Vital Signs

Reclaiming the American Story

Gods and Generals
Produced and Directed by Ronald F. Maxwell
Screenplay by Ronald F. Maxwell from Jeff Shaara’s book 
Released by Warner Bros.

The war of 1861-65 is still the pivotal event of American history, despite all that has passed since.  In the extent of mobilization, casualties, and material destruction on American soil, in the number of world-class events and personalities, and in revolutionary consequences, nothing else can equal it.

That is why Ronald F. Maxwell’s epic portrayal of the first two years of the conflict, a prequel to his 1993 Gettysburg, is more than just another film or a good recreation of history.  It is an American cultural event of major significance.

The cataclysmic bloodletting of the war left a gaping hole in the American psyche.  Late in the 19th century, we began to achieve a kind of healing by rendering the tragedy as a common ordeal of North and South.  The Great Reconciliation went something like this: The victorious North agreed to stop demonizing  Southerners as an inexplicably and irredeemably evil people, to recognize the courage and sincerity of their effort at independence, and to adopt the Confederacy’s heroes, such as Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, as American heroes.  

This had been anticipated by Joshua Chamberlain’s respectful salute to...

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