“GODS AND GENERALS” (2003) Review

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“GODS AND GENERALS” (2003) Review

In 1993, producer Ted Turner and director Ronald Maxwell released “GETTYSBURG”, a film adaptation of Michael Shaara’s 1974 novel, “The Killer Angels”. Shaara’s son, Jeffrey, wrote a prequel to his novel called “Gods and Generals” in 1996. Both Turner and Maxwell teamed up again 2002-2003 to make a film adaptation of the latter novel. 

Set between April 1861 and May 1863, “GODS AND GENERALS” related the American Civil War events leading up to the Battle of Gettysburg. Although the movie began with Virginia-born Robert E. Lee’s resignation from the U.S. Army, following his home state’s secession from the Union; the meat of the film focused on on the personal and professional life of Confederate general Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson during those two years. It also touched on how Bowdoin College professor Joshua L. Chamberlain became second-in-command of the 20th Maine Volunteer Infantry Regiment, his military training and his experiences during the Battle of Fredricksburg. But trust me . . . most of the movie is about Jackson. It covered his departure from the Virginia Military Institute; his experiences with the famous “Stonewall Brigade”; his experiences at the Battle of Bull Run; his relationships with both his wife Mary Anna, his servant Jim Lewis and a five year-old girl from an old Virginia family; and his experiences at the Battle Chancelorville.

“GODS AND GENERALS” had its virtues. One of them turned out to be Michael Z. Hanan’s production designs. Hanan and his team did a superb job in re-creating Virginia of the early 1860s. I was especially impressed by their recreation of mid-19th century Fredricksburg during that famous battle in December 1862. I wonder who had the bright idea of using Harper’s Ferry, West Virgina for that particular setting. Hanan’s work was ably supported by Kees Van Oostrum’s photography and Gregory Bolton’s art direction. Oostrum’s photography and Corky Ehlers’ editing was also put to good use during the Fredricksburg battle sequence. And I really enjoyed the costumes designed by Richard La Motte, Maurice Whitlock and Gamila Smith. All three did their homework in re-creating the fashions and uniforms of the period. Unlike “GETTYSBURG”“GODS AND GENERALS” featured major female characters. I suspect this gave the trio the opportunity to indulge their romantic streak with crinolines and hoop skirts galore.

There were some admirable performances in “GODS AND GENERALS”. Frankie Faison gave a warm performance as Thomas Jackson’s free cook, Jim Lewis. I was also impressed by Brian Mallon’s subtle portrayal of the concerned Major General Winfield Hancock, a role he had first portrayed in the 1993 film. It is a pity that Bruce Boxleitner did not receive more screen time for his role as Lieutenant General James Longstreet. He had taken over the role from Tom Berenger and gave a pretty solid performance. But alas, he did not receive enough time to do anything with the role. Alex Hyde-White gave an interesting portrayal of Major General Ambrose Burnside, whose decisions led the Union Army to disaster at Fredricksburg. Matt Letscher, whom I last remembered from 1998’s “THE MASK OF ZORRO” was very memorable as the 20th Maine’s founder and first regimental commander, Colonel Adelbert Ames. I could also say the same for Mira Sorvino’s portrayal of Frances “Fanny” Chamberlain, Colonel Chamberlain’s passionate and pessimistic wife. In fact, I believe she had the good luck to portray the most interesting female character in the movie.

So . . . what about the other performances? What about the stars Stephen Lang, Jeff Daniels and Robert Duvall? I am not claiming that they gave bad performances. Honestly, they did the best they could. Unfortunately, all three and most of the other cast members had the bad luck to be saddled with very uninteresting characters, stuck with either bad dialogue or self-righteous speeches. In other words, I found them BORING!!! I am sorry, but I truly did.

