In early 2003, the American public was probably not focused on Civil War history; they were still grieving over the September 11th attacks, and the War in Iraq was just beginning. Still, nonetheless, a four hour film starring Stephen Lang and Robert Duvall along with Jeff Daniels, came onto the screen. The sequel/prequel to 1993’s “Gettysburg” (Robert Maxwell), “Gods and Generals” (Maxwell 2003) tells the story of the beginning of the Civil War in 1861 with the Virginian vote to secede from the Union, to the summer of 1863, with the focus being on General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, the Army of Northern Virginia, and the 20th Maine led by Colonel Joshua L. Chamberlain. The film paints a human picture of Jackson, making him a Christian man who despised slavery and Robert E. Lee as a General who fought because he had to, not because he wanted to with Chamberlain in the middle, trying to keep his life together. It is a dramatic, beautiful, and touching film, it makes for good drama; the screenplay is nearly flawless, the score is perfect, the acting is decent, and the cinematography gives the viewer a taste of battle (and this was before drones were popular). All impressive work; however, the film received mixed reviews and received low box office returns with complaints from historians on historical accuracy with some believing the filmmakers to have “Confederate sympathy”, distorting the view of the Civil War by portraying slaves as content with their position, among other problems, such as the length (219 mins with intermission). The film is not perfect, clearly, something is wrong if there is this perception. With the controversies surrounding the removal of Confederate monuments around the country and Christopher Nolan’s “Dunkirk” preforming strong in the box office, it seems to be an appropriate time to examine a historical film and what exactly went wrong with history and our perception of it, but the genre of historical films itself.
In this blog series, I shall examine the historical accuracy of, and make a case for, the film “Gods and Generals” (Maxwell 2003) as well as other recent historical dramas such as “The King’s Speech” (Hooper 2010) and “Dunkirk” (Nolan 2017) through the use of primary, secondary, and scholarly sources, the power of cinematography has on one’s viewership, the means of adaptation, production design, and music (score, featured songs, and original songs) to accurately paint a picture of history and to set the record straight so that those that are no longer with us can go to their graves like beds with a good night sleep.