“NORTH AND SOUTH: BOOK II” (1986) – Episode Three “September 1862 – August 1863” Commentary

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“NORTH AND SOUTH: BOOK II” (1986) – EPISODE THREE “September 1862 – August 1863”

I have mixed feelings about Episode Three of “NORTH AND SOUTH: BOOK II”. Fortunately, most of my feelings are positive. This episode featured the Battle of Antietam, the Battle of Gettysburg, and a major schism in the Main family, regarding Madeline Main and her two sisters-in-law – Brett Hazard and Ashton Huntoon. But there was still certain aspects of this episode that I did not find particularly appealing.

I found the first half of this episode to be rather dull. Those reading this article would find this statement surprising, since the Battle of Antietam was featured in this first third of the episode. But I did. Following President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, one of the Mains’ slaves, Jim, decided to take matters into hands and run away. Unfortunately, he was caught and killed by the Mains’ former overseer, Salem Jones. I will admit that the reaction to Jim’s death proved to be slightly interesting, thanks to the excellent acting by Erica Gimbel, Beau Billingslea and especially Forest Whitaker; who portrayed Semiramis, Ezra and Cuffey. I was especially impressed by Whitaker’s performance as he conveyed Cuffey’s bitterness over being owned by the Mains. However, I found Brett and Madeline’s presence at Jim’s funeral to be a touch patronizing. But that is merely a private opinion.

Now, I had no problems with Kevin Connor’s direction of the Battle of Antietam. I believe he did the right thing by keeping the battle solely focused upon Billy Hazard and Charles Main. This allowed their brief reunion to be not only surprising, but dramatic. But I do have one major quibble about this particular sequence. How did Charles and his fellow officer, Ambrose Pell go from being cavalry scouts to leading large bodies of infantry troops on the field? If the miniseries had earlier included a small band of scouts under their command, I could see them leading these men into battle. But large bodies of infantry troops? Were the officers of these troops dead? And what kind of troops were they leading? Infantry or dismounted cavalry? I found this kind of inconsistent vagueness very irritating. The Battle of Gettysburg was better handled . . . somewhat. Considering it was one of the major conflicts of the war and fought in the same region – Southern Pennsylvania – as the Hazards’ hometown of Lehigh Station, I was surprised that the screenplay did not focus too highly on it. The battle was simply used as a literary device for the reunion of George and Billy Hazard and an excuse for the latter to go AWOL and see Brett.

The second half of Episode Three turned out to be a big improvement. Most of the slaves left Mont Royal and I did not blame them one bit. Orry’s reaction to their departure was interesting, considering how “BOOK I” had established his slight aversion to slavery. More importantly, his character came off as increasingly conservative. I found this surprising, considering that in the novel, “Love and War”, his views on slavery and racial relations had become slightly more radical. I found that little moment in which Orry bid his mother Clarissa Main good-bye, following his furlough, rather lovely and touching, thanks to the performances of Patrick Swayze and Jean Simmons. But I have mixed feelings about Billy’s decision to go AWOL in order to see Brett in South Carolina. Frankly, I found it disturbing. I do not blame him for missing Brett. But if the writers had not sent her to South Carolina in that ridiculous story line in Episode 2, she would have remained in the North and Billy would not have went AWOL. And his decision to head for South Carolina will prove to be troublesome for Episode Four‘s plot. I am also remain dumfounded by George’s position in the Union Army. During his reunion with Billy before the Gettysburg battle, he claimed that he had been transferred to field duty. And he was seen commanding artillery units. Yet, after the battle, he was seen attending another meeting with President Lincoln and his Cabinet. What the hell? The screenwriters really screwed up this time.

