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The New York Times Tries to Squelch a Patriotic Film By: J.P. Zmirak
FrontPageMagazine.com | Wednesday, March 12, 2003

Readers of FrontPage have already learned a bit about media hit-jobs from the harsh attacks leveled against Bruce Willis’ “Tears of the Sun.” I haven’t seen it, so I won’t address that film, but there’s another film subject to similar attacks, for similar reasons, which I’ve seen several times—and you should see, too, before leftist critics hound it out of the multiplexes: Ronald Maxwell’s “Gods & Generals,” the high-budget prequel to his classic “Gettysburg.” I’ve written about this movie before, so I won’t rehearse the plot again. The film is a grand, dramatic, sincere, and exquisitely accurate re-creation of the opening years of America’s Civil War. It clearly depicts the motivations that drove leading figures on both sides, shows the horrors of battle without sickening the viewer, and reproduces the language, manners, and values of 19th century America better than any history book I’ve ever read. Indeed, viewing the film reminds me of work I have done on American history with primary sources—letters, documents, speeches, and old newspaper clips. There’s a reason for this: The writer/director Maxwell based most of the dialogue on actual correspondence and memoirs recorded by the real individuals he portrays: The speeches by General Lee are real; the loving words Lt. Joshua Chamberlain addressed to his wife are the ones she actually read, holding his battle-grimed letter in trembling hands as she prayed for his safe return from the Union Army.

A great writer once said “The past is another country.” Watching “Gods & Generals” is like taking a trip to that country, the “old weird America,” where people read the Bible aloud to each other, sewed patriotic flags by hand, and played classical or folk music on their own instruments at home. Most films about our history feel more like a tourist trip to the German or Italian “villages” at Epcot Center—sanitized, plastic recreations designed to suit our current taste and prejudices, without a hint of ugly truths, safely unchallenging to the visitor. “Gods & Generals” confronts us with the strange, unsettling truth that countries change, that our ancestors thought and spoke quite differently than we do, that they fought and died over questions that our history books dismiss in neat, politically-corrected slogans or vague generalities.

And critics are punishing “Gods & Generals” for its virtues. Just this Sunday, The New York Times (which has called President Bush the “Xanax Cowboy”) devoted half a page to a lazy compilation—drawn from a single Web site by a lazy reporter—of only the negative reviews given of the film. The Times called the picture “a bomb,” even though it has been in the top-ten grossing films since its release—quite an achievement for a gravely serious, 3 hour-plus film that theaters can only exhibit twice a day. The Times piece compared this carefully-documented, profoundly moving film to such ludicrous duds as “Battlefield Earth” and “The Postman,” even as audiences across the country are turning out to see it, and sober critics such as Henry Sheehan, Michael Medved, Jeffrey Lyons, and Leonard Maltin are praising the film for its profundity, complexity, and beauty. None of these reviewers earned a mention in the Times piece, of course.

The film accurately depicts the war as erupting from an upsurge of Southern nationalism, which obscured the moral evil of slavery behind a parade of regional pieties and slogans about a “second war of independence.” For this, the movie is accused of taking the side of the Confederates. Using meticulous research by African-American scholars, “Gods & Generals” truthfully presents the mixed loyalties that many black Americans in the South, slave and free, experienced at the war’s outset—as they were torn between old ties to local whites, and their powerful craving for liberty. For this, the film has been dubbed “patronizing.” In fact, it is the critics who are patronizing these long dead African-Americans, presuming to read their minds and instruct them posthumously in the niceties of racial politics. The film is called sanctimonious and preachy, because it shows the profoundly religious folk of 19th century America at prayer, invoking God’s blessing before a battle, and dying with Bible verses on their lips. Presumably, critics would be happier if the director dispatched his characters as Quentin Tarantino does—gunning them down in a spray of artificial blood, howling streams of profanities. Now that’s how people are supposed to die in a movie….

I could go on, but there isn’t much point. Instead, let me urge you to read a few of the film’s more balanced reviews (click on any of the critics names given above) and decide for yourself: Do you want Hollywood to keep making films that portray American history truthfully, respectfully, and intelligently? Or a wave of manufactured propaganda that shills for the agenda of the Democratic party—as most of Tinseltown likes to do? 

If you want more movies you can take your kids to see, that will provoke them to read American history and think deeply about their nation and its past, collect your family, call your friends, and go see “Gods & Generals” this week—before The New York Times succeeds in censoring it.

Dr. Zmirak is author of Wilhelm Röpke: Swiss Localist, Global Economist. He writes frequently on economics, politics, popular culture and theology.

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