The lens of history often distorts reality. What's the first thing that comes to mind about the Civil War? The cause? Slavery. The effect? The abolition of slavery.
For three and a half hours on screen, "Gods and Generals" revisits the often cookie-cutter analysis history books provide and brings the four-year struggle to life in all its complexity for a new generation. We see that the motivation behind the Civil War for both sides did not center on slavery--in fact, it was an almost unspoken undercurrent. Nationalism, territorial rights and basic insecurity all lent a hand to a nation still struggling for its identity to engage in what now seems unthinkable: civil war.
Actor Stephen Lang, who plays the film's central character Confederate General Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson, explained, "You can reduce it to anything you want. You can reduce it to slavery, slave's rights, but there's no reason to do that. It does it a disservice to do that. That's what's cool about this film. Aside from being vastly entertaining, it also is a lucid discussion of why it happened."
Also starring Robert Duvall as Confederate General Robert E. Lee, Jeff Daniels as Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, Gods and Generals tells the story of two Civil War generals from the North and South--without pitting one against the other. Instead, it sympathizes with their plights, showing their inner turmoil and the struggle of the women they left behind. Mira Sorvina plays Chamberlain's wife, Fanny, and Kali Rocha plays Stonewall Jackson's wife, Anna (You'll remember her as a the annoyingly perky airline stewardess from "Meet the Parents"). "You realized there are no villains in this," Lang said. "There was heroism on both sides, and there were scoundrels on both sides. There were good motives and bad motives."
This is the first time Lang's character, Stonewall Jackson, has been portrayed centrally in a Civil War film. We get a historically accurate glimpse of the driving force behind Jackson's extraordinary success in dismal circumstances: his faith. Jackson's devotion was central to his life from his relationship with his wife to the battlefield. Scripture reading, prayer and devotion are treated with respect and prominence throughout the film.
"'God and Generals' does a good job of portraying Christianity. I mean, there's no 'mother f-cker' this-there's not a single cuss word in the whole movie," executive producer Ted Turner said. "I don't think there's a movie that I can remember-a major motion picture made in the United States in the last 10 years-that depicts religion with so much respect."
Turner said while this movie is vastly different from current box office fare, he believed in this film because it had a story Americans needed to revisit-one without the superficiality of our times. "It's an interesting story when we're doing all these cops and robbers and killer shows, "The Matrix," special effects and Jackie Chan and all this stuff. There was room for a movie like this. There's an old saying that when everyone else is shouting, a whisper is heard."
Maxwell said those working on the film could immediately take solace in knowing the work they were doing was in direct opposition to the people who attacked us. "Whatever we were feeling that moment-anger, pain, outrage, fear-we could take solace in the fact the work we were doing, right then and there, was about a generation of Americans who were severely tested, who endured a terrible struggle over a four-year period, and we could immediately put our feelings into the work because the work we were doing then and the work we are doing now stands in direct opposition to the people who attacked us."
A couple of days later when President George W. Bush called for a National Day of Prayer, Maxwell loaded up the cast and crew on buses and found the nearest church. "We filled the church that day and were overflowing into the parking lot," he said. "The two Lutheran pastors looked around and said, 'The last time there were that many bloody confederates and Yankees in this church was 1864 during Hunter's campaign.'" Maxwell saw parallels between the people fighting the Civil War and our generation. Although unintentional, the release of this film last weekend couldn't have been timelier as our country faces war. "It's a tough generation, the generation of the 1860s. I think we can derive some strength, understanding and solace from them."
"I think it's anti-war," Turner said of the film. "I think all the good war movies--"Saving Private Ryan"--does it make you want to go to war? No. Anybody, when they see this movie, they aren't going to want to go to war-particularly not a war where the other guys have got the same weapons, and they're both marching across the field toward each other."
Maxwell said although our differences in American culture seem extreme at times, on Sept. 11 he realized, "They pale in comparison to the chasm between us and the people who attacked us. They're in another universe." Maxwell described American experience as an ongoing dialogue. "We're contentious, cacophonous; we're at each other's throats. But at the end of the day we sit down and have dinner with one another. We break bread with one another. We pray together. We understand we're a national family, and we even extend it outward to other people, nations and other cultures with open hands." Maxwell said there's an openness about the American society that allows us to put our differences behind us at the end of the day.
"The civil war is about a time when this conversation broke down. And people wound up shooting at each other for four years. That's what we must never forget-we have lived through this once, and we don't need to live through it again. We've grown through that ... We have to recognize we're at a different place."
Perhaps "Gods and Generals" will serve as a cathartic balm during these uncertain times. Maxwell concluded, "This film is about who we've become as Americans."