The episode’s second half, Ashton Main Huntoon’s appearance at Mont Royal really stirred things a bit. I found it to be the episode’s most enjoyable segment. Before I explain why I enjoyed it, I have to say a few words regarding Ashton’s reason for visiting her home – namely to confront Madeline about her African ancestry and drive her from Mont Royal and Orry’s radar. If I must be frank, I found Ashton and Bent’s revenge against Orry by using Madeline’s family secret, a bit . . . anti-climatic. Frankly, I thought they could have exposed Madeline’s secret in a more dramatic and satisfying moment – like during a political party in Richmond (which happened in the novel) or expose the secret to the Mains’ neighbors. However, their act of revenge did result in a marvelous scene well acted by Terri Garber and Lesley Anne Down. Semiramis’ rant against Ashton, thanks to another great piece of acting from Gimpel, was nice touch, although a bit fruitless. But it was Brett’s confrontation with Ashton that really did justice to this episode. Kudos to Garber and especially Genie Francis. Francis also shared an excellent scene with Parker Stevenson, who as Billy Hazard expressed his growing discontent with the war.

There is one major problem with this sequence. When Ashton arrived at Mont Royal, she carried foodstuff for the plantation. This makes no sense whatsoever. Ashton was traveling from a state – namely Virginia – that had been ravaged by two years of war. The amount of foodstuff she was carrying from Virginia should have been rare. South Carolina, on the other hand, had been freed of any battles by 1863, aside from the Sea Islands and the forts off the coast of Charleston. There should have been plenty of foodstuff at Mont Royal, thanks to Madeline, Brett, Semiramis and Ezra.

Anthony Zerbe made his first appearance as General Ulysses S. Grant, whom George had traveled all the way to Tennessee to meet, on behalf of President Lincoln. Veteran stars James Stewart and Olivia De Havilland appeared near the end of this episode. Did anyone know that those two had once dated in the late 1930s? Anyway, Stewart gave a charming performance as Madeline’s Charleston attorney, despite his Midwestern accent. However, De Havilland’s portrayal as Virgilia Hazard’s field hospital supervisor, Mrs. Neal, proved to be more interesting and complex. I could not decide which character was more irritating – Virgilia’s arrogant disregard for Mrs. Neal’s advice, or the latter’s patronizing concern for Southern patients at the expense of the other patients and her unfounded suspicions that Virgilia was ignoring them. Both De Havilland and Kirstie Alley gave superb performances in their scenes together.

Although Episode Three had its flaws, I cannot deny that Kevin Connor did an excellent job as the director. But I believe he was ably supported by the miniseries’ crew. Once again, Jacques R. Marquette’s photography provided a good deal of color and style to this episode – especially in the Battle of Antietam sequences. Jospeh R. Jennings continued his excellent production designs, ably transforming viewers back to the United States of the early 1860s. I could say the say about Robert Fletcher’s costume designs. I was especially impressed by his wardrobe for Maude and Isobel Hazard, along with Ashton Huntoon, who ended up being the best-dressed character of the episode. Below are examples of Fletcher’s work:

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Despite a some quibbles and a dull first half hour, Episode Three was an improvement over Episode Two. I was surprised by the number of excellent dramatic moments and first-rate acting in this episode. Also Kevin Connor’s direction of the Battle of Antietam and Gettysburg struck me as pretty damn good. I could say that Episode Three was the highlight of the 1986 miniseries. But I do not believe I would go that far.

“NORTH AND SOUTH: BOOK II” (1986) – Episode Two “July 1861 – August 1862” Commentary

 

“NORTH AND SOUTH: BOOK II” (1986) – EPISODE TWO “July 1861 – August 1862” Commentary

Episode Two began with the aftermath of Bull Run. It also featured Brett Main Hazard and Semiramis’ journey to South Carolina, Orry Main’s wedding to his widowed neighbor Madeline LaMotte, and Elkhannah Bent and Ashton Main Huntoon’s smuggling operations. I wish I could be objective about this particular episode, but I cannot. I dislike it too much. It is one of the main reasons why I have so much difficulty with “NORTH AND SOUTH: BOOK II” in the first place.

