Civil War epic shut down by "PC crowd?"
"Gods and Generals" a painful disappointment at box office

by Art Moore

(from March 22, 2003)

The makers of the Civil War epic "Gods and Generals" believed they had a ready-made audience in people of faith who normally shun Hollywood for its celebration of immorality and ridicule of religion.

"Gods and Generals," released Feb. 21, is writer, producer and director Ron Maxwell's attempt to accurately recount a century-and-a-half-old chapter of American history that has not stopped inflaming discord. One obvious result of Maxwell's passion for historical fidelity is Confederate officers in their "full humanity," whose motivations, speech and actions arise from their devout Christian faith.

Maxwell believes his "unorthodox" portrayal of the South and of unapologetic Christianity were not palatable to the majority of movie critics, who essentially "suppressed" the film with politically motivated reviews.

After four weekends, the $80 million, Ted Turner-financed film has been a painful disappointment at the box office, struggling now to reach $15 million in revenues.

Maxwell said in an interview with WorldNetDaily that he had expected the "PC," or politically correct, "crowd" to criticize the film, but not to such a deep, "hate-filled" extent.

"I'm not a conspiracy person," he said. "I don't see conspiracies behind everything that happens in life. But I suspect it was a collusion, if not a conspiracy -- that people got on the e-mail or the phone and they said, 'Let's shut down this film.'"

Maxwell concludes that the regular moviegoers were turned off by a barrage of "vitriolic" negative reviews and concedes that "we have not been successful in convincing the people who have given up on Hollywood in general, that this is a movie that they would love."

"Look, I've had 30 years in this business," Maxwell said. "I've read a lot of reviews, and some of them are funny and dismissive. But I've never seen an effort [like this] to actually suppress a movie, to scare people away from it."

He pointed to noted critic Roger Ebert as an example, who began his review with "Here is a Civil War movie that Trent Lott might enjoy."

Maxwell said it's obvious that, in Ebert's mind, the name of the Mississippi lawmaker whose impertinent remarks cost him his Senate majority post is "code for racist."

"So that is [Ebert's] message?" asked Maxwell. "If you even consider seeing this film, you're a racist? That's a film review?"

Rotten tomatoes

Warner Brothers' "Gods and Generals" -- starring Robert Duvall as Gen. Robert E. Lee and Stephen Lang as Gen. Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson -- is a prequel to Maxwell's acclaimed 1993 film "Gettysburg."

His latest effort chronicles the two years of war leading up to the decisive Pennsylvania battle, paying close attention to Jackson and the Christian faith that animated his life as a legendary military commander and deeply devoted husband and father.

The website, which compiles movie reviews, counted 13 "fresh," or favorable, assessments of the film and 127 "rotten" ones.

Maxwell notes that the positive reviews were overwhelmingly enthusiastic, in some cases ranking "Gods and Generals" as one of the best historical films ever.

On the other end of the spectrum, however, were these examples:

Most film critics have an ideological agenda, says Michael Medved, whose reviews appear weekly on WND.

"I have an ideological agenda as a critic," he said. "The difference is, I acknowledge it."

Medved contends that Ebert's opening line about Lott, and his "politically barbed comments about the ideology of the movie are telling."

"I think it tips the hand of a lot of the people who are giving extremely negative reviews to this film," he said.

"I believe there is a legitimate argument about whether the film is a complete success, and you can argue about whether it's too long, or about whether the narrative lacks momentum," he continued. "Those are legitimate points to make. But for people who are calling this one of the worst movies of the year, it's very obvious that they are allowing their left-wing ideology to trump everything about this film."

Medved gave the movie four out of four stars and believes it will hold out as one of the best films of 2003.

The San Diego Union-Tribune's Elliott told WND he doesn't think he and his colleagues had any ideological axe to grind.

"My review questions the film's merits as a piece of storytelling and simply as a film," he insisted. "I'm sure Maxwell can see critics don't have a big beef about the Civil War -- it's been 140-some years, and I actually thought "Gettysburg" was a strong piece of work."

Nobody is against showing the heroism of Confederate soldiers he said, "but it's sad that a major film about Stonewall Jackson should make him into a pious statue."

Elliott said no one could argue that there was a strong Christian culture in that period, noting that President Lincoln's major addresses were full of references to God.

"It would be silly to quarrel with that," he said. "I just felt I was stuck in a church pew trying to watch the stained glass come to life."

Meanwhile, actor-director Mel Gibson believes an effort is underway to suppress his making of a film about the suffering, sacrificial death of Jesus, called "The Passion."

