Four Civil War Movie Reviews
By Jonah Begone
Reviewed in the order I saw them, as a sort of stream-of-consciousness, running my mouth kind of thing for your reading enjoyment.
Manassas: End of Innocence (2002)
The good news about this particular production is that it’s really the Manassas Battlefield Park Visitors Center Video, so not only do you get to view it in a dedicated auditorium with a state-of-the-art Dolby surround system, but you get to walk the battlefield park as well!
(By the way… over the many years I have visited battlefield parks dressed as a uniformed volunteer and also as a member of the public, I have noticed that visits to National Park Service property always go better when dressed in 21st century mufti. I think dressing up as a reenactor tends to make the Park Service people wary. Dressed as a normal citizen, I’ve always been treated like more of a guest. Or at least like a paying customer. Anyway, take my word for it and leave the wools behind.)
It’s hard for me to focus solely on the film because, for me, it was part of the greater experience of watching the film, going through the museum and then walking the battlefield. The film works brilliantly at setting up the museum, which has a number of the historical items used in the film on display. For instance, above Judith Henry’s bed was a framed silhouette, which one could see on display in the museum – very neat.
The film looked very good – that is to say, it was well-photographed and had a wonderful, modern high resolution image. The performances of the actors was competent. I’m not a fan of Richard Dreyfuss, who did the narration – I find his on-screen persona pushy and grating – but he did a good job with the material. I think Dreyfuss has an interest in the Civil War. In 1989 he visited a Cedar Creek battle reenactment, and toured the camps. He autographed the inside of a pard’s forage cap upon request. “I’ll never wash it!” said the pard. “Like you ever would anyway, or any part of yourself for that matter,” quoth I. But I digress.
The surround sound was wonderful – bullets whizzing all around. Ziiippp! Zinnnng! Just like being there. I pointed out to my friend that I very much enjoyed this kind of seated, air-conditioned reenacting. Why I wasted entire weekends in the heat amongst the bugs doing it without the ziiippps! and zinnnngs!, I don’t know.
The images here, from matteworld.com, show how downtown Manassas doubled as Washington D.C. for the film. See that church? Back in April 2000 I attended a rugby party in the basement of that very church, when it was an Irish pub. Earlier, we had played two tough 40-minute halves with an aggressive team of Marines from the Quantico Rugby Football Club (it remains the only time I have been constantly pushed back in a scrum), and collected downstairs to give the owner’s wife Sheila a memorable sight. “Hi, Sheila!”
No, mine is not one of the butts on display. The very sight of it has been known to… well… I ought not to say.
Getting back to the subject at hand, save for the Johnstown Flood Visitors Center film in Pennsylvania, which is truly gripping, this is probably the most ambitious Park Service film, and worth seeing. Especially as a prelude to a day on the park grounds.
Gods and Generals (2003)
When this came out, the enthusiasm for the American Civil War, which fueled me for about fourteen years of reenacting, had entirely subsided. A brief review from a South Carolinian friend didn’t help, either: “It’s about Stonewall. Lots of praying and lemonade drinking.” Yawn. And reading Roger Ebert’s review convinced me that I shouldn’t waste my time – and a year passed.
And then I took a visiting friend from California out to the Antietam and Bull Run Battlefield Parks (see above) and, insidiously, the old interest in the American Civil War began to be revive itself. Who would have thought it? It’s like a refrain from a recent Tears for Fears song: Just when you think that it’s over/it’s not over/it’s not over… so, when a free Blockbuster coupon arrived in the mail I gave Gods and Generals a try over four nights. Which, given the film’s length, is the best way to view it.
The worst thing about this film was the dialog: stilted, ponderous and unnatural. Did human beings ever speak in that fashion? Really? It makes for impressive reading in books, but I can’t believe conversations were quite as, well, epic as this film insists they were. Everyone in this production talks as if he’s expecting to be quoted in future textbooks.
And that “Bonnie Blue Flag” song and dance sequence – that was just dreadful. I’m not certain whether it was included to give Ted Turner a horrible gratuitous cameo or to support a thesis that skinny, Joel Gray-style homosexual entertainment industry geeks got their start performing in Confederate camps. Whatever the reason, that was a scene that should have been killed in script reviews or film fragments left on the editing room floor.
Did they have to show Stonewall Jackson in bed with his wife? I mean, sure, historically they were married and all, but that was something I just didn’t want to see. It’s like seeing Abe Lincoln and Mary Todd Lincoln having pillow chat. It happened, but is there a clamor in America to view this in a film? Will future movie viewers have to suffer through nighty-night chats between Bill and Hillary Clinton? (Shudder.)
