Friday, February 25, 2011

Three Great Historical Movies You Should See: John Adams, Gods & Generals, and Gettysburg

~I wrote this posting nearly three years ago, but it's worth repeating (with some additions and modifications)~

If you are looking to immerse yourself into another era - Rev War or Civil War - any of these three films should do the trick.
Are they absolutely perfect in depicting history? Of course not. But, they are far ahead of so many others.
Are there other great historical movies beyond these three? Absolutely! It's just that John Adams, Gods & Generals, and Gettysburg happen to be my three favorites. One day I may write about a few other great historical flicks, such as Last of the Mohicans, The Crossing, The Conspirator, and even the Warner Brothers mini-series of Little House on the Prairie (very well done and close to Ingalls-Wilder's books, believe it or not!).
We still have some cold and snowy winter days and nights ahead of us, I'm sure. Here are a couple of movies that just might warm your historical want.

Probably my most favorite of all historical movies - one that I continuously re-watch again and again on DVD - is the HBO presentation of the adult life of John Adams, our 2nd president.
This is, perhaps, the finest film I have ever seen about the birth of our great nation.
Following - in great detail - the life of Mr. Adams from his career as a lawyer through his death, my wife and I were totally engulfed in this extremely dramatic story. I mean, if you're looking for a battle, this is not the one to watch. It is pretty much all drama, and that is what pulls the viewer in. And with the inclusion of the (mostly) period-style language, one feels almost as if they were in the company of our nation's Founding Fathers themselves. Yes, I would have liked to have seen a couple of battle scenes, but showing the wounded after the battle was just as moving.
Now, many arm chair historian reviewers have written about how the characters are too stiff.
You have to watch a movie like this not with a 21st century mindset but with the realization that people didn't always socially act the way they do today. I cannot say this enough. It amazes me how so few people understand (or maybe accept) this.
By the way, the sets (computerized and otherwise) in this John Adams series were so accurate - the details were amazing: true candle lit rooms, pulling the curtain past the door to help keep the cold out, soot and burn marks from candles in the wall sconces, the style of the hat racks, framed silhouette pictures, the furniture and the rooms of the houses themselves, the "extra's" in the streets (vendors, animals roaming about, etc., showing life going on all around)...I could go on and on - all as accurate as I have seen in any movie. It reminded me of the photos of the homes from Colonial Williamsburg, and even the few colonial era homes I visited personally at Greenfield Village in Dearborn, Michigan. In fact, much of the outdoor scenes were actually filmed in Colonial Williamsburg. And, as far as I could tell, for I am no colonial era scholar, the clothing was perfect as well. Not a detail was missed. It seems as much went into the sets and clothing as into the acting and dialog. How refreshing.

Here is a summary of each "chapter" of the HBO series (as is written in Wikipedia):

Part I: Join or Die

The first episode opens with a cold winter in Boston on the night of the Boston Massacre. It portrays John Adams arriving at the scene following the gunshots from British soldiers firing upon a mob of Boston citizens. Adams, a respected lawyer in his mid-30s known for his belief in law and justice, is therefore summoned by the accused Redcoats. Their commander, Captain Thomas Preston asks him to defend them in court. Reluctant at first, he agrees despite knowing this will antagonize his neighbors and friends. Adams is depicted to have taken the case because he believed everyone deserves a fair trial and he wanted to uphold the standard of justice. Adams' cousin Samuel Adams is one of the main colonists opposed to the actions of the British government. He is one of the executive members of the Sons of Liberty, an anti-British group of agitators. Adams is depicted as a studious man doing his best to defend his clients. The show also illustrates Adams' appreciation and respect for his wife, Abigail. In one scene, Adams is shown having his wife proofread his research as he takes her suggestions. After many sessions of court, the jury returns verdicts of not guilty of murder for each defendant.. The episode also illustrates the growing tensions over the Coercive Acts ("Intolerable Acts"), and Adams' election to the First Continental Congress.

Part II: Independence

The second episode covers the disputes among the members of the Second Continental Congress towards declaring independence from Great Britain as well as the final drafting of the Declaration of Independence. At the continental congresses he is depicted as the lead advocate for independence. He is in the vanguard in establishing that there is no other option than to break off and declare independence. He is also instrumental in the selection of then-Colonel George Washington as the new head of the Continental Army.
 However, in his zeal for immediate action, he manages to alienate many of the other founding fathers, going so far as to insult a peace-loving Quaker member of the Continental Congress, implying that the man suffers from a religiously based moral cowardice, making him a "snake on his belly". Later, Benjamin Franklin quietly chastens Adams, saying, "It is perfectly acceptable to insult a man in private and he may even thank you for it afterwards but when you do so publicly, it tends to make them think you are serious." This points out Adams' primary flaw: his bluntness and lack of gentility toward his political opponents, one that would make him many enemies and which would eventually plague his political career. It would also, eventually, contribute to historians' disregard for his many achievements.