My main beef with this episode centered around the plot line that featured Brett and Semiramis’ journey south to Mont Royal, following the Bull Run battle. First of all, I believe that this particular plot line was badly written. Brett and Semiramis should not have had any difficulties getting past Union lines, since nearly the entire Union Army had fled to Washington in disarray, following the battle. Second, once they had reached Richmond and delivered the message about Clarissa Main’s injury, they could have accompanied Orry back to South Carolina. They would have arrived at Mont Royal in late July or early August 1861, instead of November 1861. And why did it take them so long to reach South Carolina in the first place? Surely, the two could have traveled by train. The Union Army had not began destroying Southern railroad tracks during the summer of 1861. And one last question – why on earth was a message sent to Brett in Washington D.C. in the first place? An accommodating neighbor of the Mains or a local doctor could have sent the message about Clarissa to Orry in Richmond. It would have been a lot easier. And quicker. Talk about bad writing!

I have a few other qualms about Episode Two. I find it odd that Justin La Motte never suffered any legal repercussions for his attack upon Mont Royal in Episode One. Nor did Orry Main encountered any repercussions for La Motte’s death, when he rescued Madeline from her venal husband. And could someone please explain Orry’s war duties to Jefferson Davies and the Confederacy? It is bad enough that he managed to procure such a high position within the Confederate Army, considering his previous military history. But what exactly was his duty? Was he the main quartermaster for the Confederate Army? Was he involved in investigating war profiteers? Or was he some unrealistic jack-of-all-trade? In fact, I have the same complaint about George Hazard’s position with the Union Army. Like Orry, his previous military history was very limited. Yet, he managed to become a military aide to President Lincoln and serve other duties for the Army – duties that seemed to be very varied. I was especially shocked to find George attending one of Lincoln’s Cabinet meetings. Really? Are they serious? This is incredibly sloppy writing. Both Charles Main and his fellow officer Lieutenant Ambrose Pell continue to unnecessarily cart around their swords, during their duties as scouts. And I still see no signs of enlisted men under their command. Episode Two also featured a moment when President Lincoln announced his“Emancipation Proclamation” to his cabinet . . . and George Hazard. I realize this should have been a profound moment, but the pretentious dialogue left me feeling cold.

However, there were some good moments in this episode. George and Orry had a bittersweet reunion inside a barn, while both were traveling to their respective capitals. Charles visited the widowed Augusta Barclay’s farm after being injured by Union cavalry. Stanley and Isobel Hazard scheme to profit from the war and make enough money to take over Hazard Iron. And in one brief scene, Congressman Greene had an embarrassed reaction to a wounded soldier that did David Odgen Stiers’ skills proud as an actor. Of all of these scenes, the one that really impressed me proved to be the one that featured Stanley and Isabel’s scheming. For me, this was a step up from their narrative in John Jakes’ 1984 novel. The reason I was so impressed by these scenes was due to the first-rate performances from the cast.

Aside from the Stanley and Isabel story arc, I feel that the rest of the scenes benefited from the cast’s excellent acting. This was especially apparent by James Read and Patrick Swayze’s performances in the scene that featured George and Orry’s reunion, and also the performances by Lewis Smith, Kate McNeill and first-time actor John Nixon. Both Philip Casnoff and Terri Garber continued to amazing heat in their portrayals of Elkhannah Bent and Ashton Main Huntoon. Kurtwood Smith gave an intense and fascinating portrayal of Billy Hazard’s commander Hiram Burdan. And Whip Hubley, an actor I have never been that particularly impressed with, gave an interesting performance as Billy’s regimental rival, Lieutenant Stephen Kent.

Kevin Connor continued to handle his actors with skill. And the miniseries’ photography by Jacques R. Marquette continued to strike me as colorful, but not particularly impressive. But there is one aspect of this production that continued to really impress me was Robert Fletcher’s costume designs – especially for the women. Below are examples of his work in this episode:

But if I must be brutally frank, Episode Two featured some of the worst writing in this miniseries, and probably in the entire trilogy. No amount of excellent performances or dazzling costume designs could improve my opinion or save what proved to be an otherwise dull episode.

