“NORTH AND SOUTH: BOOK I” (1985) – Episode Five “1856-1860” Commentary

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NORTH AND SOUTH: BOOK I” (1985) – EPISODE FIVE “1856-1860” Commentary

Following the emotional and ugly incidents from Episode Four, events for both the Hazard and Main families become even uglier, as the United States inches closer to a full blown civil war. The ugliness culminates in a major event in the form of John Brown’s famous October 1859 raid on Harper’s Ferry in (then) western Virginia.

Episode Five, set between 1856 and 1860, opened with Madeline recovering from Justin’s angry reaction to her mysterious disappearance (helping a pregnant Ashton Main acquire an abortion from a low country free black woman). Unbeknownst to Madeline, La Motte’s physician has recommended daily doses of laudenum to keep her “nerves” steady. Due to the laudenum, La Motte will keep Madeline drugged and under control for the next four-and-a-half years. Not long after Madeline’s “recovery”, a pregnant-free Ashton marries fiancé James Huntoon. Several months after the wedding, a bored Ashton unsuccessfully tries to convince Orry to take her on a trip to New Orleans, where Huntoon is giving a pro-secession speech to the city’s inhabitants. Following his speech, Huntoon and three other men – including one Captain Elkhannah Bent – spend some time at a brothel owned by one Madame Conti. Huntoon and Bent exchange a few words, in which the latter spies a photograph of the former’s wedding party. Bent not only recognizes his former classmate Orry Main, but is captivated by Madeline La Motte’s image. During a later conversation with Madame Conti, Bent spots a painting that features the image of a former prostitute of mixed blood that turns out to be Madeline’s mother.

Two years later, Orry and Brett travel to Lehigh Station to visit the Hazards. Unfortunately, the visit goes sour when Orry and Virgilia engage in a quarrel, prompting the latter’s brother to come to her defense. On their way back to South Carolina, the Main siblings encounter Virgilia and Grady, when their train is stopped by John Brown and his men during their raid on Harper’s Ferry. The encounter also leads to a reunion between Orry and Priam, the former Mont Royal slave who had escaped over eleven years ago. Once Orry and Brett’s train is allowed to continue south, Grady and Priam are killed by Virginia militia and Virgilia is captured. She ends up captured and placed in an insane asylum in Washington D.C. Upset over Madeline’s continuing distant behavior and his estrangement from George, Orry gets drunk and quarrels bitterly with Brett over her desire to marry Billy Hazard. The following morning, she leaves Mont Royal to stay with Ashton and Huntoon in Charleston. And Billy arrives in the city to report for duty at Fort Moultrie.

Three major plot lines dominate Episode Five – Bent’s discovery of Madeline’s family history, Orry and George’s quarrel, John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry and Orry’s quarrel with Brett. This episode featured at least three crowd scenes and a major historical moment. And I must say that director Richard T. Heffron handled all of these major scenes very well, especially the Harper’s Ferry sequence. The sequence featuring Ashton and Huntoon’s wedding reception reminded me of the details Heffron, cinematographer Stevan Larner and production designer Archie J. Bacon put into creating a low country South Carolina social event. These same details provided the episode with a memorable ending, which featured Billy’s arrival in Charleston. But the Harper Ferry’s sequence really struck me as impressive. One of the miniseries’ best cinematic moments featured the sequence’s closing shot of the rear of Orry and Brett’s train disappearing into the night.

But there were minor scenes in Episode Five that proved to be gems. I was especially impressed by Heffron’s direction of Bent’s conversation with Madame Conti regarding Madeline’s mother. The scene was greatly helped by fine performances from Philip Casnoff and Elizabeth Taylor. Another fine dramatic scene featured Orry’s quarrel with Virgilia and George Hazard. All of the actors – especially Patrick Swayze, Kirstie Alley and James Read – did well in this scene. However, there were moments when the acting threatened to get a bit hammy. Another good dramatic scene appeared in the midst of the Harper’s Ferry sequence – namely Orry and Brett’s confrontation with Virgilia, Grady and Priam. I was especially impressed by Georg Stanford Brown and David Harris’ performances in this scene. Johnny Cash made an appearance as abolitionist John Brown. He did a pretty good job, even if I had a little difficulty in accepting Cash’s Upper South accent, while portraying a man from Connecticut. Kirstie Alley came back true to form in a scene featuring Virgilia’s reunion with Congressman Sam Greene, portrayed by David Odgen Stiers. And both actors gave fine and subtle performances. Swayze, who seemed to be very busy in this episode, got to shine one last time in the scene featuring Orry’s quarrel with Brett. Not only did Swayze gave an exception performance, but so did Genie Francis, who gave her best performance in the entire six-episode miniseries. However, the one scene that really stuck with me featured Ashton’s attempt to coerce Orry into taking her on a trip to New Orleans. Not only did it provide some excellent performances from both Swayze and Terri Garber, but also an interesting moment that exposed Orry’s own hypocrisy regarding the secessionist movement.

