In this feeble depiction of the American Civil War, the only thing that's
valiant is the actors' efforts to bring some life to dialogue that is as
devoid of it as the statues erected in its generals' honor. Ronald F. Maxwell
seems to have learned the craft of screenwriting in a pulpit, and the result
is a steady drumbeat of exhortation to a deity. The first word of the title
is not insignificant to the vapid material, marched into existence by history
buff-executive producer Ted Turner.
Mr. Turner may be a financial genius but his constant outpouring of his slant
on the civil war, notable by a creative flop for his TV station, "Gettysburg",
might have written this amateurish embarassment himself. It shows what a big
enough name with money behind it can buy when something this leaden is picked
up for theatrical release.
It covers the early events in the American civil war, when President Lincoln,
through an intermediary, offers the leadership of the union troops to the
Virginia general Robert E. Lee (Robert Duvall). He, of course, sides with
the south and becomes its leader, in opposition to the union.
Before a shot is fired, we are braced with a series of scenes of somnolent
goodbyes between the generals and their wives. The stoic southern general
"Stonewall" Jackson (Stephen Lang) spouts patriotic ferver amidst an
outpouring of religious platitudes and declarations to the almighty in an
"intimate" scene with his wife. As he ventures into battle, his celestial
pleas do not diminish and, though he is a major figure in this scenario, we
are never to understand him as a sentient human being.
But the problem is not limited to Jackson. Two of the capable actors in
the bunch, Jeff Daniels and Mira Sorvino, fare no better at the hands of such
dialogue drivel. In their goodbye scene (Daniels, as Lt. Col Joshua Lawrence
Chamberlain, a chief officer of the union, Sorvino his wife) bring tears to
one's eyes in empathy with their struggle -- not to face the sacrifices and
dangers of war, but to somehow breathe life into dialogue that would be more
fitting as oratory for a congregation. Unfortunately for them, stilted
formality wins the battle over sympathy.
It continues to do so throughout this diatribe balanced to glorify the losing
side as best it can. The battle scenes are detailed, overextended and, despite
the continuous action, eventually boring.
Both sides are rife with generals, and we witness the politically correct but
tactically inept decisions of General Ambrose Burnside as he holds back early
action by union troops, allowing the more strategically gifted Lee time to
build his Virginia defenses against the well-anticipated union attack.
But, if you're not a history or civil war buff, you're not likely to
come out of this trench of ineffectual movie making with much enlightenment
or stimulation. This is the worst kind of melodrama, in which secondary
roles seem to be played by stuntmen and primary ones by actors laboring
for a sense of reality in a context where sermonizing represents passion.
If the confederacy had used this movie to put the union troops to sleep, they
might have fared better. The battle for the modern audience is to stay awake.
Can't anyone keep Ted Turner, with his 3 1/2 hour hobby movies and seemingly
limitless publicity budget, out of our theatres?
~~ Jules Brenner