"Just as we would not send any of our soldiers to march into other states and tyrannize other people - so will we never allow the armies of others to march into our states and tyrannize our people."
It isn't easy to make a movie without a villain. It is even harder to make a war movie in which there is no villain, in which one side is not seen as good fighting against evil on the other side. People like to see a simple presentation of right against wrong. It appeals to our base nature to draw clear lines and to justify actions along these terms. You cannot motivate an army to fight for evil purposes or to step onto the battlefield to die in order to defend wrong against right. That isn't to say that armies have never fought for wrongful or evil causes, but doing so has never been their motivation for fighting. In one way or another such armies were convinced they were fighting on the right side.
For those that prefer a simplistic version of history or belong to the camp that believes their country is, by definition, always right will find the film Gods and Generals very difficult to swallow as it paints a highly sympathetic view of the southern confederacy in the American Civil War. For those that prefer a clear good versus evil picture it will be difficult as well because the northern union is not painted as a wrongful enemy either. The motivations on both sides are shown clearly from the outset through the remainder of the film and there is no reason to root for either side. At the same time there are characters on either side of the battlefield for which one can feel both sympathy and empathy.
The primary motivation of The North in the American Civil War was preservation of the union. The primary motivation of The South was to defend their right to secede and declare their independence from a federal government that was controlled by the northern states. Striking philosophical differences, similar but more profound than the modern red and blue states, caused a division that drove the country to an armed conflict. Soldiers of the north saw themselves as putting down a rebellion that threatened to destroy the country. Soldiers of the south saw themselves as repelling an invasion of their newly formed country they equated with the original American War of Independence.
Gods and Generals is framed by the early battles of the war, which were won by the Confederacy. The arrogance of the leadership of the Union armies and refusal to adapt from traditional tactics results in losses despite superior numbers. This is historical backdrop for framing the strong beliefs, and religious convictions, on both sides as the movie evolves into being mostly about General Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson.
It is there that the movie becomes somewhat muddled and confused. As it progresses we remain primarily focused on the story of Stonewall Jackson and the other stories become, at times, a distraction from this. It becomes a battle within itself as the movie tries to decide whether it is an war epic about the early years of the American Civil War or a movie about Stonewall Jackson. Other major characters have stories that are told in pieces and parts, and in a way this becomes backstory for the film Gettysburg which this is a prequel to. As with so many prequels it falls into the "this is what happened with those characters before they took center stage in that movie you really liked" syndrome.
There are many powerful and poignant scenes in this epic, which clocks in at over three and a half hours in length, that make it worth watching for those scenes alone. Many of these moments happen during the battle sequences, including the realization by the Georgia Irish Regiment that they are going head to head with the Union Irish Brigade and their chant of respect and support after slaughtering them at the Battle of Fredericksburg. While not entirely accurate historically, it frames the nature of the war pitting brother against brother in a way that hasn't really been shown before.
"Their bravery is worthy of a better cause."
The film does not have an easy or typical conclusion. There is no great victory or neatly wrapped ending, and with the film taking place in the early part of the war and before the turning point of Gettysburg it really doesn't have one at its disposal. This is why the personal story of Stonewall Jackson becomes so prominent. A man revered as a soldier and master strategist who was unfazed even in a hail of bullets becomes human as he develops a relationship with a five year old girl while longing to see his own newborn daughter. Their relationship tells the story of the true cost of war on a level outside of that which we see on the battlefields. One's oasis of joy is never really safe in the face of war. Such things are merely temporary, for an oasis is always surrounded by desert and war is the ultimate desert.