Part III: Don't Tread on Me

In Episode 3, Adams travels to Europe during the war seeking alliances with foreign nations, during which the ship transporting him battles a British frigate. It first shows his embassy with Benjamin Franklin in the court of Louis XVI of France. The old French nobility—at this stage in history in the last decade before the French Revolution consumes them—are portrayed as effete and decadent. They meet cheerfully with Franklin, seeing him as a romantic figure, little noting the democratic infection he brings with him. Adams, on the other hand, is a plain spoken and faithful man (particularly to his wife), who finds himself out of his depth surrounded by the entertainment- and sex-driven degeneracy which masks a highly sophisticated and subtle culture among the French elite. Adams finds himself at sharp odds with his friend Benjamin Franklin, who has adapted himself to French degeneracy, seeking to obtain by seduction what Adams would gain through histrionics. Franklin sharply rebukes Adams for his lack of diplomatic acumen, calling Adams's approach a "direct insult followed by a petulant whine." Franklin ultimately has Adams removed from any position of diplomatic authority in Paris. (It should be noted that Franklin's approach is ultimately successful and results in the conclusive Franco-American victory at Yorktown.)
Adams, dismayed but learning from his mistakes, then travels to the Dutch Republic to obtain monetary support for the Revolution. Though the Dutch agreed with the American cause, they do not at first consider the new union a reliable and trustworthy client. At last, there is success at Yorktown, as the revolution is won and the Dutch financiers come through with the first loan to the American government. Adams ends his time in the Netherlands in a state of progressive illness.

Part IV: Reunion

The fourth episode shows John Adams being notified of the end of the Revolutionary War and the defeat of the British. He is then sent to Paris to negotiate the Treaty of Paris in 1783. While overseas, he spends time with Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson and Abigail visits him. Franklin informs John Adams that he was appointed as the first United States Ambassador to the United Kingdom and thus has to relocate to the British Court of St. James's. John Adams is poorly received by the British during this time—he is the representative for a recently hostile power, and represents in his person what many British at the time regarded as a disastrous end to its early Empire. He meets with his former sovereign, King George III, and while the meeting is not a disaster, he is excoriated in British newspapers. In 1789, he returns to Massachusetts for the first Presidential Election and he and Abigail are reunited with their children, now grown. George Washington is elected the first President of the United States and John Adams as the first Vice President.

Part V: Unite or Die

The fifth episode begins with John Adams presiding over the Senate and the debate over what to call the new President. It depicts Adams as frustrated in this role: His opinions are ignored and he has no actual power, except in the case of a tied vote. He's excluded from George Washington's inner circle of cabinet members, and his relationships with Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton are strained. Even Washington himself gently rebukes him for his efforts to "royalize" the office of the Presidency. A key event shown is the struggle to enact the Jay Treaty with Britain, which Adams himself must ratify before a deadlocked Senate (although historically his vote was not required). The episode concludes with his inauguration as the second president—and his subsequent arrival in a plundered executive mansion.


Part VI: Unnecessary War

The sixth episode covers Adams's term as president and the rift between the Hamilton-led Federalists and Jefferson-led Republicans. Adams's neutrality pleases neither side and often angers both. His shaky relationship with his vice president, Thomas Jefferson, is intensified after taking defensive actions against the French because of failed diplomatic attempts and the signing of the Alien and Sedition Acts. However, Adams also alienates himself from the anti-French Alexander Hamilton after taking all actions possible to prevent a war with France. Adams disowns his son Charles, who soon dies as an alcoholic vagrant. Late in his Presidency, Adams sees success with his campaign of preventing a war with France, but his success is clouded after losing the presidential election of 1800. After receiving so much bad publicity while in office, Adams lost the election against his Vice-President, Thomas Jefferson, and runner-up Aaron Burr (both from the same party). This election is now known as the Revolution of 1800. Adams leaves the Presidential Palace (now known as The White House), retiring to his personal life in Massachusetts, in March 1801.

Part VII: Peacefield

The final episode covers Adams's retirement years. His home life is full of pain and sorrow as his daughter, Nabby, dies of breast cancer and Abigail succumbs to typhoid fever. Adams does live to see the election of his son, John Quincy, as president, but is too ill to attend the inauguration. Adams and Jefferson are reconciled through correspondence in their last years, and both die mere hours apart on the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence (4th July); Jefferson was 83, Adams was 90.

