"It is well that war is so terrible, or we should grow too fond of it," says Confederate leader Robert E. Lee in "Gods and Generals," the new Civil War movie.
This is a strange remark. On its face, it appears to suggest that sending men into battle is lots of fun, so military officers would do it all the time if not for collateral damages like agony and death. Whatever the general meant, it's an observation worth pondering in light of warfare's vast role in human affairs.
"Gods and Generals" doesn't put much stock in thinking about war, though. It's more interested in highlighting the spectacle of battle and celebrating the men who fought America's bloodiest conflict.
As the title hints, it places "small-g" gods and Civil War generals on about the same moral plane - beings that have their flaws, but stand so far above us ordinary mortals that we can't go wrong by indiscriminately worshiping them.
At times, the distinction between them gets lost altogether, as when we view the death of Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson from a heavenly camera angle, soothed by sentimental lighting and angelic voices. Forget the history books portraying Jackson as an energetic, even enthusiastic killer. Gods and generals are special.
This is the second installment in Ronald F. Maxwell's projected Civil War trilogy, and at 225 minutes long, it feels like a trilogy in itself. That wouldn't be a problem if it had energy and imagination, but those qualities are missing, as is any sense of historical or philosophical context.
Nor does the acting help. Robert Duvall gets star billing, but he's hardly in the film, and when he does show up, he sounds as if he's reading from cue cards. Jeff Daniels is equally bad. The movie's technical quality is inexcusably lax. And how could such a lengthy tale of the American South find time for only two black characters, both grotesquely one-dimensional stereotypes?
Hollywood has produced many dubious depictions of the Civil War, starting with "The Birth of a Nation" in 1915, and this stands with the sorriest of the lot.
• Rated PG-13; contains violence.