“POLDARK” Series One (1975): Episodes One to Four

dcd97d28368599e4991cb9b22528b95e

 

“POLDARK” SERIES ONE (1975): EPISODES ONE TO FOUR

A few years ago, I had tried a stab at the first episode of the 1975-1977 series, “POLDARK”, which starred Robin Ellis. After viewing ten minutes of theatrical acting and dated photography in Episode One on You Tube, I gave up.

Last summer, I read all of the hullaballoo surrounding this new adaptation with Aidan Turner in the lead. Utilizing Netflix, I tried my luck again with the 1975 series and ended up enjoying the first four episodes (I have yet to watch any further episodes) and quite enjoyed it. I enjoyed both versions so much that I took the trouble to purchase both the entire 1975-77 series and the 2015 series. In fact, I have decided to watch both versions simultaneously. But I am here to discuss the first four episodes of the 1975 series.

Series One of “POLDARK”, which aired in 1975, is based upon Winston Graham’s first four novels in the saga – 1945’s “Ross Poldark: A Novel of Cornwall, 1783-1787”, “Demelza: A Novel of Cornwall, 1788-1790” (1946), 1950’s “Jeremy Poldark: A Novel of Cornwall, 1790-1791 and 1953’s “Warleggan (Poldark). Episodes One to Four seemed to be an adaptation of the first novel. The series begins with a young Ross Poldark returning home to Cornwall following military service with the British Army during the American Revolution. Ross spent the last year or two as a prisoner-of-war, unaware that he had been declared dead. He learns from a fellow coach passenger and later, his father’s solicitor that Joshua Poldark had died financially broke. More bad news follow with Ross’ discovery that his Uncle Charles Poldark had promised to sell his estate Nampara to the banking family, the Warleggans. And lady love, Elizabeth Chynoweth, had become engaged to Charles’ son, his cousin Francis, after receiving news of his “death”. The only possessions Ross has left are his father’s estate, Nampara, which is now in ruins, two mines that had been closed for some time and two servants – the drunken Jud and Prudie Paynter – to help him work the estate. Even worse, the Warleggans, who have risen from being blacksmiths to bankers, seemed to be gaining financial control over the neighborhood. In Episode Two, Ross rescues a miner’s daughter named Demelza Carne from a mob trying to use her dog Garrick as part of a vicious dogfight at a local fair. Taking pity on her, he decides to hire her as his new kitchen maid.

When I finally began to embark upon this series, I had no idea of its reputation as one of Britain’s most beloved period dramas. I discovered that “POLDARK” was regarded just as highly in the 1970s, as “DOWNTON ABBEY” had become some thirty-five to forty years later. Mind you, I regard Julian Fellowes’ series as the inferior series. My viewing of the first four episodes of this series made me finally appreciate why it was so highly regarded. It really is first-rate production. However . . . it had its problems. What movie or television production does not?

When it comes to an accurate adaptation of any novel or play, I tend to harbor ambiguous views on the matter. It depends upon how well it serves the story on screen or if it makes sense. Anyone familiar with Graham’s novels know that the 1975 adaptation is not accurate. I had no problems with the production starting with Ross’ stage journey to his home in Cornwall, considering that the novel started with a meeting between Ross’ dying father and his Uncle Charles. I had no problems with Elizabeth’s final reason for marrying Francis – to ensure that Charles Poldark would pay off her father’s debts. This little scenario even included an interesting scene in which Ross had volunteered to use his loan for Wheal Leisure to pay off Mr. Chynoweth’s debts in order to gain Elizabeth’s hand in marriage. Fortunately, she stopped him from committing such a stupid act. But I had a problem with one major change and a few minor ones.

My biggest problem with these first four episodes of “POLDARK” centered on the circumstances that led Ross to marry his kitchen maid, Demelza Carne. Apparently, the series’ producers and screenwriter Jack Pulman must have found Graham’s portrayal of this situation hard to swallow and decided to change the circumstances leading to Ross and Demelza’s marriage. In this version, Ross became drunk following his failure to prevent his former farmhand Jim Carter from being sentenced to prison for poaching. Demelza, who had been harboring a yen for Ross, decided to comfort him with sex. The following morning, Ross decided it would be better if Demelza no longer work at Nampara, so that he would not be tempted to have sex with her again. And what happened? Demelza eventually went to live with her father Tom Carne, now a religious zealot, and his new wife. She also discovered that she was pregnant. To make matter worse, Ross managed to convince his former love, Elizabeth Poldark, to leave his adulterous cousin Francis and live with him.

One, I found it very implausible that a man of Ross’ station and time would marry his kitchen maid. He might sleep with her . . . yes. But marry her? A “responsible” man like Ross would have settled money upon Demelza, find a man of her class willing to accept her as a wife and the baby as his . . . or both. He would not marry her. As for Elizabeth’s willingness to leave Francis for Ross . . . I really found this implausible. Elizabeth is too pragmatic to be willing to sacrifice her respectability to leave her husband for another man. Nor would she be willing to risk losing her son Geoffrey Charles, for Francis would have never allowed her to see the boy again. The only way this whole situation could have worked is if Ross had been in love with Demelza at the time. If he had, he would have never suggested that Elizabeth leave Francis for him.

There were other problems – minor problems – that I found in these first four episodes.h sex. The following morning, Ross decided it would be better if Demelza no longer work at Nampara, so that he would not be tempted to have sex with her again. And what happened? Demelza eventually went to live with her father Tom Carne, now a religious zealot, and his new wife. She also discovered that she was pregnant. To make matter worse, Ross managed to convince his former love, Elizabeth Poldark, to leave his adulterous cousin Francis and live with him.

One, I found it very implausible that a man of Ross’ station and time would marry his kitchen maid. He might sleep with her . . . yes. But marry her? A “responsible” man like Ross would have settled money upon Demelza, find a man of her class willing to accept her as a wife and the baby as his . . . or both. He would not marry her. As for Elizabeth’s willingness to leave Francis for Ross . . . I really found this implausible. Elizabeth is too pragmatic to be willing to sacrifice her respectability to leave her husband for another man. Nor would she be willing to risk losing her son Geoffrey Charles, for Francis would have never allowed her to see the boy again. The only way this whole situation could have worked is if Ross had been in love with Demelza at the time. If he had, he would have never suggested that Elizabeth leave Francis for him.

There were other problems – minor problems – that I found in these first four episodes. One episode featured Francis’ violent encounter with Verity’s wannabee suitor, Captain Blamey and the other, a fight between Ross and his future father-in-law, Tom Carne. And I thought Christopher Barry handled both scenes in a rather clumsy manner. Both situations seemed to be a case of “now you see it, now you don’t”. In Ross’ fight with Carne, the 17 year-old Demelza got into the melee (which did not happen in the novel), allowing her to spout some nonsense about women’s right in one of those “a woman’s travails” speeches that came off as . . . well, clumsy and contrived. It did not help that actress Angharad Rees seemed to be screeching at the top of her voice at the time. In fact, screeching seemed to be the hallmark of Rees’ early portrayal of the adolescent Demelza in an emotional state. Some fans have waxed lyrical over Clive Francis’ portrayal of Francis Poldark. So far, I have yet to see what the big deal was about. Other than three scenes, Francis spent these first four episodes portraying a cold and rather aloof Francis. I found it difficult to get emotionally invested in the character.

Considering all of the problems I had with Episodes One-Four, one would wonder why I enjoyed “POLDARK”. The series may not be perfect, but it was damn entertaining. Some have compared the production to the 1939 film, “GONE WITH THE WIND”. But honestly, it reminds me of the television adaptation of John Jakes’ literary trilogy, “North and South”. Both the Seventies series and the “NORTH AND SOUTH” Trilogy between 1985 and 1994 share so many similarities. Both series featured their own set of flaws, entertaining melodrama, strong characterizations and a historical backdrop. In the case of “POLDARK”, the historical backdrop featured Great Britain – especially Cornwall – after the American Revolution, during the last two decades of the 18th century. It is a period of which I have never been familiar – especially in Britain. I never knew that Britain’s conflict with and the loss of the American colonies had such a negative impact upon the country’s economic state. I had heard of the United States and France’s economic struggles during this period, but I never knew about Britain’s struggles. I also recently learned about the impact of the fallen tin and copper prices on Cornwall, during the 1770s and especially the 1780s. This economic struggle contributed to the slow decline of the aristocracy and the landed gentry for Cornish families like the Poldarks and the Chynoweths.

