Uncivil War Movie
"Gods and Generals," the $55 million Ted Turner/Warner Brothers film covering the first two years of the Civil War, centers on the character of Stonewall Jackson, the Confederate general who, under the command of General Robert E. Lee, was successful in the early battles. Its release has not received the warm critical reception of its predecessor, "Gettysburg." Some criticism has centered, ironically enough, on filmmaker Ron Maxwell's scrupulous attention to historical detail, as if, as one critic said, "the film was made for historians and re-enactors."
More damning, though, has been the charge that its portrayal of Jackson, Lee and other Confederates as men driven by honorable aims, "Gods" serves as propaganda for the South. In February, I sat down with Maxwell, who wrote, directed, and produced the adaptation of Jeff Shaara's novel of the same name and the earlier adaptation of father Michael Shaara's "Killer Angels for Gettysburg," to discuss the film and its controversial aspects.
Q: Every generation seems to recreate the Civil War, with new movies and books and academic research. It's like the Jews coming out of Egypt, the re-enactment every year. What is it about the Civil War that makes it resonate so strongly -- does it have contemporary meaning or was it just the scale of the devastation?
RM: The Civil War is in a sense our "Iliad." It has great heroes who take on great feats and who have fatal flaws that bring them low. If you can take an example, the whole Confederate enterprise, which to their own thinking was an effort to throw off the domination of a section that they no longer wanted to remain united to, and yet fatally flawed in the act of seeking their own freedom denying it to an entire race of men.
Q: What about some of the political issues?
RM: We still live with many of the arguments the war was fought over. They've mutated, and we're not shooting at one another, but what are we talking about -- the issue of power either centralized in the federal government or power decentralized in the states and communities. There have been many issues that fall into that tension. The other great issue in American life is race. Hardly a day goes by when we're not confronted with it, either in our local communities or in the larger national body politic. We've come a long way, but we're still sorting things out. That's what I think people are talking about when they say the issues of the Civil War are will with us today.
Q: Some critics have suggested "Gods and Generals" is propagandistic for the cause of the South.
RM: Robert Penn Warren referred to "the Great Alibi," which was perpetuated by writers both north and south of the Mason-Dixon Line, that the war was fought only for the noblest reasons. The southern side ignored the issue of slavery. The North created what Warren called the "treasury of virtue," that the federal government, the Lincoln administration, fought for the highest ideals, to free the slaves, to preserve the union, when in fact there were economic interests involved and self-interest involved, and there was a lot of death and destruction that resulted from conducting a war policy as opposed to a conciliatory policy in the early days of the rebellion. This will be argued forever, but the more you read the contemporaneous writings, diaries, letters, journalism, the more complex a picture you see, and the less one is apt to oversimplify and judge the Civil War generation.
Q. What was it about Stonewall Jackson that compelled you to feel he had to be the focus of the film?
RM: The three central characters, Lee and Chamberlain and Jackson, are all confronted with the dilemma that confronted all Americans in the mid-19th century, which is where do my allegiances lie? What is patriotism? What does that mean? It's one thing to muse that in the abstract. It's another to make an entire life decision based on what it means to you. To the Unionists -- remember, there were Unionists in the whole country, in Florida and Texas as well as Maine and New York -- patriotism, the love of country, the love of place, of your community, encompassed the nation, encompassed the geographical area and the people in it, from the Penobscot to Gulf of Mexico. To the Secessionists, who examined their sense of patriotism, it was that region for which they could stand and fight and defend, to which they had a love and that kind of attachment, was the south, the "southland," and more particular, their states.
People like Jackson and Lee who believed in the Union, who had a great devotion to the United States of America -- proven on the battlefield in the Mexican War -- had a greater love and sense of patriotism for their home regions, their own states. Jackson loved the United States, too. He just loved Virginia more. This may all sound very abstract and very pretty, but translated into action, the results were cataclysmic: more than 600,000 dead, more than 1.5 million grievously wounded and missing, a whole society disrupted, whole cities laid waste, economies bankrupted. The results of these passions, even among the most highly idealistic people, had dire consequences. So Jackson becomes somebody fascinating to watch because he is acting out of a high sense of idealism and patriotism.
One can make stories from people acting from much lower motives and it would be equally valid, but I find it fascinating to take people who had a very strong sense of duty and a very formal sense of honorable behavior, and what happened to them when they engaged in this committed way to protect what they believed in. Jackson was also a man of intense contradictions, a devout Christian who was very tender to family and friends, and yet an unwavering authoritarian within the context of military discipline, who did not hesitate to execute deserters, for instance.
Q: Has Jackson been treated unfairly in the national narrative?
RM: We as a society have responded in all sorts of ways to the people who fought in the Civil War on all sides. If you look at the press of the 1860s, during the war, you will see in the northern press, the most extreme vilification of Abraham Lincoln. You'll see in the southern press, the most extreme vilification of Jefferson Davis and of Robert E. Lee in the early part of the war. We have always been a contentious people without any hesitation to tear down our leaders.
Let's start right there. That's the generation of the 1860s. Now, when the war ended, two mythologies immediately started to be propagated. No one has examined this better than Robert Penn Warren. He called it "the Great Alibi" but it's also been called "the Lost Cause," a world of gallant heroes and warriors defending the Southland. All mythologies have truth to them, but they're exaggerated and leave things out. That's what makes the picture incomplete. What took over for a long time in the consciousness of the country was this notion of a lost cause.
Coincident with the great social upheaval that followed WWII, part of the change in American life, which had to do with the Civil Rights Movement, the liberation of women, with more people being educated, all sorts of forces at work, the view of the South was altered. In some corners, the pendulum swung all the way over to what Warren called "the Treasury of Virtue" -- that subsequent generations, including our own, if we live in the north, or were educated in the north, have special dispensation, are somehow superior to people who live in the South, because we are the descendants of the Emancipators, of Lincoln's side of the war. This is an equally silly notion. It's always more complex.
Where we are now, to a certain extent, is that the Confederate leaders who were fighting the war like Lee and Jackson and others, are somehow lumped in willy-nilly with the worst bigots and racists and yahoos and rednecks from the 1960s -- none of whom deserve to be mentioned in the same breath with any of those military leaders in the Confederate armies. When you know a little about any subject, it's very easy to indulge in caricature.
Q: Where do you draw the line as a filmmaker between creatively interpreting history and re-inventing or possibly misrepresenting it?
RM: I've found that in the study of history, usually when you dig around, the facts are infinitely more interesting and dramatic than anything you can make up. The whole argument that, well, we have to make it up for dramatic reasons because the truth would be boring, is fallacious. You start out trying to know the facts: what happened, what didn't happen? There are a whole lot of facts that we know, which are established by historians, and you stick with those facts as much as possible. Then there's a whole area that's in debate, where historians disagree about what happened.
Then there's a whole other area where no one knows. In the area in which the historians are in debate, or don't know at all, this to me is the area of poetic license. It's not going to the area where the facts are established and changing the facts. That is not poetic license, it's lying. Film-makers have to have some sense of responsibility, and understand that the films are not playing in a vacuum, they're playing in a real world with people with memories and associations. You have to be truthful to the story you're telling. It's not enough to justify lying by saying such and such a picture did great box office. That's silly and it's morally unjustified. A dope dealer can say, "I made $100 million last year and therefore I'm correct." It doesn't work that way. That is of course not to say that we should be stodgy and stuffy and self-important and think we're conducting a history lesson. That's not what I'm saying. I am saying you have to take into account the history. You can't just make it all up.