Sign up for our free newsletter

Free D.C. news, delivered to your inbox daily.

Even devout Civil War buffs may start losing their religion somewhere during writer-director Ronald F. Maxwell’s three-and-half-hour prequel to his 10-year-old Gettysburg. With its elaborate fake beards and stiff, implausible dialogue—probably derived from letters, journals, and other flowery period prose—the epic-length but trifling Gods and Generals plays like an animatronic sideshow at the country’s least entertaining amusement park. (It’s as if Disney’s America had hired Billy Graham, George Eliot, Leni Riefenstahl, and ZZ Top as consultants.) Jeff Daniels returns as Joshua Chamberlain, the Maine college professor who became a Union officer—with Mira Sorvino (!) as the woman he left behind—but the focus is on the Confederates. With outnumbered troops, inferior equipment, and an inexhaustible supply of Victorian chivalry, the Southern troops led by Robert E. Lee (Robert Duvall) triumph again and again in the 1861-1863 period the film covers. Praising the Lord and passing the speechification, Stephen Lang plays the central character, Gen. Thomas Jonathan “Stonewall” Jackson, as a sanctimonious, Bible-thumping twit. The Yankees keep losing the battles—Fredericksburg and the Wilderness are the two principal occasions for sweeping combat scenes—but the Rebels are so annoying that you’d almost be willing to watch them flop at Gettysburg all over again. A massive indulgence for backer Ted Turner, who has a cameo role, Gods and Generals is derived from the novel by Jeff Shaara, whose father’s The Killer Angels was the source for Gettysburg. The younger Shaara’s book may not be the inspiration, but Maxwell uses the occasion for an indirect but astonishing defense of Old South race relations: The only African-American characters are loyal servants of the Virginia aristocracy, who seem more offended than their masters by the Yankee invasion of their state. The filmmakers might want to offer a few prayers that this characterization doesn’t start a second Civil War. —Mark Jenkins