Earlier this month, the New York Times magazine criticized Gibson for his traditional Catholic views and for blaming Jews for the death of Jesus, though the actor subscribes to the orthodox Christian view that everyone is responsible.

Voting on Hollywood

Maxwell said he is certain there is a large audience that identifies with the values expressed in "Gods and Generals" that will enjoy it in "future incarnations" after its run on the silver screen. The DVD will be released this summer, followed by a foreign release, a showing on HBO at the end of the year and on Turners' TNT network six months later. In about two years, a six-hour director's cut will come out.

"I am personally disappointed that the potential audience -- that will like this movie enormously when they see it broadcast on TV -- didn't take the trouble to go to the movies," said Maxwell.

If you don't buy the tickets, he said, "you are abstaining from voting on what Hollywood does."

Maxwell believes that audience lost a "marvelous opportunity" to make a difference in Hollywood.

"Hollywood executives will look at this and say, You know what works? 'Old School.'"

The newly released film "Old School" is considered a sequel to the frat-house hits "American Pie" and "Animal House."

Maxwell emphasized, however, that "Gods and Generals" is still playing -- though it is down from 1553 screens to 750 -- and "word of mouth can still turn it around."

For instance, he said, "if 5 percent of the people who drive to church every Sunday went and saw this movie, it would turn it around."

Ted Baehr, chairman of the Christian Film and Television Commission and publisher of Movieguide magazine, said he has tried to get out the word on "Gods and Generals" among Christian leaders, but many say things like, "We've heard it's not a good film," and "It's too long."

But, later, "when they do see it, they are enthusiastic," said Baehr.

"Despite the pleas of many church leaders, it's just not happening," said Maxwell. "You're dealing with ingrained habits; this part of the population does not go to the movies."

But Baehr, who is regularly in touch with church leaders and groups, is convinced that they do go to the movies and are affected by the reviews as much as anyone else.

"We need to be careful about who we listen to," he said. "It should be people who share our beliefs."

Baehr has received a considerable number of e-mails from Christians who say "I won't see any movie paid for by Ted Turner," though Turner gave Maxwell freedom to shape the film as he wished.

Medved said, "We ought to give all credit where credit is due to Ted Turner for his courage and generosity in funding this thing."

How they talked

Maxwell concedes that the length of the film -- three hours, 49 minutes, including an intermission -- has a "dampening effect" on box office receipts.

"But not everything can be two hours," he said. "'Wayne's World' might work at two hours, but this is a huge story of the Civil War. Maybe it's a comment on how civilization in North America has changed -- we're not willing to commit time to certain events, but a generation ago, it was not so."

Some criticize the film's dialogue as an endless series of high-minded speeches, rather than genuine human discourse.

Maxwell thinks this response arises because "we've had so many movies that pretend to be historical films where the people are, A., talking like we are talking now, which is totally false, and, B., they're reflecting modern attitudes, which is false."

The dialogue is based on extensive research.

"Now, nobody had tape recorders from that period, but we had clues the letters, the journals, the reminiscences and the diaries," he said.

"It was a richer, broader vocabulary," Maxwell added, "and it was more of a verbal age, and now we're in a visual age."

Many critics don't have a problem with the movie, he asserted, they have a problem with "those people" portrayed in the film.

"They don't like those people," he said. "They don't like 'em then, and they don't like 'em now."

Paid a price

Ultimately, making money evidently was not Maxwell's primary motivation. To produce "Gettysburg," he had to go through his life savings, sell his house and then go into debt, while rejecting offers for other films that could have been turned around quickly at a profit. To make "Gods and Generals," he agreed to defer 75 percent of his salary as a writer, producer and director, but "clearly there aren't going to be any profits."

"I'm not complaining, these are my choices, but I have paid an enormous financial price," he said.

"But I'm proud of the movies, I'm so glad they are there, and I think they will stand the test of time."

Maxwell said his motivation was to "to tell the story of that generation."

"I felt I was called to tell their story with fidelity," he said. "That's why there is no way in the world am I going to make these kinds of sacrifices and then lie about it and make it politically correct. Then I would have nothing to show at the end of the day, nothing for my time and energy and commitment."

Maxwell said production for the third film in the trilogy, "The Last Full Measure," will be put off indefinitely "because we have too far to go to recoup our investment."

He emphasized, though, that "Gods and Generals" is "out there despite the best efforts of the critics."

"Yes, they hurt us at the box office, no question about it," he said. They absolutely prevented me from seeing another penny from it; they prevented Ted Turner from getting his money back.

"But they were not successful at suppressing the film, because it will find other audiences and other venues over the years, and it will live long after those critics, and me, and you are done."