Though most of the historically based characters in Gods and Generals, North and South, share God’s comfort in a time of utter chaos, Confederate General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson is the focal character. When one of his officers asks him how he can be so serene in battle, Jackson answers that his belief in God always insures his readiness for death. Throughout the film Jackson, played by Stephen Lang, prays to God for the strength to carry him and his men through battle. He’s not a flamboyant general as was Patton in WWII (also a religious man who professed to read the Bible “every goddamn day”). Jackson is very humble and has a great deal of compassion for his men. He’s also very thoughtful and aware of how transitory life is. “Everything in life seems so fragile so temporary,” he tells his wife in a moment of weakness. And when he is dying from wounds from an incident of friendly fire, he is completely forgiving: “There is no blame in war,” Jackson says. “We must all forgive.”
Yet he’s a man that gets things done no matter how difficult the job. When confronted with three deserters, he doesn’t hesitate to sentence them to death by firing squad: “I regard the crime of desertion as a crime against the Army of the Lord,” he says to a young officer that is hesitant to carry out the order to execute the deserters. And when a fellow officer questions the morality of killing your own countrymen in battle because they wear a different uniform, he is crystal clear about his job and who the enemy is: “Kill them sir!” Jackson says vehemently. “Kill every last man of them.”
Many wonder how military leaders can have such strong beliefs in God. It seems a strange dichotomy in war, an irony. Can God be on the side of both opposing armies? But it’s not a matter of taking sides. It’s a matter of God supporting human beings through the darkest of times, and what could be darker than war?
But out of this darkness comes another irony. In the words of Gen. Robert E. Lee played by Robert Duvall: “It is well that war is so terrible, or we should grow too fond of it.” Or in the words of Gen. Patton played by George C. Scott in the film Patton: “I love it!” Patton says looking out at a smoky battlefield full of death and destruction. “God help me but I love it so.”
Like Gettysburg, Gods and Generals emphasizes historical accuracy and uses large numbers of Civil War re-enactors. Though Gettysburg is by far a better film in terms of entertainment value, history buffs, particularly those interested in the Civil War will love Gods and Generals for the picture it paints of the times and pivotal figures such as Col. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain played by Jeff Daniels and Gen. Jackson. Two other elements of particular interest are how recent Irish immigrants, who left Ireland to escape tyranny, had to fight against each other in the Civil War. It’s also interesting to see how many African Americans were torn between fighting for freedom or for place.
Indeed, Gods and Generals is filled with the many ironies that face us in all wars but are particularly ironic in a “civil war.” The two words juxtaposed seem so opposite in meaning that they appear to be fighting to occupy the same space and yet how very human is that endeavor.
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