by Chris Mackowski
The opening of Gods and Generals had all the hype and excitement for my daughter Steph that the Super Bowl creates. This was The Big Event. Stonewall Jackson on screen, larger than life—as if he weren’t that big already.
So on February 21, 2003, we bustle off to the movie theatre in Olean, New York. She makes us leave for the theatre early, convinced that the line will be out the door the way it was for Star Wars. There might even be reenactors dressed in uniform, she says.
I’m not so sure—early reviews I’ve seen have not been kind to the film. Entertainment Weekly, the movie rating gospel I follow, gave the film an abysmally low D+. Another film critic, Richard Roper, said the movie dragged so badly he felt as if he were watching the Civil War in real time.
But to my mild surprise, the show draws a pretty good crowd. I suspect, like Steph and me, other Civil War enthusiasts have come out for the premiere. I see one of my former high school teachers, Bob Longnecker, as avid a Civil War aficionado as I’ve ever met. I also see Roger Alexis, another local Civil War buff, sitting a couple rows behind us across the aisle. Overall, the audience is decidedly male and older—the typical Civil War buff demographic.
The lights go down. Steph is going to pop like a kernel of corn.
We get about five minutes into the movie before Steph’s commentary starts. It coincides with a shift in scene from Washington, D.C., to VMI and an exterior shot of the barracks. The camera tilts up to show a huge, multi-pane window, then cuts to an interior shot of Stonewall in his classroom.
“That was not the right window,” Steph whispers to me. “His classroom was over more. At the end of the building.”
“That’s right,” I affirm, figuring that’ll be the end of it.
“What’s that on the chalkboard? Is that…‘physics?’” she asks. “Physics has math in it, doesn’t it? Math: my ancient enemy.”
Stonewall expresses his disappointment with the class’s performance and says he’ll have to repeat the day’s lesson tomorrow, word for word.
“That sounds like something he’d do, doesn’t it?” Steph asks. “He used to do that.”
And so it goes for the rest of the movie. The commentary dies down during non-Stonewall parts, but she has plenty of Stonewall commentary to make up for it:
During an exterior shot of the Jackson House, VMI can be seen in the background at the end of Washington Street. “You can’t see VMI from there,” Steph says.
During an interior shot at the Jackson House: “His parlor wasn’t in that direction off the front hall. It’s the other way.”
After Stonewall’s wounding, when he’s being examined in the hospital tent, with the sound of thunder rumbling in the background and rain pattering on the canvas: “It was a clear full moon that night. Maybe they’re just trying to do something to explain why he had the raincoat on.”
When Stonewall gets moved to Guinea Station, Steph practically jumps from her seat. “That’s not the room. That’s not even close.” She pauses, filled with simmering annoyance. “There’s so much wrong with that.” She does more simmering as Mary Anna walks to her husband’s bedside, then says, “That’s not even the right kind of blanket design.”
Her annoyance soon gets washed away by tears, though. Stonewall’s death makes her cry. (I get choked up, too.)
In the final scene, as Stonewall’s coffin is brought back to VMI for display, she’s amazed the movie is over. “That’s how it ends?” she asks.
“There’s Gettysburg,” I tell her. “That’s the next part.”
“I liked this Robert E. Lee better than the one in Gettysburg,” she tells me. “This guy looked so much like him. He even had that crazy hair thing—that cowlick-looking thing—going on the side of his head. He was so good, though.”
But her highest praise she saves for Stephen Lang’s Stonewall Jackson. “It’s like he was Stonewall Jackson,” Steph said. “I wish I could meet him. I loved him.”
As we walk to the car, Steph declares the movie her “favorite ever” and already wants to know when the DVD is supposed to come out. “We have to get it,” she tells me. “We have to. That was so good.”
“You should read the book,” I suggest.
And so she does.
* * *
Published in 1996, Gods and Generals is the work of Jeff Shaara, son of the late novelist Michael Shaara. The elder Shaara won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1975 for his novel The Killer Angels, based on the battle of Gettysburg.
“When we first went to Gettysburg, it was 1964,” Jeff Shaara explains to me in a phone interview. “I was twelve years old, and we had gone to the New York World’s Fair and took a side trip mainly for me because my father knew I had an interest in the subject. We just went there as tourists, really, having no idea what we were going to find. My father just knew it would probably be something good for me to see.
