Background: Wars are always about competing interests trying to get more money, more power, or more control that leads to both of those factors in my lengthy experience but aside from the motivations of those who start them, the end results are usually the same too, and typically paid for by the grunts that pound the ground more than anyone else. This historical truism applies to our current military action in Iraq as much as it did to our fight for independence a couple of hundred years ago, and reaches further back for those so inclined to check. One of the worst kinds of war is the weirdly named "civil" war (how many wars have been civil?!?) and as frequently as such conflicts take place all over the globe even to this day, our own history has but one such military event on record, the so-called War Between the States that took place between the north and the south back between 1861 and 1865. The reasons behind the war are part of the historical record and pretty much everyone in the USA has had some version of events drummed into their heads (I have more than a few friends that call it the War of Northern Aggression) but the numerous movies made on the subject over the years have all been heavily flawed too, such as the subject of today's review of Gods and Generals Blu-Ray.
Movie: Gods and Generals Blu-Ray was another historic docudrama in the vein of the director's Gettysburg, this time the lengthy flick made as a prequel effort. The movie focused much of its efforts on three men; General Robert E. Lee (Robert Duvall), Lt. Col. Joshua Chamberlain (Jeff Daniels), and especially General Stonewall Jackson (Stephen Lang) as told in sympathetic terms with the backdrop of three major battles including Manassas, Fredericksburg, and Chancellorsville as the primary fields of battle. As anyone with a background in history knows, each of these men and each of these battles could be made the subject of a great many hours, meaning a lot of glossing over was necessary to make even this bloated bit of historical fluff a reality. That is not to say it was inaccurate on the big matters though, merely an observation that with so much material on hand to work with, the dramatic elements were played up and bolstered by overly long speeches that came across as apologetic to some characters that were certainly not above question.
General Jackson is the winner of the lion's share of the dialogue in the flick, portrayed as a deeply religious military man on a quest that allowed him to put his trust in God and live with the results. As a military man, his dedication and intelligence were such that he kept his ragtag armies winning, his untimely death resulting in the loss of the war for the South over time. General Lee became the commander of the southern forces and scored great military victories in Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville, but Duvall's characterization, while likely at least reasonably accurate, was saddled with speech making at every turn and despite the humanizing touches came across as stiff in his role. Chamberlain was included as much as a legacy from the Gettysburg release but was also allowed to make his politically correct speeches from time to time, albeit tying the hands of actor Jeff Daniels more than the other two were during the flick.
The battles covered were largely viewed as victories for the South, Manassas the location of a major railway hub at the time and important as a means of quickly transporting troops from the North. It also served to put the North on notice that they would not be in for a cakewalk of a conflict. The relatively conservative style of their leadership resulted in many strategic problems and much of this was captured by the movie. The problem is that getting the facts right and making them interesting to a mass audience, even history buffs like myself, are two different things so while die hard fans might love the movie it remains a critical failure for bouncing around between the tiny glimpses of colorful dialogue, the battles, and the aforementioned boring speeches by the lead characters.
The interesting choices made by the director aside, there was enough to like about the movie to bolster a person's love of history if it already existed, in essence breathing life into long dead characters from the past, but little to instill such a love in the first place. I think that is why so many critics disliked the movie (it bounced around too much with too many focal points as it tried to cover so much material) and why a lot of people, presumably largely from the Southern states given how sympathetic this movie was to their side of the hostilities, enjoyed it. For the most part, I still think it merits a rating of Rent It for a generalized audience but history buffs with a military leaning should consider this one, at least until the full version is offered up as a future double dip.
Picture: Gods and Generals Blu-Ray was presented in a very crisp 2.4:1 widescreen color as shot by director Ronald Maxwell and mastered using the standard VC-1 codec with a 1080p resolution. Having seen bits of the movie in the past on cable television, this was definitely a step up the ladder in terms of picture quality, the bitrate hovering in the mid teens (in Mbps of course) for most of the show. Rather than come across as a movie made strictly for television, it used sweeping landscape shots to establish the battlefields and attempt to support the weaker story elements with visual grandeur; the enhancements from the high definition transfer evident in a great many ways. The detail was markedly better, the colors vivid, and the entire production clear enough to easily see the occasional wristwatch not caught by quality control. The darker scenes were not as plentiful as the better lit day time scenes but even then, there were few problems observed and issues with grain, aliasing, or video noise were so rare as to be dismissed without a thought from this reviewer. Unlike the previous version of the movie, this was not a double sided disc so any issues with that have been eliminated by virtue of the newer technology of the blue ray format.
Sound: The audio was presented with a minimal range of choices using the 5.1 Dolby Digital English at 48 KHz using 640 Kbps with the optional subtitles in English, French, and Spanish. The dialogue was well handled and the musical tracks combined mostly period sounding bits with a few contemporary pieces tossed in thanks to Bob Dylan and Mary Fahl. Of special interest was the sound effects for me and to be forthcoming on the topic, there were a number of fine examples of the separation, headspace, and directionality of the audio but it was the way they were integrated into the rest of the production that gave them added appeal. They were not consistently good but during the three main battles and most of the other major scenes, I found little to fault with them; replaying those scenes in part to make sure. The bass was downplayed too much outside of the thunder of battle but otherwise, it was a pretty solid effort overall.
Extras: There were a lot of extras on this single disc release, sadly lacking the one thing most fans would have appreciated the most; the fully restored version of the movie. The first extra on the list from the page containing them was a short introduction by the financier of the flick, Ted Turner, who claimed the movie was as historically accurate as could be made and provided a cheerleading session about the merits of the film. This was followed by an audio commentary where the director and a couple of military historians spoke at length about the release on an audio track. I listened to it while typing this review and found it to only contain bits and pieces of commentary rather than allowing the trio to speak endlessly for the three and a half hours of the movie but they shared a deep concern about making the movie as accurately as possible given the constraints at hand; making it clear that the majority of acting extras used were from and how certain events were determined as well as some of the liberties taken with the dialogue. Of more interest to me were the three documentaries, the first being Journey to the Past: The African American Slave Experience in the Film's Era; the second being The Life of Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson, and the last being The Authenticities of the Film; all of which totaled the better part of an hour with a lot of weaker moments surrounded by bits such as the author of the book the movie was based on giving some insights as to his work. There was a trailer for the movie, a couple of music videos; one by Bob Dylan titled Cross the Green Mountain that was a snoozer and the more appealing Coming Home by singer Mary Fahl. There was also a barely related (but short) infomercial for Visiting Historic Virgina, presumably promised in return for cooperation by the state in making the movie.
Final Thoughts: Gods and Generals Blu-Ray was a technical step up from watching it on cable or the previous DVD release but it could have been a lot more too which leads to the difficulty I have with rewarding such a release a higher rating. The highly compressed (I hesitate to say "glossed over") battles and limited time focusing on any one character were bigger issues for me so while I liked it more than many "professional" critics seemed to do when this one came out, I can't say that they were wrong in their assessments. The extras were decent and the story involved historically significant situations that we should all consider during these times when internal military conflicts have been replaced with equally paralyzing political conflicts between the two leading parties of the day; the results ending up very much alike in our modern context. Give Gods and Generals Blu-Ray a look and I think you'll find plenty of smaller pieces to appreciate though, even if the sum of the parts wasn't as good as it could have been.