I have already discussed cinematographer Stevan Larner and production designer Archie J. Bacon’s work in this episode. Bill Conti continued his fine work as the miniseries’ composer. But of course, I want to discuss Vicki Sánchez’s gorgeous costumes . . . again. I could wax lyrical about her work, but I believe the following images can express how I feel:

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My favorite costume is Sánchez’s re-creation of a Charles Worth gown for Constance Hazard:

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The episode was marred by one major problem regarding the story’s timeline. When Ashton asked for Madeline’s help regarding her pregnancy in Episode Four, she informed the latter that her wedding to James Huntoon was scheduled for the following spring . . . of 1857. Yet, following Madeline’s recovery from her husband’s brutal treatment, Orry paid a visit to the La Motte plantation – Resolute – and announced that Ashton and Huntoon were scheduled to get married in a few days. Mind you, all of this was happening three months following Charles Main and Billy Hazard’s West Point graduation . . . in September 1856. So . . . what happened? When did Ashton and Huntoon rescheduled their wedding six to seven months earlier? Or is this merely another blooper regarding the story’s time line?

The painting of Madeline’s mother that had grabbed Bent’s attention in New Orleans struck a negative note within me. Madeline was born in the mid-1820s. This means that her mother must have been working for Madame Conti either between the late 1810s or the early-to-mid 1820s. The image of Madeline’s mother looked like this:

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First of all, the gown looked tacky. I cannot be more brutally frank. Second, both the gown and the hairstyle did not reflect the fashions of the 1820s. Instead, the painting looked as if it had been created during the 1840s or the 1850s. I do not know who created this painting, but I believe it was poorly made. And the miniseries’ producer and production designer should have insisted upon something that accurately reflected the decade of Madeline’s birth.

I have one last complaint. One of the best sequences from John Jakes’ 1982 novel featured Charles Main’s experiences in Texas and his conflict with Elkhannah Bent during the late 1850s. In Episode Five, Bent had met Huntoon in New Orleans. The city was a jumping off point for Army personnel traveling to Texas. One could easily assume that he was on his way to Texas. After all,“HEAVEN AND HELL: NORTH AND SOUTH BOOK III” did confirm that Charles had served under Bent during this period. So, why did producer David Wolper and the screenwriters avoided the sequence? Episode Five could have included Charles’ experiences in Texas and ended the episode with the Harper Ferry’s incident. The remainder of Episode Five – including Orry and Brett’s quarrel, her flight to Charleston and Billy’s arrival in South Carolina – could have been included in Episode Six, allowing that episode to be extended. After all, the final episode of the 1977 miniseries, “ROOTS” had been extended past ninety minutes.

Despite my complaints, Episode Five proved to be a fine penultimate episode for the miniseries. It featured some excellent acting by the cast, well directed dramatic scenes by Richard T. Heffron and a first-rate re-creation of John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry. In the following episode, the Civil War is about to crash upon the lives of the Hazards and the Mains.

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“NORTH AND SOUTH: BOOK I” (1985) – Episode Four “1854-1856″ Commentary

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“NORTH AND SOUTH: BOOK I” (1985) – EPISODE FOUR “1854-1856” Commentary

If I had to pick one or two episodes from 1985’s “NORTH AND SOUTH” that I would view as personal favorites, one of my choices would be Episode Four. This episode provided a series of sucker punches to the audience that provided the miniseries’ narrative with a strong forward drive.