First of all, Lang’s Thomas Jackson dominated the film just a little too much. Why bother calling this movie “GODS AND GENERALS”? Why not call it “THE LIFE AND TIMES OF STONEWALL JACKSON”? Even worse, Jackson is portrayed in such an unrelenting positive light that by the time the movie came around to his fate after the Battle of Chancelorville, I practically sighed with relief. Jeff Daniels’ Joshua Chamberlain did nothing to rouse my interest in his story. In fact, he disappeared for a long period of time before he made his reappearance during the Battle of Fredricksburg sequence. And his appearance in that particular sequence was completely marred by him and other members of the 20th Maine Volunteer Regiment quoting William Shakespeare’s “JULIUS CAESAR”, while marching toward Marye’s Heights. Oh God, I hate that scene so much! As for Robert Duvall’s Robert Lee . . . what a waste of his time. Ronald Maxwell’s script did not allow the actor any opportunity to explore Lee’s character during those two years leading to Gettysburg. I realize this is not Duvall’s fault, but I found myself longing for Martin Sheen’s portrayal of the Confederate general in “GETTYSBURG”.

There is so much about this movie that I dislike. One, Maxwell’s portrayal of the movie’s two main African-American characters – Jim Lewis and a Fredricksburg slave named Martha, as portrayed by actress/historian Donzaleigh Abernathy – struck me as completely lightweight. Now, I realized that there were black slaves and paid employees who managed to maintain a friendly or close relationship with their owner or employer. But in “GODS AND GENERALS”, Lewis seemed quite friendly with his employer Jackson and Martha seemed obviously close to the family that owned her, the Beales. I could have tolerated if Lewis or Martha had been friendly toward those for whom they worked. But both of them? I get the feeling that Maxwell was determined to avoid any of the racial and class tensions between the slave/owner relationship . . . or in Lewis’ case, the employee/employer relationship. How cowardly.

In fact, this lack of tension seemed to permeate all of the relationships featured in “GODS AND GENERALS”. Aside from one Union commander who berated his men for looting in Fredricksburg, I can barely recall any scenes featuring some form of anger or tension between the major characters. Everyone either seemed to be on his or her best behavior. And could someone please explain why every other sentence that came out of the mouths of most characters seemed to be a damn speech? I realize that Maxwell was trying to re-create the semi-formality of 19th century American dialogue. Well . . . he failed. Miserably. The overindulgence of speeches reminded me of the dialogue from the second NORTH AND SOUTH miniseries, 1986’s “NORTH AND SOUTH: BOOK II”. But the biggest problem of “GODS AND GENERALS” is that it lacked a central theme. The majority of the movie seemed to be about the Civil War history of Thomas Jackson. But the title and Shaara’s novel told a different story. However, I do not believe a detailed adaptation of the novel would have done the trick. Like the movie, it lacked a central theme or topic.

Perhaps I am being too arrogant in believing I know what would have made the story worked. After all, it is not my story. Jeff Shaara was entitled to write it the way he wanted. And Ronald Maxwell was entitled to adapt Shaara’s story the way he wanted. But I do know that if I had written “GODS AND GENERALS”, it would have been about the Battle of Fredricksburg. It turned out to be the only part of the movie that I found interesting.

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“CENTENNIAL” (1978-79) – Episode Two “The Yellow Apron” Commentary

“CENTENNIAL” (1978-79) – Episode Two “The Yellow Apron” Commentary

Set during the 1810s and 1820s, the second episode of the NBC miniseries, “CENTENNIAL”, continued the story of French-Canadian trapper, Pasquinel; his Scottish-born partner, Alexander McKeag; and their relationship with Clay Basket, the daughter of an Arapaho warrior. “The Yellow Apron” explored how jealousies, resentments and desire nearly broke apart their tenuous relationship.

“The Yellow Apron” began in 1809, with Clay Basket giving birth to the first of hers and Pasquinel’s three children, Jacques. The story quickly jumped to 1811, with the birth of their second child, Marcel. By the time the story begins in earnest in 1816, Pasquinel is still obsessed in finding the gold that Lame Beaver had stumbled upon in the last episode. Because of his obsession, he asks McKeag to make the visit to the Bockweiss household in St. Louis for more goods to trade with the Plains tribes. Upon his arrival in St. Louis, McKeag learns that Bockweiss is anxious over his son-in-law’s failure to make the trip. He also learns that Lise Bockweiss Pasquinel has given birth to Pasquinel’s daughter, Lisette. And all of this happened within the episode’s first nine to ten minutes.

