Conflicting Views on the “NORTH AND SOUTH” Trilogy

I wrote the following article about many fans of the “NORTH AND SOUTH” trilogy:

CONFLICTING VIEWS ON THE “NORTH AND SOUTH” TRILOGY

I have been a fan of John Jakes’ ”NORTH AND SOUTH” trilogy, ever since I read the first novel – ”North and South” when I was in my twenties. After reading both the first and the second novel – ”Love and War”, I became a fan of the miniseries, upon which the miniseries are based. Because of my love of Jakes’ saga, I began perusing many websites created by fans of the saga and joined a few Yahoo discussion groups. And what I had discovered about the saga’s fandom has left me feeling not only shocked, but wondering if these fans had any idea what Jakes was trying to convey in his story. 

Reading some of the ”NORTH AND SOUTH” websites and the Yahoo groups has led me to wonder if the majority of this particular fandom tend to place the saga into the same category as ”THE BIRTH OF A NATION” or ”GONE WITH THE WIND”. In other words, many of these fans tend to view Jakes’ saga with a conservative eye. Either they seemed mistaken by Jakes’ (and producer David Wolper’s) theme behind the saga . . . or they may have decided to ignore it. I suspect the latter.

Now, some might be wondering why I had even bothered to write this article. Frankly, so am I. I doubt that this article will ever change these fans’ perspective on the ”NORTH AND SOUTH” trilogy. So why do I bother? To be honest, this article is not about changing their perspective. It is about me expressing my frustration over the fact that I cannot find one fan of the saga who does NOT view it along the same lines as Margaret Mitchell’s famous novel (and David Selznick’s famous screen adaptation). I have yet to encounter a ”NORTH AND SOUTH” fan who does not view the story as some kind of ode to the Old South. Judging from Jakes’ three novels and Wolper’s miniseries adaptations, I certainly do not view it as such.

This conservative attitude has never been more apparent than in my clash with other fans over the role of the slaves owned by the family of one of the saga’s main characters – Orry Main. Aside from the character of Cuffey (portrayed by Oscar winner, Forest Whitaker), these fans try to view the slaves in a sympathetic light by labeling them as loyal to the Main family. This is especially true of the two characters – Semiramis (Erica Gimpel) and Ezra (Beau Billingslea). While perusing a ”NORTH AND SOUTH” website created by a European-born fan (the site has since disappeared ), I noticed that he had described both characters as ”loyal”, due to their decision to remain at Mont Royal (the Mains’ South Carolina plantation) after the other slaves had left in the second miniseries, set during the Civil War. What many fans failed to realize that Semiramis or Ezra had not remained at Mont Royal due to any loyalty to the Main family.

”NORTH AND SOUTH: Book 2” had started with a recently married Brett Main Hazard (Genie Francis) in Washington D.C. at the beginning of the war, and Semiramis acting as her personal servant. Hours before the Battle of Bull Run commenced, Brett received a message from South Carolina that her mother, Clarissa Main (Jean Simmons) had been injured in a barn fire. Brett made the sudden decision to make her way through battle lines in order to return back into Confederate territory and South Carolina. Semiramis accompanied her. The pair eventually reached Mont Royal in the middle of Episode 2. In the following episode, both Cuffey and Ezra separately questioned Semiramis’ decision to remain with Brett. Although the maid refused to acknowledge Cuffey’s question, she gave Ezra a vague answer about wanting to stick by Brett’s side. However, both men seemed to know the true answer. Charles Main. Semiramis had fallen in love with Orry Main’s younger cousin in the previous miniseries, ”Book 1”. And both men seemed appalled that she would harbor such feelings for a man who was related to their owner. But whereas Cuffey left Mont Royal (stealing Clarissa Main’s jewels along the way), Ezra remained behind, considering her treatment at the hands of the Mains’ former overseer, Salem Jones (Tony Frank). Even when the Main women – Clarissa, Madeline (Lesley Ann Down) and Brett – had permitted the other slaves to leave. And what was Ezra’s reason for remaining at Mont Royal? He wanted a chance to woo and win Semiramis’ heart. And Semiramis’ reason for remaining behind? She wanted a chance to see Charles Main again . . . on the chance he might return to the family’s plantation. Any loyalty toward the Main family had nothing to do with either slave’s decision to remain. However, many ”NORTH AND SOUTH” fans refused to acknowledge this. They simply wanted to believe that the two slaves had remained at Mont Royal, due to some kind of loyalty to the Main family. They especially seemed enamored of the idea of Semiramis remaining loyal to Brett. Judging from their remarks, the idea of a loyal servant . . . especially a black slave . . . seemed very appealing to them.

