“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 One, Episode 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:
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.
Filed under: Essay, History, Television | Tagged: andy stahl, antebellum, david carradine, david harris, erica gimpel, forest whitaker, gene kelly, history, james read, jean simmons, john jakes, lesley anne down, literary, mexican-american war, north and south, olivia cole, patrick swayze, philip casnoff, politics, robert mitchum, television, tony frank, wendy kilbourne |