I’ve always thought that having a small cold was God’s way of telling me to buy a box of chocolates. Or if not, to binge on a good old movie; and so, slightly laid up the other day, I watched the 4.5-hour director’s cut of Ron Maxwell’s Gods and Generals on Amazon Prime. Released a dozen years ago, it’s a prequel to Maxwell’s earlier Gettysburg, the story of the Civil War up to Chancellorsville and the death of Stonewall Jackson in 1863. Mostly it’s Jackson’s story, with strong secondary roles for Robert E. Lee and Union Col. Joshua Chamberlain.
In making a film based on a historical event, directors often commit the sin of anachronism. Sometimes that’s unintentional, as where a plane flies past a Homeric hero, or where a Roman legionnaire checks his wristwatch. But more often it’s a lie, an intentional falsifying of history to make it more palatable to modern audiences. In a film about the Civil War, for example, what do you do with the fact that the soldiers, especially Southerners like Jackson, were often profoundly religious? In a moment of tension, they were apt to say a prayer, or worse still to pull out a Bible. They’d consort with ministers and priests, and rather than abuse them would show respect for the cloth. You can see why that might prove an embarrassment for directors today.
Then there’s the Southerner’s antique sense of chivalry. When did we lose that, I wonder? I can recall as a boy thrilling to Walter Scott’s novels. Or Howard Pyle’s Men of Iron, last seen on the screen in 1954’s Black Shield of Falworth (“Yonda lies the castle of my fadda”). But films today lose money unless they appeal to audiences outside of North America, and chivalry is a distinctly Western ideal. Chivalry was what gave us the Wild West gunfight, where one waited for the other fellow to draw first, but when was the last time you saw that in a film?
Finally, there’s slavery. An honest film about the Civil War wouldn’t avoid the subject, but would make clear the very different way in which people then felt about that odious institution. It’s all very well to condemn slavery, but then in fairness you’d also have to do the same for half of America’s founders. The best an honest director can do, then, is portray how people like Jackson felt about slavery and let the audience draw its own conclusions. Which is what Maxwell did.
Maxwell’s film is honest, then, and as such there’s not a trigger warning big enough to protect the sensitive modern from it. But for anyone else I can’t praise the film enough. Maxwell is a master of his craft, with a special talent for getting into the minds of those who lived 150 years ago. What more than anything is missing in recent films, and shines splendidly in Maxwell’s films, is the sense of glory, the feeling that some have lived on an elevated plane according to the dictates of the highest sense of duty and honor. It’s an unfashionable feeling today, and mocked by those who conspicuously lack it, who love weakly, who think solely in quotidian, political terms. It cannot be understood by those without religious faith, for Heaven is a City of Glory and glory is the special attribute of a God who, if hidden, nevertheless offers us a glimpse of the special virtue of his glory in the lives of those who in moments of danger are willing to sacrifice themselves for a cause they think greater than themselves; and that, above the messiness of political squabbles, is the message behind Maxwell’s films.
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