Another aspect about many of these fans of the trilogy seemed to be their belief that the Mains’ slaves should have been satisfied with their lot as the family’s servants and property . . . as long as they were well treated. In one of the Yahoo groups, one particular fan questioned this belief, expressing doubt that a slave would automatically love his or her master because of well treatment, pointing out that the master (or even mistress) was still robbing that slave of any kind of freedom. And another member responded in the following fashion:

”JESUS! BECAUSE THE SLAVE KNEW NO OTHER REALITY! THEY WERE SLAVES!
HOW WERE THEY SUPPOSED TO KNOW ANOTHER LIFE! AFTER A WHILE, IT HAS
TO AFFECT ONE’S SELF-BELIEF!”

Whoever had posted this response was obviously ignorant of his or her American history. If Southern slaves were unaware of the idea of freedom, why did so many of them escaped or attempted to escape from bondage? And that included famous fugitives such as Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, William and Ellen Craft, Henry Box Brown, Robert Smalls, Thomas Sims and Anthony Burns. Even the ”NORTH AND SOUTH” trilogy featured two fugitive slaves – Semiramis’ older brother Priam (David Harris), and Grady (Georg Sanford Brown) – James Huntoon’s slave and Virgilia Hazard’s husband. Although both former slaves had encountered a great deal of bigotry and hardship in the North, neither of them had any inclination to return to their masters and slavery. Instead, both participated in John Brown’s failed raid on the U.S. Arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia. Another one of the Mains’ slave – an elderly gentleman named Joseph (Harry Caesar) – seemed to be on friendly terms with Clarissa Main. He even seemed concerned for her well-being. Despite the lack of hostility between slave and mistress, Joseph did not hesitate to leave Mont Royal during the summer of 1863, when given the opportunity. Despite the Mains’ decent treatment of their slaves, one of them – a man named Caleb – reminded Orry that Mont Royal had never been their home.

If there is one character in the ”NORTH AND SOUTH” trilogy that personified some of these fans’ more conservative view of the saga, it is abolitionist Virgilia Hazard. Virgilia was not the only abolitionist in the story. Her older brother, George and his wife, Constance (James Read and Wendy Kilbourne) were also abolitionists. And Charles Main seemed to have a more liberal view of African-Americans than the others in his family. Judging from his comments to Semiramis, he never seemed to have a high or matter-of-fact opinion of slavery. But Virgilia, portrayed by the wonderful Kirstie Alley, managed to take her views against slavery to great heights. One might as well describe her as a fanatic. She had no tolerance toward all Southerners – especially slave owners. And she was very passionate in her views toward abolition and women’s rights. Many fans hate her . . . even to this day.

One can understand an initial dislike of Virgilia. She was bigoted toward all Southerners and harbored a fanatical view of her political and social beliefs. On the other hand, it is easy to admire her more liberal view toward African-Americans – especially in the mid 19th century – and abolition. This tolerance led her to fall in love and marry Grady. In ”Book I”, George had accused her of marrying the fugitive slave for political reasons. But Constance insisted that she had loved him. Virgilia’s reaction to his death seemed to support Constance’s views. And unlike other unpopular characters like Ashton Main (Terri Garber), James Huntoon (Jim Metzler), Isabel Truscott Hazard (Wendy Fulton, Mary Crosby and Deborah Rush), Harry Venable (Keith Szarabajka) and Elkhanah Bent (Philip Casnoff); Virgilia was able to face and acknowledge her flaws before her death by a hangman’s noose in Episode 6 of ”Book II”. Not only did her opinions of Southerners ease – personified by her sympathy toward a wounded Confederate officer – she also managed to make her peace with both George (whom she had accused of being a sympathizer toward Southern slave owners) and more importantly, Orry. But many fans have refused to acknowledge this character development in Virgilia. And they continue to blind themselves from her virtues. Because of this, I cannot help but wonder if their dislike of Virgilia had more to do with her liberal views than her personal flaws.

