The mighty wind of speechifying can knock you unconscious in this 217-minute Civil War epic from the folks who brought you the 248-minute Gettysburg in 1993. That would be writer-director Ronald F. Maxwell, executive producer Ted Turner and some 7,500 battlefield re-enactors. This prequel to Gettysburg, based on Michael Shaara’s book The Killer Angels, is derived by Maxwell from the bestseller by Jeff Shaara, Michael’s son.
What the filmmakers fail to recognize is that history on the page is quite different from what it needs to be onscreen, namely alive and visceral. From the opening scene, in which Gen. Robert E. Lee (Robert Duvall) sits down for a long chaw on why he, as a Virginian, can’t lead Lincoln’s army against the Confederacy, the film is hobbled by the sound of its own grandiose voice and its damn-those-Yankees bias. Duvall, Stephen Lang as Gen. Stonewall Jackson and Jeff Daniels as Lt. Col. Joshua Lawrence pontificate so often that the action, in the battles of Bull Run, Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville, must fight to register. Gods and Generals, with a new Bob Dylan song, “Cross the Green Mountain,” lasts from 1861 to 1863. It seems much, much longer.