The movie “Gods and Generals” is set out in the American civil war and its starts with the onset of the war with General Robert E. Lee declining the federal offer to lead the union army and instead choosing to be loyal to his Virginia state and agreeing to lead the local Virginian army into the war. “Gods and Generals” makes a remarkably successful attempt to be historically precise, and most of the events and people in the movie represent history with some remarkable degree of accuracy. However, “Gods and Generals” does make some important omissions of historical events and some character depictions in the movie have no historical bearing whatsoever.
The depiction of the first battle of Bull Runi, which occurred early in the civil war, is one good example of accurate historical representation in “Gods and Generals”. The movie correctly identifies the strategies that were employed by both the confederate and union armies in an attempt to win the battle. “Gods and Generals”, in its depiction of this battle, tries to follow the script of the book by Jeff Shaaraii whose historical accuracy is not disputed. “Gods and Generals” correctly shows how the confederate flanks initially suffered under the attacks of the union army which had divided to attack from several flanks. The initial retreat by the confederate army at Manassas is truthfully shown, and the morale boosting effects that the arrival of Colonel Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson had on the confederate army, ultimately leading to the capture of some union army guns which enabled the confederate army to win the battle. The death of the commander of one of the brigades that fought in the war, Brig. Gen. Barnard Bee in the first battle of Bull Run is a true depiction of the historical event.
The battle of Fredericksburg in the civil war is another quite good and truthful depiction of the actual event as described in the novel from which the movie was adaptediii. This battle was the first major urban combat in the civil war, and “Gods and Generals” does a good job of showing the battle in the town of Fredericksburg. The movie correctly shows the initial success of the union army on the confederates, and goes to show how bureaucracy and errors of judgment by some union commanders cost them the battle. The role that the now Lt. Gen. Stonewall Jackson played in reversing the fortunes of the confederates in the battle of Fredericksburg are well documented in “Gods and Generals”. The ferocity of the fighting of that battle is also well documented in the movie. Heavy casualties were suffered by both sides, a factor that “Gods and Generals” correctly shows. The reconciliation of the historical accuracy of the movie and the book is done almost perfectly, despite the length of movie time taken.
The battle of Chancellorsville is another true depiction of an historical event in “Gods and Generals” as represented in the bookiv. During this battle, large numbers of casualties form both sides were witnessed. The battle field was left devastated with wide spread destruction corpse and carcass of animals. The battlefield is an historic landmark where a military park has been since established. The actual occurrences of the battle of Chancellorsville are corrected shown in “Gods and Generals”, and the producers of “Gods and Generals” did a good job of preserving the historical accuracy of the happenings of that battle. It is in this battle that Stonewall Jackson is mortally wounded by his own soldiers, leading to his arm amputation. His death due to pneumonia follows a few days afterwards. His death, as shown both in the book and in the movie, has an adverse impact on the war, and General Robert Lee seems the most devastated by the news of his injury and death by remarking that by Jackson losing his Left arm, he had lost his rightv.
The battle of Gettysburg was another historical event in “Gods and Generals” truthfully shown in the movie as represented in the book from which the movie is adaptedvi. According to Jeff Shaara’s novel, this battle occurred around a little hill called little round top. It was the battle with the highest number of casualties witnessed during the whole period of civil war in America. Lee lost in this battle despite the winning streak he had previously been enjoying. The loss of this battle was a disastrous blow to the confederate campaign and the battle marked the turning point of the war which led to confederate defeatvii. His loss could be attributed to overconfidence, health problems, and performance of the opponents and that of his subordinates.
The siege of Petersburg also forms a rich material for historical purposes. It was during this battle, at Rives’ Salient where Chamberlain was shot. In the spirit of battle he could not accept defeat easily. He therefore removed his sword and supported himself with it till he collapsed and lay unconscious due to excessive bleeding. He later recovered. It was Chamberlain who is poignant in most of the scenes in the movie. This is a good historical representation of a union army officer who was very courageous and determined that the Union should win the war against the confederates.