I find it ironic that the only fans of the ”NORTH AND SOUTH” trilogy I have come across, seemed to view the saga with a conservative bent. This is especially ironic, considering that John Jakes take on history in the antebellum United States seemed to be a lot more liberal – especially in his criticism of our country’s slave system. Even producer David Wolper managed to capture this view of Jakes’ saga in his three miniseries that aired between 1985 and 1994. Yet, I rarely come across any fan who seemed to view the trilogy in the same manner – especially in regard to their views on the Mains’ slaves and criticism of the Virgilia Hazard character. It almost seemed as if they would prefer to place Jakes’ trilogy in the same political category as Margaret Mitchell’s saga, ”Gone With the Wind”. And I do not know whether to find this sad . . . or ironic.

“Remembering Virgilia Hazard”

“REMEMBERING VIRGILIA HAZARD”

My recent viewing of my “NORTH AND SOUTH Trilogy” DVD set, led me to the“Special Feaures” section that featured a behind-the-scene look at the television miniseries trilogy. In it, Patrick Swayze (Orry Main), James Read (George Hazard), Lesley Anne-Down (Madeline Fabray) producer David Wolper and the trilogy’s author, John Jakes discussed both the literary and television versions of the saga. I found their recollections of the trilogy’s production very interesting and entertaining. What I found surprising were the actors’ admissions that they found abolitionist Virgilia Hazard to be their favorite character. Even more surprising was my discovery that John Jakes shared similiar feelings.

In the saga, Virgilia Hazard (Kirstie Alley) was the only daughter of iron manufacturer William Hazard (John Anderson) and his wife, Maude (Inga Swenson) in Pennsylvania. She had three brothers – the eldest sibling Stanley (Jonathan Frakes), the youngest Billy (John Stockwell/Parker Stevenson) and middle brother George. Unlike most of her family, Virgilia became a firm devotee of causes for women’s rights, civil rights for free Northern blacks and especially the abolitionist cause in mid-19th century United States. In fact, one could honestly say that Virgilia’s devotion to abolition drifted into fanaticism.

Virgilia ended up being one of the most complex characters that author Jakes had ever created. On one hand, her fanaticism, tactless behavior, self-righteousness and bigotry toward all Southern-born whites made her a very unpleasant person. Just how unpleasant could Virgilia be? She had a tendency to air her beliefs to anyone within hearing range, regardless of whether they wanted to listen to her or not. She became so blind and bigoted in her self-righteousness toward Southern whites – especially those of the planter-class that she failed to notice that despite her brother George’s close friendship with the son of a South Carolina planter, Orry Main, he had also become a devoted abolitionist and civil rights advocate by the eve of the Civil War. If she had been willing to open herself more to the Mains, she would have discovered another potential abolitionist in their midst – namely Orry’s younger Cousin Charles.

Her tactless behavior nearly cost George’s friendship with Orry, when she helped Grady (Georg Sandford Brown), the slave of the Mains’ neighbor, James Huntoon (Jim Metzler), escape from slavery during the Hazards’ visit to South Carolina. That same tactless behavior led her to take part in John Brown’s 1859 raid on Harper’s Ferry and expose herself needlessly to the local militia. And because of this, Grady – now her husband – rushed forward to save her ended up dead, instead. One of Virgilia’s worst acts – at least to me – was when she had tossed away her convictions and self-esteem to become Sam Greene’s (David Odgen Stiers) mistress, following her confrontation with a hospital administrator (Olivia DeHavilland) over a Confederate officer’s death. All over a matter of survival. She had no problem with confronting her family and neighbors’ scorn over her devotion to abolition. She had no problem with confronting the Mains in her complicity to help Grady escape. But when she faced a murder investigation, she threw her self-esteem to wind and lowered herself to the level of a prostitue to stay out of prison.

