Top Ten Favorite Movies Set in the 1840s

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Below is my current list of favorite movies set in the 1840s:

TOP TEN FAVORITE MOVIES SET IN THE 1840s

1 - The Heiress

1. “The Heiress” (1949) – William Wyler directed this superb adaptation of Ruth and Augustus Goetz’s 1947 play, which was an adaptation of Henry James’ 1980 novel, “Washington Square”. The movie starred Oscar winner Olivia De Havilland, Montgomery Clift, Ralph Richardson and Miriam Hopkins.

2 - All This and Heaven Too

2. “All This and Heaven Too” (1940) – Anatole Litvak co-produced and directed this excellent adaptation of Rachel Fields’ 1938 novel. The movie starred Bette Davis and Charles Boyer.

3 - Half-Slave Half-Free Solomon Northup Odyssey

3. “Half-Slave, Half-Free: The Solomon Northup Odyssey” (1984) – Avery Brooks starred in this emotional television adaptation of Solomon Northups’ 1853 memoirs, “12 Years a Slave”. Directed by Gordon Parks, the movie co-starred Rhetta Greene, John Saxon, Lee Bryant, Art Evans and Mason Adams.

5 - The Mark of Zorro

4. “The Mark of Zorro” (1940) – Rouben Mamoulian directed this superb adaptation of Johnston McCulley’s 1919 story called “The Curse of Capistrano”. The movie starred Tyrone Power, Linda Darnell and Basil Rathbone.

4 - The Liberators

5. “The Liberators” (1987) – Robert Carradine and Larry B. Scott starred in this Disney adventure film about Underground Railroad conductor John Fairfield and his fugitive slave friend, Bill; who escort Kentucky slaves north of the Mason-Dixon Line to freedom. Kenneth Johnson starred.

6 - The Adventures of Bullwhip Griffin

6. “The Adventures of Bullwhip Griffin” (1967) – Roddy McDowall and Suzanne Pleshette starred in this Disney adaptation of Sid Fleischman’s 1963 children’s novel called “By the Great Horn Spoon!”. James Neilson directed.

7 - Camille

7. “Camille” (1936) – George Cukor directed this lavish adaptation of Alexandre Dumas fils’ 1848 novel and 1852 play called “La Dame aux Camélias”. The movie starred Greta Garbo and Robert Taylor.

8 - Cousin Bette

8. “Cousin Bette” (1998) – Jessica Lange starred in this loose adaptation of Honoré de Balzac’s 1846 novel. Although unpopular with critics and moviegoers, it is a favorite of mine. Directed by Des McAnuff, the movie co-starred Hugh Laurie, Elisabeth Shue and Kelly MacDonald.

9 - Jane Eyre

9. “Jane Eyre” (2011) – Mia Wasikowska and Michael Fassbender starred in the 2011 movie adaptation of Charlotte Brontë’s 1847 novel. The movie was directed by Cary Fukunaga.

10 - 12 Years a Slave

10. “12 Years a Slave” (2013) – British director Steve McQueen helmed this Oscar winning second adaptation of Solomon Northup’s 1853 memoirs about the latter’s experiences as a slave in the Deep South. The movie starred Chiwetel Ejiofor, Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o and Michael Fassbender.

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“12 YEARS A SLAVE” (2013) Review

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“12 YEARS A SLAVE” (2013) Review

I first learned about Solomon Northup many years ago, when I came across a television adaptation of his story in my local video story. One glance at the video case for the 1984 movie, “HALF SLAVE, HALF FREE:  SOLOMON NORTHUP’S ODYSSEY”, made me assume that this movie was basically a fictional tale. But when I read the movie’s description on the back of the case, I discovered that I had stumbled across an adaption about a historical figure. 

Intrigued by the idea of a free black man in antebellum America being kidnapped into slavery, I rented “HALF-SLAVE, HALF-FREE: SOLOMON NORTHUP’S ODYSSEY”, which starred Avery Brooks, and enjoyed it very much. In fact, I fell in love with Gordon Park’s adaption so much that I tried to buy a video copy of the movie. But I could not find it. Many years passed before I was able to purchase a DVD copy. And despite the passage of time, I still remained impressed by the movie. However, I had no idea that someone in the film industry would be interested in Northup’s tale again. So, I was very surprised to learn of a new adaptation with Brad Pitt as one of the film’s producer and Briton Steve McQueen as another producer and the film’s director.

