Directed by Ronald F Maxwell, starring Stephen Lang, Jeff Daniels, Robert Duvall, Kali Rocha, C Thomas Howell and Mira Sorvino.
Name a trio of directors, currently two films in to epic, battle-driven trilogies? George Lucas and Peter Jackson are the easy answers, but you'd probably need the anorak gene or be a history buff to name Ronald F Maxwell. His 1993 movie - and later TV - hit 'Gettysburg', chronicled the turning point in the American Civil War and now comes 'Gods and Generals', a prequel, which takes in the two years prior to that battle.
Again, following the conflict from both Union and Confederate sides, Maxwell focuses on the campaigns fought by Southern general Thomas 'Stonewall' Jackson (Lang, who portrayed a different historical figure in the first film) and Northern colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain (Daniels, reprising the role he played in 'Gettysburg'). Both educated men - Chamberlain a lecturer, Jackson a military college professor - we see them leave their wives (Sorvino and Rocha) to join up with their comrades on either side of the Mason-Dixon line. Their subsequent struggles run for over three-and-a-half hours and take in the battles at Bull Run, Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville.
For those whose knowledge of General Lee only stretches as far as the car in 'The Dukes of Hazard', 'Gods and Generals' could prove to be a slog. Imagine watching half of 'Band of Brothers' in one sitting, but with the story moving at a much slower pace. The main disappointment here is that Maxwell (who also adapted the script from Jeff Shaara's novel) fails to make enough emotional connections once the shooting has stopped.
In a bid to pull you in to the story, sweeping strings accompany the non-battle scenes, but many feel overlong and in need of tighter dialogue - and more of Robert Duvall as General Robert E Lee. Consolation however, comes with Lang's performance as Jackson, which provides the depth that other characters are lacking (Daniels included - but then, he is the focus of 'Gettysburg') and whose personal struggle towards the close also highlights the drama that other sections of the film needed.
'Gods and Generals' works far better as a chronicle for those with an interest in both military history and strategy. Maxwell stages the action scenes well, using 7,500 're-enactors' with the emphasis on why the action is happening rather than endless shooting or bayonet fights. Like 'Gettysburg' before it, this is a film, which will benefit much from a DVD release and be required viewing in schools and colleges in the US.
If split into TV episodes 'Gods and Generals' would be a far more compelling experience for US Civil War novices, but despite the mammoth running-time, your attention could turn to 'Gettysburg' after seeing it.