The end of Episode Three saw the Hazard family leave their home in Lehigh Station, Pennsylvania in the summer of 1854 for a visit to the Main’s plantation in South Carolina’s low country. Episode Four picked up a week or two later with the Hazards attending a ball held by the Mains at Mont Royal, the latter’s plantation. Everything seems to be all right in the world for the two families. Both Billy Hazard and Charles Main are on furlough following two years at West Point. And even Virgilia Hazard seemed to be behaving cordially toward her hosts and their neighbors. And then . . . everything goes to pot. On the very night of the ball, Virgilia meets Grady, the slave of neighbor James Huntoon. Ashton Main, still angry at Billy for rejecting her sexual offer two years ago, makes a beeline for sister Brett’s current beau Forbes LaMotte, Madeline LaMotte’s nephew-in-law and the two engage in a sexual tryst inside the plantation’s barn. Unfortunately for Ashton, Billy walks in on her and Forbes and he swings his attention to Brett. The Hazard family’s visit ends when Virgilia becomes romantically involved with Grady before she aids his escape from slavery and South Carolina. Two weeks after the Hazards’ departure, Madeline discovers from her dying father that her dead mother was one-fourth black, making her one-eighth black.

The second half of Episode Four features Billy and Charles’ graduation from West Point in June 1856. George and Orry reconcile after the debacle following Grady’s escape two years earlier. Both discuss Billy’s marriage proposal to Brett. However, Orry is reluctant to give his approval, due to the couple’s regional differences. Billy and Brett’s continuing romance leads a jealous Ashton to sleep with some of Billy’s Northern-born friends at the cadet. Three months later, Madeline informs Orry about her father’s revelation during one of their trysts at Salvation Chapel. Orry suggests they leave South Carolina together, before her husband Justin LaMotte learns about her family secret. Unfortunately, Ashton discovers she has become pregnant, due to her sexual trysts at West Point. She seeks Madeline’s help to abort the unborn child. Madeline leads her to a free woman named Aunt Belle Nin to act as an abort Ashton’s pregnancy. Unfortunately for Madeline, she had lied to Justin about her whereabouts. And upon her return to Resolute – the LaMotte plantation – she learns that Justin had exposed her lie about meeting a friend at a Charleston hotel for lunch. Angry over her lie and unwillingness to tell the truth about her whereabouts, Justin locks Madeline in one of the manor’s bedrooms, allowing her to sustain on bread and water for several days. Madeline’s free born servant, Maum Sally, tries to free her; but Justin prevents the escape attempt and kills the older woman with a punch to the face.

Wow! Not only did a great deal occurred in Episode Four, but important factors in the narrative that drove the story forward. However, before I wax lyrical over this episode, I must point out some of the flaws. One, I found it a little ridiculous that Billy and Charles wore their West Point cadet uniforms during most of their furlough in the episode’s first half. Two, West Point was not in the habit of hosting balls on its campus following a graduation. Following the graduation ceremony, it was traditional for graduates to travel to New York City for a celebration luncheon at an elite hotel during the 19th century. And they would NOT be wearing their cadet uniforms long after the ceremony. Three, Grady told Virgilia that he had taught himself how to read. How? How does one achieve that without anyone else acting as tutor?

My biggest problem with Episode Four centered on Ashton’s trysts with several West Point graduates during the night of the Academy’s ball. I found the entire sequence rather unpleasant and sexist. Let me get something straight. Although I found Terri Garber’s portrayal of Ashton Main very entertaining and well-done, I believe that Ashton is a repellent woman. But what I found even more repellent is author John Jakes’ idea of what constitutes a villainous woman. Ashton, like a good number of his villains both female and male, tend to possess some kind of sexual perversion. In Ashton’s case, she is portrayed as sexually promiscuous. And it is this promiscuity that is allegedly a hallmark of her villainy. Episode One introduced George Hazard arriving at a New York train station in the company of two prostitutes, with whom he previously had sex. The episode makes it clear we are to view George as a young, cheerful womanizer for us to admire. Episode Four featured Ashton having pre-marital sex with Forbes LaMotte and two years later, with a handful of West Point graduates. The episode makes it clear we are to view her as a sexual pervert and morally bankrupt. For me, Ashton’s moral bankruptcy is stemmed from her racism and other elitist views, her selfishness and vindictive nature. Unless she had used her sexuality to engage in rape or some other violent behavior, I refuse to view Ashton’s sexuality as something evil.

Despite my disgust at the portrayal of Ashton’s sexuality and other flaws found in Episode Four, I still enjoyed it very much. Once again, director Richard T. Heffron displayed his talent for big crowd scenes. This particular episode featured the dazzling Mont Royal ball sequence. Not only did Heffron and Larner did an excellent job with a carefully choreographed dance number accompanied by the tune, “Wait For the Wagon”, they managed to capture the detailed little dramas that filled the sequence – including Virgilia’s first meeting with Grady and the beginning of Ashton’s trysts with Forbes LaMotte. The other major sequence featured in Episode Four also include Billy and Charles’ graduation from West Point. George and Orry’s West Point graduation in Episode Two merely featured a few graduates receiving diplomas and the friends congratulating their fellow classmates. Audiences get to see their younger kinsmen march in an elaborate parade for the Academy’s guests. The screenplay and Heffron’s direction also explored minor dramas that included George and Orry’s discussion about Billy and Brett at Benny Haven’s tavern and Ashton’s encounters with her cousin’s fellow Academy graduates.