One more nit: The scenes of Confederates bursting out of the woods to attack the Union camps at Chancellorsville were great – but was that Mormon Tabernacle Choir style music really necessary? Hasn’t this turned into a movie cliché by now?
The best scenes in Gods and Generals are largely unspoken ones, which, as any good filmmaker knows, is characteristic of the medium. If the visuals are sufficiently interesting, dialog is unnecessary. My favorite scene of this type was after the battle of Fredericksburg, when Federal soldiers, trapped on the battlefield on a cold night, look up and see the Aurora Borealis, which made a rare southern appearance that night. While I suspect the lights weren’t quite as dramatic as portrayed in this film, it is a wonderous – and bizarre - sequence. The fact that it actually happened makes it all the more interesting.
Also simple, silent and impressive was the scene where a Confederate picket and a Union picket meet halfway across a river to exchange tobacco and coffee. You expect that they might try to make small talk, or discuss the progress of the war, but they don’t. No words were exchanged between them after their initial contact – and no words needed to be exchanged. This is good filmmaking.
I also enjoyed seeing Harper’s Ferry – a place I know well – stand in for Fredericksburg. As the producers claim, the place has a real 19th century “look” that would be difficult and expensive to build from scratch. (I especially enjoyed catching a fleeting glimpse of the red coffee mill sign at the little eatery of the same name, alongside the infamous “Hog Alley.”)
I have mixed emotions about the battle scenes. Sure, they looked impressive. As good or better than Civil War battles shown in any other film. But because this film has a PG-13 rating, what we saw was essentially a cheat. Saving Private Ryan raised the bar on showing combat in a film: bullets hit with squishing sounds, bodies get blown up in sprays of red and blood was flecked everywhere. That’s what happens on a battlefield. My view is that if you can watch a sustained sequence of filmed battle scenes without feeling a little bilious, what you’re seeing is an overly-sanitized version of combat. Sure, filmmakers want to be able to distribute their works to as wide an audience as possible – hence the PG-13 rating – but there is a inherent dishonesty about the battle scenes in Gods and Generals is that undermines the sense of fear, sacrifice and horror of the subject. On the other hand, my sense of indebtedness to the generation who fought in World War II is heightened by an honest film that shows something of what they went through – and this is Saving Private Ryan’s greatest attribute.
Yes, there are reenactor extras in Gods and Generals. Gosh, yes. We’ve been reading about them before filming, during filming and ever since. They’ve almost become celebrities in their own right. (“Why, yes, son, I was present at th’ Gods n’ Generals filming. Me an’ Marse Robert Duvall. Yep.”) And for the most part the reenactors in this movie unavoidably remind me of reenactors and not soldiers. I suppose that’s because mentally I expect that the real soldiers, like the ones in old photographs, are in black and white. You can spot some TBGs (tubby bearded guys) oddly appearing in the ranks of Lee’s famously scarecrow ranks; one middle-aged Reb, during Stonewall’s surprise attack, was filmed with a big grin on his face (made all the more hilarious by my DVD player’s ability to freeze and zoom on details).
Despite its faults, I found Gods and Generals unexpectedly entertaining, and I think it’s probably a better film than most of the reviewers say it is. Knowing something about the leftward political slant of the entertainment industry in general, I suspect their dislike for this film has as much to do with its politics (that is, portraying Confederates sympathetically) as with its artistic demerits. In his review, Roger Ebert invokes the names Trent Lott and Strom Thurmond and lets slip his anti-Southern bias. But in my book, any film that makes liberals apoplectic has some value, so I’m willing to give Gods and Generals this much.
And loathe as I am to admit it, being a famous Union man, at the end of the film I found myself pondering the noble natures of Thomas Jonathan “Stonewall” Jackson and Robert Edward Lee. We could certainly use more men of that type in leadership positions today. If this was a primary goal of the filmmakers, they have succeeded.
Cold Mountain (2003)
You know that scene in Gone With the Wind where the Yankee marauder stalks up the stairs toward Scarlett with mischief in his heart? That’s pretty much the starting point for this brutal film, which suggests that stay-at-home Rebs were harder on enlisted Rebs than the Yankees were. Also, this film is rather like O Brother, Where Art Thou? in that it, too, has an Odysseus returning from the wars aspect. It also shares a Bluegrass music angle. (Jack White of the White Stripes plays a Reb and sings some songs.) This is an excellent film, with some good performances, but is somewhat hard to watch. The Battle of the Crater scene is exciting, but I’m not so sure the crater was quite as packed with soldiers as this film portrays. Perhaps somebody watched too much Lord of the Rings and went overboard with the digital enhancements. Anyway, this film is recommended.