Based upon Northup’s 1853 memoirs of the same title, “12 YEARS A SLAVE” told the story of a New York-born African-American named Solomon Northup, who found himself kidnapped and sold into slavery in 1841. Northup was a 33 year-old carpenter and violinist living in Saratoga Springs, New York with his wife and children. After Mrs. Northup leaves Saratoga Springs with their children for a job that would last for several weeks, Northup is approached by two men, who offered him a brief, high-paying job as a musician with their traveling circus. Without bothering to inform Northup traveled with the strangers as far as south as Washington, D.C. Not long after his arrival in the capital, Northup found himself drugged and later, bound in the cell of a slave pen. When Northup tried to claim he was a free man, he was beaten and warned never again to mention his free status again.

Eventually, Northup and a group of other slaves were conveyed to the slave marts of New Orleans, Louisiana and given the identity of a Georgia-born slave named “Platt”. There, a slave dealer named Theophilus Freeman sells him to a plantation owner/minister named William Ford. The latter’s kindness seemed to be offset by his unwillingness to acknowledge the sorrow another slave named Eliza over her separation from her children. When Northup has a violent clash with one of Ford’s white employees, a carpenter named John Tibeats, the planter is forced to sell the Northerner to another planter named Edwin Epps. Unfortunately for Northup, Epps proves to be a brutal and hard man. Even worse, Epps becomes sexually interested in a female slave named Patsey. She eventually becomes a victim of Epps’ sexual abuse and Mrs. Epps’ jealousy. And Epps becomes aware of Patsey’s friendship with Northup.

“12 YEARS A SLAVE” gained a great deal of critical acclaim since its release. It won three Academy Awards, including one for Best Picture; and two British Academy Awards (BAFTAs).  Many critics and film goers consider it the truest portrait of American slavery ever shown in a Hollywood film. I have to admit that both director Steve McQueen and screenwriter John Ridley have created a powerful film. Both did an excellent job of translating the basic gist of Solomon Northup’s experiences to the screen. And both did an excellent job re-creating a major aspect of American slavery. I was especially impressed by certain scenes that featured the emotional and physical trauma that Northup experienced during his twelve years as a Southern slave.

For me, one of the most powerful scenes featured Northup’s initial experiences at the Washington D.C. slave pen, where one of the owners resorted to physical abuse to coerce him into acknowledging his new identity as “Platt”. Other powerful scenes include the slave mart sequence in New Orleans, where fellow slave Eliza had to endure the loss of her children through sale. I found the revelation of Eliza’s mixed blood daughter being sold to a New Orleans bordello rather troubling and heartbreaking. Northup’s encounter with Tibeats struck me fascinating . . . in a dark way. But the film’s most powerful scene – at least for me – proved to be the harsh whipping that Patsey endured for leaving the plantation to borrow soap from a neighboring plantation. Some people complained that particular scene bordered on “torture porn”. I disagree. I found it brutal and frank.

I have to give kudos to the movie’s visual re-creation of the country’s Antebellum Period. As in any well made movie, this was achieved by a group of talented people. Adam Stockhausen’s production designs impressed me a great deal, especially in scenes featuring Saratoga Springs of the 1840s, the Washington D.C. sequences, the New Orleans slave marts and of course, the three plantations where Northup worked during his twelve years in Louisiana. In fact, the entire movie was filmed in Louisiana, including the Saratoga Springs and Washington D.C. sequences. And Sean Bobbitt’s photography perfectly captured the lush beauty and color of the state. Trust the movie’s producers and McQueen to hire long time costume designer, Patricia Norris, to design the film’s costumes. She did an excellent job in re-creating the fashions worn during the period between 1841 and 1852-53.

Most importantly, the movie benefited from a talented cast that included Garrett Dillahunt as a white field hand who betrays Northup’s attempt to contact friends in New York; Paul Giamatti as the New Orleans slave dealer Theophilus Freeman; Michael K. Williams as fellow slave Robert, who tried to protect Eliza from a lustful sailor during the voyage to Louisiana; Alfre Woodward as Mistress Shaw, the black common-law wife of a local planter; and Bryan Batt as Judge Turner, a sugar planter to whom Northup was loaned out. More impressive performances came from Paul Dano as the young carpenter John Tibeats, who resented Northup’s talent as a carpenter; Sarah Poulson, who portrayed Edwin Epp’s cold wife and jealous wife; and Adepero Oduye, who was effectively emotional as the slave mother Eliza, who lost her children at Freeman’s slave mart. Benedict Cumberbatch gave a complex portrayal of Northup’s first owner, the somewhat kindly William Ford. However, I must point out that the written portrayal of the character may have been erroneous, considering Northup’s opinion of the man. Northup never judged Ford as a hypocrite, but only a a good man who was negatively influenced by the slave society. But the two best performances, in my opinion, came from Best Supporting Actress Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o and especially Best Actor Oscar nominee and BAFTA winner Chiwetel Ejiofor.  Nyong’o gave a beautiful performance as the abused slave woman Patsey, whose endurance of Epps’ lust and Mrs. Epps’ wrath takes her to a breaking point of suicidal desire.  Chiwetel Ejiofor, whom I have been aware for the past decade, gave the definitive performance of his career – so far – as the New Yorker Solomon Northup, who finds himself trapped in the nightmarish situation of American slavery. Ejiofor did an excellent job of conveying Northup’s emotional roller coaster experiences of disbelief, fear, desperation and gradual despair.

