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Movie Review: Gods and Generals

Quick Plot Summary: Cinematic epic about the first few years of the U.S. Civil War from a unique perspective.

Rating: Great
Suggested Ages: 13+

This is an excellent epic movie about the first few years of the U.S. Civil War, focussing primarily on a few specific individuals on the South and the North. One of the absolute strengths of this movie is that it is NOT just about facts and battles, but actually takes you into the realm of motivations, thoughts, feelings of the people involved - including their religious thoughts - making them REAL people and not just some glossed-over "fact" on a page. It focuses on only a few individuals. But it uses those individuals to try to help showcase what was going on on an individual level with people at that time. Thus, if you are expecting this movie to be a documentary on the first few years of the war, you will be sorely disappointed. But if you are looking to see a cinematic movie that while exploring some of the events of the first few years of the war, delves deeper into the "human element", this does that very well (with stunning visuals/audio, I might add). By most accounts it is pretty historically accurate with what it does show. For being a "Hollywood war movie", there is very little bad language (and nothing horrible) and the war scenes are not that bloody/horribly intense.

As a Christian, I am always encouraged by this movie as it shows General Jackson (South) with a strong faith in the Lord that just seems to give him a peace in all he does. That does not mean that every portrayal of Christianity in this movie is right on. Although much of the faith stuff is centered around Gen. Jackson (South) which generally does show Christianity in a favorable light as we see how his strong faith helped him and was a great comfort to him both on the battlefield and in his dying days, there are some points which don't do so as well. One example concerns a scene where Jackson responds something along the lines that he wants to just kill all the enemy - "every last one of them" kind of thing. That certainly doesn't mesh that well with the type of "Christianity" I'd like portrayed to non-believers. We also see Jackson as a Christian praying for an unbelieving dying general stating something like "I'll believe for the two of us since you don't believe". Any Christian that's read their Bible knows that's not how it works. Plus, it also shows a much more "liberal" type of Christianity with how it's portrayed with Gen. Chamberlain (North) as compared to Jackson, so the movie's portrayal of Christianity is kind of mixed and not consistent. But, at the end of the day, I always walk away from this film (which is also just plain an excellent film) affirmed in my faith.

However, though a believer I think is likely to watch this movie and be encouraged in their faith, I also, oddly enough, think it quite possible that an unbeliever could watch this movie and possibly be emboldened in their unbelief. I have actually AVOIDED showing this movie to unbelievers for this reason. Let me explain. Yes, this movie does periodically explore religious motivations and thoughts of some of the characters. But it shows those motivations on BOTH sides (both North and South) - you get to see BOTH sides talking about how they believe God is on their side and for their cause! In fact, it goes out of its way to show people in essence believing that it's all about the Sovereignty of God - and that God will be for them and give them the victory. This film explores the religious angle a bit, because you KNOW - especially at that time - that religion most certainly DID play a major role on both sides, with many on both sides believing that God would help them win the victory, etc. Thus I can easily see an unbeliever watching this film coming away just thinking that all the Christianity stuff (and indeed religion in general) is nuts since both sides had people that believed in God and believed God was for them, and at the end of the day, war is an ugly ugly thing with lots and lots of people dead. It's a very flawed argument in my view (since the truth of Christianity and who Jesus is does not hinge on whether some humans think God is for their side in a war or not), but I can easily see unbelievers coming to such a wrong conclusion. Thus I don't see this as a great "Christian evangelism" film that by the way some people talk about it one might think it is.

Although the "it's all just about God's Sovereignty and His Will" message permeates the religious undertones of the movie and does not have an appropriate balance for how our actions and faith enter into the equation, this can actually be a good conversation piece among Christians after the movie (i.e. Why is it easier on us to just say it all comes down to God and His will? Was the Civil War ever really "His Will?" Would God not have much preferred people to act right in love to begin with and resolve things in love?)