“We did the first stop most people do, which is the tourist shops, and I got my blue hat and rubber sword and that kind of stuff. But then something happened to my father, walking that ground, that led to everything that has followed.
“The thing people don’t realize about my father, and about The Killer Angels and how that came to be—really what started all of this for all of us—wasn’t especially that we were into history so much. I never studied history in school. My father was not an historian. It had very little to do with that. My father was, first and foremost, a storyteller. And when he walked the ground at Gettysburg, what he saw and what he realized: ‘This is a good story.’ He knew a good story when he saw one.”
Shaara says it was by happy accident that he went along for the ride. It wasn’t until high school, when he went back to Gettysburg to help his father with research, that he better appreciated what the battlefield meant. “When I was twelve, we have 8 millimeter film of me climbing all over cannon, which is what twelve-year-olds-do,” Shaara says. “But as an older teen, I began to ‘get it’ a little bit more. When you get older, you get a little better perspective on what happened here historically, what the ground means.
“And then when my father began to tell the stories, that’s what really drove it home—of course, not just to me, but he drove it home to a huge audience, to millions of people.”
After all, says Shaara, history is one big story, and when told well, it’s captivating. “It’s not about studying all the stuff your daughter will yet confront in school, which is the way they teach history: names, dates, places. Memorize them to pass a test. That’s no-one’s idea of enjoying history,” says Shaara. “I can’t tell you how many people I’ve met who said, ‘Y’know, I hated history in school. When I left high school or college, the last thing I ever wanted to do was pick up that history textbook again. Then somebody handed me a copy of The Killer Angels or Gods and Generals, or whatever. Now I’m taking my kids to Gettysburg.’”
Shaara admits he gets “a fair amount” of flak from academic historians who take issue with his fiction and its “interpretive history,” as they call it.
“I suspect one reason is that I sell books and they don’t. I’ve heard that point blank,” Shaara says. “I don’t have a Ph.D. in history. I haven’t spent my life researching one particular character. I don’t think that way, so I get grief from some purists—and I say some. There are others, like Jim McPherson, who are very complimentary of what I do and acknowledge that I’m bringing a much larger audience to a subject that history books can’t capture, and that’s a real nice thing to hear, so there are really two schools to that.”
In that regard, Shaara’s books act as springboards readers use to jump into other history books. “Generally, though, what’s going to appeal to them is not the event, it’s the characters,” he says. “One of the things I’ve heard a lot of is, for example, ‘My God, I didn’t really know the story of Benedict Arnold, so I went out and bought a biography of Benedict Arnold.’ It tends to send people from my books to the characters, not to the story of the battle of X—which makes sense. That’s perfectly logical because that’s what I’m dwelling on, the characters.”
Sometimes readers will follow up a Shaara book with a biography just to try and “catch him.”
“They want to see if I’ve played games, if I’ve played fast and loose with the history or revisionism or whatever,” Shaara says. “And I’m very gratified when they write me and say ‘Gee, you got it right.’ Well, that’s sort of the idea.”
* * *
One of the most important lessons Shaara learned from his father was to walk the ground.
“And it doesn’t matter what kind of ground we’re talking about: battlefields, the man’s home, the cemetery—every one of those experiences has had a profound effect on me,” Shaara says. “I interpret that as being part of what I learned from my father. It adds so much authenticity to the telling of the story if you’ve seen the place. It’s awfully hard for me to describe a battlefield and a charge up a hill if I haven’t seen the hill, if I haven’t walked it myself.”
Even the smallest experiences add to the story. Take, for example, the small landing on the staircase at the Stonewall Jackson House. “I wrote a scene in Gods and Generals that takes place at that spot. I’ve seen it; I’ve walked it; I know what the steps sound like. That is so important to the telling of the story,” Shaara says. “All of those little things contribute to telling the story.
“Beyond that, it’s research, when you get down to the real nitty-gritty, the reading,” he continues. “Forget about modern biography, modern history. I stay away from that stuff. With all due respect to modern historians, I don’t need them telling me who a character is, what their interpretation is, because it is interpretation. Historians will argue that with you and say, ‘No, what we do is bring you the facts.’ No they don’t; they bring you their interpretation of the facts. Every generation has its own take on its history.”
