Grand, Empty Lesson On Civil War Battles

In war, the battles always overshadow the people who fight them. Maybe this is the reason why there have been so few memorable films about the American Civil War and absolutely none about the American Revolution. War films have a way of turning into history lessons, while audiences balk at the idea of paying money to transform movie seats into classroom desks. Undeterred, producer-writer-director Ron Maxwell, a history buff and Civil War scholar who turned the Battle of Gettysburg into an interminable television miniseries, now follows up with its prequel, Gods and Generals . Impressive in size and scope, and well-intentioned, Gods and Generals catalogs the Battle of Fredericksburg and other surrounding clashes that led up to the climactic suffering at Gettysburg with accuracy and authority-and with 7,500 extras hitting the ground running, it gets the maps and dates and uniforms right with an undeniable sense of grandeur. So why is it such a big, fat bore? Mr. Maxwell states emphatically in the press notes, “The last thing the world needs is a mindless, glossy entertainment on the Civil War.” The result is a technically proficient but emotionally vacuous historical pageant, nearly four hours in length, including an intermission.

Proud Virginian Robert E. Lee (played by a stoic Robert Duvall) declines President Lincoln’s invitation to lead the Union troops in an effort to unite the North and South by force, and chooses the Confederacy. The devoutly religious General “Stonewall” Jackson (Stephen Lang) leaves his position as professor of philosophy and artillery instruction at the Virginia Military Institute and becomes General Lee’s loyal right arm in the raging conflicts. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain (Jeff Daniels), a college professor in Maine with no fighting experience, volunteers for the Yankee side and becomes a hero in a uniform of a different color. The tapestry that engulfs them is a filmed history book, complete with chapter headings. Names like Shenandoah and Manassas and Bull Run Creek flash by on the bottom of the screen like guideposts. It’s like one of those tableaus staged for tourists on weekends in Vicksburg, with simulated battle scenes and bullet-riddled costumes in glass cases and backlit murals of postcard vistas stained with blood. But where is the human element to punctuate archival information with the distant drumming of a beating heart? With all due respect, this is a Civil War canvas that could desperately use Scarlett O’Hara.

A technician like Ron Maxwell probably deplores Civil War films like Gone with the Wind and Raintree County . But they endure because they were epics about the people who fought on the battlefields in the 1860′s, not just the battles themselves. Even in John Huston’s somnambulistic and (in my opinion) overrated 1951 film of Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage , some of the interior logic of the novel was echoed with a delicacy and depth of feeling that is sadly missing here. Representing the home front, brief appearances are made by wives, children and slaves to reflect the terror and courage of the smaller participants of every war-the people who wait. But Gods and Generals is not about them. Its concerns are the maneuvers and the strategies and the positions of battle. Any movie about the American Civil War that fails to explore the wrenching personal conflicts and divisive moral principles that separated a nation and ultimately redefined the theory of democracy becomes nothing more than a pageant accompanied by fifes, drums and cannon fire.

The actors in Gods and Generals look bearded and battered (Mr. Duvall is so dusty and faded, you know why they called Lee “the Gray Fox”), but they don’t do much acting, and when they speak, the arch dialogue is so stilted it’s laughable. “Hail Caesar, we who are about to die salute you!” shouts Colonel Chamberlain, emoting in the far-off direction of General Lee. Is he kidding, or what? The constant comparisons of Julius Caesar, commanding his legions into Rome over the Rubicon, to Abraham Lincoln, deploying Federal troops across the Rappahannock, are beyond the reach of coherent simile. The warriors in Gods and Generals have military status but not personal identity. The long, drawn-out battle sequences are virtual abstractions. Where’s Clark Gable when we need him?

On the verge of a new war, Americans should learn more about history, and for the young who don’t know Appomattox from Atlantic City, this movie could be a valuable four-hour training kit. For them, any history lesson is better than none. But a few questions about wars in general have always haunted me. Do soldiers fight wars symbolically, to make idealistic statements about what they believe in? Or do they fight to protect what they’ve already got, because if they don’t, other soldiers will take it away from them? You won’t find the answers in the dull textbook academics of Gods and Generals .

Juicy Recipe

The bougainvillea rustled, and for a few days last week, a tropical breeze smelling of vanilla and clove blew through town-just before the Arctic blast. The legendary 1954 musical House of Flowers was the first production of this season’s sold-out “Encores!” series of “staged concert versions” of Broadway shows at the City Center. It was probably the most eagerly anticipated of any production in the series, and for the most part it rose above the problems that have always defeated every attempt to revive a show beloved by many and survived by few.

I was too young to see the original production with the charismatic, talented, difficult, tantrum-prone and egomaniacal Pearl Bailey. But I have loved the diaphanous songs-music by Harold Arlen and magical lyrics by Arlen and Truman Capote-my entire adult life, and I consider the original cast album on Columbia (recently digitally remastered and to be released on CD in May) a staple for any serious collector of Broadway scores. I could not wait for House of Flowers , a show in which, ironically, the opening number is called “Waitin’.” I’m glad I did.