But the episode featured some other delicious dramatic moments. The best include the beginning of Virgilia and Grady’s romantic relationship inside a deserted barn, during a hurricane. This scene not only benefited from Heffron’s direction, but also some outstanding performances from Kirstie Alley and Georg Stanford Brown, who created a sizzling screen chemistry together. Another outstanding dramatic scene turned out to be the breakfast scene at Mont Royal during which the Hazards and Mains learn about Grady’s escape and Virgilia’s participation in it. Heffron’s direction, along with excellent performances from Terri Garber, Jim Metzler (who was a bit hammy at times), John Stockwell, James Read and Patrick Swayze infused a great deal of delicious tension into this scene. But the stand-out performance came from Alley, who did a great job of expressing Virgilia’s lack of remorse over Grady’s escape and highly-charged words about the country’s future with slavery. The actress and Brown also shined in a well-acted scene that featured a visit from abolitionist William Still to Grady and Virgilia’s Philadelphia slum home. The scene also included a first-rate performance from Ron O’Neal as the famous abolitionist.

My article on Episode Three had commented on Garber and Genie Francis’ portrayals of the Main sisters, Ashton and Brett. However, the actresses really knocked it out of the ballpark in a conversation scene between the two sisters during the West Point graduation parade sequence. Another excellent scene featured fine performances from the two leads – Swayze and Read – as George and Orry discuss the possibilities and drawbacks of a marriage between Billy and Brett. However, the episode’s final outstanding scene displayed the brutalities of spousal abuse in the LaMotte marriage. Lesley-Anne Down, David Carradine and Olivia Cole gave superb performances during the ugly circumstances that followed Madeline’s assistance in Ashton’s abortion.

Cinematographer Stevan Larner and film editors Michael Eliot and Scott C. Eyler did excellent jobs in capturing the superficial glitter and glamour of the Mont Royal ball. Larner’s photography perfectly captured the dark squalor of Virgilia and Grady’s Philadelphia’s hovel. And once again, he worked perfectly with Heffron, Eliot and Eyler in re-creating the military color of Billy and Charles’ West Point graduation. Once again, Vicki Sánchez’s costumes impressed me. Mind you, I was not that impressed by the costumes worn by Alley, Down and Wendy Kilbourne during the Mont Royal ball sequence. Their costumes looked more Hollywood than anything close to mid-19th century gowns. And the jewelry that gowns that Genie Francis and Terri Garber wore in that sequence, along with some other costumes:

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Granted, Episode Four featured some flaws in the narrative regarding the West Point graduation sequence and a few other matters. But the episode not only featured some outstanding performances, but also plot lines that really drove it forward. Not surprising, it is one of my favorite episodes in the 1985 miniseries.

The Major Problems of “NORTH AND SOUTH: BOOK I” (1985)

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The Major Problems of “NORTH AND SOUTH: BOOK I” (1985)

For many fans of the television adaptations of John Jakes’ NORTH AND SOUTH trilogy, the first miniseries, a 1985 television adaptation of the 1982 novel, is considered the best. If I must be honest, I share that opinion. However . . .“NORTH AND SOUTH: BOOK I” is not perfect. Below are some of the reasons why: 

*Journey to West Point – After their initial meeting during a brawl with workers at a New York City stage station, future West Point cadets George Hazard and Orry Main traveled to the U.S. Military Academy via the railroad. This mode of transportation for this particular route was impossible. There was no rail service between New York City and the West Point Academy in 1842. Anyone traveling to the Military Academy would have to do so by a river steamer up the Hudson River. In fact, no rail service between New York City and West Point exists today.

*Orry Main’s Swordsmanship – Cadets Orry Main and Elkhannah Bent engaged in a duel, during the latter’s swordsmanship class for the platoon under his command at West Point. Needless to say, Cadet Main emerged the victor. As a poor scholar, Orry lacked the brains to be a good swordsman. And two, Bent was at the beginning of his second year as a West Point cadet. He was not an instructor. Why was he holding lessons in swordsmanship to the plebes in his platoon?