To get around those interpretations, Shaara goes back to original source material whenever possible. “Anna Jackson’s book, for example—to me, it’s magnificent,” Shaara says. “It was so insightful to the character. And the other thing to think about, with a woman, writing a book like this in the nineteenth century: you have to read between the lines a little bit because there are some things you just don’t say.
“Particularly the episode at the Chandler plantation when Jackson dies, and Anna talks about having this little monologue with God in her mind, and she is unhappy. And if you really read what she says, and what she would never put on paper, is that she was furious with God.
“Well, that’s not the kind of thing you wrote. You don’t put that on paper in the nineteenth century—but it’s perfectly understandable: ‘Why? Why did this happen? Why did you take him from us? From me?’ She’s not thinking of the macro history of the time, she’s thinking ‘my family—me and my daughter.’”
That kind of information is essential to Shaara’s stories, he says, because his stories are “not blood and guts, they’re not just guys charging across battlefields.” Instead, he says, the story has to be the family and where these characters came from. “So that kind of material, to me, is gold. I rely on that,” Shaara says. “That was a lesson for me, a learning experience for me, that I’ve carried through every book I’ve done.”
* * *
Jeff Shaara fell into his father’s authorial footsteps almost by accident, and it didn’t happen until after his father’s death in 1988. Five years later, The Killer Angels was adapted into the film Gettysburg—nineteen years after the book was first published.
“My father had no idea the size of the audience that was waiting out there for his story,” Jeff explains. “He never had any contact with that kind of a mass audience. It was the movie that brought people to the book. The book became a number-one bestseller in 1993 when the film came out. I don’t know that that’s ever happened before.”
The elder Shaara never had any intentions of continuing the story he began in The Killer Angels, but other people had other ideas—namely, Gettysburg director Ron Maxwell.
“I’d gotten to know Ron during the filming,” Jeff says, “and he said ‘Ted Turner wants to make more movies. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to continue this story?’ I’d never written anything before, but the subject intrigued me.
“So I started researching the prequel first, which became Gods and Generals, and I fully intended to follow my father’s characters. Of course that meant Chamberlain and Lee. It made sense to go from one book right into the other. But the more I got into the subject, this other character, Jackson, began to emerge, and I found my own story. If my father knew a good story when he saw one by walking the ground at Gettysburg, I knew one when I began to read and learn much more about Stonewall.
“The first time I read about Stonewall Jackson, it was a fascinating story. Even not knowing the history or all the nuances of that, when a man gets killed by his own people, that’s an interesting story, whatever the setting is. I don’t care how old you are. That really drew me to that character.”
But on a 1994 trip to the Jackson Shrine, Shaara had his true Stonewall epiphany.
“I was researching Gods and Generals, driving from Richmond to Fredericksburg on I-95, and I passed the sign on the side of the road. I had never heard of the Jackson Shrine and thought it sounded like a strange thing. I didn’t know what it was,” he says. “So, I turned off and went my winding way down the road that leads all the way to Guinea Station.
“And there was nobody there but the historian. No tourists at all, just him. He was very nice to me, of course. He knew my father’s work, and he was very accommodating. He told me the story of what happened there, and then he just sort of backed away and left me alone, standing in the entranceway of that room where Jackson died with the original bed covering and the original clock.
“That changed my life.
“In fact, I went from Fredericksburg, directly across to the Valley, to Lexington—and I had not intended to do that,” Shaara says. “I had to go to the grave, and to the home, and to VMI. It was a profound experience for me going through all that the first time.”
As a postscript, Shaara tells of a return trip to Guiney Station. “Interestingly, two years later, I’m back at the Jackson Shrine and there’s a mob of people, which is kind of nice,” he says. “I’m kind of pleased with that because it means there’s a little attention being paid to this man.”
* * *
Of all the characters Shaara has explored in his novels, Stonewall stands out for the author as one of the most captivating. “Jackson, for some reason maybe I can’t even identify—maybe I shouldn’t even identify—for some reason he just really got to me,” Shaara says.
“When I got into this character, I didn’t know. I mean, I didn’t know,” he admits. “I had no idea. Who was this guy? What is he like? Is he a cartoon, which is what he is often presented like? And I came to realize this man was a combination of warrior—of raw, unadulterated, Old Testament warrior—and a guy who weeps because a five-year-old girl he just met dies of scarlet fever. That’s a human being—a three-dimensional character! And it’s a story people don’t know. And that gets me excited.”
