Back in 1993, Ronald F Maxwell was commissioned by Turner Television to bring the American Civil War to the small screen. The result was "Gettysburg", a TV movie set around the decisive battle of 1863, when the Northern Unionists sent the Southern Confederates into retreat. Weighing in at 254 minutes, "Gettysburg" was epic in every sense, with a star-studded cast that included Tom Berenger and Martin Sheen.
A decade later, Maxwell returns to the fray with this bloated epic. Conceived as a prequel to the earlier film, it opens at the outbreak of hostilities between North and South, as General Robert E Lee (Robert Duvall) is asked to lead the North's army against the rebellious Southerners.
Since he hails from West Virginia, Lee turns down the offer on a point of conscience and heads south of the Mason-Dixon Line to take up arms against the President's men.
What follows is a historically faithful, but dramatically bankrupt, series of events. The main focus of the film is Southern General Thomas 'Stonewall' Jackson (Stephen Lang), a passionate Christian who believes he is fulfilling his duty to God on the battlefield. Played with messianic fervour - and much facial hair - by Lang, Jackson comes to symbolise Maxwell's vision of the war, and his celebration of the indomitable spirit of the South.
Running at 231 minutes (with a much-needed intermission halfway through), this ponderous production has the cheap and grubby feel of a low-budget TV movie, something that not even the presence of stars such as Duvall (underused) and Jeff Daniels (unconvincing) can disguise.
More troubling than the poverty-stricken aesthetic, though, is Maxwell's willingness to airbrush away the realities of slavery in order to celebrate the South's misguidedly heroic battle for 'freedom'. Swapping politics for crass platitudes, "Gods and Generals" is a monumental folly.