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

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“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.

Four 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:

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

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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:

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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.  In the novel, the city was a jumping off point for Army personnel traveling to and from Texas.  One could easily assume that Bent 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.

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