(And if you have daughters, you can point out Renee Zellweger and say, “This is what happens to you if you eat too many doughnuts!”)
When this one came out, my interest in the Civil War was fading. Consequently, I didn’t bother to see it when it was released. Yes, I know this is heresy. But, in my defense, I will state that my enthusiasm for Civil War-related films was tempered considerably by the passions of my fellow reenactors, many of whom seemed to think that simply because reenactors were extras, the production could be accorded the kind of legitimacy afforded to, say, Citizen Kane. One oaf, playing the score for Glory on a boom box at an event, called it “The Greatest Music Ever Written,” which certainly does an injustice to Beethoven, Brahms and Bach. Upon stating this, he peered at me as if to see if I intended to dispute him. Remembering the old quote about idiots – “Argue with an idiot long enough and people will fail to see the difference” – I shrugged and walked away.
Eleven years passed by, and now the idea of watching Gettysburg is viable. Desirable, even, since I’ve read that in comparison with Gods and Generals, this is the better film. And it is. The dialog is unforced and natural, and, generally, one is left with the impression that the Battle of Gettysburg was big, tragic and impressive. The scenes with the 20th Maine at Little Round Top is especially stirring – but then, I’m a Federal partisan and get turned on by watching soldierly ranks of guys in navy blue blowing away Rebs. Raises my Ebenezer, to use an old phrase.
This film does have its faults, however. The main one has to do with that ridiculous pelt hanging from Tom Berenger’s jaw, which earned this film the nickname “Gettysbeard.” I suppose it could seem beardlike during Halloween, or if it wasn’t in the context of a film obviously trying hard to look epic, dramatic and authentic – but it fails. So no Oscar for Berenson’s beard. And there were a few other offenders… J.E.B. Stuart has pretty artificial-looking facial hair as well. It’s a good thing I wasn’t on the set; I’d be tempted to pull it forward to see if it snapped back into place when I let go, like those gag beards one sometimes sees.
And while we’re on the subject of Civil War era facial hair, will you indulge me for a moment? I am really, really tired of seeing big loutish guys (especially rugby guys) sporting goatees, as if they were members of the court of Charles I, or Musketeers. This whole goofy facial hair thing began in the Nineties, and was soon followed by tattoos and shaved heads – the Inmate Look. Ugh. Did I miss something? Who declared a new Uglification program for American males? It’s time to let this horrible grooming fad die.
Thank you. Now, back to Gettysburg.
The thing other than Berenson’s beard that I found jarring in this film was that the reenactor extras looked like, well, reenactor extras. I suppose it doesn’t help that I recognized a bunch of them from reenacting (Bob Schindler, his impressive real Beard and Demeanor on frequent display), but some of these guys were too fat and too old to credibly portray soldiers. And don't even get me started on the female musketpersons who, as usual, stood out like sore thumbs.
Too bad they didn’t take impression lessons from the actor Sam Elliott (General John Buford), who looked and sounded like a real solider. Wiry, intense and muttering curses in his considerable mustache, this was one of the standout performances in the film.
(This criticism doesn’t apply, however, to my pard Larry Sangi of the 15th New Jersey, who always looks credible. I am happy to report that he got a listing in the Internet Movie Database as “Soldier #3 20th Maine.” Cool. I look forward to seeing more of his films.)
The other problem I noticed is that reenactor extras aren’t always credible actors. In the battle scenes some of them are just kind of standing there looking like they’re unsure of what to do. Should I run at that Reb with my rubber bayonet? Wait for the director to yell something? Hope these guys around me move out of my way? Was this authentic combat behavior? Perhaps it was. But in a film it sure is distracting. Maybe if this were an R-rated film, with blood and guts being strewn about liberally, the reenactor actors wouldn’t seem so tentative. After all, George C. Patton was giving excellent directorial advice when he said, “When you put your hand into a bunch of goo that a moment before was your best friend's face, you'll know what to do.”
What to say of Martin Sheen as Marse Robert? I preferred Robert Duvall. But then, according to the IMDB he’s a direct descendent of Confederate General Robert E. Lee so perhaps the superior impression is genetic!
Perhaps the biggest disappointment with Gettysburg has to do with something it’s not responsible for: that celebrated Hancock party, where Lo Armistead bade a fond farewell to Winfield Scott Hancock and everyone tearfully sang “Kathleen Mauvorneen.” It probably never happened. Too bad. I’ve always wanted to locate that place in Los Angeles. Today, I suppose, that place is occupied by a skyscraper where Hollywood executives are busy working on productions like Gettysburg, Cold Mountain and Gods and Generals.
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