General [1998]

The more you know about the Civil War, the more you'll appreciate Gods and Generals and the painstaking attention to detail that Gettysburg writer-director Ronald F. Maxwell has invested in this academically respectable 220-minute historical pageant. In adapting Jeffrey Shaara's 1996 novel (encompassing events of 1861-63, specifically the Virginian battles of Bull Run, Fredericksburg, and Chancellorsville), Maxwell sacrifices depth for scope while focusing on the devoutly religious "Stonewall" Jackson (Stephen Lang), whose Confederate campaigns endear him to Gen. Robert E. Lee (Robert Duvall, giving the film's most subtle performance). Battles are impeccably recreated using 7,500 Civil War re-enactors and sanitized PG-13 violence, their authenticity compromised by tasteful discretion and endless scenes of grandiloquent dialogue. Still, as the first part of a trilogy that ends with The Last Full Measure, this is a superbly crafted, instantly essential film for Civil War study. For all its misguided priorities, Gods and Generals is a noble effort, honoring faith and patriotism with the kind of reverence that has all but vanished from American film - but provides abundant proof that historical accuracy is no guarantee of great storytelling. --Jeff Shannon

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