I thought this economic depression was well-handled by the production team. Not once did the producers, Barry or Pulman rush through Ross’ struggles to establish a new fortune. They also took their time in conveying the struggles of nearly everyone else in the neighborhood – the other members of the Poldark family, the Cynoweths, and especially the working-class. This struggle of the working-class manifested not only Demelza’s story arc, but also that of Jim and Jinny Carter in the first three episodes. This struggled boiled down to a heartbreaking moment in which Jim was caught poaching on a local estate and sentenced to prison – despite Ross’ futile efforts to help him. I noticed that although the Warleggan family loomed menacingly in the background, only one member had made at least two appearances in these first four episodes – Nicholas Warleggan. The most famous member of the family – George Warleggan – had yet to make an appearance.

And despite my complaints about the situation that led to Ross and Demelza’s marriage, I must admit that the emotional journey of Ross and the other leading characters managed to grab my attention. Being familiar with Graham’s novel, I am well aware that Ross’ return, Elizabeth’s decision to marry Francis, Ross’ meeting with Demelza, the marital fallout between Elizabeth and Francis and Ross’ inability to get over losing Elizabeth will have consequences down the road. I have to admit that “POLDARK” did a pretty damn good job in setting up the entire saga . . . despite a few hiccups. I found it interesting that Episode One solely featured Ross’ return and his emotional reaction to Elizabeth’s decision to marry Francis. He did not even meet Demelza until Episode Two.

These first four episodes also set up a conflict between Demelza and Elizabeth. I have mixed feelings about this. Personally, I rather liked how Debbie Horsfield managed to set up a quasi-friendship between the two women in the new adaptation. But since Demelza and Elizabeth were probably doomed not to be friends, I see that screenwriter Jack Pulman decided to immediately go for the jugular and set up hostilities between the pair. In Episode Three, a jealous Demelza had maliciously blamed Elizabeth for Francis’ infidelity, even though she had yet to meet the pair. I found this even more ironic, considering the episode also featured a minor scene in which Elizabeth actually made an attempt to emotionally reach out to Francis. He rejected her due to an assignation with some prostitute. And the whole scenario regarding Ross’ suggestion that Elizabeth leave Francis and Demelza’s pregnancy boiled down to a long scene in which Ross informed Elizabeth of the situation and her angry reaction. Which included calling Demelza a whore. By the end of Episode Four, Pulman and Barry had firmly established hostility between the two women.

Much has been said about the series’ exteriors shot in Cornwall. Yes, they looked beautiful, wild and almost exotic for Great Britain. Not even the faded photography can hide the beauty of the Cornish landscape. I also found John Bloomfield’s costume designs very attractive, but not exactly mind blowing. Also, a few of the costumes for actress Jill Townsend seemed a bit loose – especially in the first two episodes. As for the series’ score written by Kenyon Emrys-Roberts . . . not exactly memorable.

I might as well come to the performances featured in Episodes One to Four. Overall, I found them pretty solid. Although I came away with the feeling that some of the cast members and director Christopher Barry thought “POLDARK” was a stage play. Yes, I found some of the performances a bit theatrical. And I have to include some of the main cast members. I have always liked the Charles Poldark character – not because he was likable. I simply found him rather colorful. And I thought actor Frank Middlemass did an excellent job in conveying this aspect of Mr. Poldark Senior. Jonathan Newth gave a solid, yet intense performance as the barely volatile Captain Blamey. Both Paul Curran and Mary Wimbush gave very colorful performances as Ross’ slothful servants, Jud and Prudie Paynter. And yet, some of that color threatened to become very theatrical. On the other hand, Stuart Doughty gave a solid and subtle performance as Ross’ former servant-turned-miner, Jim Carter. I could also say the same for Jillian Bailey, who portrayed Jim’s wife, Jinny. By the way, fans of the 1983 miniseries, “JANE EYRE” should be able to spot Zelah Clarke (a future Jane Eyre) in a small role as one of the stagecoach passengers in the opening scene of Episode One.

There have been a great deal of praise for Angharad Rees’ portrayal of Demelza Carne, Ross’ kitchen maid and soon-to-be wife. And yes, I believe she earned that praise . . . at least in the second half of Episode Three and all of Episode Four. I found her performance very lively and when the scene demanded it, subtle. I thought she was outstanding in the scene that featured Demelza’s seduction of Ross. However, she was at least thirty or thirty-one when she portrayed Demelza in Series One. And her portrayal of a Demelza in early-to-mid adolescence struck me as loud and over-the-top. Thankfully, the screeching ceased in the second half of Episode Three. Clive Francis’ portrayal of Francis Poldark struck me as somewhat subdued or a bit on the cold side – except in two scenes. One of them featured Francis’ near death inside the Wheal Leisure mine, when he feared Ross would allow him to drown. Another featured his confrontation with Captain Blamey, the sea captain who became romantically interested in Francis’ sister Verity. In both cases, the actor came off as a bit theatrical. But I thought his performance in Episode Four, which featured Elizabeth’s announcement that she would leave Francis, seemed more controlled, yet properly emotional at the same time.

If I have to give awards for the best two performances in these first four episodes, I would give them to Jill Townsend as Elizabeth Chynoweth Poldark and Norma Streader as Verity Poldark. It seemed to me they were the only two members of the cast who managed to avoid any theatrical acting in any of their scenes. Even when their characters were in an emotional state. One of Streader’s finest moments occurred in Season Two, when she expressed her feelings about Captain Blamey in a conversation with her cousin Ross. Despite expressing Verity’s emotions in a fervent manner, Streader still managed to maintain control of her performance. For me, Townsend’s finest moments occurred throughout Episode Four. From the moment Ross suggested that Elizabeth leave Francis for good, Townsend conveyed Elizabeth’s emotional journey throughout this episode – from surprise to hopeful to desperation, relief, happiness, disbelief, anger and finally bittersweet disappointment. I may not have approved the producers’ decision to include a scene featuring Demelza’s pregnancy and Elizabeth’s decision to leave Francis. But dammit, Townsend acted her ass off and gave the best performance from the entire cast during this particular sequence. One of her best scenes featured a one-on-one conversation with Streader’s Verity.

I have seen actor Robin Ellis in other movie and television productions, including 1971’s “SENSE AND SENSIBILITY” and 1981’s “THE GOOD SOLDIER”. If I were to pick his best roles, I would choose two – the passive aggressive American John Dowell in “THE GOOD SOLDIER” and of course, Ross Poldark. The producers of the series selected the right actor to portray the volatile war veteran-turned-mine owner from Graham’s saga. He is Ross Poldark . . . of the 1970s that is. Granted, Ellis had his moments of theatrical acting. There were times during the first four episodes in which I had to turn down my television volume. But despite this, I thought he did an excellent job in capturing all aspects – both good and bad – of his character’s personality. Two scenes featuring his performance caught my attention. Ellis seemed a bit scary and intense when he expressed Ross’ reaction to being rejected by Elizabeth Chynoweth in Episode One. And I thought he gave a poignant performance in the scene that featured Demelza’s seduction of Ross.

There you have it . . . my impression of the first four episodes from the 1975 series, “POLDARK”. So far, this adaptation of the first novel in Winston Graham’s literary series had its share of flaws. But I feel that its virtues overshadowed the former. In fact, I found myself so captivated by Episodes One to Four that I feel more than ready to continue this saga. Onward to Episode Five!

“Dear Orry” [G] – 1/1

“DEAR ORRY”

Here is a small fanfic from the “NORTH AND SOUTH” miniseries that aired in 1985. This story is about the westward journey of newly commissioned Army officer, Charles Main and his westward journey to his new post in Texas, revealed in a letter to his cousin in South Carolina:

“DEAR ORRY”

RATING: [G]
SUMMARY: A view of Charles Main’s journey to Texas, via a series of letters written to his Cousin Orry.
FEEDBACK: deerush76@yahoo.com – Be my guest. But please, be kind.
DISCLAIMER: Charles Main, Orry Main and all other characters related to the North and South trilogy belong to Wolper Productions, Warner Brothers Television and John Jakes.

AUTHOR’S NOTE: Here’s a little story I wrote in letter form. Newly commissioned Army officer, Charles Main, writes a letter to his cousin, Orry Main. The story is a combination of canon from both the miniseries and John Jakes’ 1982 novel.

——–

October 10, 1856
Camp Cooper, Texas

Dear Cousin Orry,

After a month long journey that started in Charleston, I have finally, I have arrived at my new Army assignment. Camp Cooper. It is located in South Texas, on the Clear Fork of the Brazos River. Texas turned out to be more than a pleasant surprise. But I will talk about it, later.