But is “12 YEARS A SLAVE” perfect? No. Trust me, it has its flaws. Many have commented on the film’s historical accuracy in regard to American slavery and Northup’s twelve years in Louisiana. First of all, both McQueen and Ridley took historical liberty with some of Northup’s slavery experience for the sake of drama. If I must be honest, that does not bother me. The 1984 movie with Avery Brooks did the same. I dare anyone to find a historical movie that is completely accurate about its topic. But what did bother me was some of the inaccuracies featured in the movie’s portrayal of antebellum America.

One scene featured Northup eating in a Washington D.C. hotel dining room with his two kidnapper. A black man eating in the dining room of a fashionable Washington D.C. hotel in 1841? Were McQueen and Ridley kidding? The first integrated Washington D.C. hotel opened in 1871, thirty years later. Even more ludicrous was a scene featuring a drugged and ill Northup inside one of the hotel’s room near white patrons. Because he was black, Northup was forced to sleep in a room in the back of the hotel. The death of the slave Robert at the hands of a sailor bent on raping Eliza struck me as ludicrous. One, it never happened. And two, there is no way some mere sailor – regardless of his color – could casually kill a slave owned by another. Especially a slave headed for the slave marts. He would find himself in serious financial trouble. Even Tibeats had been warned by Ford’s overseer about the financial danger he would face upon killing Northup. I can only assume that Epps was a very hands on planter, because I was surprised by the numerous scenes featuring him supervising the field slaves. And I have never heard of this before. And I am still shaking my head at the scene featuring Northup’s visit to the Shaw plantation, where he found a loaned out Patsey having refreshments with the plantation mistress, Harriet Shaw. Black or white, I simply find it difficult to surmise a plantation mistress having refreshments with a slave – owned or loaned out. Speaking of Patsey’s social visit to the Shaw plantation, could someone explain why she and Mistress Shaw are eating a dessert that had been created in France, during the late 19th century? Check out the image below:

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The image features the two women eating macarons. Now I realize that macarons had existed even before the 1840s. But the macarons featured in the image above (with a sweet paste creating a sandwich with two cookies) first made their debut, thanks to a pair of Parisian bakers in the late 19th century, decades after the movie’s setting. This was a very sloppy move either on the part of Stockhausen or the movie’s set decorator, Alice Baker.

And if I must be frank, I had a problem with some of the movie’s dialogue. I realize that McQueen and Ridley were attempting to recapture the dialogue of 19th century America. But there were times I felt they had failed spectacularly. Some of it brought back painful memories of the stilted dialogue from the 2003 Civil War movie, “GODS AND GENERALS”. The words coming out of the actors’ mouths struck me as part dialogue, part speeches. The only thing missing was a speech from a Shakespearean play.

Not only did I have a problem with the dialogue, but also some of the performances. Even those performances I had earlier praised nearly got off tracked by the movie’s more questionable dialogue. But I was not impressed by two particular performances. One came from Brad Pitt, who portrayed a Canadian carpenter hired by Epps to build a gazebo. To be fair, my main problems with Pitt’s performance was the dialogue that sounded like a speech . . . and his accent. Do Canadians actually sound like that? In fact, I find it difficult to pinpoint what kind of accent he actually used. The performance that I really found troubling was Michael Fassbender’s portrayal of the brutal Edwin Epps. Mind you, he had his moments of subtle acting that really impressed me – especially in scenes featuring Epps’ clashes with his wife or the more subtle attempts of intimidation of Northup. Those moments reminded me why I had been a fan of the actor for years.  Perhaps those moments led him to earning an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor.  But Fassbender’s Epps mainly came off as a one-dimensional villain with very little subtlety or complexity. Consider the image below in which Fassbender is trying to convey Epps’ casual brutality:

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For me, it seemed as if the actor is trying just a little too hard. And I suspect that McQueen’s direction is to blame for this. I blame both McQueen and Ridley for their failure to reveal Epps’ insecurities, which were not only apparent in Northup’s memoirs, but also in the 1984 movie. Speaking of McQueen, there were times when I found his direction heavy-handed. This was especially apparent in most of Fassbender’s scenes and in sequences in which some of the other characters’ dialogue spiraled into speeches. And then there was Hans Zimmer’s score. I have been a fan of Zimmer for nearly two decades. But I have to say that I did not particularly care for his work in “12 YEARS A SLAVE”. His use of horns in the score struck me as somewhat over-the-top.

Do I feel that “12 YEARS A SLAVE” deserves its acclaim? Well . . . yes. Despite its flaws, it is a very good movie that did not whitewash Solomon Northup’s brutal experiences as a slave. And it also featured some exceptional performances, especially from Chiwetel Ejiofor and Lupita Nyong’o. But I also feel that some of the acclaim that the movie has garnered, may have been undeserved, along with its Oscar and BAFTA Best Picture awards.  As good as it was, I found it hard to accept that “12 YEARS A SLAVE” was the best movie about American slavery ever made.

“HALF SLAVE, HALF FREE: SOLOMON NORTHUP’S ODYSSEY” (1984) Review

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“HALF SLAVE, HALF FREE: SOLOMON NORTHUP’S ODYSSEY” (1984) Review

Years ago, I had come across a television movie, at my local video store, about a 19th African-American who found himself kidnapped into slavery. Being a history nut about 19th century America, I decided to check it out. The movie turned out to be 1984’s “HALF SLAVE, HALF FREE: SOLOMON NORTHUP’S ODYSSEY”.

Directed by photographer Gordon Parks, “SOLOMON NORTHRUP’S ODYSSEY” told the story of an African-American carpenter and musician from Saratoga Springs, New York named Solomon Northrup. Because of his reputation as a skilled violinist, he attracts the attention of two men calling themselves Merrill Brown and Abram Hamilton. They claimed that they wanted to hire Solomon to play his fiddle in a circus in Washington, D.C., for the rate of one dollar per day and three dollars per musical performance. This was considered a good wage in 1841 Believing the trip to be short, Solomon decides not to notify his wife, Anne. Unfortunately, not long after his arrival in the nation’s capital, Solomon is drugged and sold to a slave dealer named Jim Birch. At Birch’s slave market, Solomon is beaten by Birch in an attempt to coerce the former into accepting his new name of Platt. He also meets a Virginia-born slave named Jenny, with whom he strikes up an immediate friendship. And during the sea journey to Louisiana, he meets another female slave named Eliza and her children during a stopover in Norfolk. Upon their arrival in New Orleans, all three are sold to a planter named Thomas Ford. After two years at Ford’s plantation, Solomon has a violent encounter with one of the planter’s white employees and is sold to a second owner, a self-made planter named Edward Epps. Solomon spends another nine-and-a-half years at Epps’ plantation until his meeting with a Canadian-born carpenter named Bass allows him to send a letter to Anne of his whereabouts. With the help of a childhood friend and son of his father’s former owner, Henry Northup, Solomon is free and returns to his family in Saratoga Springs.

I really did not know how I would react to “SOLOMON NORTHRUP’S ODYSSEY” when I first saw it so many years ago. After all, the movie had not been directed by someone from the established Hollywood community or from any of the film industries overseas. Gordon Parks was a well-established photographer who had worked for“LIFE” magazine and a documentary director, before turning his attention to directing films. And before“SOLOMON NORTHRUP’S ODYSSEY”, he had only directed eight films, his most successful being the 1971 movie “SHAFT”. I must admit that Parks did a first-rate job in his direction of the movie, but I would not go as far to say that it was perfect.

First of all, I wish that Parks had managed to curtail some of leading man Avery Brooks’ penchant for theatrical acting. I realize that “SOLOMON NORTHRUP’S ODYSSEY” was the actor’s first job in screen acting, but traces of hammy acting – a leftover from years of success on the stage – remained in his performance. Come to think of it, I could say the same about a handful of cast members in minor roles, including Janet League as Eliza, the slave mother who ended up losing her children during the journey to Louisiana and eventually, her mind. I had no problems with the movie’s slow pacing, which I felt perfectly reflected its setting of antebellum Louisiana circa 1841-53. But there were times when the pacing threatened to slow down to a halt, especially in scenes that featured montages of Solomon’s duties on the Epps plantation.