So much occurred in ”The Yellow Apron”. The episode saw the birth of Pasquinel’s four children – his children by Clay Basket (Jacques, Marcel and Lucinda) and his daughter by Lise (Lisette). McKeag has to deal with Jacques’ dislike of the Scots trapper and suspicion of Clay Basket’s love for him. Clashes with both the Native American world and the white world leave scars on Jacques, deepening his dislike of McKeag and leaving a mark on his psyche. Both McKeag and Clay Basket continue their struggle to keep their feelings for one another in check. And both have to contend with Pasquinel’s desire for gold and his penchant for leaving them all behind in order to be with his St. Louis wife, Lise. And Lise has to struggle between her own love for the French-Canadian trapper and her growing jealousy for his love of the West and a suspicion that he may have Native American wife. And although he seems very fond of Clay Basket, it is obvious that he is more divided by his feelings for Lise, the West and his desire for gold.

The episode’s last half hour spirals into a series of heartbreaking and bittersweet events. Jacques tries to kill McKeag in a fit of anger over a dispute regarding beaver traps. After the attack, McKeag leaves Pasquinel and the latter’s Arapaho family. After spending a winter inside a hut encased by a snowdrift, McKeag hooks up with a group of trappers that include Jim Bridger and James Beckwourth. They travel to a rendezvous for other mountain men. There, McKeag has an emotional reunion with Pasquinel. But McKeag’s lingering resentment toward his former partner makes the reunion short-lived. After one last trip to St. Louis, Lise convinces McKeag to reconcile with Pasquinel. Unfortunately, McKeag’s efforts to reconcile with his former partner come too late. Minutes earlier, Pasquinel is attacked and killed by a band of Ute warriors after finding the gold he had sought for so long. Despite the tragedy, McKeag and Clay Basket are now free to be together. And the Scots trapper agrees to claim Lucinda as his own. The episode ended with a shot of the gold nuggets that Pasquinel finally discovered, but failed to claim as his own due to his death. However, that final shot struck an ominous note . . . as conveying to the audience that not only will the nuggets be discovered again, but also bring havoc to the region. Especially for Pasquinel’s Arapaho family and other Native Americans.

I must admit that I found ”The Yellow Apron” is probably one of the most bittersweet episodes in this miniseries. And possibly one of the most epic. The latter is not surprising, considering that most of the episode spans nearly fifteen years. But what I really enjoyed about it was that it touched upon an era of the Old West that is rarely covered in Hollywood films or television. I say . . . rarely. There have been movies about trappers and mountain men of the early 19th century, but most Hollywood productions tend to focus upon the West between the 1840s and the 1880s. The episode featured the growing conflict between the Native Americans and whites (both mountain men and the military) that set foot on their lands. This conflict was apparent in an effective scene in which McKeag, Pasquinel and the latter’s Arapaho family visited a fort along the Missouri River, where they clash with a group of hostile American soldiers. Viewers also had an opportunity to enjoy a scene that featured a rendezvous between trappers and traders from many nations and Native Americans. Thanks to some detailed and colorful direction by Virgil W. Vogel, the scene not only went into detail over what transpired at a rendezvous – trading, horse and foot racing, target shooting, singing, dancing, gambling and other activities.

A yellow apron figured into a session of dancing, initiated by a mountain man playing a bag pipe. This incident led to an emotional reunion between Pasquinel and McKeag. Considering the acrimony (at least on McKeag’s part) that led to their separation, watching the two former friends dance away the bitterness proved to be one of the most poignant moments in the entire miniseries. The scene also proved to be one of the finest moments on screen for both Richard Chamberlain and Robert Conrad. In fact, this particular episode provided some of the best acting in the entire miniseries. Not only did Chamberlain and Conrad did some of their best work, so did the likes of Barbara Carrera and Sally Kellerman, who both did excellent jobs in conveying the emotional difficulties in being Pasquinel’s wife. I also have to commend the late Vincent Roberts’ portrayal of Jacques Pasquinel in his early teens. I thought he did a top notch job of conveying the young Jacques’ dislike and resentment toward McKeag without resorting to any over-the-top acting.

Directed by Virgil Vogel, ”The Yellow Apron” is without a doubt, one of my favorite episodes in the miniseries. Personally, I thought it conveyed the complex friendship between Pasquinel and Alexander McKeag with more depth than even ”Only the Rocks Live Forever”. Not only did it boast some first-rate performances, especially from Richard Chamberlain and Robert Conrad, but also provided one of the most memorable scenes in the entire miniseries.