My journey went off smoothly, despite the long distance. The steamer that conveyed me from Charleston, had arrived in New Orleans, six days later. I believe that Madeline LaMotte is from New Orleans. Right? I must say that it was a fine-looking city. Very exotic. I have not encountered so many different types of people since my four years at West Point.

Upon my arrival, I checked into the Saint Charles Hotel, which is popular with many American guests. You will be pleased to know that I did not waste my two days in New Orleans, visiting saloons and sporting houses. Instead, I explored the Old French Quarter, took a ride on the trolley that led from the Quarter to the Garden District – a residential area for many of the city’s well-to-do Americans, and took a brief train ride to Lake Ponchatrain. I also paid a visit to a local fencing hall on my second day, where many of the city’s gentlemen practice the sport. I managed to get into a match with Creole peacock named Emile Lacroix. Needless to say that my fencing had not improved since leaving the Academy. Mister Lacroix later invited me to join his family for supper at a restaurant called Antoine’s, where we ate a delicious meal. By the way, would you please ask Mrs. LaMotte if she has ever heard of the Lacroix family? My two days in New Orleans ended on a pleasant note. The visit was so splendid that I hated to leave. But, Texas awaited me.

Another steamer took me through the Gulf of Mexico, where I finally arrived in Indianola, Texas, a few days later. No one felt more happier to leave that steamer than me. All I had to do was mention I was from South Carolina and the conversation on board turned to Preston Brooks. You know, one of our congressmen who thrashed that Yankee senator in the Senate, last spring. In fact, he offered the others in the saloon a free drink. I realize that as a Southerner, I should be more sympathetic toward Congressman Brooks, but the idea of drinking to celebrate a man’s beating seemed distasteful to me. My reluctance to drink made me a little less popular.

As I had stated at the beginning of this letter, Texas appealed to me the moment I first arrived. The land looked nothing like I had ever seen before. Instead of our dank low country or the Hudson Highlands near West Point, Texas has low rolling hills that make me feel open and free. Not long after my arrival in Indianola, I boarded a stagecoach for San Antonio. Now that was an interesting little city. In a way, it reminded me of New Orleans, but not as grand. The homes seemed to be a mixture of American brick houses, German one-story buildings made of limestone and Spanish-style adobes. I also saw the Alamo, where Congressman Crockett, Jim Bowie and the other Texas freedom fighters took their stand against General Santa Ana. It is hard to believe you ended up fighting against the same man, eleven years later. The people here in San Antonio seemed very friendly. Especially the lovely senoritas. Do not worry, Cousin. You will be relieved to know that I had behaved like a Carolina gentleman.

Not long after my arrival, I reported to Regimental Headquarters, where I met Colonel Robert Lee. He was the Academy’s superintendent during my first two years there. It seems strange that an Army engineer would end up as a calvary regimental commander. I am happy to report that he still remembered me from the Academy. Or at least my riding prowess. Did you or George Hazard ever meet him when you were fighting in Mexico? Colonel Lee’s nephew, Fitz Lee, happens to be an old Academy friend of mine and Billy’s. I understand that he is now serving at Fort Mason.

Both Colonel Lee and Major George Thomas had invited me to supper at the Plaza Hotel in San Antonio. Major Thomas also happens to be a Virginian and Academy graduate – class of 1840. Both seemed to hold Academy graduates in high regard, in compare to the army officers that rose through the ranks. From them I learned that I had been assigned as Company “K”‘s second officer. The following morning, I accompanied the Department of Texas’ paymaster, as he left San Antonio to deliver the pay for various Army forts and camps throughout the region. I had a brief reunion with Fitz Lee at Fort Mason. From him, I learned that many of the Army officers assigned to the Second Calvary are Southern-born. No wonder so many Yankees are complaining.

The final leg of my journey took me from Fort Mason to Camp Cooper, where Company “K” was stationed. Along the way, our party encountered a brief rainstorm. Strange weather in this state. One minute it is hot and the next, it is pouring down buckets. The weather only endured me more to Texas. The only Indians I have encountered so far were a poor bunch who had formed several villages not far from Camp Cooper. I find it hard to believe that these people may be related to the Commanches and other tribes who are causing mayhem along the frontier.

My company commander seemed like a pleasant fellow. His name is Baldwin Wayne and he is an Ohioan who had graduated from the Academy two years before you did – in 1844. Do you remember him? What was he like back then? Captain Wayne informed me that he will not be “K” Company’s commander very long. He will be reassigned next spring. I can only hope that his replacement will prove to be just as easy to serve under. The company’s first officer is another Yankee from Ohio and his name is Lieutenant Lafayette O’Dell. Unlike Captain Wayne and myself, Lieutenant O’Dell started out as an enlisted man, some twenty-five years ago. He was fourteen at the time. Captain Wayne seemed to hold the lieutenant in high regard, despite the latter’s lack of Academy training. In fact, the entire company seems to like O’Dell. I guess I will have to work hard to earn the same kind of respect from the men. It looks I will have my work cut out for me, considering that I seemed to be the only Southerner in the company. Everyone else is either from Ohio, or had emigrated from Europe.

Please give my love to Aunt Clarissa and Cousin Brett. You can even say hello to Ashton for me. Speaking of my ‘dear’ cousin, has she married James Huntoon yet? Was their wedding supposed to be held this fall or next spring? I have forgotten. It is a shame that I will miss it. Honestly. One last thing I want to say, Orry. Thinking of my new situation has reminded me of how much I owe you. You gave a young and resentful boy a second chance to make something of his life. Namely me. Instead of ending up dead in a ditch with a broken neck, or killed in a tavern brawl, I am a West Point graduate and Army officer, serving my country on the Texas frontier. All of this happened to me, because of you. I will never forget your kindness and love and will forever be grateful.

Sincerely your beloved cousin,

2nd Lieutenant Charles Main, U.S.A

THE END

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

northandsouth2 - 1a

 

“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:

northandsouth2-1b northandsouth2 - 1c

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.

The Major Problems of “NORTH AND SOUTH: BOOK II” (1986)

6a00e5500c8a2a88330147e175349a970b-800wi

THE MAJOR PROBLEMS OF “NORTH AND SOUTH: BOOK II” (1986)

In the eyes of many fans of the trilogy of miniseries based upon John Jakes’ saga, ”The NORTH AND SOUTH Trilogy”, the only miniseries not worthy of the entire saga is the third one – ”HEAVEN AND HELL: North and South Book III”. I wish I could agree with them. After all, the production values for ”BOOK III” had not been as impressive as the other two. And of the three miniseries, ”NORTH AND SOUTH: BOOK II” had the best costume designs. But looking at the three miniseries from the prospective of a writer, I have finally come to the conclusion that it was ”BOOK II” (set during the Civil War), and not ”BOOK III” that ended up being a lot more disappointing to me.

None of the three miniseries were exact copies of the novels from which they had been adapted. Changes were made in all three. Despite some flaws, I had no problems with most of the changes in “BOOK I” and “BOOK III”. But I found some of the changes in ”BOOK II” to be very questionable. In fact, some of these changes really did nothing to serve the miniseries’ story, except pad it unnecessarily in order to ensure that it would last six episodes.

Below are some examples of the questionable plotlines I found in “BOOK II”:

*Around the end of Episode I, Brett Main Hazard (Genie Francis) – a South Carolina belle who had recently married Pennsylvania-born army officer, Billy Hazard (Parker Stevenson) – and her maid, Semiramis (Erica Gimpel), had left Washington D.C. just before the Battle of Bull Run (July 21, 1861). The former had received a written note about Madeline LaMotte (Lesley Anne Down)’s kidnapping by her estranged husband (David Carradine) and the injuries that Brett’s mother – Clarissa Main (Jean Simmons) – had suffered following a barn fire at the Main’s South Carolina plantation, Mont Royal. Brett and Semiramis finally reached Mont Royal in November 1861. I have a lot of problems with this.

1) Why was the message about Clarissa and Madeline sent to Brett in Washington D.C. and not to Brett’s older brother, General Orry Main (Patrick Swayze) in Richmond? It would have been easier to reach him, since Richmond was inside Confederate territory.

2) Would it have been easier for Brett and Semiramis to remain in Richmond and wait for Orry to depart for South Carolina? What was the point of them leaving him a message and continuing their journey south? They would have reached Mont Royal a lot sooner.