In addition to religion, this movie goes against the politically-correct flow a bit and that's part of what MAKES this movie such a great film! It admittedly explores the Southern side heavier than the North, but plenty of other films explore the North's position much more than the South. Most of us already have been told a lot about the North's positions - so personally I find it refreshing to explore the South a bit more. Though this movie DOES showcase the North as well (even more so in the Extended Edition).

Slavery, while clearly mentioned and portrayed as an evil in the film, is not directly shown with the few black characters in the film to be personally horrible by experience to them. We do see some of the blacks and the whites in the South getting along (and even liking one another) which the P.C. police would have you believe could never have happened. And yes that does bother some people that believe that the whole war was just all about slavery and that everyone in the South were giant meanies who hated all blacks and treated them like dirt (and that all blacks in the South were treated like dirt) and that everyone in the North were fighting solely to free slaves. This film does mess with that commonly accepted narrative a bit, by showing that in reality things might have been a bit more complex than that...

If a person is not willing to consider on a deeper human level some of the thoughts and feelings that might have been going on at that time (and for which indeed historically can be shown DID go on at that time) that one is not taught in your standard history class, including religious thoughts and motivations, then I guess one could really take offense at this film. And if a person is expecting this film to show every battle and person involved in the first few years of the war and be balanced between the Northern and Southern views, then a person would have a problem with this film and probably find it boring (not enough "battle action" and too much drama).

But if a person can just take it for what it is: A Cinematic movie that tells some stories that provide some insight into historical events of the first few years of the Civil War, I don't think you'll be disappointed and can easily count this among one of the better films you've seen!

Note: There are 2 versions of this long movie: Theatrical and the Extended Edition. The Extended Edition is about an hour longer than the already very long Theatrical and contains an additional major battle, additional subplot, and more. It also is split up into "chapters" that take away a bit from the "flowing movie" feel of the Theatrical. Many people in reviews I've seen seem to prefer the Extended. Personally, I'm torn. The Extended seemed to drag a bit for me and had some unnecessary scenes as well as removing a few scenes I liked, but did also seem to help fill in a few gaps and give some greater dimension. So it's truly hard for me to pick, but if I was forced to I would probably choose the Theatrical, but it depends on the mood I'm in. (If you're a history/Civil War buff though you might prefer to start with the Extended).

I believe its PG-13 rating to be accurate. I do not recommend this movie for children under 13. This movie DOES show the horrors of war, though its level of gore is certainly nothing like movies like Braveheart, etc.

This movie was the 2nd movie made of what was supposed to be a Civil War Trilogy. This movie shows the first few years of the war and leaves off right where the movie Gettysburg (made about 10 years prior) picks up. The 3rd movie, which was going to cover the post-Gettysburg part of the war was never made. Particularly with the John Wilkes Booth subplot in the Extended Edition of "Gods and Generals" that was clearly meant to play into the 3rd movie, it is a true shame they have not made it - it's one of the great unmade movies of our time in my view. As for the movie Gettysburg, it is a different type of movie than Gods and Generals because it is more centrally focussed specifically on the battle of Gettysburg, whereas Gods and Generals had to cover a lot of other ground. Gettysburg feels significantly less drama-filled in comparison, but there are definitely still moments of emotional drama (just not as "heightened") and side-conversations (including a few religiously-oriented ones) in it. The movie Gettysburg offers balance to many of the things that Gods and Generals has been criticised for. So for instance, if Gods and Generals has a more Southern-lens bent, Gettysburg is kind of the opposite and has more of a Northern-lens bent, so it all kind of evens out in my view. Much of the criticism that has been levied at Gods and Generals I believe not particularly fair, especially when you view it in the big picture of having Gettysburg as a "sequel." While not all of the actors are the same in both movies (the biggest difference is who played Robert E. Lee - although I find both representations reasonable), a number of the key actors ARE the same as well. Particularly, Gettysburg also gives a heavy presence to the 20th Maine under Colonel Chamberlain and several of those actors are the same ones. Overall, the Gettysburg Extended Edition (which I recommend over the theatrical) flows reasonably well as a follow-up movie to this one. I consider both movies very sobering and worthwhile.

Reviewed by Christopher Long,
BodEquip Ministries

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