Never has a movie so taken me into the past as John Adams has.
Absolutely phenomenal.

 ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

And now, onto another great historical flick that takes me back in time - - - - - -
Gods and Generals is another film that I consider to be of my all-time favorite movies.
Yes, Gods and Generals.
And, believe it or not, it's the movie that most re-enactors seem to despise.
But not me. Seriously.
Why do re-enactors dislike this movie so much? The main two reasons I have been given (besides "It sucks!") is it's too dramatic, and/or it's too pro-Confederate.
The inaccuracy of the women's clothing is a close third.
OK, let's discuss the 'too dramatic' reason here. Is it dramatic? Absolutely. There is much more drama going on in Gods and Generals than in a movie such as Gettysburg by far. But, it's meant to show the beginnings of the Civil War in a dramatic way. Now, there are battles galore - and well done battles, most seem to agree. But, it also gives the viewer the opportunity to see a bit of what life was like on the homefront during the early part of the war. We get to meet the wives of General Jackson and Colonel Chamberlain. We get to see how the war affected a well-to-do southern family. We get to see a Christmas celebration. We get to see a bit more interaction between the soldiers.
And I like that.
But, however, many who I have spoken with about this movie dislike it specifically because it is too dramatic. Some say the actors are over-acting (ok, I'll give you the southern woman who sends her sons off to fight - she does over-do it a bit). Some say that it was too religious. Um...religion played a major role in not only General Jackson's life, but also in the lives of the average person. Much more than today. It seems that those living in the 21st century cannot seem to fathom this. But do your research - real research (reading journals and diaries of the time) - and you will find this to be true.
Like John Adams, some say the actors were too stiff in their parts, that people didn't act or speak in the way they are portrayed in this movie.
Sorry, but once again I've read enough social history of the time that I will disagree. The majority of the script in this movie centers around well-schooled generals - the upper class. The upper class folks did have a different manner of speech in comparison to the average farmer or lower class wage earner.
But, to each his own, I guess. To me, all of the above mentioned is what makes this such a good movie.
Another thing that I really liked about Gods and Generals is the attention to detail in the sets. They did a fine job recreating the world of the early 1860's - the houses, furniture,'s like taking a step back in time. Of course, filming some scenes in Harpers Ferry, Maryland helps...a lot!

Harper's Ferry

I will say, however, that I agree that there is a strong southern feel to the film. I would have liked to have seen a bit more perspective from the north - it would have been nice to see a young man leaving his Michigan (or Ohio, etc.) home, a bit nervous and, dare I say, a bit scared. That would have added greatly for us Yankees.
The women's clothing? Yeah...they could've done better. Why didn't they research the period clothing more? I feel it's probably because it was war film makers who made the movie and, like many of the more senior reenactors, they felt the civilians were more background...eye candy...rather than place any real importance on them. Remember, this was filmed in 2003 and period movies have improved since then.
But, aside from this, Gods and Generals is still one of my greatest movie watching pleasures, and I love to sit back for six hours and immerse myself into the early 1860's via modern technology. Almost - but not quite - as good as being at a re-enactment.

Best of all is that they finally released the director's cut of Gods & Generals - and Gettysburg! - on Blue Ray and DVD.  They also put the two movies together in a collectible box set, as you can see by the photo at left.

The following is my review of this awesome collection:
When I saw that Warner Bros. was finally going to release Gods & Generals and Gettysburg in the director's cut format I was elated beyond belief. These two movies are at the top of my list of Civil War movies. Yes, I know about some of the inaccuracies - it's unfortunate that most (if not all) historical movies have their faults - but I still really love these two movies up and beyond all others of their genre.
Being as anxious as I was, I did not want to wait until July for the box set and ended up purchasing both as individuals upon their release in May. Now, before I get into the actual reviews of the movies themselves I would like to review the packaging. The individual release packaging was one of the best I have seen for any movie. Not only does one receive the extended director's cut of both movies but a full booklet with each set! These booklets include notes from Ron Maxwell himself, information about the battles, the actors and the historical figures they portray, and loads of photos. There is also plenty of Civil War facts and figures including a time line.
I was like a kid at Christmas...better yet, these sets were released two days after my birthday - what a gift!

