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GODS AND GENERALS

Southern Discomfort

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Just when you think war can't get any worse, it did: two centuries ago, before governments had weapons that could incinerate their victims mercifully, in a boom and flash. The tens of thousands of Americans who died in the Civil War fought face to face, with rifle butts and bayonets. You posed with a loaded gun, fired at the enemy column, and then stood there while the enemy's next row fired back as you tried (in vain) to reload -- or run. It was a game of last man standing, and we know how it turned out.

Ten years ago, in Gettysburg, the movie of Michael Shaara's Pulitzer Prize novel The Killer Angels, director Ronald F. Maxwell told a largely apolitical story of the mother of all defining American moments. When Shaara died, his son, Jeff, wrote a prequel, Gods and Generals, covering the period from the start of the war until 1863, and revolving mostly around a Southerner, Gen. Thomas Jackson (Stephen Lang), who sat tall and taciturn on his steed during battle, looking like a stone wall.

In the new film, adapted and again directed by Maxwell, the battle scenes are fewer and far less graphic, perhaps because we've seen so many of them already. But the point of view has also changed: Here's a movie about the antebellum South top-loaded with enlightened men and women who, while not exactly pro-abolition, certainly don't sound pro-slavery, and with only two black characters, each of whom would gladly die for his or her white master/employer.

Certainly people like this existed in the South. But one full century after the war, Congress finally passed a voting rights act to end discrimination, and only this year a Southern president (with a family retreat in Maine) assailed the use of race as a factor in college admissions. The times, they are a-soundin' awfully familiar.

One wonders why the Southern mogul Ted Turner, who produced both movies, and who sponsors the Goodwill Games, would release -- in the middle of Black History Month -- a movie that ends with an image of the Confederate flag. "There can be no union," says a Virginia legislator, "when one section of the country wants to impose its will on another." Oh yeah? Tell it to the slaves. And later, another Virginian says that "slavery will eventually die of natural causes," but a civil war will reverberate for generations. He was right about the second part.

Sure, we hear a proud black housekeeper declare that she was born a slave but wants to die free. And yes, when Gen. Jackson -- the John Ashcroft of his time, a man whose religious fervor borders on the evangelical -- prays in front of his faithful black cook, the man prays back, asking God why He would allow an entire group of His people to be kept as human property. The General mumbles what we're supposed to believe is sincere concordance. Then, he returns to a war that's all about not allowing the North to tell the South how to run its business. He's a Virginian first and an American second -- the purest assertion of "states' rights" you'll ever get.

In fact, if you want to learn why Lincoln ordered the formation of a militia to fight against its fellow Americans, you'll have to read some history. Gods and Generals can't be bothered with such bookish explanations and trivialities. (A Yankee officer quickly reminds us that the war didn't begin as a fight against slavery, but that's what it became.) Maxwell seems to have made his movie for war buffs and re-enactors, and it's loaded with military strategizing, although you'll need a program to follow who's flanking whom.

Do I make the antebellum South sound evil? Well, good: It was. So was the North, which practiced its own racism, and Lincoln, who wanted to return the freed slaves to Africa. But you won't learn any of that from Gods and Generals and its stilted, speechified dialogue.

The chief spokesman for the North is Col. Joshua Chamberlain, portrayed by Jeff Daniels, who reprises the role he played in Gettysburg, and who can't quite maintain his Bowdoin accent (Chamberlain was a philosophy professor before the war). In Gettysburg, Martin Sheen skillfully realized Gen. Robert E. Lee, but this time the general is Robert Duvall, who's cagey enough to have phoned his performance in. Turner, who can't resist an opportunity to draw attention to himself, has a jarring, full-costume cameo, including a few lines to go with it. Only Stephen Lang, as "Stonewall" Jackson, acts admirably, perhaps partly because he has more screen time to let us appreciate him. Even if you can't believe his character is real, at least you can see that Lang is.

About three hours into Gods and Generals -- with 40 minutes still to go -- two enemy soldiers arrange a swap from opposite sides of a river. The Yankee has coffee, the Rebel has tobacco, and so they meet in the middle, negotiating the trade at a distance, but speaking not a word as they stand eye-to-eye in the shallow water, each enjoying the other's bounty. It's one of those requisite pastoral-cum-pacifist moments in war movies that suggest common human bonds as an alternative to killing one another. And as I watched it, I thought: Yes, yes, that's what we need to come together. Addiction. * *

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