“NORTH AND SOUTH: BOOK I” (1985) – EPISODE ONE “1842-1844” Commentary
The year nineteen eighty-two saw the publication of “North and South”, the first novel of John Jakes’ trilogy about the United States before, during and after the U.S. Civil War. This first novel, set during the United States’ Antebellum Era, was adapted into a six-part miniseries in 1985.
This first miniseries, “NORTH AND SOUTH: BOOK I”, told the story of two families during the years before the Civil War. The Hazards are a wealthy family that owns a successful iron foundry in Lehigh Station, Pennsylvania – not far from Philadelphia. Just as wealthy are the Mains, a family from the low country of South Carolina that owns a cotton plantation (a rice plantation in the novel) called Mont Royal. George Hazard and Orry Main first meet in New York City in the summer of 1842, as both make their way to commence upon their four years as cadets at West Point, the U.S. Army Military Academy. The two become fast friends, despite regional differences, as they endure trials and tribulations during their four years at the Point and the violence of the Mexican-American War. Due to the perseverance of their friendship, George and Orry’s families also form bonds, leading to the friendship of another Hazard and Main at West Point in the 1850s and marriage between two members of the families. By the end of miniseries, George and Orry’s friendship, along with the bonds formed between their families are tested by the growing conflict between Northerners and Southerners and the outbreak of the Civil War.
Episode One of “NORTH AND SOUTH” is set between 1842 and 1844. It is more or less an introduction of the two main characters, their families and the entire saga. Although it is not my favorite episode of the miniseries, I must admit that director Richard T. Heffron, along with the series’ staff of screenwriters (that includes John Jakes), did a solid job in setting up the miniseries. I noticed that some significant differences were made from Jakes’ novel. One, the writers excluded the novel’s prologue altogether, which had introduced the Hazards and Mains’ family founders in the 1680s. Unlike the novel, the miniseries began with Orry Main’s departure from Mont Royal, the family estate; and his first meeting with his future love, New Orleans-born Madeline Fabray. Actually, what the writers did was switch the Hazard family’s introduction with the Mains, Madeline Fabray and Justin La Motte (neighbor of the Mains). Whereas Orry first met all of the Hazards in 1842 New York City in the novel, he did not meet them until his and George Hazard’s three-month furlough in 1844 in the miniseries. The character of Elkhannah Bent underwent a physical transformation. He went from an overweight and unattractive Ohio-born man in the novel to a handsome Georgia-born young man in the miniseries. But the character remained insane and maintained his hatred of both George and Orry. As it turned out, the television Bent was a combination of the literary Bent and a character from the second novel, “Love and War” called Lamar Powell. The miniseries also allowed viewers to experience the venal Justin La Motte’s courtship of Madeline during the two years between her first meeting with Orry and his 1844 furlough. Because Orry and Madeline met two years earlier than they did in the novel, the pair exchanged letters until their correspondence was secretly interrupted by Madeline’s father, Nicholas Fabray. He was determined that Madeline marry La Motte.
I also noticed that Orry’s attitude toward slavery seemed to be less conservative than it was in the novel. I suspect that the writers decided to delete the character of Cooper Main, Orry’s older brother, while incorporating some of his moderate political views into Orry. They had no problems with transferring all four Hazard siblings – George, Stanley, Virgilia and Billy – from the novel to the miniseries. Yet, they failed to do the same with the Main siblings. Only Orry, Ashton, Brett and Charles made it from the novel to the miniseries. Cooper remained missing until the third miniseries, “HEAVEN AND HELL: NORTH AND SOUTH – BOOK III”. I found this strange. Why did the screenwriters feel it was necessary to delete Cooper’s character from the miniseries?
There were some other differences that did not sit right with me. One, the episode featured George and Orry’s journey from New York City to West Point via the railroad. There was no railroad service between New York City and the West Point Academy in the 1840s. In fact, there is still no rail service between the two locations. The miniseries also featured a swordfight between the two friends’ cadet drillmaster, the insane Elkhannah Bent and Orry – with the latter defeating the older cadet. Both the novel and the miniseries made it clear that Orry struggled with his studies. Because of this, Jakes made it clear in his novel that Orry was never able to become an accomplished swordsman. Yet, Orry defeated Bent in the miniseries because he was a member of the Southern planter class. The screenwriters utilized a cliche to make Orry an accomplished swordsman. And to this day, I am still puzzled at Orry’s lack of reaction to his eight to ten year-old sister Ashton’s knowledge of overseer Salem Jones’ sexual tryst with house slave Semiramis. Surely, he would be upset that his young sister would not only know but openly discuss such a topic.