3) Why did it take them three to four months to reach South Carolina? It took them at least less than a week to travel from Washington D.C. to Richmond, Virginia – despite being delayed by Union troops. They were on horseback. So why did it take them an additional three-and-a-half months to reach Mont Royal in South Carolina?

*Episode I revealed that both George Hazard and Orry Main served as military aides for their respective political leaders – Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis. Between Episode I and early Episode III, George provided information to Lincoln on battle results and on the President’s behalf, interviewed General Ulysses S. Grant in Tennessee, to see if the latter was the right man to take over the Army of the Potomoc in Virginia. George became a field commander right before the Battle of Gettysburg. Orry not only provided battle results and other information to Davis, he also served as some kind of quartermaster and investigator of corruption within the Confederacy. He became a field commander right before the Battle of Fort Steadman in Episode Six. I had a lot of problems with this.

1) Although both George and Orry had graduated from West Point’s Class of 1846 and served in the Mexican-American War, they only served for a duration of at least eighteen months. Both men, due to personal reasons, had left the Army by the late winter/early spring of 1848. How on earth did both managed to acquire such high positions – militarily and politically – at the start of the Civil War, thirteen years later? Even the younger members in their families – Billy Hazard and Charles Main – had more military experience before the war – nearly five years apiece.

2) Neither George or Orry had acquired any further military experiences or participated in any political movements or organizations in their respective home states of Pennsylvania and South Carolina, during those thirteen years between 1848 and 1861.

3) Although George primarily served as an adviser for Lincoln before becoming a field commander, Orry served in a confusing mixture of duties that included military adviser, quartermaster, and investigator. What the hell? It almost seemed as if the screenwriters could not make up their minds on what capacity Orry had served in the Confederate Army, before becoming a field commander during the war’s final month.

4) In the early summer of 1863, George became an artillery commander in the Army of the Potomoc. I am aware that he had graduated from West Point near the top of class, ranking sixth. But in 1846, George had decided to choose the Infantry in which to serve. His only previous military experience before the Battle of Gettysburg was fifteen months as a junior infantry officer during the Mexican-American War. How on earth did he end up in artillery, with no previous experience in that particular field?

George and Orry’s military experiences during the war smacked of a great deal of bad continuity, lack of logic and confusion in this production. I will further explore the

*In Episode Three, despondent over being unable to see Brett for two years, Billy decides to go AWOL following the Battle of Gettysburg (July 1-3, 1863) and head south to South Carolina to see his wife Brett. Upon his arrival at Mont Royal, he stays there less than 24 hours and leaves to return to the Army. He returned to duty in Hiram Burdam (Kurtwood Smith)’s Sharpshooter regiment in late April/early May 1864, in time to participate in the Battle of the Wilderness. And I had problems with this.

1) It took Billy less than a month to travel from Southern Pennsylvania (Gettysburg) to Mont Royal in South Carolina. Yet, it took him at least eight to nine months to rejoin his regiment, who were back in Virginia by the time of his arrival. Why did it take him longer to travel from South Carolina to Virginia, than it did for him to travel from Southern Pennsylvania to South Carolina? He was on horseback.

2) Billy had been AWOL from the Army for at least nine to ten months (July 1863 – late April/early May 1864). Why did Colonel Burdan fail to punish him for abandoning his post without permission . . . for so long? In the spring of 1864, the Union Army was not exactly desperate for an increase in manpower, unlike the Confederate Army. In fact, Billy never even faced a court martial or trial of any kind for his actions. His only punishments were a stern lecture from Burdan and being passed over for a promotion to the rank of captain. This is illogical . . . even for a fictional story.

*Charles Main (Lewis Smith) and Augusta Barclay (Kate McNeil) first met each other while the former was on a scouting mission for the Confederacy and the latter was smuggling medicine in July 1861. They met again, the following year, when Charles appeared at her farm, wounded. In the spring of 1864, following the Battle of the Wilderness, they began a love affair that lasted until they said good-bye for the last time in February 1865. Two months later, following the surrender of the Confederate Army at Appomattox, Charles returned to Barclay Farm and learned that Augusta had died while giving birth to his son, Augustus Charles. Charles learned that Augusta’s South Carolina relatives had taken custody of Charles Augustus Main and returned to Charleston. There, Charles took custody of his son for the first time. I have a problem.

1) Charles and Augusta saw each other for the last time in February 1865. When Charles returned to her farm, two months later, her former servant – Washington (John Nixon) – informed him that she had recently died from giving birth to Charles’ son. Yet, Augusta certainly did not look pregnant, during Charles’ last visit two months ago – when the unborn baby should have been at least six to seven months old. And she was wearing a corset.

2) Following his discovery that he was a father, it did not take Charles very long to return to South Carolina and claim his child. Yet, the recently born Charles Augustus Main looked at least between one to two years old. If that had been the child’s real age, Charles and Augusta’s son would have been born a year earlier – before they had consummated their relationship in May 1864.

*After being driven from Mont Royal by the discovery of a family secret by Ashton Main Huntoon (Terri Garber), Madeline Main (Lesley Anne-Down) settles in Charleston around July-September 1863. The following spring in May 1864, she meets a former slave/refugee named Jim (Bumper Robinson) and his sick mother. Because of this meeting, Madeline decides to offer aid to many of Charleston’s war refugees – whether they are ex-slaves or poor whites. She also learns about Jim and his mother’s personal history. Apparently, they were Tennessee slaves who were freed upon the arrival of Union troops at their former master’s plantation, who decided to make their way to Charleston.

1) WHAT IN THE HELL IS THIS? Why on earth would recently emancipated slaves make their way deep into Confederate territory? Did the writers of the miniseries honestly believe that slaves were that stupid? Jim and his mother were from Tennessee. They could have easily made their way to any of the following cities:

*Nashville, Tennessee – which fell to Union troops in February 1862
*Memphis, Tennessee – captured by the Union in June 1862
*New Orleans, Louisiana – fell to Union troops in April 1862
*Louisville, Kentucky – which remained in the Union throughout the war

*Vicksburg, Mississippi – which fell to Union forces in July 1863

Any of the above cities were closer to the plantation owned by Michael’s former owner and could have provided safe refuge for him and his mother. Certainly not Charleston, South Carolina, which was too far and still Confederate territory by the spring of 1864.

2) The writers could have written Michael and his mother as South Carolina slaves. And yet . . . they would have been wiser to head for Hilton Head, the only safe haven for runaway slaves in South Carolina, until February 1865.

As I had stated earlier, the flaws mentioned in this article are merely samples of many I had spotted in “NORTH AND SOUTH: BOOK II”. Do not get me wrong. I do not dislike the 1986 miniseries. But it featured flaws in its screenplay that makes me doubt the prevailing view among the saga’s fans that it is superior to the last chapter in John Jakes’ tale. Mind you, “HEAVEN AND HELL: NORTH AND SOUTH BOOK III” is far from perfect. But the flaws featured in “BOOK II”makes it easy for me to regard it as my least favorite chapter in the trilogy.

“NORTH AND SOUTH: BOOK I” (1985) – Episode Six “1860-1861” Commentary

northandsouth 6.1

“NORTH AND SOUTH: BOOK I” (1985) – EPISODE SIX “1860-1861” Commentary

We finally come to the last episode of the 1985 miniseries, “NORTH AND SOUTH: BOOK I”. And it is a doozy. This is the episode in which the Hazard and Main families unknowingly say good-bye to the past and present before their lives are turned upside-down by the American Civil War.

Episode Six opens on Presidential Election Day (November 6, 1860), two days after Lieutenant Billy Hazard’s arrival in Charleston, South Carolina; at the end of Episode Five. An excited Brett Main, who had been staying at her sister’s home since her quarrel with their brother Orry at the family’s plantation, Mont Royal anticipates meeting Billy. Brett’s elation over her reunion with her fiancé during a luncheon is dimmed by his anger over Orry’s reluctance to approve their marriage, and a violent encounter with a group of pro-secession thugs hired by Ashton to kill Billy. Following Abraham Lincoln’s election as the new president, the state of South Carolina begin its preparations to secede from the United States. Before secession can be achieved, George Hazard visits Orry at Mont Royal to mend their estrangement and convince the other man to approve Billy and Brett’s upcoming marriage. The two men go to Charleston to inform the engaged couple. Unfortunately, Billy receives orders to report to Fort Moultrie, which turns out to be a protracted stay following South Carolina’s secession from the Union. Following Texas’ secession a month later, Charles Main resigns from the U.S. Army and heads back home to South Carolina.

