Gods and Generals

“Caesar, we who are about to die, salute you.”

For nearly four hours I was transported back into history, and could have sat for four more. I was disappointed when the trip was over. From years of reading about the Civil War and watching some top-notch documentaries on the subject, I realized that the actors were mostly mouthing words from actual letters and other first-person narratives, and bringing those words and actions alive to the audience. It was a mainly adult audience, by the way, which was somewhat of a treat in itself.

The story focuses on three great military minds of that era: General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson (Stephen Lang), General Robert E. Lee (Robert Duvall), and Col. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain (Jeff Daniels), and follows them into the battles of Manassas (Bull Run), Antietam, Fredericksburg, and Chancellorsville. Because of the excellent writing and research done by Jeff Shaara, author of the book Gods and Generals, I felt I was given the opportunity to actually know these historical giants as real people. All were men of faith and I don’t know when I’ve heard God’s name mentioned so often and with such reverence in a modern movie. Another unexpected and refreshing bonus.

Jeff Daniels as Colonel Chamberlain – sword raised

The gamut of emotions and actions experienced by men on the battlefield were well and truly represented in this movie. Scenes especially gripping were the one with Irishmen firing on Irishmen and crying as they pulled the triggers; and the one with Jeff Daniels as Col. Chamberlain, trapped on a hard-fought hillside pulling corpses about him as bullets slammed into them.

I have not followed the career of Stephen Lang and am not familiar with the characters he has played before, but his portrayal of Stonewall Jackson was — well, let’s just say he WAS Stonewall Jackson as far as his audience was concerned. Robert Duvall, of course, is a “gimme”. He couldn’t mess up a character if he tried. In this instance, let me assure you that Robert E. Lee himself could not have played Robert E. Lee any better than Robert Duvall.

But, the overall greatest and most pleasant surprise was Jeff Daniels. I mean, here’s the “Dumb and Dumber” guy, right? Everybody likes him, but I had never seen him in anything that led me to believe he was the actor he proved himself to be in this movie. There were several of his scenes that absolutely blew me away, but one in particular. Moments before engaging in battle, Col. Chamberlain addressed his men by reciting a stirring epic piece. Facing an open field and a height commanded by Confederate artillery and entrenched infantry, no one expected to come away alive or unscathed. Jeff Daniels, as the college professor-turned-soldier, with sword held high, ends his recitation with, “Caesar, we who are about to die, salute you.” I hung on every word, and it was so beautifully rendered I would like to have a recording of just that piece. I was sitting there thinking, “THIS, is Jeff Daniels?” Wow!

I have heard a reviewer call this movie slow. You would have to have the attention span of an infant orangutan to call Gods and Generals slow. Gripping — yes. Slow — no.

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