But for all of her faults, Virgilia also possessed a great deal of virtues. Why else would the likes of Swayze and Read declare that she was their favorite character? One cannot help but admire her resilient devotion to the abolitionist cause, which was not very popular with most of her family and fellow Northerners. She was open-minded enough to look past Grady’s skin color and view him as an attractive man, worthy for her hand in marriage. Many, including most of the Hazards, had excused her marriage to Grady as a political statement. One member of the Hazard family knew the truth – George’s Irish-born wife, Constance Flynn Hazard (Wendy Kilbourne).

And while many “NORTH AND SOUTH” fans may have abhorred Virgilia’s habit of speaking her mind, I cannot help but admired it. If I must be honest, I really enjoyed Virgilia’s habit of confronting her family and the Main family about slavery and reminding them of the institution’s horrors. I feel that it took a lot of guts on her part and I admired her for this. Virgilia’s practice of “telling it like it is” seemed very apparent in three scenes:

*Philadelphia Abolitionist Meeting – in which she gave a speech about the practices of slave breeding on Southern plantations. Despite Orry’s outraged reaction to her speech, it turns out that Virgilia had spoken the truth. Due to the United States’ official banning of the Atlantic Slave Trade in 1808, many Southern planters were forced to resort to the deliberate breeding of their female slaves to either maintain the number of slaves in the South or to make a fortune in selling such slaves when the value of their land depleted.

*Opposition to the Mexican-American War – during Orry’s first meeting with the Hazard family, Virgilia made her disgust and opposition to the United States’ threat to wage war against Mexico very clear, claiming that many of the war’s supporters saw it as an opportunity to conquer Mexican territory and use it for the expansion of slavery. I hate to say this, but slavery’s expansion had been a strong reason for those who supported the idea of war.

*Confrontation Over Grady’s Escape – this is without a doubt, my favorite scene in which Virgilia confronted her family and the Mains over her disgust with slavery. Hell, I had practically cheered the woman as she made it clear that not only the South, but the entire country will eventually pay a price for its complicity in the institution of slavery. And she had been right.

It took a brave woman to willingly pursue a cause that many found unpopular . . . and make her convictions to others, quite clear. Hell, I think that she had more balls than all of the men in her family. Even more so, she did not hide her beliefs and convictions behind a personable veneer in order to soothe the sociabilities of her family and their friends.

I had discovered that both Lesley Anne Down (Madeline Fabray) and David Carridine (Justin LaMotte) had both received Golden Globe nominations for their performances in the first miniseries. Frankly, I find this appalling for I believe that Kirstie had deserved a nomination, as well. Probably even more so, considering that she had a more difficult role. I wonder if both Swayze and Read had felt the same.

“BULLITT” (1968) Review

Below is my review of the 1968 classic crime drama, “BULLITT”, which starred Steve McQueen and was directed by Peter Yates:

”BULLITT” (1968) Review

Many fans of Steve McQueen seemed to revel in their view of him as some kind of epitome of 1960s Hollywood cool. And his starring role in the 1968 crime drama, ”BULLITT” seemed to symbolize this viewpoint more than any of his other roles – before or after. As much as I feel reluctant to embrace the idea of coolness of any kind, I must admit that McQueen did project some kind of aura in the film that made him such a strong screen presence . . . just like any film star worth his or her weight in gold.

Fortunately, ”BULLITT” also happened to be a first-class crime thriller that was directed with style, energy and competency by Peter Yates. Based upon Robert L. Fish’s 1963 novel, “Mute Fish”, the movie told the story of a San Francisco lieutenant named Frank Bullitt (McQueen), who is assigned by a haughty and well-born local politician named Walter Chalmers (Robert Vaughn) to protect an informant (Felice Orlandi) from the Chicago mob. Chalmers hoped that bringing down the Chicago mob would lead to an improvement in his political standing. However, the assignment turns into a murder mystery that resulted into some surprising twists.

