Goin South

Factoring in the movie previews, commercials for Tartar Control Crest and the like, Gods and Generalsclocks in at well more than four hours, which is even longer than that other recent cinematic endurance test, The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. Now, it takes a real convert to really appreciate one of Peter Jackson's Tolkien pictures, with their endless scenes of fairytale races engaging in fairytale battles in a magical land over the hills and far away; for the rest of us, the suspension of disbelief comes crashing down well before the final curtain, and we're left wishing that Jackson would have spent at least some of that spectacular budget to recruit a decent editor. By contrast, Gods and Generals theoretically has a justifiable reason for its absurd length, given that the film purports to compress vast amounts of actual Civil War history into its running time. But sadly, in practice, Gods and Generals' version of what remains the bloodiest conflict in our nation's history is easily as implausible as any notion Tolkien ever put to paper.

There are still certain Southerners who persist—hopefully with a tinge of irony—in referring to the Civil War as the Battle of Northern Aggression, handily rewriting the truth in four little words to suggest that life was just jim-dandy on the plantations before those awful Yankees showed up and started burning everything down; Gods and Generals is a movie that will delight such people.

American pop culture has slowly, grudgingly let go of certain racist notions—gone are the days of heroic cowboys blasting holes in the hides of bloodthirsty redskins, for instance—but the myth of the noble Confederacy stubbornly refuses to die. Our culture still gets swoony over the romance of it all: genteel, wasp-waisted belles in fancy gowns; handsome rebels in smart uniforms fighting for a doomed cause; etc. Never mind that the background players in this Harlequin Romance were enslaved human beings, taken from their homeland, whipped and raped, that the doomed cause the smartly attired rebels were fighting for was the continued enslavement of said human beings. America loves an underdog, and the Fall of the South can look like a great underdog story, if you squint just right. But then, the Taliban are underdogs, too. A century hence, will our descendants be making cheesily hagiographic, holographic entertainments about the daring band of outlaws who beat the odds and blew up the World Trade Center?

It was one thing, back in 1939, for America to swallow the candied horse shit that was Gone With the Wind; back then, we were a more reflexively racist nation, and even the most sensitive audiences were delighted by the antics of Hattie McDaniel (perhaps she even seemed progressive in those days, a sassy "negress" trading affectionate quips with Vivian Leigh). It is something else again for audiences in 2003 to accept a Civil War picture released in the middle of Black History Month, for heaven's sake, in which the two slaves we see follow their massahs with doglike loyalty, in which Northern politicians pushing for abolition are dismissed as war profiteers, in which Lincoln's motivations for sending in the troops remain as darkly mysterious as Christopher Lee's in The Two Towers.

If you simply must see one absurdly overlong, portentous and busy epic this year, you'd be best off giving Gods and Generals a miss and waiting for the next Lord of the Rings picture to roll into town this December. At least in Tolkien's chronicle, the only races being defamed are made-up ones.

Gods and Generals was written, produced and directed by Ronald F. Maxwell; and stars Bruce Boxleitner, Billy Campbell, Jeff Daniels, Robert Duvall and C. Thomas Howell. Now playing countywide.

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