“NORTH AND SOUTH: BOOK II” (1986) – Episode One “June-July 1861” Commentary

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“NORTH AND SOUTH: BOOK II” (1986) – EPISODE ONE “JUNE-JULY 1861” Commentary

Judging from past articles I have written about the “NORTH AND SOUTH” Trilogy, one would surmise that of the three miniseries that have aired in the past decades (two in the 1980s and one in the 1990s) that I seemed to have the most problem with the second miniseries in the trilogy, namely “NORTH AND SOUTH: BOOK II”. And if I have to be honest, one would be right.

It is odd that I would choose the second miniseries as the most problematic of the three. “NORTH AND SOUTH: BOOK II”is set during the four years of the Civil War – a historical conflict that has heavily attracted my attention for so many years that I cannot measure how long. “HEAVEN AND HELL: NORTH AND SOUTH BOOK III”, which had aired at least seven-and-a-half years after the second miniseries, was set during the early years of Reconstruction and has a reputation among the “NORTH AND SOUTH” fans as being inferior to the other two. But for some reason, I have had more of a problem with “BOOK II”. So I have decided to examine each of the six episodes of the 1986 miniseries to determine why this chapter in the “NORTH AND SOUTH” trilogy is such a problem for me.

Without a doubt, Episode One of “BOOK II” is my favorite in the entire miniseries. It re-introduced the main characters from the first miniseries in the story. It also set the stage for the main characters’ experiences during the war, for the rest of the miniseries. It featured an excellent opening shot on the streets of Washington D.C. that introduced both Brett Main Hazard, and the slave Semiramis. It also featured a well shot sequence that centered around a colorful ball at the Spotswood Hotel in Richmond, attended by Ashton and James Huntoon, and Elkhannah Bent. Most importantly, it featured one of my favorite battle scenes – namely the Battle of Bull Run that was fought near Manassas, Virginia on July 18, 1861. If I have to be frank, this interpretation of Bull Run remains my favorite. Director Kevin Connors filmed the entire sequence with great style and skill and composer Bill Conti injected it with a brash, yet haunting score that still give me goose bumps whenever I watch it. Even better, the sequence ended with actress Wendy Kilbourne uttering one of the best lines in the entire trilogy.

I certainly have no problems with the miniseries’ production values. Jacques R. Marquette’s photography struck me as rather beautiful and colorful. This was especially apparent in the opening Washington D.C., the Spotswood Hotel ball and Bull Run sequences. If I have one complaint, I wish the photography had been a little sharper. Joseph R. Jennings and his production designs team did an excellent job in re-creating the United States during the Civil War era. Bill Conti continued his excellent work as composer for the saga’s production. But if there is one aspect of the miniseries’ production values that really blew my mind were the costumes designed by Robert Fletcher. I was especially impressed by the following costumes:

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I do have a few quibbles about Episode One. First of all, it introduced Charles Main’s role as a cavalry scout for the Confederate Army. Considering that he started out as a Captain in this miniseries, it made no sense to me that he and another officer – a first lieutenant – would be participating scout duties without the assistance of enlisted men. I guess one could call it as an example of the story being historically inaccurate. And I wish someone would explain why the Mains’ neighbors (or slaves) sent word to Brett Main Hazard in Washington D.C., of the injuries her mother, Clarissa Main, had suffered when Mont Royal’s barn was set on fire by Justin La Motte. Would it have been a lot easier (and quicker) to send word to Orry Main, who was on duty in Richmond, Virginia?

I find the idea of both George Hazard and Orry Main serving as military aides to their respective political leaders – Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis – very improbable. Following their graduation from West Point in 1846, the two friends had only served at least 18 months in the U.S. Army before resigning for personal reasons. Yet, after the outbreak of a civil war, thirteen years, the audience is supposed to believe that both were able to secure such high positions within their respective armies? Especially when one considers the fact that neither were politically active between 1848 and 1861? I find this very illogical . . . even for a work of fiction.

My last major quibble featured the character of Elkhannah Bent. What was he doing with the portrait of Madeline Fabray LaMotte’s mother? The audience knew that he had procured it from an expensive whorehouse in New Orleans. But Bent had no idea that Madeline was romantically involved with one of his nemesis, Orry Main, until after Ashton Main Huntoon informed him. So, why did he bother to get his hands on the painting at a time when he was ignorant of the romantic and emotional connection between Orry and Madeline?