Less than two months later, Billy receives orders from his commander, Major Robert Anderson to report to the War Department in Washington D.C. and deliver dispatches. He uses the opportunity to marry Brett at Mont Royal. The wedding finally allows Ashton to plot her revenge against Billy, using Forbes LaMotte’s help. Fortunately for Billy, Madeline LaMotte overhears Forbes, his Uncle Justin and friend Preston Smith going over Ashton’s plot. With great difficulty and pain from Justin, Madeline escapes from Resolute and heads for Mont Royal to warn the Mains. Billy and Brett are ambushed by Forbes and Preston on their way to the rail stop. Just as Billy and Forbes engage in a duel that would have left the former with a useless pistol, Charles arrives in time to assist his friend. The conflict ends with Forbes’ death at Billy’s hand, Justin bereft of his nephew and wife, and Ashton banished from Mont Royal by Orry. In April 1861, Orry mortgages Mont Royal to return money that George had invested in their sawmill. During his journey north, Major Anderson had been forced to surrender his command at Fort Sumter. With small difficulty, Orry arrives at Lehigh Station, where he meets George and Constance’s new daughter. Also, a vengeful Virgilia incites a mob to attack the Hazard home and lynch Orry. Fortunately, George manages to intimidate his neighbors into calling off the attack. Virgilia leaves Belvedere for the last time with some loot in hand. And George and Orry bid each good-bye before the latter departs Lehigh Station for his journey back to South Carolina.

I must say that “NORTH AND SOUTH: BOOK I” certainly ended with a bang. And a very satisfied one. There were some problems. I found Terri Garber’s performance in a scene that featured Ashton’s rant against Brett and Billy rather hammy. She gave a great performance throughout most of the miniseries. But this one scene was probably her weakest moment. I was very curious over Elkhannah Bent’s appearance in Washington D.C. on the day of President Lincoln’s inauguration. He was still wearing a U.S. Army uniform, despite the fact that his home state of Georgia had already seceded two months earlier. In fact, I found it surprising that Charles Main did not resign from the Army, until two months after South Carolina’s secession. The miniseries continued its irritating habit of expressing an erroneous length of time for the period Madeline La Motte was being drugged by her husband. But the episode’s real problem proved to be the character of Forbes LaMotte, nephew of Justin LaMotte.

I had no problems with actor William Ostrander’s portrayal of Forbes. He gave a subtle and skillful performance. This was especially apparent in one scene in which Forbes, Justin and Preston discussed Ashton’s plan to have Billy murdered. David Carradine was fine, despite a few hammy moments. On the other hand, David Weaver’s portrayal of Preston Smith struck me as rather stagey . . . over-the-top. Only Ostrander managed to project any villainy with real subtlety. While watching Episode Six, I found myself wondering why Forbes had even bothered to help Ashton kill Billy. Why? I understood why in Jakes’ novel. The literary Forbes was in love with Brett. He did not take her rejection of him no better than Ashton took Billy’s rejection. I never got the impression that Forbes was in love with either Brett or Ashton in the miniseries. Forbes seemed to regard Brett’s rejection as a minor annoyance. And his feelings toward Ashton seemed to be based on pure lust and amusement. So why did he agree to murder Billy on Ashton’s behalf? The screenwriters’ portrayal of Forbes is probably one of the miniseries’ major failures.

However, I still regard Episode Six as one of the miniseries’ better chapters. Once again, Richard T. Heffron proved his talent for directing crowd scenes. I was especially how he handled the growing frenzy and chaos of “secession fever” that permeated Charleston in two scenes – namely Billy and Brett’s encounter with street thugs and the night Charleston announced South Carolina’s secession from the Union. Ironically, the latter sequence began in Ashton’s dining room, where Brett, Orry and George heard the bells of St. Michael’s Church announced the secession. This latter sequence not only benefited from Heffron’s depiction of the celebration in the streets, but also the Mains and George’s somber reaction to the news. Other first-rate crowd scenes were in the sequence featuring Orry’s northbound journey to Lehigh Station. They include the announcement of Major Anderson’s surrender of Fort Sumter on a train headed for Philadelphia, Orry’s encounter with fervent Unionists in that city, and his and George’s encounter with a lynch mob instigated by Virgilia. The miniseries also featured one exceptional action sequence – namely Ashton and Forbes’ attempt to murder Billy. From the moment Ashton learned of Billy and Brett’s departure from Mont Royal to Forbes’ death at the hands of Billy, this sequence crackled with energy, excellent pacing and suspension; thanks to Heffron’s direction and a well-written score by Bill Conti. The episode also benefited from Stevan Larner’s sweeping photography, especially in the secession sequences and the one featuring the murder attempt on Billy. In fact Larner earned a well-deserved Emmy nomination for his work in this episode. Vicki Sánchez offered some lovely costume designs for this episode. I was veryenamored of two particular designs worn by Terri Garber and Wendy Kilbourne:

northandsouth 6.2 northandsouth 6.4

But this day dress worn by Genie Francis really appealed to me:

tumblr_m6yd5fEX5X1rt697ao1_1280 tumblr_m6yd5fEX5X1rt697ao2_1280

Like the miniseries’ other episodes, the dramatic scenes for Episode Six proved to be its pride and joy. Both James Read and Patrick Swayze provided some of their best moments in two scenes – one that featured George Hazard’s visit to South Carolina in the episode’s first half, and the other that featured Orry Main’s perilous journey to Pennsylvania. John Stockwell had his best moment as Billy Hazard in a scene that featured Billy’s anger over Orry’s refusal to approve Brett’s marriage to him. He had ample support from Genie Francis. I also enjoyed Jonathan Frakes and Wendy Fulton’s performances in a scene in which Stanley and Isabel Hazard discussed their plans to take over Hazard Iron during George’s absence during the war. It is a pity that Fulton did not reprise her role as Isobel. Both Mary Crosby and Deborah Rush gave solid performances, but Fulton seemed to personify the literary character. Hal Holbrook made his first appearance as President Abraham Lincoln in a fine and subtle performance – a skill that he will maintain in“NORTH AND SOUTH: BOOK II”. However, the best dramatic scene featured Constance Hazard’s attempt to convince her sister-in-law Virgilia to stay with the family in Lehigh Station, following the debacle with the lynch mob. Both Wendy Kilbourne and Kirstie Alley performed the hell out of that scene.

Despite certain flaws I had detected in Episode Six, I must admit that I really enjoyed it. The episode not only featured some exciting historical moments and a first-rate action sequences, but also some excellent dramatic scenes that brought out the best in producer David L. Wolper, director Richard T. Heffron and the cast. Episode Six proved to be the first example of how all three miniseries seemed to end on a positive note, production wise. “NORTH AND SOUTH: BOOK I” might be flawed, it is still a joy to watch and one of my favorite miniseries of all time.

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

northandsouth 5.4

 

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:

northandsouth 5.5 northandsouth 5.6

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

northandsouth 5.7

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:

northandsouth 5.8

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.

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

northandsouth 4.1

 

“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:

northandsouth 4.3 northandsouth 4.4 northandsouth 4.5

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.

“NORTH AND SOUTH: BOOK I” (1985) – Episode Three “1848-1854” Commentary

northandsouth 3.1

 

“NORTH AND SOUTH: BOOK I” (1985) – EPISODE THREE “1848-1854” Commentary

Episode Three of the 1985 miniseries, “NORTH AND SOUTH: BOOK I”, immediately picked up where the previous episode left off. And unlike Episode Two, this particular episode stretches over a slightly longer period of time of six-and-a-half years – between the late winter of 1848 and the early summer of 1854.

This episode began less than 24 four hours after Episode Two left off. Following his resignation from the U.S. Army, George Hazard paid a visit to his friend Orry Main to inform the latter of his upcoming wedding to Constance Flynn and to invite Orry to serve as best man. In Episode Three, Orry escorts George to the local rail stop in order for the latter to catch a northbound passenger train. Before George’s train arrives, the two friends spot escaped Mont Royal slave Priam attempt to board a passing freight train. Orry prevents Priam’s escape. But as he prepares to shoot the slave in order to prevent the latter from enduring more punishment, George begs Orry to simply allow Priam to go. An angry Orry concedes to George’s request and Priam continues his escape to the North. About a month later, George marries Constance at a local Catholic chapel in Lehigh Station with Orry and the Hazard family in attendance. During the wedding reception, Maude Hazard announces that George and older brother Stanley will operate Hazard Iron together, while Stanley remains control of the finances. And Virgilia Hazard invites Orry to attend an abolitionist meeting where she is scheduled to serve as one of the speakers. Several months later, a major accident at Hazard Iron leads Maude to place financial control of the company in George’s hands, much to the consternation of Stanley and his shrewish wife, Isabel.