But I was impressed by how the episode revealed the political conflicts that permeated the country during the early to mid 1840s. The miniseries mentioned such topics as the country’s conflict with Mexico over Texas, Western expansion and its impact on the institution of slavery. I noticed that the Hazard family – George included – did not seem particularly concerned over the idea of Texas joining the Union as a slave state. Even more interesting was the family’s contemptuous dismissal of Virgilia Hazard’s pro-abolition stance. In one scene featuring Orry’s dinner with the Hazard family at their Leigh Station home, the male members of the family tend to ignore Virgilia’s comments altogether, until she was finally forced to raise her voice. The Hazard family’s reaction to Virgilia’s abolitionist stance seemed a true reflection of most Northerners’ cool attitude toward the abolition of slavery. Another scene that took me by surprise featured a brief mention of Oberlin College in Ohio by Elkhannah Bent. During the 1830s, it became the first college institution to integrate blacks and women into its student body. Being a bigot, Bent naturally mentioned the college with a great deal of contempt.
Anyone familiar with Jakes’ literary trilogy would probably realize that the saga’s main topic centered around American slavery and its impact upon the country’s political and social scene between the 1840s and 1860s. There were four scenes that perfectly emphasized not only the horrors of slavery, but also the growing conflict between North and South. One scene in the episode’s second half featured Orry’s return to Mont Royal during his furlough. In this scene, he comes across the plantation’s new overseer, Salem Jones, whipping a slave named Priam. Priam happened to be the older brother of Semiramis, the house slave whom Jones has coerced to be his slave mistress. Not only did the sight of the whip being cracked across actor David Harris’ back filled me revulsion, but also Jones’ reason for authorizing the whipping in the first place – to guarantee Priam’s obedience. However, a scene featuring Madeline Fabray breakfasting with Justin La Motte during a visit to the latter’s plantation, Resolute; proved to be even equally effective. In the scene, a house slave named Nancy spills coffee on Madeline’s sleeve. While the latter disappears into the office to change clothes, a tense moment ensues when La Motte punishes Nancy with a brutal slap and a warning.
The conflict between North and South first reared its ugly head in a confrontation between Orry and a Ohio-born cadet named Ned Fisk, who resented the financial competition that his father faced from Southern planters who used slave labor. But I thought there were two scenes that I believe more effectively conveyed the conflict between the two regions. One featured a scene in which Orry toured the grounds of Hazard Irons during his visit to Lehigh Station and commented rather negatively on the white immigrant labor used by the Hazard family at their foundry. His little comment nearly sparked the first argument between the two friends. But Virgilia’s confrontation with Orry during a Hazard family dinner scene not only emphasized the Hazards’ disregard toward the abolitionist movement, but also the conflict between abolition and the country’s pro-slavery faction . . . especially in regard to American politics in the 1840s.
Production wise, Episode One looked gorgeous. Archie J. Bacon did an excellent job in bringing Antebellum America to the screen – both North and South. The miniseries was shot mainly in South Carolina and Mississippi and cinematographer Stevan Larner did justice to the locations, providing scenes with sharp color and elegance. I was especially impressed by the tracking shot that not only kick-started the miniseries, but also gave viewers a sweeping view of the operations at Mont Royal. Vicki Sánchez’s costumes were beautiful to look at. I was especially impressed by the following dress worn by Lesley-Anne Down in one scene:
The cast provided solid performances in the miniseries. Mind you, the performances by some of extras struck me as rather wooden and amateurish. But the main cast seemed to know what they were doing. Both James Read and Patrick Swayze formed a perfect screen team as the two best friends – George Hazard and Orry Main. I enjoyed Lesley-Anne Down’s portrayal of the New Orleans-born Madeline Fabray. Although she had decent chemistry with Swayze, I was never a fan of the Orry-Madeline romance. It always struck me as a bit too ideal or Harlequin Romance for my tastes. David Carradine was both smooth and menacing as neighboring planter, Justin La Motte. Andrew Stahl nicely balanced both Ned Fisk’s resentment toward the Southern planter class and wariness toward Elkhannah Bent. Olivia Cole provided solid support as the Fabrays’ free housekeeper, Maum Sally. And Lee Bergere gave a subtle performance as Madeline’s manipulative, but well meaning father, Nicholas Fabray. But the two performances that really made me sit up and notice were Philip Casnoff’s intense portrayal of the borderline insane Elkhannah Bent and Kirstie Alley’s equally intense performance as the dedicated abolitionist Virgilia Hazard.
So far, “NORTH AND SOUTH” seemed to be off to a good start. Mind you, there were a few setbacks in regard to historical accuracy and characterization. With the episode ending with Orry and Madeline’s declaration of love for one another, along with her marriage to Justin La Motte, viewers were bound to be drawn to the next episode.
Filed under: Essay, History, Television | Tagged: andy stahl, antebellum, david carradine, david harris, erica gimpel, forest whitaker, history, james read, jean simmons, john jakes, jonathan frakes, kirstie alley, lesley anne down, literary, mark moses, mexican-american war, north and south, olivia cole, patrick swayze, philip casnoff, politics, television, tony frank |