I certainly had no problems with the episode’s performances. The cast, more or less, gave solid performances. But I was especially impressed by a handful. Two of the better performances came from Parker Stevenson and Genie Francis, who portrayed the recently married Billy and Brett Hazard. I was especially impressed by one scene in which the two nearly quarreled over Billy’s decision to transfer from the Corps of Engineers to Hiram Berdan’s Sharpshooters Regiment. Terri Garber and Philip Casnoff literally burned the screen in their portrayal of the early stages of Ashton Main Huntoon and Elkhannah Bent’s affair. This episode featured another quarrel . . . one between George Hazard and his sister, Virgilia, who had arrived in Washington D.C. to become a nurse. Both James Read and Kirstie Alley were superb in that scene. And finally, I have to single out Forest Whitaker, who did a superb job in expressing the resentful anger that his character, Cuffey, felt toward his situation as a slave and toward his owners, the Mains.

Although Episode One featured some stumbling blocks that I have already mentioned, I must say that it turned out rather well. For me, it is probably the best episode in the entire 1986 miniseries. Not only did it featured some excellent performances, it was capped with a superb sequence featuring the Battle of Bull Run, directed with skill by Kevin Connor.

Second Look: “PEARL” (1978)

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SECOND LOOK: “PEARL” (1978)

After recently watching the 2001 Michael Bay movie, “PEARL HARBOR”, I decided to watch “PEARL”, the three-part miniseries that aired on ABC back in 1978. Watching it made me realize how many years had passed since I last saw it. 

Directed by Hy Averback and Alexander Singer, and written by Stirling Silliphant; “PEARL” focused upon the experiences and lives of the U.S. military, their families, and some civilians during the few days that surrounded the Japanese Navy’s air attack at Pearl Harbor in the Hawaiian Islands in December 1941. The miniseries featured a handful of subplots that featured the following cast of characters:

-Midge Forrest, the unhappy and promiscuous wife of a U.S. Army colonel, who is still mourning the death of her only child after many years. 

-U.S. Army officer Colonel Jason Forrest, a strict and bigoted disciplinarian who is despised and feared by the men under his command.

-Wealthy Southern-born U.S. Army Captain Cal Lankford, who is Forrest’s second-in-command and Midge Forrest’s lover.

-Obstetrician Dr. Carol Lang, whose suicidal behavior attracts the attention of Captain Lankford.

-U.S. Navy Lieutenant Junior Grade Doug North, a naval officer and military brat who wants to break family tradition and become a civilian.

-Holly Nagata, a Japanese-American journalist for a small newspaper and past childhood friend of Doug’s, who becomes his new love.

-U.S. Army Private Billy Zylowski, a troublesome soldier and talented painter who falls for an inexperienced prostitute named Shirley.

The subplots in “PEARL” seemed so extensive that I thought it would be best to list some (and I mean a lot) of observations that I made it:

*The pettiness of the peacetime military is revealed in great detail, especially the conflict regarding the unwanted Private Finger and a pinball machine.

*The miniseries also conveyed the intelligence and military establishments’ bigotry toward non-whites on Hawaii in great detail. This was especially apparent in the showdown at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel between Dennis Weaver’s Colonel Forrest and Tiana Alexander’s Holly Nagata, which I found particularly delicious.

*I had forgotten that Adam Arkin, who portrayed Private Zylowski, was in this miniseries. His character is an ex-con who had joined the Army to avoid a prison sentence. He is also supposed to be a first-rate boxer. His character strongly reminds me of a New York version of Montgomery Clift’s character in the 1953 movie, “FROM HERE TO ETERNITY” – especially his relationship with the prostitute Shirley.

*One of my favorite scenes featured Captain Lankford’s success in preventing Dr. Carol Lang from committing suicide. Good acting from both Robert Wagner and Lesley Ann Warren.

*One of the most painful moments I have ever seen in “PEARL” turned out to be the scene in which Doug North meets Holly’s Japanese-born parents and experiences their silent bigotry. Very powerful scene and great acting by Tiana Alexander, Gregg Henry, Seth Sakai and Marik Yamoto.