The story eventually jumps to the early 1850s, which finds the Main family and others attending the funeral of Tillet Main. One of the attendants is Orry’s Cousin Charles, who has been staying with the family since the death of his parents. Unbeknownst to Orry, sister Ashton has developed a slight lust toward her cousin. However, Charles is attracted to house slave Semiramis, much to the consternation of both Ashton and Jones. Speaking of the latter, he is fired by Orry, who now serves as master of Mont Royal; and later has a fight with Charles at a local tavern. Also, Charles has become involved with a local belle named Sue Marie Smith and is later challenged to a duel by her fiancé Whitney Smith. When Orry helps train Charles for the duel, the two cousins become close. He also suggests that Charles considers a career as an Army officer and arranges for Charles’ entry into the West Point Academy. Orry discovers during the Mains’ visit to Pennsylvania that George has made arrangements for younger brother Billy into the Academy, as well. Also during the South Carolina family’s visit, Virgilia incurs the wrath of her family and the Southern visitors with her comments about the recent Compromise of 1850. Also, George and Orry become partners in the construction of a cotton mill in South Carolina, to the pleasure of both Stanley and Isabel, who believe that George has made a serious mistake. This episode also features Madeline La Motte’s discovery of her husband’s sexual tryst with a slave, and encounters his wrath. George joins Constance in her activities with the Undercover Railroad. She also convinces him to bring Virgilia along with the Hazard family’s visit to Mont Royal by the end of the episode.

As one can see a great deal occurred in this episode. This is not surprising, considering that Episode Three has a longer time span than the other five episodes and stretches across the fringe of two decades. Because of this longer time span and the fact that so much occurred in this episode, I cannot help but wonder if this episode would have benefited from an additional 30-45 minutes. Speaking of time, this is the first time a major blooper regarding the saga’s time span. Following the accident at Hazard Iron in the summer of 1848, the story jumped five years to 1853. The reason this is impossible is that during the Mains’ visit to Pennsylvania a few months after Tillet Main’s funeral, both George and Orry revealed that their younger kinsmen – Billy Hazard and Charles Main – would be entering West Point later that fall. Like I said . . . this is impossible, considering that both Billy and Charles will graduate from West Point in 1856 in the following episode. There is no way in the world those two will spend only three years at the West Point Military Academy. Tillet Main’s death should have occurred either in late 1851 or early 1852. Another scene featured Madeline LaMotte stumbling across her husband Justin LaMotte in a tryst with a female slave at Salvation Chapel, where she and Orry usually meet. My question is . . . why on earth would LaMotte go out of his way to have a rendezvous with one of his slaves, when he could have easily went to her quarters or have her sent to his room?

Although the character of Semiramis has been featured since Episode One, this episode ended up being the only one in which she had a prominent speaking role. Naturally, Erica Gimpel was excellent in the role, I suspect that the writers only used her character in this episode as a set up for the expansion of her role in “NORTH AND SOUTH: BOOK II (1986) – including her attraction to Charles Main. I have a deep suspicion that Semiramis was more or less wasted in this miniseries, because Episode Three will prove to be her last appearance until the next miniseries. Perhaps the roles of Semiramis and the other slaves in“NORTH AND SOUTH: BOOK I” could be seen as indicative of the writers and producers’ limited attempt to explore the impact of slavery in mid-19th century America. Perhaps I am being a bit too harsh. But the saga’s exploration of the African-American characters seemed a bit more broad in the second and third miniseries that it was in the first.

It did not help that both John Jakes and the writers who adapted his novel for television managed to create a major blooper regarding the institution of slavery. Both the novel and the miniseries featured an abolitionist meeting in Philadelphia where Virgilia Hazard proved to be one of the speakers. First of all, the producers hired actor Robert Guillaume to portrayed famous African-American abolitionist, Frederick Douglass, who also served as one of the meeting’s speakers. Mind you, Guillaume gave an excellent performance. But he was at least 57 when he appeared in this episode. But the abolitionist meeting occurred in the early spring of 1848 . . . when Douglass was just barely 30 years old. Fifty-seven . . . thirty. Hmmm . . . talk about a historical blooper. Virgilia’s speech centered on the topic of slave breeding. Naturally, Orry Main, who was at the meeting, expressed outrage and claimed that her accusations were false. Both George and Constance – who were also at the meeting – shared his feelings. Even Jakes seemed to support this belief in his novel. But despite her lurid words, Virgilia was right. Slave breeding was practiced in pre-Civil War America. Why would Jakes or the writers who wrote the miniseries treat this subject as some lurid fantasy in Virgilia’s mind?

Fortunately, Episode Three had its virtues. It featured another first-rate performance from Kirstie Alley as the volatile Virgilia Hazard. Not only did she give what I believe what was the best performance in the episode, she had at least two dazzling costumes:

tumblr_m5k4wuW3mP1rt697ao1_1280
1281

Other cast members such as Patrick Swayze, James Read, Inga Swenson, Wendy Kilbourne, Jean Simmons, Jonathan Frakes, Erica Gimpel, Tony Franks, David Odgen Stiers and Wendy Fulton also gave excellent performances. However, it is obvious this episode, especially the 1850s sequences, were all about the younger generation. Actors John Stockwell, Genie Francis, Terri Garber and Lewis Smith made their debuts in this episode as Billy Hazard and the three younger Mains – Brett, Ashton and Charles. All four did a great job in establishing their characters. I was especially impressed by Francis and Garber who did an excellent job in establishing the complicated relationship between sisters Brett and Ashton Main in a delicious scene featured in their Mont Royal bedroom. There were other scenes that I found not only enjoyable, but well acted – the Hazard Iron accident, the Philadelphia abolitionist meeting (despite a few historical bloopers), Orry’s blooming relationship with his younger cousin Charles, Virgilia’s quarrel with Isabel Hazard and Ashton Main during the Mains’ Northern visit and Constance’s revelation of her Underground Railroad activities to George. The episode ended with a deliciously funny scene between Read and Alley, when Virgilia convinces brother George to allow her to accompany the family south to Mont Royal.

With Virgilia and the rest of the Hazards leaving Lehigh Station for their trip to South Carolina, the story is set to get even more interesting in the next episode. And I cannot wait to see what will happen.

“THE BUTLER” (2013) Review

ht_the_butler_mi_130815_16x9_608

 

“THE BUTLER” (2013) Review

When I first saw the trailer for “THE BUTLER”, I resisted the urge to see it. I have nothing against films about the African-American experience. I could not wait to see Quentin Tarantino’s pre-Civil War opus, “DJANGO UNCHAINED”. But there was something about the trailer for “THE BUTLER” that turned me off. It had that dignified, pretentious aura that marred “THE KING’S SPEECH”and “NORTH AND SOUTH: BOOK II” for me. I was determined to avoid it. But thanks to my family, I could not avoid it in the end. 

Directed by Lee Daniels and written by Danny Strong, “THE BUTLER” was loosely inspired by the life of former White House butler, Eugene Alley. Now, when I say “loosely inspired”, I meant it. Contrary to what many have claimed, the movie was not based upon Allen’s life. Actor-turned-screenwriter Danny Strong read an article in the The Washington Post called “A Butler Well Served by This Election” by Will Haygood. Inspired by Allen’s 34 years as a White House butler, Strong created the character of Georgia-born Cecil Gaines, who witnessed the murder of his sharecropper father by the plantation owner who also raped his mother. The estate owner’s elderly mother reassigns Cecil to being a house servant. Another decade pass before Cecil decides its time to leave the cotton plantation. He makes his way for parts unknown, but the Great Depression in the form of hunger and unemployment leads him to break into a pastry shop for food. The shop’s servant, Maynard, helps him get a job and later, recommends him for a job at a Washington D.C. hotel. During his two decades at the hotel, Cecil marries a woman named Gloria and they conceive two sons, Louis and Charlie. Then in 1957, Cecil is hired for a butler position at the White House and spends the next three decades working there. His job not only gives Cecil the opportunity to meet seven U.S. presidents, but also threatens his marriage to Gloria and creates tension between him and his activist older son, Louis.