Let's jump up a couple of months and I'm at the local department store and I see the Box Set of both movies. By purchasing this set I would also receive (besides the movies themselves) a commemorative bronze Lincoln coin, a 40 page photo booklet of Civil War artifacts and correspondence, a 32 page booklet from Time magazine's new book on the Civil War, and even a two-sided historical map. Okay, being the Gettysburg and Gods & Generals fan that I am. I went home and found it even cheaper on Amazon, so I shelled out the bucks (a good discount, I might add, so re-buying the movies wasn't too terribly wasteful) for the set. I figured I can give the extra movies away as a gift.
I have to admit I was slightly disappointed. Not necessarily in the items that came with the box set itself, but with the disc packaging: the awesome booklets that were in my May releases were nowhere to be found. Instead, the packagings of both movies were in simple average Blu Ray plastic boxes. I would have thought, without question, that the very same packaging from May would have been included in this collector's box set. I must say I am now glad I purchased the movies individually instead of only waiting for the box. To me, as a collector, it was well worth the money (especially at the discounted pricing). But, because of WB chinsing on the packaging for the box, I gave this set 4 instead of 5 stars.
So, now I am going to give away the box set discs and just slide in the booklet versions (I had to remove the cardboard insert from the box - no big deal) and I will have the ultimate Gods & Generals and Gettysburg Box Set!
Now for the movies:
Gods and Generals does a very good job at depicting the earlier battles of the Civil War. Although it's always leaned heavily toward the southern point of view in its original form, this new director's cut has been divided into chapters and totally re-edited to fit in the extra hours worth of scenes, some of which include involving President Lincoln, John Wilkes Booth, more of the Chamberlains, and, especially for fans of battles, Antietam. It now gives a more balanced perspective of North and South. Because the entire movie has been re-edited in this way I don't believe I could watch the original theatrical release again. Yes, all the scenes are there - intact - but the entire movie is so much less choppy and so much more cohesive (it would have been nice to show the picnicking civilians at Manassas - oh well...).
A couple of my favorite parts of the newly restored scenes includes the showing of camp life in a union camp, including teaching the new recruits the way to load and fire a gun, and the meeting of Joshua and Fannie Chamberlain with actor Booth.
Pay close attention to the other actor who is with Booth toward the end of the movie...
Gods & Generals has much more drama than most battle-oriented films, but that just gives the viewer a much more well-rounded feeling of life during the early 1860's.

Except for a few exceptions (why are there always exceptions?) Gettysburg is another MOSTLY historically correct film. I feel the biggest reason for this is due to the fact that re-enactors have played such a prominent role in the making of both of these films, making sure that they're as historically correct as the producers would allow, right down to the buttons on the uniforms worn by the fighting men (yes, yes, I KNOW about the facial hair, but those aren't re-enactors! Blame the costume/make up people on that!). And the battle scenes are as realistic as can possibly be done. When you watch the men during Pickett's charge and see the anguished look on the general's face during the aftermath, one gets the feeling of actually witnessing the carnage that took place.
And the Little Round Top scene will get your heart beating just as it must have beat in the men who were there. Truly gripping.
My son 'took a hit' on Little Round Top on Gettysburg. This was not done during a reenactment, but while we were on vacation there. You should have seen and heard the cameras clicking from tourists when he did this!
Gettysburg is another very long but engulfing movie filled with battles and tactics, which truly brings the viewer into the horrific time of early July 1863.
Both this one and Gods & Generals help to bring the people of the Civil War alive - the men on both sides who fought in this war are no longer just old sepia-toned pictures in a history book, or silly 1950's b-movie style characters, but real men who fought and died horrible deaths. I wish more historical epics would use re-enactors in the movie making process (The Conspirator did!). They truly help bring the past to life.

Jeff Shaara, author of the original book on which Gods & Generals is based, stated in an interview (from the Gods and Generals magazine), "Hollywood has a dismal record of portraying history. Historical films have one purpose - to make money - and it seems they have two means of realizing that. One, tell a story the studio thinks the audience wants to see, and thus tilt the story to whatever political correctness is in vogue. The second purpose is to allow one particular big time actor the chance to do 'cool things' on the screen. Though many of these films are entertaining, the one thing missing is any responsibility to give the audience the truth about the event being portrayed."
It's unfortunate that too many people take Hollywood historical movies as fact and the majority of movie watchers usually do not get a good part of the truth. Gods & Generals and Gettysburg are different - they do a better job than most at accuracy. Do not let the length scare you off. From beginning to end, I was held to my seat, greatly anticipating the next scene of both films.
I highly recommend purchasing both movies - whether through the box set or individually - and spending a weekend (and it will take an entire weekend!) in the early 1860's.