*Watching Colonel Forrest and the general’s wife (portrayed by Audra Lindley) dance and fail to enjoy themselves was one of the funniest moments in the miniseries.

*“WHO IS THAT ORIENTAL PERSON WHO SPOKE TO YOU?” – The reason I had typed that quote in caps was to hint how loudly Audra Lindley said it to Dennis Weaver’s character. Unforgettable moment.

*I was disappointed to notice that some of the female extras at the Officers’ Ball sequence failed to look as if they had stepped out of a photo circa 1941.

*Some might take this the wrong way, but I am speaking from a cinematic point of view. The scenes featuring the Japanese Zeroes flying over Oahu looked very beautiful to me. However, I suspect the scenes are stock footage from the 1970 movie, “TORA! TORA! TORA!”.

*Due to Angie Dickinson’s superb performance, Midge Forrest’s speech about the travails of Army officer wives was absolutely marvelous. And it was highlighted by two wonderful lines spoken by Midge:

“Jason, I look at you and see 10,000 chairs.”
“You and I have been at war for the past eighteen years.”

*Another memorable scene featured FBI agents’ warning to Mr. Nagata about his pigeons and threat about imprisoning the entire family. Their warning and threat led to a disturbing moment in which Mr. Nagata kills his pigeons with his bare hands.

*Some of the footage showing civilians evacuating their homes looked as if they had been shot in the early 1950s, instead of a decade earlier.

*It is interesting how Colonel Forrest is so obsessed with the idea of a Japanese-American fifth-column on the Hawaiian Islands. According to two historians, the U.S. government harbored a similar obsession that went back several decades.

*The most painful and heart wrenching moment in “PEARL” was featured in a scene in which Holly grieved over Doug’s body, while Carol Lang looked on, crying. Great performances by both Tiana Alexander and Lesley Ann Warren. There was a follow-up in which Holly visited the Norths, Doug’s family, at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel. Not only was Alexander great in this scene, but also Richard Anderson, Mary Crosby and especially Marion Ross, as Doug’s family.

*In “PEARL”, the U.S. Army seemed to be the major military force for the Hawaiian Islands. But I could have sworn that in real life, the U.S. Navy served that role. Am I wrong . . . or right?

*Dennis Weaver and Robert Wagner have an interesting moment where their characters – Colonel Forrest and Captain Lankford – declare their loathing of each other. But the scene’s pièce de résistance featured Midge’s grand announcement of her intentions to divorce her husband. Her exit proved to be even more spectacular. I felt it was one of Angie Dickinson’s finest moments on screen and she received great support from Dennis Weaver, Robert Wagner and Brian Dennehy.

*Another interesting scene centered on Admiral Nagumo’s (portrayed by actor Sô Yamamura) criticism of his staff for commencing the attack on Pearl Harbor five minutes too early. What the admiral did not realize was that a snafu made by clerks at the Japanese Embassy in Washington D.C. prevented Japan from officially declaring their intentions to the U.S. government on time.

There were many aspects in “PEARL” that strongly reminded me of “FROM HERE TO ETERNITY”. Both productions featured an unhappily married and promiscuous officer’s wife, an Army private that was unpopular with his company’s non-coms and officers, another Army private falling in love with a prostitute and a setting featuring before, during and after the attack on Pearl Harbor.

But there were differences. The U.S. Navy was strongly represented by the character of Lieutenant j.g. Doug North, his father and some of the men under his command. Doug’s romance with the Japanese-American journalist, Holly Nagata, seemed straight from the 1893 short story, “Madame Butterfly”. Whereas the 1953 movie seemed to feature more enlisted men and non-coms, officers also had major roles in the 1978 miniseries.

While many might turn up their noses at the similarities between “PEARL” and “FROM HERE TO ETERNITY”, there is an ironic footnote to this whole situation. About less than a year after “PEARL” aired on television, NBC followed up with its own miniseries adaptation of “FROM HERE TO ETERNITY”.