LOOK BACK – “NORTH AND SOUTH: BOOK II” (1986)
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 “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. “BOOK II” is set during the years of the Civil War – a historical conflict that has heavily attracted my attention for so many years that I cannot measure how long. “BOOK III”, which aired at least eight years after the second miniseries, was set during the early years of Reconstruction and has a reputation amongst 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 1 of “BOOK II” is my favorite in the entire miniseries. It re-introduced the main characters 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. 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 do have a few quibbles about Episode 1. 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 in scout duties that usually fell to enlisted men. I guess one could call it as an example of the story being historically inaccurate. And how did George Hazard and Orry Main managed to achieve such high ranks within their respective armies? And both ended up as advisers to President Lincoln and President Davis? How? Both men spent less than two years in the U.S. Army, following their graduation from West Point in 1846. The miniseries never explained this. Instead, they dumped these inconceivable plot points into the two leading characters.
My last 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 had 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?
This episode featured the aftermath of Bull Run, Brett Main Hazard and Semiramis’ trip to South Carolina, Orry Main’s wedding to his widowed neighbor Madeline LaMotte, and Elkhannah Bent and Ashton Main Huntoon’s smuggling operations. I wish I could be objective about this particular episode, but I cannot. I dislike it too much. It is one of the main reasons why I have so much difficulty with Episode 2 in the first place.
My main beef with this episode’s story centered around the plotline that featured Brett and Semiramis’ journey south to Mont Royal, following the Bull Run battle. First of all, I believe that this particular plotline was badly written. Brett and Semiramis should not have had any difficulties getting past Union lines, since nearly the entire Union Army had fled to Washington in disarray, following the battle. Second, once they had reached Richmond and delivered the message about Clarissa, they could have accompanied Orry back to South Carolina. They would have arrived at Mont Royal in late July or early August 1861, instead of November 1861. And why did it take them so long to reach South Carolina in the first place? Surely, the two could have traveled by train. The Union Army had not began destroying Southern railroad tracks during the summer of 1861. And one last question – why on earth was a message sent to Brett in Washington D.C. in the first place? An accommodating neighbor of the Mains or a local doctor could have sent the message about Clarissa to Orry in Richmond. It would have been a lot easier. And quicker. Talk about bad writing!
However, there were some good moments in this episode. George and Orry had a bittersweet reunion inside a barn, while both were traveling to their respective capitals. Charles visited the widowed Augusta Barclay’s farm after being injured by Union cavalry. And in one brief scene, Congressman Greene had an embarrassed reaction to a wounded soldier that did David Odgen Stiers’ skills proud as an actor. Unfortunately, these well done moments could not save an otherwise dull episode.
I have mixed feelings about this particular episode. Fortunately, most of my feelings are positive. Aside from the Antietam battle that included Billy Hazard and Charles Main’s brief and dramatic reunion, I found the first half hour of Episode 3 to be rather dull. I also have a small quibble about the Antietam battle. How did Charles and Ambrose go from being calvary scouts to leading men on the field? Were the troops’ officers dead? And what kind of troops were they leading? Infantry or dismounted calvary? The death of Semiramis’ friend, Jim, at the hands of the former Main overseer (Salem Jones) and Cuffey’s bitter departure from Mont Royal proved to be mildly interesting; thanks to the excellent acting by Erica Gimbel and especially Forest Whittaker. However, I found Brett and Madeline’s presence at Jim’s funeral to be a touch patronizing. But that is merely a private opinion.
The second half of the episode turned out to be a big improvement. Most of the slaves left Mont Royal and I did not blame them one bit. Orry’s reaction to their departure was interesting, considering how “BOOK I” had established his slight aversion to slavery. More importantly, his character came off as increasingly conservative, considering that in the novel, his view on slavery and racial relations become slightly more radical. That little moment between Patrick Swayze and Jean Simmons was lovely and touching. I have mixed feelings about Billy’s decision to go AWOL in order to see Brett in South Carolina. Frankly, I found it disturbing. I do not blame him for missing Brett. But if the writers had not sent her to South Carolina in that ridiculous storyline in Episode 2, she would have remained in the North and Billy would not have went AWOL.
