Poor Ted Turner. The outgoing vice chairman of AOL Time Warner says he sunk up to $90 million of his winnowing fortune into his Civil War epic, "Gods and Generals." And what does he have to show for it? A cameo as an idiotically grinning member of the rebel army -- and a big, bloated disaster of a movie you could almost call the "Heaven's Gate" of its generation, were the general public's expectations anywhere near as high as Turner's.
The prequel to the 1993 TNT miniseries "Gettysburg," the movie covers the years 1861 to 1863, beginning with General Robert E. Lee's (Robert Duvall) refusal to aid president Lincoln in quelling the Southern rebellion, and ending with the passing of General Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson (Stephen Lang). If there's a main character in this overstuffed ensemble drama, Jackson is it -- and the representation of him as a deeply religious soul and friend to all living creatures defines the film's mind set. It's a barely disguised love letter to Dixie, with the rebs portrayed as a kind, respectful people victimized by philosophically troubled Yankees who talk like Vaughan Meader's impression of JFK -- or, in the case of Jeff Daniels' Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, show their Northern colors by overenunciating their consonants.
The strongest injections of credibility come from Duvall, whose handful of scenes indicate that he may be incapable of a false moment, no matter how bogus the material. Speaking of false, check out the conspicuously bloodless battlefield sequences; there's more gore in a single tending-to-the-wounded scene than there is in all of the protracted combat that eats up a chunk of the movie's three hours and 40 minutes. And this version was cut down from a mammoth six hours, leaving serious gaps in the narrative and decimating some of the supporting performances. Is there a word for a film that scrapes four hours yet still feels sketchy?
The film's biggest defect though, is its hopelessly dorky dialogue. No character can open his or her mouth without launching into a stilted speech, scripture quote or impromptu poetry recital. At a recent screening, this verbal folderol inspired inappropriate chuckles after about 20 minutes; the one-hour mark was heralded by an anguished cry of "My God, this sucks!" from a fed-up onlooker. Thus began a steady procession toward the exit doors that continued all the way to the bitter end. I guess there was something good on TNT.