*Ashton Main’s Knowledge of Salem Jones’ Sex Life – Orry returned to Mont Royal, his family’s South Carolina rice plantation during the summer of 1844 for a three month furlough. Upon his arrival, he learned about overseer Salem Jones’ sexual exploitation of a young female house slave named Semiramis from his eight-to-ten year-old sister, Ashton. Instead of being appalled by his young sister’s knowledge of Jones’ sex life, Orry casually acknowledged the information. This scene made no sense, whatsoever. No adult male of Orry’s class would regard his 8-to-10 year-old sister’s knowledge of the overseer’s sex life without being horrified. Never. Whoever wrote this scene seemed to have forgotten that this miniseries was set during the mid-19th century.

*Timeline in Episode Three – Part of the timeline featured in Episode Three is in error. The episode began during the late winter/early spring of 1848. In fact, most of the events in the episode’s first half – George’s second visit to Mont Royal, Priam’s escape, George’s wedding to Constance Flynn, the Philadelphia abolitionist meeting, the consummation of Orry’s affair with Madeline LaMotte and the accident at Hazard Iron – all took place in 1848.

The miniseries then jumped five years later, marking the death of Orry’s father, Tillet Main, in 1853. Eighteen fifty-three? The timeline should have jumped at least three-to-four years to the early months of 1852. Episode Four marked 1856 as the year Billy Hazard and Charles Main graduated from West Point. There were no three-year programs at the Military Academy. And contrary to George and Orry’s conversation about their younger relatives’ arrival at West Point, cadets were not in the habit of beginning their four years in the fall. They usually arrive at the Point in early June.

*Summer Visit to Mont Royal – According to the miniseries, newly commissioned Army officer George Hazard paid a visit to Mont Royal in 1846, before he and Orry set out for Texas and Mexico. Considering that the visit probably took place in September – the end of their three-month furlough after graduation – I have no problem with this.

However, the entire Hazard family visited Mont Royal during the summer of 1854 – during Billy and Charles’ three-month furlough between their second and third years at West Point. Wealthy 18th and 19th century low country South Carolinians were not in the habit of hanging around their low country plantations during the summer heat and pestilence. During this time of the year, the Mains would probably be at a Northern resort, in Charleston (by the sea) or at the Summerton resort in South Carolina’s upcountry.

*Grady’s Reading Ability – During the Hazards’ 1854 visit to Mont Royal, abolitionist Virgilia Hazard met Grady, the slave of Ashton Main’s fiance, James Huntoon. The pair eventually became lovers and began making plans for Grady’s escape to the North. During their meeting in the Mains’ cotton dock, Grady informed Virgilia that he had taught himself to read . . . and therefore, would be able to read her instructions. Taught himself to read? I could only scratch my head at that remark. It would be a neat trick for anyone to be able to teach him/herself to read.

*West Point Graduation – I noticed a few curious mistakes regarding Billy Hazard and Charles Main’s graduation from West Point in June 1856. A graduation ball was held in honor of the graduates, following their final parade. The miniseries did not imply where. This actually did not happen in the novel or real life during the 19th century. During this century, West Points graduates usually packed their belongings after the final parade, and traveled down the Hudson River to New York City. Upon their arrival in the city, they usually attend a graduation luncheon or supper in their new Army uniforms. And then they went home for a three-month furlough before reporting for duty. Sorry, no graduation ball.

*Madeline LaMotte’s Drugged Period – During the late summer of 1856, Ashton Main informed neighbor Madeline LaMotte that she was pregnant with the child of a cadet she met during Billy and Charles’ graduation. Madeline agreed to help her get a secret abortion. However, Madeline lied about her whereabouts to her venal husband, who eventually disclosed her lie. To deal with his problematic wife, Justin LaMotte had Madeline locked in her bedroom and slightly starved. He called their family physician, Dr. Lorenzo Sapp, who suggested that he keep her drugged with laudanum, until she left him for good in February 1861. But once again, the miniseries proved its inability to maintain a consistent timeline and claimed in the latter half of Episode Five and in Episode Six that Justin had kept Madeline drugged for months. Actually, he kept her drugged for nearly four-and-a-half years.

I realized that “NORTH AND SOUTH: BOOK I” was not perfect. But looking over the above mistakes, I had no idea that its flaws were that extensive. Despite its flaws, it is still the best of the three miniseries in the trilogy. And it is still one of my favorite television miniseries of all time.