Ashton’s appearance at Mont Royal really stirred things a bit. I found it to be the episode’s most enjoyable segment. However, I found Ashton and Bent’s revenge against Orry by using Madeline’s family secret, a bit anti-climatic. Frankly, I thought they could have exposed Madeline’s secret in a more dramatic and satisfying moment – like during a political party in Richmond (which happened in the novel) or expose the secret to the Mains’ neighbors. However, their act of revenge did result in a marvelous scene well acted by Terri Garber and Lesley Anne Down. Semiramis’ rant against Ashton was nice touch, although a bit fruitless. But it was Brett’s confrontation with Ashton that really did justice to this episode. Kudos to Garber and especially Genie Francis.
Veteran stars James Stewart and Olivia DeHavilland appeared near the end of this episode. Did anyone know that those two had once dated in the late 1930s? Anyway, Stewart’s appearance as Madeline’s attorney was charming. However, DeHavilland’s appearance in the episode showed more promise. I could not decide on what was more irritating – Virgilia’s arrogant disregard for her supervisor or Mrs. Neal’s patronizing concern for Southern patients. And both DeHavilland and Kirstie Alley did a great job with their roles. Despite a few quibbles and a dull first half hour, Episode 3 was an improvement over Episode 2.
What can I say about Episode 4? It was pretty strong. At least the first half. I found the second half a little dull, aside from two scenes – one poignant and one creepy.
The episode started out with a strong sequence that featured George’s capture by Mosby’s Rangers. This first half hour also featured the beginning of Charles’ affair with Augusta Barclay and the Battle of the Wilderness. I have one minor and one major quibble. I wish that Charles and Augusta’s affair had begun a lot sooner than three years after they first met. This matter will prove to be a problem in Episode 6. My major quibble had to do with Billy’s return to his regiment, after being AWOL for nearly ten months (he had left after the Gettysburg battle in July 1863 and returned to his regiment in early May 1864). And what happened? He was lectured by Colonel Berdan and passed over for a promotion to captain (were there any captains in Berdan’s Sharpshooters?) All I can say is what on earth were the writers thinking? Billy should have faced a court-martial for being absent without leave for ten months. Whoever had written this episode must have been completely ignorant of military protocol. If found guilty, Billy would have faced a prison sentence or a dishonorable discharge. An enlisted man would have probably faced an execution squad. Berdan’s excuse for his leniency toward Billy? He needed all available men. Hogwash! This was the Spring of 1864, when the Union Army’s ranks were literally for the remaining year or so of the war. No other TV show, novel, play or etc., would have featured such a major writing gaffe. Then again, you never know. And why was Berdan still in command of the Sharpshooters in this episode? By keeping Berdan as Billy’s commanding officer in this episode, the writers committed a historical gaffe. Due to his incompetence in the field, Berdan had decided to leave the Union Army by the late winter/early spring of 1864.
On the other hand, I was very impressed by the Battle of the Wilderness sequence. Director Kevin Connor shot the sequence in a documentary style that gave it a stark and realistic look. I also enjoyed General Grant’s response to his staff’s fears over Robert E. Lee. Good acting by Anthony Zerbe, by the way. Another positive aspect of Episode 4 turned out to be Ashton and James Huntoon’s marriage woes. Terri Garber and Jim Metzler did an excellent job of conveying how Ashton’s infidelity, Huntoon’s political failures and the war had put a toll on a marriage that had been loveless from the start. I found Madeline’s efforts to help war refugees in Charleston both noble . . . and dull as hell. The sequence also introduced a young former slave named Michael and his mother, who came from Tennessee. I really had a problem with this. Why on earth would Tennessee slaves head deep into Confederate territory, when they could have easily ended up in Union held cities like Nashville, Memphis and Vicksburg? However, this sequence featured a young Bumper Robinson as Michael, who managed to act circles around Lesley Anne Down (as if that were possible). And it introduced the delicious Lee Horsley as a disgraced army officer-turned-wastrel. He and Down managed to create a sparkling screen chemistry.
