"I never thought I would live to see the day that a president of the United States would raise an army to invade his own country."
U.S. Army General Robert E. Lee tells President Lincoln he will not lead Union forces against the Southern states that have seceded to form their own Confederacy. "I have never taken my duties lightly, but I have no greater duty than to my home, to Virginia."
Gods and Generals meticulously details such early critical events that, 140 years ago, led to the most divisive and bloodiest war in American history. Producer Ted Turner personally financed the $90 million project; the founder of the Cable News Network also backed previous television movies about the War Between the States, notably the 1993 mini-series Gettysburg. "I'm particularly interested in history because the more you understand the past, the better you can understand the future and the present. I've always studied history to some degree and the American Civil War was a very important time in our history and these stories haven't been told," he says.
Robert Duvall plays the stoic Robert E. Lee and the Oscar-winning actor is actually a distant relative of the reluctant warrior who cautions "it is well that war is so terrible or we should grow too fond of it." "I think he was a pretty interesting, complex character and I wanted to go after it because I think it's been done wrong before. I wanted to see if I could do it better than it's been done in the past by others," he says.
"Look, there is Jackson standing like a stone wall. Let us determine to die here today and we will conquer. Rally behind the Virginians."
At Lee's side is General Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson, played by Stephen Lang as a devoutly religious man. "Every relationship that Jackson had in his life, every action that he took was really informed by a very moment-to-moment relationship he had with God. That was the nature of his faith. Maybe it's not an alien concept, but I think it's something of an antique concept for many people in this age; but, nevertheless, that's who he was and there's nothing either romanticized about it or inaccurate," he says.
"I am more than pleased with the part played by the brigade during the action. Through the blessing of God they met the thus-far victorious enemy and turned the fortunes of the day."
Director and screenwriter Ron Maxwell says the ornate and verbose dialogue in Gods and Generals is true to the era. "Judging by their diaries and reminiscences and journals and letters, the people of the nineteenth century seemed to have at their disposal a broader vocabulary than we do," he says. "I don't think the vocabulary is imposed on these people. It derives from my research."
Maxwell acknowledges that the images and the attitudes could offend some audiences; but the director, who also made Gettysburg, insists the story should be told without regard to the political attitudes of today. "I understand how the Confederate battle flag arouses great passions in people. I understand how African Americans and many white Americans find it a painful image that hurts them deeply and they're offended by it," he says. "While I'm aware of all that, I really tried to leave that behind because that's got nothing to do with the generation of the 1860's."
Jeff Daniels, who plays Union Army colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, believes the 19th century battlefield history is still relevant. "Even going through what we're probably about to go through now, I think it can help to give you a sense of this country and what this country has gone through before and what it took to get where we are and, maybe, why it's important that we continue to hang on to that," he says. "I think this film can at least help explain why you have what you have."
"An army is power. Its entire purpose is to coerce others. This kind of power can n-o-t be used carelessly or recklessly. This kind of power can do great harm. We have seen more suffering than any men should ever see; and if there is going to be an end to it, it must be an end that justifies the cost."
Gods and Generals was shot on location on the actual battlefield sites and features hundreds of authentically costumed Civil War "re-enactors" as the troops from both sides.