Fortunately, the good outweighed the bad. Between Parks’ direction and Hiro Narita’s photography, “SOLOMON NORTHRUP’S ODYSSEY” reeked with the semi-tropical setting of central Louisiana. The Southern Georgia locations that stood in for the area surrounding the Ford and Epps plantations radiated with a natural beauty and a lush green that nearly took my breath away. Yet, the photography also conveyed how the setting served as a physical prison for the outsider from New York. I noticed that Parks was billed as the composer for the movie’s score. Quite frankly, I did not find it memorable. However, I did enjoy Parks’ use of 19th century music throughout the movie and especially in the opening scene that featured a social dance in Saratoga Springs. Most importantly, Parks did an excellent job in guiding television viewers into the world of antebellum United States and Solomon Northup’s journey from freedom in New York, to the slave marts of Washington D.C. and New Orleans, and eventually the slave plantations of Louisiana.

I was also impressed by the screenplay written by Lou Potter and Samm-Art Williams. I have never read Solomon Northup’s 1853 autobiography. But it would not be difficult for me to assume that the movie was an exact adaptation of his memoirs. After all, we are dealing with a movie based upon historical facts, not a documentary. However, Potter and Williams did an excellent job in capturing the shock, despair and eventual resignation of Solomon’s experiences and situation. They also captured the conflicting and chaotic nature that had an impact upon all of those who participated in American slavery – willingly or not.

One aspect of Potter and Williams’ script that I found especially fascinating was how they pointed out how slavery enabled those trapped in the system to use others as scapegoats for their frustrations and anger. A good example of this is the strange relationship between Solomon’s second master and the latter’s wife, Mr. and Mrs. Epps, the Virginia-born slave Jenny and Solomon. Mr. Epps was a self-made man from the working class, who married a woman from the old planter aristocracy. However, this marriage failed to lessen his insecurities about his origins and his fears that his wife might view him as inferior being. Because of his inferiority complex, he preferred the company of Jenny, the Virginia-born slave with whom Solomon had a brief romance during their time on the Ford plantation. His preference for Jenny (who yearned for Solomon) made him jealous of the New Yorker. However, Mrs. Epps genuinely loved her husband and harbored jealousy toward Jenny. And Solomon harbored jealousy and frustration toward Jenny’s relationship with their master. The interesting thing about this love triangle/quadrangle was that Mr. Epps vented his jealousy upon Solomon; and both Mrs. Epps and Solomon used Jenny as a scapegoat for their anger toward Mr. Epps. And poor Jenny ended up as a sexual victim of Mr. Epps, and a scapegoat of both Solomon and Mrs. Epps’ anger and frustration.

Despite Avery Brooks’ occasional forays into theatrical acting, I must admit that I found his movie/television debut to be very impressive. He did a great job in conveying his character’s emotional journey in what must have been a traumatic period and end in the end, earned well-deserved praise from the critics. I was also impressed by Rhetta Greene’s complex portrayal of Jenny, the slave caught between her love for Solomon and her master’s desire. Both John Saxon and Lee Bryant were excellent as Mr. and Mrs. Epps, who added a great deal of ambiguity into roles that could have easily been a portrait of one-dimensional villainy – especially Saxon’s role. Joe Seneca gave an interesting role as Noah, the elderly slave who tried to guide Solomon into establishing relationship with their fellow slaves and remind the latter of the difficulties in escaping from central Louisiana. Art Evans provided amusing comic relief as Harry, a slave and Solomon’s fawning close friend. Petronia Paley gave a solid performance as Solomon’s wife, Anne, who was beset with worry and frustration over her missing husband. And Mason Adams’ portrayal of Mr. Ford, Solomon’s first master, was an interesting contrast between a genuinely decent man, and a no-nonsense slave master was not above issuing veiled threats whenever he felt they were needed.

Yes, “HALF SLAVE, HALF FREE: SOLOMON NORTHUP’S ODYSSEY” had a few flaws that include the occasional slow pacing and hammy acting from a few members of the cast (including the leading man). But the movie is a well made and fascinating look into the experiences of a free man who found himself trapped into the institution of 19th century slavery. Director Gordon Parks and star Avery Brooks proved to be the driving force in a first-rate movie that was at times entertaining, horrifying, educational and especially poignant. “SOLOMON NORTHUP’S ODYSSEY” might prove to be hard to find. I would recommend Netflix or Amazon. But in the end, the movie is worth the search. I assure you.