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

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

'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. …

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