sprawling epic like Gods and Generals? Apparently at some point before 280-minutes. While it isn't what I'd call an obvious issue, compression takes its toll on Warner's 1080p/AVC-encoded transfer and faint bursts of artifacts creep into the image here and there. Again, it isn't glaring -- at least not on most occasions -- and it doesn't interfere with the integrity of the picture... much. But it is there, and it does beg the question: why not spread four-hour films across two discs? Particularly films that already include intermissions or, as is the case with the Extended Cut of Gods and Generals, are neatly divided into five distinct fifty to sixty-minute parts? Other problems arise as well, even though they aren't directly connected to disc space or compression. Noise often spikes during nighttime sequences, some minor banding appears on occasion and a hint of ringing is apparent (albeit no where near as noticeable or distracting as the edge halos that litter Gettysburg).
Thankfully, the presentation's shortcomings are largely swept away in the grand scheme of things. Kees Van Oostrum's photography, blandly lit and flat as it sometimes is, boasts robust colors, bold primaries, lifelike skintones and rich shadows. Black levels aren't always as deep as they should be, nor is detail always as crisp as it I believe it could be, but most of the subsequent delineation and clarity mishaps that occur trace back to the source, not Warner's newly encoded transfer. For the most part, detail is actually quite striking. Textures are reasonably well-refined, closeups are revealing and many of the film's key scenes look great. Softness intrudes throughout, but it's mainly of the filmic variety; the film's grainfield grows a bit soupy at times, but it doesn't seem as if noise reduction has been haphazardly employed; and edge definition is inconsistent, but not because of any invasive artificial sharpening. Yes, if you read that last sentence carefully you'll notice I alluded to the presence of DNR and edge enhancement. Very perceptive. However, lest anyone panic, let me be clear: neither one has been applied in such a way that should cause any alarm. In fact, despite its shiny coat of AVC paint, the color, contrast and clarity of Warner's new Extended Cut transfer is strikingly similar, if not identical, to Gods and Generals' previously released 2007 Blu-ray presentation. Unfortunately, the biggest difference between the two is the aforementioned compression issues, as the Extended Director's Cut edition adds a full sixty-minutes of film to the fray.
All things considered though, Gods and Generals weathers its worst storms well enough to deliver a fairly satisfying presentation. As I said, some scenes look magnificent and those that don't fare so well can typically be attributed to the film's original photography and print. Films as long as Gods and Generals should really be spread across two discs, but the end result isn't problematic enough to direct people away from this release.
Gods and Generals Blu-ray, Audio Quality
The unequivocal high point of Warner's newest release of Gods and Generals is its DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround track. The 2007 Blu-ray only offered standard Dolby Digital audio; a strong and serviceable mix four years ago, but a less-than-appealing lossy experience in 2011. Suffice it to say, Gods and Generals has never sounded better. Dialogue is clean, clear and wisely prioritized, on and off the battlefield. Rifle fire, cannon blasts and the cries of the fallen drift across the air with solemn authority, bolstered by a dutiful LFE channel and a pair of loyal rear speakers. Low-end output adapts to its surroundings, unleashing its full force when called upon, retreating once it's served its purpose, and standing close by, ever at the ready. The rear speakers are bristling with activity as well, creating a convincing, altogether immersive soundfield that deftly balances directional effects, ambience and Randy Edelman and John Frizzell's score. Lossless or no, the track isn't perfect -- a thinness overtakes a few lines of dialogue and muffles a handful of effects here and there -- but then again, the film's original sound design isn't perfect either. In the end, Gods and Generals' casual fans, diehards and fiercest critics will finally be able to agree on one thing: it sounds fantastic on Blu-ray.
Gods and Generals Blu-ray, Special Features and Extras
Warner's 2-disc Extended Director's Cut Digibook edition serves up a stronger supplemental package than the studio's 2007 Blu-ray release, even though the only fresh extra to be had is a newly recorded Director's Cut audio commentary. The rest of the special features are the same, flaws and all, and nearly all of the video content has been relegated to a standard DVD.
Gods and Generals Blu-ray, Overall Score and Recommendation
While Maxwell's extended cut bests previous versions of the film, Gods and Generals remains a problematic and divisive episodic epic that pits filmfan against filmfan, Civil War buff against Civil War buff. It certainly isn't a waste of celluloid, but some will love it, some will loathe it, others will simply long to be rid of its 280-minute march to war. Warner's latest Blu-ray release, though, is a bit of a mixed bag. While its DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround track warrants celebration, the quality of its video transfer is strikingly similar to its 2007 Blu-ray counterpart (which, in and of itself, isn't necessarily a bad thing), the entire film is crammed onto one disc (to slightly troubling ends) and its supplemental package still doesn't offer any significant production documentaries. (Maxwell, Gibson and Robertson's new Extended Cut commentary is appreciated though.) Proceed with caution and consideration.
Gods and Generals: Other Editions
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Gods and Generals Blu-ray, News and Updates
• Gettysburg, Extended Gods and Generals Announced on Blu-ray - February 25, 2011
Warner Home Video has announced that on May 24 it will release on Blu-ray two movies depicting events from the Civil War directed by Ronald F. Maxwell: Gettysburg (Director's Cut) and Gods and Generals (Extended Director's Cut, with an hour of never-before-seen ...
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