Gone With the Yawn

'Gods and Generals' is a dismal piece of Civil-War pabulum.

Gods and Generals is a 3 1/2-hour Civil-War drama executive-produced by Ted Turner and directed by Ron Maxwell. And if this dismally grandiose beast sounds both familiar and exhausting to you--boy, it should.

In 1993, the duo released Gettysburg, based on Michael Shaara's Civil-War novel The Killer Angels. That film did fairly well in theaters by most four-hour war-movie standards, but its bigger triumph came post-Gulf War, in homes tuned to Turner Network Television, where it aired as a miniseries.

This time around, Shaara's son Jeffrey is responsible for the film and its far more interesting backstory. When Michael Shaara died in 1988, Maxwell approached Jeffrey, the executor of his father's estate, to find a novelist who would write a prequel and a sequel to The Killer Angels that could eventually be adapted for the screen. (Apparently, Maxwell felt that in order to grow as a filmmaker, he needed to take on an entirely identical project.) Jeffrey, who at the time was in the rare-coin business and had never published a story in his life, decided that he was the right man for the job. Remarkably, Gods and Generals and the sequel, The Last Full Measure, eventually landed on The New York Times best-seller list.

The two Shaara screen adaptations to date are absolutely insufferable. Both "movies" are indeed miniseries--not only for their behemoth running times but also for their barreling ignorance of cinematic nuances and their stupendous surfeit of schmaltz, dramaturgical pabulum, tiresome intellectual decorum and other dramatic compromises formatted to fit your television screen. (Gods, too, will presumably end up on cable in its frighteningly complete six-hour version.) The filmmakers like to brag about the graduate-level research that went into the film. But while you're watching history being told beneath those unconvincing beards, you'll be hard-pressed not to reminisce about your own junior high-school theater productions--the last time you saw so many school-lesson luminaries brought to leaden life.

Some of the latter include Gen. Robert E. Lee, played with determined dullness by Robert Duvall, and the forthrightly religious Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson (Stephen Lang), whose monologues burst with so much unadulterated Bible-thumpin' that Pat Robertson should get a producing credit, too.

It's amazing how many portentous things can be said in one movie; in a pre-battle pep talk, Col. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain (Jeff Daniels) draws a wayward analogy between Julius Caesar marching his legions into Rome and Lincoln marching his Union troops into Virginia. No one talks in this movie; everyone simply reads out loud, passing off careful sermonizing and ridiculously melodramatic writing as spontaneous revelations on horseback: "I cannot believe that mortal man can march in the face of such destruction."

You'd think Maxwell would at least recoup his losses by winning on the battlefield. (Specifically, Gods focuses on the battles of Bull Run, Fredericksburg and Chancellorville.) Not a chance: Most of the battle scenes consist of medium tracking shots of men charging across an open field at 3 mph, being mowed down as if suddenly everyone had sprained their ankles. There's not an ounce of redemptive horror to any of it.

With the exception of Civil War buffs who don't mind crummy filmmaking, audiences will find this film tacky, especially in light of the current political climate. While lefties will be unnerved by the film's grossly juvenile romanticizing of wartime duty, honor and destiny, serious conservatives will simply be embarrassed. Viewers who don't give a fig about politics will be busy succumbing to their own unjust war: the battle against sleep.

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