Cinema Signal:

The Civil War Trilogy:
Gods and Generals/the Killer Angels/the Last Full Measure

. "Gods and Generals"

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?

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  

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Stephen Lang (Stonewall Jackson) and Robert Duvall (Robert E. Lee),
generals all
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