Other historical characters have drawn him for similar reasons: Benjamin Franklin, Ulysses Grant, Black Jack Pershing. “I like exploding myths,” Shaara explains. “That’s what draws me to all of these characters. I like getting away from the junk that they teach so much, particularly in high school, out of textbooks that give short shrift to these people.”
The story he loves about Jackson—“And to some people, this is horrible,” Shaara says, “but it’s accurate”—concerns an incident at the battle of Second Manassas that could almost be Hollywood cliché. Union soldiers charge up, and they’re getting shot to pieces, and one of their officers is trying to rally them. The Confederates debate whether to spare him because of his bravery. “Jackson pretty much says, ‘Kill him. The brave ones will come back,’” Shaara says. “And he essentially goes on to say, ‘Those guys who ran away? You don’t have to worry about them. It’s that brave one that we have to worry about.’ That’s a true story. I love that because that’s war. That’s not Hollywood; that’s the reality.
“And when you have a character who so personifies what war is, and at the same time you realize all he wants to do is go home to his wife and kid—I think there’s a universal appeal to that character.”
Shaara is also fascinated by Jackson’s religious faith. “I was not raised in a home with a particular religious theme, and I consider that an enormous advantage because twenty-first century religion is different from nineteenth century religion,” Shaara says. “If I had grown up a Baptist, or grown up a Presbyterian, then today, I would not be able to examine Jackson’s religiosity without having a bias, without having a modern ‘my take’ on the character. I think, therefore I can be honest about it. I can look at his sense of religion and the power it had for him—which is hard for people today to relate to. I’ve gotten a lot of letters about that.
“The difference between Lee’s religion and Jackson’s religion is the difference between a New Testament version and an Old Testament version. Jackson’s view of God was of someone who has punished him. That was all new to me—and fascinating.”
Based on his research and his site visits and the stories he collected, Shaara tried to capture the essence of Stonewall on the page in a way that would captivate readers. “He’s not a fictitious character,” Shaara points out. “The interpretation of his personality is mine. The interpretation of the dialogue is mine. So by definition, that has to be called fiction. But I am absolutely trying to be true to the character.
“In all the criticisms that I’ve received, no one has ever said, ‘Well, you know, Stonewall would never have said that’ or ‘George Washington would never have said that.’ The criticisms tend to focus on ‘Why do we need a book like this when you can perfectly well pick up a biography and get the same information?’ Well, that’s not true.”
He admits that mistakes do sometimes slip through, but when they get caught, they get changed in subsequent printings of his books. “I don’t hold myself up for perfection, but I’m diligent about it, and if we make a mistake we fix it,” he says. “I’m very proud of that. I’m very proud.”
But most of all, Shaara says he’s pleased that he brings these historical figures to life in a way that engages readers while staying true to the characters.
“I take it as a huge compliment that my interpretation of those characters is accurate,” he says. “There’s no revisionism. There’s no modernity put into these characters. There’s no anachronistic language, no anachronistic dialogue. I’m painstaking about that.
“You see, if I don’t believe it, you won’t believe in it. If I don’t believe in the authenticity of the dialogue or the authenticity of who this person is, the story won’t work because there are too many people like you who care.”
Michael Shaara didn’t have that experience, says Jeff. “When he was writing The Killer Angels, the Civil War was not a hot topic. He didn’t have people looking over his shoulder. Plus, my father had a pretty stout level of arrogance. His interpretation of Robert E. Lee—Lee and Longstreet and Gettysburg, that’s a big contentious topic—his interpretation was his interpretation, and he’d say ‘If you don’t like it, don’t buy my book.’ He was pretty thick-skinned about it. I’m not. In my generation, there are many more people who care, and I talk to a lot of these people, and so it puts that responsibility on me to get it right.”
* * *
So, how does a novel, written by a guy who’s driven to “get it right,” end up turning into a movie that seemed to get it all wrong?
“First of all, I do not, to this day, own a copy of the script. They never sent me one,” Shaara reveals. “The assumption would be, from most people—a perfectly reasonable assumption—that I had something to do with the writing of the script. No.
