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The first Republican president once said, "While the people retain their virtue and their vigilance, no administration by any extreme of wickedness or folly can seriously injure the government in the short space of four years." If Mr. Lincoln could see what's happened in these last three-and-a-half years, he might hedge a little on that statement.
-Ronald Reagan

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Tuesday, March 04, 2003
Guns and Snoozes

The new movie Gods and Generals is strikingly open in its secessionist sympathies. At no time during the many long speeches delivered in the movie by the Confederate officers who are the focus of the vast majority of the film does anybody so much as hint that slavery is any portion of the controversy between North and South. They speak only of unstated outrages and violations committed against their states. The Union characters, who get far less screen time and are in this film ahistorically far less numerous than their Confederate opponents, do mention slavery and the Emancipation Proclamation several times. The impression left is that the North had a belief, entirely delusional, that slavery was somehow connected with the war, whose actual cause was - well, we really aren't ever told, but it must have been something just awful, because all those peace-loving God-fearing Virginia men wouldn't have gone to war without a mighty good reason.

Something else which seems, on the evidence of this film, to have been a myth, was unhappy slaves. The few slaves portrayed are passionately loyal to their masters, who are equally loyal to them. In a movie that is over 3 1/2 hours long, and has time for Christmas carols, metaphysical debates, biblical quotations, a deathbed scene that seems to run an hour all by itself, and enough battlefield violence to sate the most bloodthirsty viewer, there is not a single frame that shows any kind of mistreatment of any slave.

If the Union men are rather confused about why they are fighting, they seem even more confused about how it is done. The pre-Grant Generals who faced off unsuccessfully against Robert E. Lee presumably deserve their bad reputations, but it's hard to believe they were quite as incompetent as the generals in this film, whose main plan seems to be to find an open space where their men will be exposed to maximum fire, then march around in it until there's no-one left.

The main character in this film is Stonewall Jackson. He is the one southerner in the film who mentions slavery, only to assert that it will soon die out of its own accord. This may be an accurate rendition of the beliefs of Jackson, who was, like Lee, an ardent advocate of neither slavery nor secession, but it hardly reflects more typical southern opinion. Jackson's profound faith, heavily emphasized in the movie, is also historically accurate, but the film fails to really explain or explore the contradictions between the meek religious man it presents and the military genius who spilled rivers of blood without apparently suffering greatly from a guilty conscience.

Although Gods and Generals is too much propaganda to be a good Civil War movie, it isn't a good enough movie to be effective propaganda. With too many characters, too many battles, and too many speeches, the film is simply too dull to keep an audience interested.