'Gods, Generals' Gets History, but Is It Truth?

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), March 22, 2003 | Go to article overview
Save to active project

'Gods, Generals' Gets History, but Is It Truth?


Byline: Mackubin Thomas Owens, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

This article first appeared on National Review Online (www.nationalreview.com), for which Mr. Owens is a contributing writer. It is reprinted with permission.

Writing in the New Republic several years ago about the movie "Glory," James McPherson cited a 1995 New York Times article by Richard Bernstein titled "Can Movies Teach History?" Bernstein noted that "more people are getting their history, or what they think is history, from the movies these days than from the standard history books." Then he asked: Does "the filmmaker, like the novelist, have license to use the material of history selectively and partially in the goal of entertaining, creating a good dramatic product, even forging what is sometimes called the poetic truth, a truth truer than the literal truth?" In other words, does it matter if the details are wrong if the underlying meaning of events is accurate?

The magnificent new movie "Gods and Generals" raises a related issue. Can the filmmaker adhere to the historical details and still miss the greater truth? "Gods and Generals" has the details down pat. Indeed, although the movie is based on the historical novel of the same name by Jeff Shaara, it seems clear that Ron Maxwell, the producer and director, has consulted the appropriate scholarly works. For instance, every scene involving Thomas Jonathan "Stonewall" Jackson in "Gods and Generals" can be found in James I. Robertson's definitive biography, "Stonewall Jackson: The Man, The Soldier, The Legend." Attention to detail the realistic battle scenes; the fidelity to the language of the time; the role of religious faith; the complicated nature of race relations in the South is extraordinary. But does this attention to the details obscure a deeper truth?

A comparison

To get to the answer, it is useful to compare "Gods and Generals" to another Civil War movie from a few years ago, "Glory." The latter, which recounts the exploits of one of the first black regiments (54th Massachusetts) in the Civil War, contains numerous historical inaccuracies. Some of them are minor. For instance, the regiment's climactic assault against Battery Wagner, the Confederate stronghold guarding Charleston harbor, actually took place from south to north, rather than north to south as depicted in the movie.

Many of the inaccuracies are major. Robert Gould Shaw, played in the movie by Matthew Broderick, was not Gov. John Andrew's first choice to command the regiment. When the command was offered to him, he hesitated before deciding to accept. More serious from the standpoint of historical accuracy, the 54th was portrayed in the movie as made up largely of runaway slaves such as John Rawlins (Morgan Freeman) or Pvt. Trip (Denzel Washington in a role for which he won an Academy Award for best supporting actor). In fact, it was a regiment of freedmen, such as Thomas Searles (Andre Braugher), who were recruited not only from Massachusetts, but New York and Pennsylvania as well. Two of Frederick Douglass' sons were among the first to volunteer for the 54th, and Lewis Douglass, the elder son, served from the outset as the regiment's sergeant major.

But historical inaccuracies aside, "Glory" contains a deeper truth. This deeper truth is illustrated by the contrast between the movie's view of slavery and that of a story recounted by the Greek historian Herodotus. At the beginning of Book Four of "The History," Herodotus tells of the return of the nomadic Scythians from their long war against the Medes, during which time the Scythian women had taken up with their slaves. The Scythian warriors now find a race of slaves arrayed against them.

Having been repulsed repeatedly by the slaves, one of the Scythians admonishes his fellows to set aside their weapons and take up horsewhips. "As long as they are used to seeing us with arms, they think that they are our equals and that their fathers are likewise our equals.

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
Loading One moment ...
Project items
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited article

'Gods, Generals' Gets History, but Is It Truth?
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

While we understand printed pages are helpful to our users, this limitation is necessary to help protect our publishers' copyrighted material and prevent its unlawful distribution. We are sorry for any inconvenience.
Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.

Are you sure you want to delete this highlight?