“The other assumption would be that I was consulted during the making of the movie, that they would ask me certain things and so forth. I was there for a few days; I was on the set briefly. I saw things that were wrong—mistakes—and I pointed them out to the director, and said, ‘This is not right,’ and so forth. And, I was ignored.”
But Shaara is quick to point out he’s not “a spoiled brat grousing about creative control.”
“They made a major motion picture out of my book. How can that be a bad thing?” he asks. “Certainly it’s not. But what I came to understand is that movie creation is not writing a book. It’s Ron Maxwell’s vision—it’s his story.”
For comparison, Shaara says Gettysburg is “about ninety percent” The Killer Angels. “It’s very, very close to the book,” he says. “That was very gratifying. My father would’ve been very happy with that.”
On the other hand, he says, Gods and Generals is about ten percent of the book. “I mean, there are specific scenes that I can pinpoint, word-for-word, that come out of my book—but there’s about three of them,” Shaara says. “As for the rest of the movie…? There are subplots in there, different characters, characters that are not in my book at all—I mean, that’s Ron Maxwell’s prerogative, it was his right to do that. And he did.”
When the movie came out, Shaara said his website was “bombed” with e-mails. “I got thousands of e-mails,” he says. “The percentage break-down was 80/20. Twenty percent of the people said, ‘This is wonderful. We love it. It’s the best movie I’ve ever seen. I’m taking my kids tomorrow night. I can’t wait for the DVD to come out.’ All of that. Very nice. Very positive.
“But the other eighty percent: ‘How could you let them butcher your book like that?’ I mean, there was a real polarization of the audience and an overwhelmingly negative response from people who were fans of the book.”
Shaara has strong ideas about why the movie “bombed” in the theatres—his term—whereas Gettysburg was “an enormous hit.”
“I’m not talking out of school here,” he notes. “I’ve had this conversation with Ron Maxwell. We’ve had fairly heavy conversations about the film and the problem. And the problem is that Ron forgot about the general audience. If you’re a Civil War buff, you know what’s going on.
“Think about it: You’re focusing on Stonewall Jackson. Where in the movie does it tell you why he’s great? Where does his greatness come from? Why is he this iconic figure? It tells you where he gets the nickname, but it doesn’t really explain why his soldiers feel so devoted to the man, why there’s so much reverence—which is the source of the title, Gods and Generals.
“There is so much reverence in the Confederate army for these characters. But, Ron just puts you there, in a scene, and there’s a battle. If you’re a Civil War buff, you understand Manassas, you understand Fredericksburg—but if you’re not, if you’re a spouse of a Civil War buff and you go to this movie, you’re lost. And this happened a lot. I heard, all over the country: ‘My wife said, “To hell with this….” and got up and walked out’ because they’re lost. And four hours of that? You can’t take that.”
The movie “did nothing” at the box office. “Something like $12 million,” Shaara says. “But the movie sold almost two million DVDs. Well, those two million people are the Civil War buffs. If you are not a Civil War person, the movie bored you—and Gettysburg did not. Gettysburg was a great story told about the people.”
Shaara says Gods and Generals turned into a movie made for historians rather than regular moviegoers. “Ron pandered to the historians, and it was an enormous mistake,” Shaara says. “And of course it was also an enormous opportunity lost because Last Full Measure will never be made. Ted Turner lost too much money.”
It proved to be a lost opportunity for battlefields, too. “The National Park people were saying they would reach this whole new audience with this movie, the way they did with Ken Burns’ documentary and Gettysburg,” Shaara says. “The attendance at Gettysburg went up by a factor of ten when the film Gettysburg came out—between the Ken Burns film and the film Gettysburg—from 280,000 visitors a year to 2.8 million. They were all aware of that.”
But Shaara says there’s more to it than that. “What Ken’s series did, and what Gettysburg did, was not just bring people to Gettysburg,” he explains. “If you look at why they go to Gettysburg, look in the gift shops: Joshua Chamberlain T-shirts—by the million. I mean, he’s a growth industry now in Gettysburg. Visitors are not just interested in the event, they’re interested in the people.”
As a side note, Shaara points out another connection between the Burns documentary and Gettysburg. “Ken acknowledges it was my father’s book, The Killer Angels, that inspired him to pursue an interest in the Civil War,” Shaara says. “That’s an extraordinary compliment to my father, which, of course, my father never heard.”