The head of Warner Brothers-Seven Arts studio had originally planned for ”BULLITT” to be shot on location in Los Angeles, California. But director Yates felt that the City of Angels had been seen quite enough in previous crime dramas and mysteries. He also had no desire to shoot the film under the studio’s constant eye. So, Yates convinced the studio to allow him to shoot the film on location in San Francisco. As much as I love Los Angeles, I am glad that Yates made this choice. San Francisco proved to be a perfect setting for the movie and its surrounding hills provided the perfect backdrop for the movie’s car chase that became one of the most influential car chase sequences in movie history.

Speaking of the car chase, I understand that McQueen took lessons in stunt driving in order to perform some of the stunts in the chase sequence. Now, McQueen only drove a little in the scene. Most of his stunt driving had been performed by Bud Ekins, famed stuntman and motorcycle racer. And I have to give kudos to stunt coordinator Carey Loftin for creating an exciting and memorable sequence. Another favorite action sequence of mine proved to be the final showdown at the San Francisco International Airport – a scene filled with both tension and superb action. Yates’ direction and Frank P. Keller’s film editing proved to be the decisive factors that made the above scenes first rate. Keller went on to win an Academy Award for Best Film Editing.

Screenwriters Alan Trustman and Harry Kleiner did an excellent job of adapting Robert L. Fish’s 1963 novel, ”Mute Witness” for the screen. Not only did they managed to re-create a murder mystery that proved to be somewhat complex with great competency, the two writers also managed to delve into Frank Bullitt’s persona. And this is a job that could have proven to be nearly impossible, due to the character’s subtle and reserved personality. The Mystery Writers of America rewarded Trustman and Kleiner for their work with a 1969 Edgar Award for Best Mystery Screenplay.

Although many fans tend to view ”BULLITT” as a showcase for Steve McQueen, I noticed that he had been ably supported by a talented cast. Robert Vaughn (another actor who became a 1960s icon for his starring role in the television series, ”THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E.” ) expertly portrayed politician Walter Chalmers as a charming, self-involved and arrogant man who expects the world to revolve around him, due to his wealth. Portraying Bullitt’s girlfriend, Cathy, was a 24 year-old Jacqueline Bisset. Just a year earlier, she had a brief appearance in the James Bond spoof ”CASINO ROYALE”. The role of Bullitt’s girlfriend, who fears that he might love his job more than her, not only hinted the talent that would make her a star, it proved to be a career-making one for her. Don Gordon (who also happened to be a close friend of McQueen’s) gave a quiet and solid performance as as Sergeant Delgetti, Bullitt’s right-hand man. Simon Oakland also gave solid support as one of Bullitt’s police superiors, Captain Bennett. The movie also featured brief appearances by future stars such as Robert Duvall as a local cab driver, Norman Fell as Police Captain Baker – Chalmers’ toady – and Georg Stanford Brown as a young, hospital doctor.

As for star Steve McQueen . . . he practically owned the movie. Hell, he deserved to own the movie. Not only did he provide his usual magnetic screen presence, McQueen gave what I believe to be one of the best performances in his career. I had heard on the movie’s DVD featurette that McQueen did not really view himself as an actor. Instead, he saw himself as a mere reactor to his co-stars’ lines. I wish . . . I hope that someone had told him that reacting is one of the qualities that marked a first-rate screen performer. And McQueen did it very well. Hell! He could be a first-rate actor when words came out of his mouth. In the case of ”BULLITT”, his character turned out to be not particularly verbose. Which left McQueen to express Frank Bullitt’s emotions via facial expressions and in his eyes. What I liked about McQueen’s performance was that he did not simply portray the character as some epitome of 60s cool. He portrayed Bullitt as an intelligent and quiet man whose no-nonsense personality seemed to lack patience for either incompetence or egotistical types like Chalmers.

Thanks to critics, some moviegoers and organizations like the American Film Institute (AFI), the public is expected to accept their prevailing views about any movie . . . regardless if they view a movie as either a classic, mediocre or simply terrible. Because of my nature, I have a tendency to ignore the prevailing view and form my own opinion. ”BULLITT” seemed to have the reputation as a classic crime melodrama. And Frank Bullitt is viewed as one of McQueen’s best roles. In the case of ”BULLITT” and McQueen, I would heartily agree.