In the end, I am glad that I saw “THE BUTLER”. It turned out to be a lot better than I had assumed. I have to give kudos to Danny Strong for creating a fascinating story that mingled history with personal drama. And Lee Daniels did a fabulous job of transforming Strong’s tale to the screen. More importantly, “THE BUTLER” managed to avoid that annoying and pretentious air that have tainted a good number of historical dramas in the past. Except in perhaps two scenes. Watching “THE BUTLER” reminded me of an old NBC miniseries that aired back in 1979 called “BACKSTAIRS AT THE WHITE HOUSE”, which told the story of a mother/daughter pair named Margaret Rogers and Lillian Rogers Parks, who worked as White House housemaids between 1909 and 1961.

What really impressed me about the plot for “THE BUTLER” is how Cecil’s past and profession had such an impact upon his adult life. Witnessing his mother’s rape and his father’s death seemed to have an impact upon Cecil’s psyche. In a way, these events led him to develop an obsequious personality that served him well,professionally. But his obsequiousness also led him to fear and oppose his son Louis’ participation in the Civil Rights movement for many years. I must admit that those sequences featuring Louis’ involvement with the Freedom Riders during the early and mid 1960s struck me as both fascinating and harrowing. Cecil and Louis’ estrangement deepened when younger son Charlie was killed during the Vietnam War . . . and Louis failed to appear at the funeral for personal reasons. And as I had earlier pointed out, Cecil’s job also had an impact on his marriage to Gloria. She resented how his profession kept him away for long hours, leading her to contemplate an adulterous affair with a neighbor.

As much as Daniels and Strong emphasized the impact of Cecil’s job upon his private life, they allowed the audiences glimpses of his interactions with not only the presidents who occupied the White House during his tenure, but also with his fellow servants – especially Carter Wilson and James Holloway. The movie featured interactions between Cecil and five U.S. presidents – Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, Richard M. Nixon and Ronald Reagan. If I had to select my favorite presidential segment, it would have to be Cecil’s interactions with Johnson, whose penchant for the occasional racial slur I had learned about, years ago. I found those scenes hilarious and sardonic – especially Carter’s sarcastic reaction to Johnson’s announcement about the Civil Rights bills. There were three scenes I found particularly interesting – Cecil’s eavesdropping of Reagan’s discussion with GOP politicians regarding South Africa’s apartheid policy, Kennedy’s revelation of his knowledge regarding Louis’ arrests and involvement in the Civil Rights Movement; and Nixon’s appearance (when he was Vice-President) in the servants’ work room in an effort to recruit their votes during the 1960 Presidential Election. I also enjoyed the private moments between Cecil and his two colleagues that eventually spread to his home, when they began spending off hours with him and his family.

Production-wise, “THE BUTLER” is a beautiful movie to behold. Andrew Dunn’s photography provided sharp and colorful images of Cecil’s life throughout the 20th century. Tim Galvin’s production designs certainly benefited from Dunn’s work. Then again, Galvin did a superb job in recapturing those 80-odd years of Cecil’s life with great accuracy. This was especially apparent in the period featuring Cecil’s first decade as a butler for the White House – between the late 1950s and early 1970s. I can also say the same about Ruth E. Carter’s work as the film’s costume designer. Not only were they beautiful to look at, I was also impressed by how she recaptured the fashion styles of each period featured in the movie. Here are a few examples of Carter’s designs:

DF02322R_a_p DF18633R_a_p

a_560x0

As much as I had enjoyed “THE BUTLER”, I cannot deny that it had its share of flaws. Earlier, I had complimented the movie for its lack of pretentiousness – except in two scenes. One of those scenes that seemed to reek of pretentiousness featured Cecil’s interaction with President Eisenhower. The scene began with Eisenhower ordering the U.S. Army troops to protect the lives and rights of a group of African-American high students integrating a Little Rock, Arkansas high school. The scene eventually segued into Eisenhower reminiscing about his late father to Cecil. And although the scene’s drama was portrayed in a straightforward manner by Forest Whitaker and Robin Williams, it seemed to reek of sentimentality and pretentiousness that I found annoying. Another scene that I found off-putting proved to be Cecil’s encounter with President Nixon in the aftermath of the Watergate scandal. The entire scene seemed to have come straight from Cinematic Nixon 101. It featured a slightly drunk Nixon, lounging on a White House sofa, while spouting self doubts about his political abilities and integrity. I found the scene boring, pretentious and very unoriginal. In fact, I would swear I had seen similar views of Nixon in at least two other films.

I would even go as far to say that the movie’s main weakness seemed to be its portrayals of the U.S. Presidents featured. For some reason, most of the actors who portrayed those presidents in the movie seemed to be miscast. I had nothing against Robin Williams’ performance as Dwight D. Eisenhower. But I took one look at him and was reminded of the character’s predecessor – Harry S. Truman. Really. Liev Schreiber struck me as being at least ten to fifteen years too young to be portraying Lyndon B. Johnson. And yet . . . he did such as great job as Johnson that I am willing to allow the issue of his age to slide. John Cusak was not only too young, but also too slender for his role as Richard M. Nixon. In my opinion, he was definitely the wrong actor for the job. As for Alan Rickman . . . hmmm. Well, if I must be honest, I found his portrayal of Ronald Reagan very effective in a subtle way. The only other piece of casting that seemed to be spot on proved to be James Marsden as John F. Kennedy. Not only did he give a pretty good performance, but his Boston accent seemed decent. “THE BUTLER” also featured the appearances of two First Ladies – Minka Kelly as Jacqueline Kennedy and Jane Fonda as Nancy Reagan. Kelly did a solid job as Jackie Kennedy, especially in one scene that featured the First Lady’s return to the White House after the death of her husband. And Fonda gave a very entertaining performance as the ambitious and slightly controlling Nancy Reagan.

Since I am on the subject of acting, I might as express my views on those performances by the main cast. “THE BUTLER”featured some solid work from cast members such as Colman Domingo, who portrayed the White House maitre d that hired Cecil in a rather funny scene; Clarence Williams III, who gave a poignant portrayal of an elderly man who first trained Cecil to become a professional waiter; Yaya DaCosta, who did an excellent job of developing the character of Carol Hammie (Louis’ girlfriend) from a college student to a hardened activist; Vanessa Redgrave, who gave a brief, yet memorable performance as the elderly mother of the elderly plantation owner who caused havoc within the Gaines family during the 1920s; Alex Pettyfer, as the temperamental landowner, who managed to be effectively scary with very little dialogue; and Mariah Carey, who was surprisingly effective as Cecil’s victimized mother. It was great to see Cuba Gooding Jr., who gave a very entertaining performance as the fast-talking White House head butler Carter Wilson, who becomes a long-time friend of Cecil’s. Lenny Kravitz gave a subtle performance as Cecil’s other White House colleague, the more educated James Holloway. And Terrence Howard gave an excellent performance as the Gaines’ somewhat sleazy neighbor, Howard, who becomes interested in Gloria. He was especially brilliant in one scene in which his attempts to seduce Gloria into having an affair with him.

But in my opinion, the best performances came from the movie’s three leads – Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey and David Oyelowo. This is the third or fourth time I have seen British-born Oyelowo portray an American character. And I am still amazed at his grasp of an American accent. More importantly, he did a wonderful job in his portrayal of Louis Gaines, Cecil’s older son who becomes hardcore activist over the years, aging from 17 years old to a man in his late 60s. While watching “THE BUTLER”, I found myself wondering how many years have passed since Oprah Winfrey had a major role in a movie. The last major role I could recall was her performance in the 1998 drama, “BELOVED”. Watching her portray Cecil’s strong-minded wife, Gloria, reminded me how much of a superb actress she really is. There were two scenes that reminded me how skillful she really is – her bedroom rant against the demands of Cecil’s job and her angry response to Louis and Carol’s derogatory comments about actor Sidney Poitier. I really do not know what to say about Forest Whitaker’s performance in the title role. Personally, I feel that if went on about Whitaker’s performance in this movie, this article would stretch even longer. The man was brilliant. He really was. Whitaker did a superb job in developing Cecil from the 35-40 something obsequious butler to the 90 year-old man, looking back on his life and career. And I believe that Cecil Gaines is one of the best roles of his career. It would be a crime if he never receive an Academy Award for his performance.

I have noticed that “THE BUTLER” has received some mixed reviews from the movie critics. And most of these reviews seemed to be in the extreme from high praise to accusations of clumsy direction from Lee Daniels or equally clumsy writing from Danny Strong. I am not going to pretend that “THE BUTLER” is a perfect movie. It has its flaws. But I feel that its virtues more than outweighed its flaws. And thanks to Daniels’ direction, Strong’s screenplay and a superb cast led by Forest Whitaker and Oprah Winfrey, I feel that “THE BUTLER” is one of the best historical dramas I have seen in years.