The original show had lavish Oliver Messel sets, wild choreography by Herbert Ross, direction by Peter Brook, and a cast supporting Pearlie Mae that included Diahann Carroll, Juanita Hall, Ray Walston, Geoffrey Holder, Ada Moore, Enid Mosier and Dolores Harper. The central problem still exists: The show is a florid Caribbean fable about entirely too many people to whom entirely too little ever happens. The jealous madams of two rival bordellos in exotic Haiti compete for sailors, tourists, commerce and the virtue of an innocent virgin named Ottilie. who chooses true love with a mountain boy over a lucrative future as a blossoming courtesan. Add cockfights, steel drums, voodoo, marching parades, a lost ship at sea, a Mardi Gras carnival, and lush songs with rich imagery of weak fools and strong daiquiris, cheap bagatelles and love “sweet and golden as a crown,” and a juicy recipe for fragrant and exuberant entertainment is guaranteed.

For the “Encores!” restoration, director and choreographer Kathleen Marshall took up the slack in Capote’s limp book by working overtime on the visuals. To suggest the struggling brothels, two flower-draped houses with neon signs overpowered the orchestra, and the busy blocking got in the way of actors carrying scripts. The result was often clumsy, with an irregular pace and tempo that started, stopped and started again. On the plus side, the brilliant arrangements by Jonathan Tunick, augmenting the usual brass and violins with castanets, Jamaican steel drums, harps and bongos, were the most heavenly orchestrations I’ve ever heard on the “Encores!” stage. And no matter what anyone thinks about House of Flowers , its songs are in a celestial class rarely encountered on the earthbound Broadway stage. “A Sleepin’ Bee” and “I Never Has Seen Snow,” the ballads that catapulted the young Diahann Carroll to stardom as the dreamy Ottilie, and “Two Ladies in de Shade of de Banana Tree,” which has become a jazz standard, were merely sensational. Tonya Pinkins, who can belt and hypnotize mellifluously with equal panache, turned Pearl Bailey’s role of Madame Fleur into a personal triumph and sang the great Harold Arlen ballad “Don’t Like Goodbyes” with show-stopping artistry. Armelia McQueen made as formidable an adversary as Juanita Hall, the legendary Bloody Mary, did in the original. Veteran dancer Maurice Hines brought his own comic clowning to “Slide, Boy, Slide.” Nikki M. James, a senior at the Tisch School of the Arts, was no Diahann Carroll, but she and Brandon Victor Dixon made a sincere pair of lovers. Roscoe Lee Browne was hilarious as a houngan who contacts the gods via cell phone.

The whole point of “Encores!” is to provide a second look at famous Broadway musicals performed in a concert staging by great but under-rehearsed casts holding the scripts. If these productions continue to build production values, they should pay the casts more money, rehearse them longer and throw away the books. House of Flowers was so overproduced that the props were distracting, and the stage business often got more attention than the book and score. It was still a marvelous event that could only happen here, but for future productions, isn’t it time to return to the basic purposes for which this justifiably famous New York institution was founded?

So Young, So Bland

Peter Cincotti, the 19-year-old jazz prodigy, is back at the Algonquin’s Oak Room with a new act and a debut CD on the Concord Jazz label. His talent is undeniable, but his inexperience still makes it too early to shout “Excelsior!” From the picture, I’d guess he owns a good record collection. He can swing in hard chords like Oscar Peterson while his right hand investigates the higher peaks of the treble clef like Art Tatum. He can approximate the clunky left-handed stride of Erroll Garner. On a duo of Fats Waller barroom tunes, he barrels through the boogie with such virtuosity it’s amazing he doesn’t have a cigar dangling from his mouth and a red garter fastened to his sleeve. Too bad he doesn’t play more and sing less.

To his credit, Mr. Cincotti doesn’t try to sound like an economy-sized Sinatra. (He obviously owns a few of his platters, too.) Instead, his posed nonchalance and forced hipness result in no real communication of any kind. He wrecks the sublime Kurt Weill ballad “This Is New” from Lady in the Dark , ramming it home at the wrong tempo, pounding his way through Ira Gershwin’s gorgeous lyrics like the song was a punching bag. Frank Loesser’s “I’ve Never Been in Love Before,” from Guys and Dolls , is taken very deliberately and slowly, in an ill-fated attempt to croon, but he’s too wet behind the ears to trust his own heart. It’s a Chet Baker imitation, with an irritating vibrato on the end of every vowel that sounds alarmingly like a cross between Henry Aldrich and Eartha Kitt.

As a songwriter, Mr. Cincotti shows only minor promise. His own compositions (some of which he wrote with his mother) are unimpressive, with naïve lyrics sadly lacking in nuance. (“You can’t stop me from shootin’ the breeze / Cause you know I do just what I please.”) He loves music but doesn’t know the territory. His pop tunes are generic. His sambas are generic. He’s not arrogant or pretentious. He’s just … generic.

Enough quibbling. While other pals his age are glued to their computers or shopping for discount drugs, this Columbia University musician is at least interested enough in jazz and pop standards to carry on a tradition that might otherwise fade. As one jaded cynic near me wisely observed on opening night: “He just hasn’t lived long enough.” So true, but that will change. Youth will be served, and appreciation will be earned. Pleasant, bland and ridiculously young, Peter Cincotti has so much to learn-and so much time to learn it.