Many of these battle scenes were shot on the locations which the actual battles took place. This was to make the film more authentic, and the geography and topography of battles such as Chancellorsville and Fredericksburg are actual that were experienced by the confederate and union soldiers during the actual war. The makers of “Gods and Generals”, by shooting it in the actual battle zones in Virginia, preserved the historical authenticity of the film thus preserving historical facts. Kingseed describes the geography as “the most important of all factors that impinge on war-making, where the vast extent of territory and its varied and dramatic character oblige soldiers to conform to its demands more rigorously than in almost any other region of the world.”viii These difficulties are well shown in the movie
“Gods and Generals” did a good job showing Stonewall Jackson as a committed Christian as he was shown in the book. He was a deeply religious man to such extent he believed that God was on his side and he could succeed in any battle. Shaara describes some of his thoughts; “This is not an accident, he thought. We are led by Divine Hands,”ix an indication of his firm belief that the war was God’s plan. “Gods and Generals” also brings forth Jackson’s character as a brilliant military planner and strategistx. He was good in most of the plans he undertook and was committed to succeed in his plans. He is also truthfully shown as a committed family man in the movie. His successes in the battles of first Bull Run and Fredericksburg are a testimony to this, and his military prowess is well shown in “Gods and Generals”.
“Gods and Generals” did well also in the depiction of Robert E. Lee. He was shown as deeply religious person who believed in God and was a committed Christian. He believed that it was the will of God that there should be a war against the union, and usually invoked God before undertaking any activity. He is also shown as very courageous man and a brilliant military strategistxi attributes which the author John Keegan in “The American Civil War: A military History” uses to describe the confederate general. Keegan thus describes Lee; Lee’s “greatest gifts of generalship were quick and correct decision-making in the face of the enemy, exploitation of his enemy’s mistakes and economic handling of the force available to him.”
The character of sergeant Buster Kilrain, portrayed as serving in the union army, has no historical basis since no individual bearing that name is recorded to have existed during the period which “Gods and Generals” is setxiii. This is a historical misrepresentation, and the viewer may believe that such a character did indeed exist during the war when in fact he did not. The book from which the movie is adapted did not have such a character in its narrative, and this is a fictitious creation of the makers of “Gods and Generals”.
Most movie makers tend to alter facts due to various reasons. In most cases this is done to appeal to the customers in that the film is made interesting so that it attracts more viewership. They may alter facts so as to fit in the time limits of the movie. This is basically to shorten or to lengthen particular episodes to take care of duration of the movie. The facts may be altered due to inability to fit to the real life situation. This is because movies are acted pretty late after an event has take place. Therefore the originality or the facts may at times fade away with mere lapse of time or may be changed during various recording times and by different people to different forms. For example most movies are based on novels which had been written. If in the novel a fact had been altered, then the same alteration or even a further alteration may be included in the movie.
Despite the relatively accurate representation of history in “Gods and Generals”, watching movies is not a good way to learn history. This is because most of the movies have the historical facts alteredxiv as indicated by a study carried out by scholars from the Washington University in St. Louis. In some movies the alteration is to such extent that there is no any real information that can be relied on. The movie makers also tend to be motivated by the market forces and will always make it very interesting to attract customers rather than keep the originality and be able to make as much money as possible. The production of a historical movie may be influenced by personal opinions of the makers to such extend that historical views are distorted to fit into such opinionsxvas argued by Michael Ventre in “Movies no place to learn real history”.
Movies are usually commercial ventures, and the producers of movies have financial consideration to make. This commercial influence on the development of movies is likely to negatively affect the representation of historical facts in historical movies. Facts in a historical movie may be altered to make the movie more appealing to viewers. This ultimately leads to misrepresentation of history in the movie. It is thus not a good idea to learn history from movies.
The movie “Gods and Generals” makes a successful attempt to show historical occurrences truthfully. The characters in the movie and the locations in the movie correspond with the actual historical occurrences. It also corresponds with the historical occurrences as they are in the book from which the movie is adapted. Though this particular movie is historically accurate to a large degree, movies as a source of history have many shortcomings, and they cannot be relied as methods of learning history since they tend to misrepresent historical facts.
Keegan, John. The American Civil War: A military History. New York, NY: Alfred Knopf Inc, 2009.
Kingseed, Christina. The American Civil War.Westport, CT: Green Publishing Group, Inc, 2004.
Gods and Generals (motion Picture). Dir. Maxwell, Ronald F. Warner Bros. Pictures, 2003.
McCarthy, Daniel, Gods and Generals, (April, 20 2011). http://www.lewrockwell.com/dmccarthy/dmccarthy44.html
Savage, Kirk. Standing Soldiers, Kneeling Slaves: Race, War, and Monument in Nineteenth-Century America. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1997.
Shaara, Jeff. Gods and Generals. New York, NY: Random House Publishing Group, 1997.
Ventre, Michael, Movies no place to learn real history, (April, 20 2011) http://today.msnbc.msn.com/id/28021559/ns/today-entertainment/
Washington University in St. Louis. Does showing movies in history class help students learn?, (April, 20 2011) http://www.sciencecodex.com/does_showing_movies_in_history_class_help_students_learn