Saw this made for tv effort last night. I should have been less hopeful but it's about the Civil War, so it had that going for it. And little else, it turns out.
The movie derives from the sequel to the novel by Michael Shaara, Killer Angels. That one was about Gettysburg. Shaara interweaved several character plots into a reasonable whole. Of course the battle itself is intriguing.
Shaara also wrote a prequel, which concerned many of the same characters, but back in the days of the Mexican War. Michael Shaara didn't write Gods and Generals, his son Jeff did. And that brings up the unfortunate problem of franchise.
Years ago, Arthur C. Clarke took on a protege, perhaps several. Gentry Lee was one. And they started collaborations on sequels to Clarke's famous books. I don't want to hear about it. If the gold mine is played out, salting it won't actually make it better. Frank Herbert apparently went crazy writing Dune sequels. They got weirder and weirder, and then we find that his son has taken the reins. Anne McCaffery's another who took on some leech for a pilot. I see it only as attenuation. I hate it. Look, Jeff, just because your dad could do it, doesn't mean you can.
But okay, I never read Jeff Shaara's book. And the movie is, after all, about Stonewall Jackson. How can you screw it up? With a concerted effort, that's how. Team effort, headed by the noxious fume called Ted Turner.
Ted Turner made Killer Angels into a small screen spectacular. It wasn't that great but it was filmed on location. Turner lurks behind this shambles, as well, again filmed on location.
First of all, the makeup artists never came to terms with the Age of Extreme Facial Hair. We're not looking at characters but rather bearers of beards. Several actors get to wear dapper mustaches. Most, however, look dispirited behind the shrubbery. You try to tell James Longstreet from George Pickett. I guess the shooting schedule didn't allow the time for actors to supply their own beards to the movie magic. Stephen Lang, who plays Jackson, wore Brillo on his face. Brillo!
The movie starts slow, then eases up on the accelerator. Robert Duval as Robert E Lee receives invitation to lead the Union against the insurrection. With compelling blah blah blah about his home blah blah blah Virginia he declines the offer and instead opts to lead the South.
This scene should have been a warning because while Duval, I think, gets the accent right, the acting seems too openly actorly. I believe the director causes this. Most of the screenplay consists of florid speeches. Thus the actors are set up to make each word count. That means tics, pauses, and slowed pace. Acting!
So then for a miserably long time, various characters come to grips with the coming storm, enlisting or seeing loved ones go. Everyone's got a speech. Stonewall foremost has the Good Book to fall back on, in case his speechifying needs a little gloss. In times of darkness, quote the Bible.
Historically it's probably true that many leaned on the Bible for encouragement. In this movie, it only comes across as the pitter patter of received wisdom. It all sounds like rote. Stephen Lang, who plays Jackson, doesn't make him crazy enough. I take the historical Jackson to have been a fire eater of sorts. Perhaps not to the John Brown level, but tightly wound. Lang has Jackson take the Bible as more like an instruction manual. The scenes where he and his wife share a few verses have the ring of Kraft cheese.
Don't worry, Northerners can bloviate too. Jeff Daniels plays Joshua Chamberlain. Chamberlain was the moral core of Killer Angels. Here he's just another blowhard, as is his wife, Mira Sorvino. They have a scene in which she confronts him about going off to war. She manages to recite an entire Richard Lovelace poem before Daniels could open his mouth. The scene gave the aura of Shakespeare refined to pure fakery.
Daniels tops her later on by quoting a quite lengthy stretch from the writings of Julius Caesar. He and his soldiers are in formation at the time. At first Bull Run. Awaiting to enter the fray. Not a single Maine boy in the ranks rolls his eye.
The focus of the movie is the South and their just cause. You can argue state versus federal rights, it continues in argument now. Slavery was an ancillary issue, but you wouldn't know it in this movie. Jackson takes on a black cook—I don't know if he was free or a slave—who feels as strongly about his Virginia homeland as Lee. It's just a little too nice.
After a while, some battles actually occur. Bull Run is the first. I'm being picky but when soldiers charge they do so without hint of berserker. Seems like with cannons crashing and bullets catching soldiers in mid stride, a bit of adrenalin might be apparent. Nope.
Early on we meet a family of Southerners. Two of the boys are off to the war. The professionally distraught mother must fret their fate with her daughters. Later, the Yanks invade the town. An ambulance is found to cart them all to safety. A slave and her children offer to stay behind to take care of the house. The ambulance rattles off, for some reason towards the incoming Yanks. I thought some sort of drama might occur but the ambulance bangs a u-turn and heads away.
The Yanks come to the house. The slave lady and her children come to the door. They are dressed in finery. The Yanks ask suspiciously if this is their house or their master's. The woman says it is hers. Great! Saved the effing house for Southern Mistress.
On Christmas Day, pickets from both sides, Johnny Reb calls to Billy Yank. They decide to make a trade. Johnny brings a pipe and Billy a cup of coffee. Johnny sips and Billy smokes. They barely acknowledge each other. Wordlessly they return cup and pipe, and saunter away. Surprisingly underplayed scene.
Eventually Jackson gets hit by friendly fire, mutters about crossing the river, and dies. It took hours to get to his point. The black cook is there at Jackson's funeral, faithful to the end. Beth gave the movie her highly regarded Worst Movie Ever award. I felt like I accomplished something getting thru it without sleeping too much.