I did not find other parts of Episode 4 particularly interesting – except for George’s capture and incarceration inside Libby Prison. I never thought I would say this, but Wayne Newton made a damn fine villain. He nearly put Philip Casnoff, David Carradine and Terri Garber to shame. His performance certainly gave the Libby Prison sequence a creep factor that I found very effective. Virgilia’s feud with Mrs.Neal continued in a venomous manner. I found both ladies unsympathetic, until Mrs. Neal decided to harass Virgilia, while the other was having trouble staying awake after long hours of work. I found the older woman’s attitude simply bitchy. And both DeHavilland and Alley continue to shine in their scenes together.
Other than that, Episode 4 was a mixed bag. It was not one of my favorites and it had two very questionable storylines, but was certainly not a disappointment either.
This is hard . . . well, perhaps it is not as hard as I thought. Next to Episode 2, Episode 5 is my least favorite episode in the entire “NORTH AND SOUTH Trilogy. Aside from a few interesting moments, I found it incredibly slow.
The good moments featured Orry and Charles’ rescue of George from Libby Prison. Following a vague reunion with his old friend, George is reunited with his wife Constance and the rest of his family on Christmas Day. Which was a nice moment on screen. And George’s discovery of his older brother Stanley and sister-in-law Isabel’s illegal connection to Axol Iron turned out to be an excellent dramatic moment. I was especially impressed by James Read and Jonathan Frakes’ performances. The only other moments I found interesting were Virgilia’s travails with the hostile Mrs. Neal; her sad willingness to sell herself to Congressman Greene for protection from prosecution; and the death Rafe Beaudine, of whom I had became a big fan. I also have to commend Patrick Swayze for his excellent performance at the end of the episode. In this scene, he did a beautiful job of expressing Orry’s rage over Ashton and Bent’s plot against Madeline.
Other than that, I do not have much to recommend about Episode 5. It featured Charles and Augusta’s last days together. I will say more about this for Episode 6. All I can say that there was something terribly wrong with this scene. Brett and Semiramis’ travails with Salem Jones bored me senseless . . . along with Madeline’s continuing efforts to feed all of Charleston’s war refugees. Only Rafe Beaudine’s death made this particular sequence interesting. Ashton and Bent’s attempts to recruit Huntoon into their planned coup d’état against Jefferson Davis bored me senseless and I was glad to see them all gone by the end of the episode. Episode 5 was generally a depressing and boring episode. Time to move on.
This particular episode could have been considered my favorite of “BOOK II”, if it were not for a few matters. My problems with Episode 6? First of all, two months after he last saw Augusta Barclay in Episode 5, Charles discovered that he was the father of an infant boy. Apparently Augusta had died in childbirth. However . . . Augusta definitely DID NOT look pregnant during her last meeting with Charles. And considering that they had made love, her pregnancy should not have come as a surprise to him. Even worse, young Augustus Charles Main looked as if he had been conceived nearly two years ago. Honestly. The kid looked at least one year old. And Charles and Augusta had started their affair eleven months earlier. One last problem I had with this episode was Patrick Swayze’s performance as he expressed Orry’s grief over Clarissa Main’s death. Can I say . . . OVER-THE-TOP?
Fortunately, there were more for me to praise about Episode 6. One of the miniseries’ strengths has always been its battle scenes. And this particular episode featured an exciting interpretation of the Battle at Petersburg. Also included in this episode was the recreation of the Surrender at Appomattox, made poignant by Anthony Zerbe and William Schallert’s performances as Generals Grant and Lee. Both James Read and Kirstie Alley once again displayed their acting skills in a tearful scene that featured George and Virgilia’s reconciliation before her execution for the murder of Sam Greene. Last, but not least was Salem Jones and Cuffey’s action-packed assault on Mont Royal near the end of the episode.
Do not get me wrong. There is a lot to admire about “NORTH AND SOUTH: BOOK II”. Like its predecessor, “NORTH AND SOUTH”, it has its share of good acting, exciting sequences, drama, superb production values, and probably the best costume design in the entire trilogy, thanks to Robert Fletcher’s work. Unfortunately, the miniseries has its share of major flaws that included clunky dialogue and probably some of the worst writing in the entire trilogy. The entire trilogy and yes, I am including the much disliked “NORTH AND SOUTH III: HEAVEN AND HELL”. This particular miniseries had writing that featured a great deal of plot holes and historical inaccuracies. Still . . . I enjoyed it anyway.
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