"Gods and Generals" (Warner Brothers), 220 minutes, PG-13
Directed and written by Ronald F. Maxwell, based on the book by Jeff Shaara.
Jeff Daniels: Lt. Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain
Stephen Lang: General Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson
Robert Duvall: General Robert E. Lee
The greatest of all philosophic works on ethics is Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics, which begins its discussion of the human condition's variety of excellences and vices with a treatment of courage. Aristotle means manly courage on a battlefield, not the courage of what today we call integrity. Beginning with courage and proceeding to moderation, the Ethics emphasizes the need for rational control over fear and desire in order to have a good character and live a fulfilled, happy life. The natural admiration one feels for men of courage leads, however, to certain paradoxes—namely, that one's enemies can be courageous. The serious study of ethics or human character leads us beyond a defense of our prejudices about our own goodness.
"Gods and Generals" plays this role in challenging our understanding of both courage and the Civil War. Many viewers of this film, which may be too much of a docudrama for some, have taken umbrage at its defense of the Lost Cause—the Virginians fight not to keep slaves but because they are threatened by invasion and are the true heirs of the American Revolution. This view of the Civil War has been thoroughly discredited by Mackubin Owens in his brilliant review on National Review Online. Nevertheless, "Gods and Generals" is a noteworthy study of virtue that leads its viewers to understand themselves better.
Having lived briefly in Richmond, I can personally attest to the power of Monument Avenue's superhuman statues of Confederate heroes and Hollywood Cemetery's signs of devotion. I can also see the irrational grips of the past on people—especially when that past is misunderstood. A partial understanding of history—and I believe "Gods and Generals" necessarily presents one—can only mislead us as human beings and citizens today.
We discern a dialectical purpose in the fact that this film is part of a trilogy, comprised of the earlier "Gettysburg" (1993) and the forthcoming "Last Full Measure," based on the novels of Michael and Jeff Shaara. With its focus on Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee, and only a brief treatment of the Union officers, such as Gettysburg hero Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, "Gods and Generals" emphasizes the Confederate victories at Bull Run, Fredericksburg, and Chancellorsville, and takes us up to Gettysburg. The Civil War is seen as a clash between two professors—Virginia Military Institute's Jackson and Bowdoin's Chamberlain, who defend taking up arms in different ways. Christian theology, particularly the sternness of the Old Testament, drives Jackson, while philosophy professor Chamberlain sees the need to follow the laws of nature. (Of course, outside of sectarian institutions, few colleges today would hire anyone with either such view.) Chamberlain delivers the most chilling lines in the movie, a long recitation of Caesar's speech before crossing the Rubicon.
It is the South's turn in the Shaara trilogy, and Jackson is the center of attention. Abraham Lincoln is present only in a lame-sounding letter, dated December 22, 1862, after the harrowing slaughter at Fredericksburg and as the author of an Emancipation Proclamation taken to be strategically dubious. (It was of course strategically brilliant, as well as morally sound.) As we see the film's praise of the South, we should recall that the best study of the Civil War begins with a strong case made for Stephen Douglas (see Harry V. Jaffa's two volume study, Crisis of the House Divided and A New Birth of Freedom.)
Writer-director Ronald F. Maxwell vividly portrays the miserable record of the Northern forces, and the determination of Southerners fighting off what they regard as an invasion. We cannot help but admire them. We are deeply touched by the Fredericksburg fighting between a Georgia unit of Irish and a Northern Irish unit; both wonder why they left Ireland to slaughter each other. In any event, not a word is said about tariffs or taxes as a cause of the war, as some would hold. A love of place clearly is. (Do read Wendell Berry's Jayber Crowe for a superb contemporary meditation on the meaning of living in a place defined by space and time, and what one loses by not.)
The tragedy of the Civil War and the deficiency of the Southern view are superbly epitomized in the failings of Jackson and Lee. So consumed with love of place, they could not follow the logic of their courage. In vain persons this love of the soil turns into farce (see Shakespeare's Richard II.) Kept humble by their belief in God, these gentlemen nonetheless possess only a part of virtue. They do not fight for a just cause. They have no way of defending its justice, for they do not see that the American cause is rooted in the belief that "all men are created equal." We are mistaken to overlook this deficiency, just as we deprive ourselves by not recognizing their virtue. We should preserve Monument Avenue but also acknowledge the superiority of the architecture of freedom we see on the Washington Mall.
If the Civil War is the American Iliad, then this part of the Shaara-inspired series has given us the story of the Trojan side and its Hector. We look forward to what will be done with its Odysseus.