By the way, I would absolutely love to see a movie showing what the civilians of the town of Gettysburg had to endure during that summer - and even into November for Lincoln's visit - of 1863. Many folks do not realize what they went through during (and for months after) the battle. Every bit as exciting as the battle itself!
One more thing, if you get a chance, please do yourself a favor and
(A) take a trip to Gettysburg to see for yourself the awesome battlefields and still-intact town. And it's within an hour from Antietam, an hour and a half from Harper's Ferry, and just a few hours from most other east coast battle fields. It would be a vacation steeped in history.
(B) Go to a Civil re-enactment and see for yourself the excitement of battle.
Thank you to the powers that be for finally giving us the full versions of these two movies. It's been a long time coming.


I hope you enjoyed my perspective on these historical movies about two major events in America's past. I hope to write more on a few of the other movies depicting another time.
Stay tuned...

~Note from 2015~
Click HERE to see my posting on American History from the Movies, featuring reviews on over a dozen movies about our nation's history.



Stephanie Ann said...

I have a theory that people don't like Gods and Generals subliminally because of the soundtrack. While I love the soundtrack, the "heroic" and "triumphant" style songs like the ones from Gettysburg are absent leaving the movie feeling a little over-sentimental. it's the only reason I can think of! :D

Mary said...

I completely agree with you about both movies, especially the John Adams miniseries. I love reading about John and Abigail, and the book "John Adams" was such an insight into their life (if you really like them read "The First Family"). And the miniseries is possibly one of the most perfect portrayals of history I have ever seen. And some of my friends were in it! So great choices.

Unknown said...

My issue with GaG... women's clothing. I've no idea whatsoever if the men's things were closer to accurate, but the women's costuming and hair?? GaG is an appropriate acronym. For a movie that touted its historical accuracy, they ignored half the population entirely, and that's why I never made it to the second half of the film.

Loved the first 2/3rd of John Adams. I had absolutely no gripes with the clothing, so it didn't distract me from the plot. :)

Historical Ken said...

David - I agree with you on the women's clothing (as well as their bonnets), which is why I didn't include that in my 'pluses.'
It's unfortunate that attention paid to the clothing isn't as high on the priority lists in most 'historical' movies as it should be.
I still really like the movie, though.

Historical Ken said...

Too bad movies do not pay attention to detail as was done in the John Adam's movie.

Robin's Egg Bleu said...

I'm with David on the GaG issue. The women looked like they were pulled out of a costuming grab bag and I too, never made it through the film for the same reason.

But the Adams series, perfection.

WannabeSoldier said...

If anything, General Jackson was even *more* of an evangelical religious nutjob than the movie portrayed. :) I also got tired of the endless melodramatic monologues straight out of Greek mythology before the big battles. Being a man, I skip ahead to the battle scenes.

But there were a few moments that really show good directing which make the movie worth it. the Christmas day scene, with the anonymous Johnny Reb and the Billy Yank meeting silently in No Man's Land to exchange a sip of coffee and a puff on a 'tobacky" pipe was quite good, if for no other reasons than a) stuff like this really happened between the picket lines, and b) There was no unnecessary dialogue in the scene to spoil the moment.

It also was a bit emotionally gripping to see the early part of the movie follow the young cadets at VMI through their classroom studies to lying about dismembered and bloody in the aftermath of 1st Manassas/Bull Run. And also when the mighty Stonewall Jackson shows a bit of his humanity by shedding real tears for his five year old friend who succumbed to scarlet fever and all his beloved men who died in battle.

"I never saw Jackson cry before...not for the boys, not for the cadets at VMI, not for anyone..."

"...No sir, I think he's cryin' for them all."

We tend to forget that officers, particularly Generals are mortals too, and are just as human and no more invincible than the hapless men they order to go off and fight and die for them.

Emily Kate said...

I agree on all three! Gods and Generals is my all-time favorite movie (I can quote it verbatim from beginning to end) and the costuming doesn't bother me a bit, although in a lesser movie it would. As for the poetry and the grand speeches, I love them too. So they didn't hit every aspect of the early years of the war--that would be impossible in a single film. What they did was to select events and figures to give a general picture (which ended up being Southern), and I feel they did it well. And I think the soundtrack is breathtaking! It makes me sad that so few people enjoy this film, and I desperately wish they'd have made The Last Full Measure. Okay, I'll end my "I love G&G" ramble.

Re: The civilians of Gettysburg: Definitely! I read a really good book on them last year--The Colors of Courage by Margaret Creighton--which I'd highly recommend if you haven't read it already.