“NORTH AND SOUTH: BOOK I” (1985) – Episode Two “1844-1848” Commentary

northandsouth 2.1

 

“NORTH AND SOUTH: BOOK I” (1985) – EPISODE TWO “1844-1848” Commentary

Unlike Episode One, the second episode of the 1985 miniseries, “NORTH AND SOUTH: BOOK I” covered a slightly longer time span. This episode focused on George Hazard and Orry Main’s personal and professional lives for a period of three years and five (or six) months – between the fall of 1844 and the early winter of 1848. This episode not only covered their last two years at the West Point Academy, but also their military experiences during the Mexican-American War

Episode Two opens during the fall of 1844, in which George and Orry have embarked upon their third year at the West Point Academy. Orry has been sleep walking through most of his courses, due to his unhappiness over his love Madeline Fabray’s recent marriage to his father’s neighbor, Justin La Motte. But Orry’s apathy over his personal life disappears when he and George begin to notice upperclassman Elkhannah Bent’s continuing abuse toward their fellow classmate, Ned Fisk. The two friends and classmates George Pickett, George McClellan and Thomas Jackson decide to do something about Bent by setting up the latter to get caught with a local prostitute, who happened to be a favorite of one of the Academy’s instructors, Lieutenant DeJong. Although their plan succeeds, George and Orry’s actions earn them Bent’s undying antipathy which will have long lasting consequences upon their families.

Bent’s first chance for revenge occurs during the Battle of Churubusco in August 1847, when he orders the pair to lead their platoons to impossible position that could leave them slaughtered. Bent’s orders also results in Orry getting seriously wounded in the leg. While George waits for Orry to recover right after the war’s official ending in February 1848, he meets and falls in love with his future wife – Constance Flynn, the daughter of Irish-born Army officer, Major Patrick Flynn. It does not take long for George to propose marriage to her. He also receives word of his father’s death and resigns his Army commission to help his family operate Hazard Iron. Due to his wound, Orry also leaves the Army and returns to South Carolina and Mont Royal, a despondent man with a permanently lame leg.

As usual, Episode Two features some changes from John Jakes’ 1982 novel. One, George met Constance in Texas, before his and Orry’s arrival in Mexico. And Constance’s father was an attorney, not a military doctor. The miniseries also dismissed George and Orry’s failed efforts to expose Bent as a brutal military leader before the Battle of Churubusco. Unlike the miniseries, Orry lost one of his arms in the novel. And when Orry returned to Mont Royal in the miniseries, his Cousin Charles had yet to make an appearance.

Like Episode OneEpisode Two was a first-rate chapter in the miniseries saga with a few flaws that more or less irritated me. However, I was very impressed at how director Richard T. Heffron and cinematographer Stevan Larner handled some of the episode’s major scenes – especially the ones that featured the Mains’ barbecue in honor of both Orry and George, the latter’s first meeting with future wife Constance Flynn at an Army ball in Mexico City, and especially the Battle of Churubusco. Three major crowd scenes in one 97-minutes episode. Very impressive. I especially enjoyed how he used the camera to take in all of the details of the Mains’ barbecue at Mont Royal, using Madeline and Justin LaMotte’s arrival to begin the scene. First of all, I would like to touch upon the episode’s costumes. Vicki Sánchez’s work continued to impress me – especially in two of my favorite costumes worn by both Wendy Kilbourne and Lesley-Anne Down:

northandsouth 2.3 northandsouth 2.4

More importantly, Episode Two featured some first-rate dramatic scene. Two of them – ironically – featured slaves being punished. One of the Mains’ slaves, Priam, was punished for drunken behavior at the family’s barbecue in one particular scene. Heffron and Larner utilized unusual camera angles and lighting to emphasize the horror of Priam being branded on the cheek by overseer Salem Jones. Along with the above, the scene’s horror became even more effective, thanks to David Harris (Priam) and Tony Frank’s (Salem Jones) performances. The second scene featured Justin LaMotte’s whipping of a slave to discover if any of his slaves had information on Priam’s escape from Mont Royal. There were no unusual camera angles or lighting used in this scene, just casual brutality, thanks to Heffron’s direction and David Carradine’s performance. And a close look at Carradine’s costume would reveal flecks of blood on his white shirt.

This episode also featured other first-rate dramatic scenes. One of those scenes featured excellent performances by James Read and Patrick Swayze in an argument between George and Orry following Priam’s punishment. The irony of this argument is that Orry’s reaction to George’s criticism of slavery was a great deal more volatile than George’s reaction to his criticism of Northern wage slavery in Episode One. The LaMottes had their own memorable fight, following Madeline’s comments about slavery and secession at the Mains’ barbecue, thanks to Carradine and Lesley-Anne Down’s performances. Philip Casnoff’s memorably creepy performance as Elkhannah Bent added a great deal of depth to at least two scenes. One of them featured Bent’s personal declaration of war to both George and Orry after they had succeeded to get him kicked out of West Point. The second scene featured Bent seeking help from his illegitimate father – a Northern congressman – to get him a commission in the Army after being forced to leave the Academy. Gene Kelly gave a brief, yet excellent performance as Bent’s father and his obvious reluctance to view Bent as his son, along with Casnoff’s performance, produced a rare moment in which I actually felt a glimmer of sympathy for Bent.

There were other performances that impressed me. Mitchell Ryan was excellent as the no-nonsense Tillet Main who angrily defended his decision to punish Priam to Orry. Olivia Cole was allowed to display more of her excellent acting skills in an intense scene in which Maum Sally stops Madeline from interrupting LaMotte’s whipping of a slave. Robert Mitchum gave a charming performance as the observant and slightly roguish Army doctor, Major Patrick Flynn. Andy Stahl continued his first-rate performance as Ned Fisk in his second and last appearance in the 1985 miniseries. Episode Two also featured the introduction of Wendy Kilbourne as George Hazard’s love and future wife, Constance Flynn. Utilizing an Irish accent must have been difficult for her . . . at first. Her accent seemed a bit exaggerated in her first scene in which Constance meets George for the first time at the ball in Mexico City. But Kilbourne quickly adapted to the accent and came out smelling like a rose. More importantly, she infused both a charm and a sardonic wit that has made Constance one of my favorite characters in the saga.

I did have a major problem with Episode Two. Do not get me wrong. I have always thought Patrick Swayze and Lesley-Anne Down had a good, solid screen chemistry. But why oh why did the screenwriters insist upon forcing them to spew so much drippy dialogue? My God! How I grew to hate it! Viewers received a first hint of this at the end of Episode One. InEpisode Two, it simply got worse. Why? The dialogue became hammier and the episode featured two wince-inducing scenes between Orry and Madeline. Let me correct myself. Make that three. One featured a conversation between the two at the barbecue, the second at Salvation Chapel on the day after the barbecue, and the third at the end of the episode, following Orry’s permanent return to Mont Royal and Priam’s escape.

As it turned out, I had another problem . . . and it featured a scene between Madeline and Priam. After escaping from Mont Royal, the latter made his way to the slave quarters at Resolute, the LaMotte plantation. One of LaMotte’s house slaves summoned Madeline to her cabin, where the plantation mistress tried to convince Priam to return to Mont Royal before agreeing to assist him in his escape. This entire scene featured Priam in tears, while Madeline talked to him. And for the likes of me, I do not understand why he was crying? Why was Priam crying? Was this a reaction to Madeline’s initial attempt to convince him to return to Mont Royal? Or were his tears a sentimental reaction to the lose of those years before Salem Jones’ arrival at Mont Royal? Judging from his dialogue, his only reason for leaving the Mains’ plantation seemed to be their brutal overseer. What the hell? What happened to the literary Priam who not only hated Salem Jones, but also angrily resented the Main family for keeping him in bondage. It seemed as if Priam had lost his balls in his transition from John Jakes’ novel to the television screen. Why was it so important for the screenwriters to make Priam less aggressive in his attitude toward the Mains? How gutless.

Despite these flaws, “NORTH AND SOUTH: BOOK I” seemed to march steadily on in this second episode with great dramatic moments and first-rate performances. With George at Mont Royal to get Orry to stand as his best man at his upcoming wedding to Constance, and Priam as a fugitive, Heffron and the screenwriters have given viewers sufficient incentives to look forward to the next episode.