* * *
Shaara has not let his brush with Hollywood sour his writing career. Aside from Gods and Generals, and his Killer Angels sequel Last Full Measure, which recounts the last two years of the Civil War in the east, Shaara has gone on to write about the Mexican War in Gone for Soldiers; a two-volume series on the Revolution, Rise to Rebellion and The Glorious Cause; and a novel about World War I called To the Last Man. That novel led into a multi-volume epic on World War II and, from there, into a novel about Korea. “I think Korea is about as modern as I’ll go because there’s too much politics,” Shaara says. “Even with Vietnam, there’s still too much political stuff still lingering over that whole time. I am not interested in that. I am not political. There’s no agenda in my books.”
Shaara expects to stay busy for a long time—which is fine with him since he’s having such a good time. “If I don’t, I need to quit or else the books will reflect that,” he says.
But there again, the specter of his father looms over Shaara’s writing career in another way. “I keep going back to this, maybe,” he admits. “There’s a contrast, an enormous contrast, between me and my father. My father’s career was difficult. He suffered for his art. He would go through depression—he was clinically depressed. He would go through writer’s block. He would write something he loved and nobody would care and he couldn’t sell it. The Killer Angels was turned down by fifteen publishers before he found one to buy it.
“That was his career. That’s what I grew up with: the downside of being a writer. He taught at Florida State to make a living because he could never make a living from his writing. So that’s the role model I had. That’s why I didn’t become a writer at an early age; I became a businessman.
“Of course, my father’s career ended up opening the enormous door for me….”
His voice trails off for a second. Someone else has come to mind, someone else who’s been through it all with him.
“My mother is the interesting case here,” he says.
“She’s sort of caught in the middle of this. I mean, she spent forty years of her life with a man who was, for the most part, unhappy. That’s a tough life,” Shaara says. “In fact, she worked for the state of Florida for thirty-seven years to pay the bills. Now she looks at me, and she’s actually said to me, ‘Why is all of this happening to you?’ In other words, why is the attention coming to me the way it never went to my father during his lifetime? On the one hand, she’s proud mom, of course, but there is that other little thing, and I understand that. She and I have talked about it a great deal.
“My dad paid the dues; I’m getting the reward. I mean—I’ve actually been reamed out by friends of mine for saying that because presumably I’ve done something to maybe earn some of it. But, I’m getting the good stuff. I enjoy what I do. I don’t suffer the way my father did. I have a publisher that I get along with famously, and I work well with my editor, and I take these book tours around the country—which my father never did. They typically send me to 35 cities, on every tour, and audiences—big audiences—show up at places like Spokane, Washington. I get 250 people. I have no idea why. It’s fabulous.
“That’s my experience through all this. And then the writing, the solitary part of it, sitting here, just getting involved in the characters—it’s fun. And I don’t know that it was ever really fun for my father. There were certainly fun times—you have to be positive or you couldn’t get inspired by it—but there was so much bad, so much downside, it took the fun away from it.”
Shaara hopes that never happens to him. “So far it hasn’t,” he says. “If it ever does, I just need to quit. I need to do something else.”
* * *
When Steph sits down to read Gods and Generals, I pluck her book from her hands after a few pages. “Hey!” she protests.
I set her copy on the table and give her my hardcover copy of the book instead. “I like my version better,” she says. Indeed, her softcover trade paperback is probably easier for her to handle.
“I don’t want you to wreck it,” I tell her. “It’s signed, remember?”
She grabs her copy of the book from the table and checks the title page: “To Stephanie, All the best! Jeff Shaara May 31, 2000.”
“Where’d you get this again?” she asks, wracking her brains for an answer before I can give one.
“Houston,” I reply. “We got one for your brother, too, remember?” Shaara, touring to promote Gone for Soldiers, had given a reading at a Borders, followed by a book signing. I bought books for myself and each of the kids.
“Where’s Jackson’s? Let me see.” She darts off to her brother’s room and, after a few minutes of rummaging, returns with her brother’s Gods and Generals.
“He wrote something different,” she says, sounding disappointed.
“What’s the inscription say?” I ask, although I already know. Shaara signed and dated it and inscribed a line Steph now reads aloud:
“To Jackson: For the heroes.”