“POLDARK” Series Three (2017) Episodes One to Five

 

“POLDARK” SERIES THREE (2017) EPISODES ONE TO FIVE

Series Two of “POLDARK” ended on a dark note for me. The last six of its ten episodes featured the adaptation of Winston Graham’s 1953 novel, “Warleggan: A Novel of Cornwall, 1792-1793”. And if I must be brutally honest, I was not happy with it. Not one bit. Due to my low opinion of Series Two’s second half, I did not look forward to Series Three. 

The first five episodes of Series Three focused on showrunner Debbie Horsfield’s adaptation of Graham’s 1973 novel, “The Black Moon: A Novel of Cornwall, 1794-1795”. That is correct. Following the publication of “Warleggan”, Graham waited twenty years to continue his “Poldark” series. Many fans of Graham’s novels consider “The Black Moon” and the two novels that followed as the best in the series. I certainly did. I still do.

Episode One of Series Three picked up after Series Two’s last episode. The episode opened with a very pregnant Elizabeth Warleggan and her husband George Warleggan galloping across the countryside. When it looked as if Elizabeth’s horse might be in danger of running away, up popped a concerned Ross Poldark, the series’ protagonist, to come to her rescue. Only Elizabeth was not in the mood to offer her gratitude. She remained angry over the events of late Series Two. Ross’ feelings for Elizabeth and the fact that she might be carrying his child, has not disappeared. While the War of the First Coalition raged on, Ross arranged for the secret wedding of his close friend, Dr. Dwight Enys to heiress Caroline Penvenen. Before the newlyweds could enjoy their honeymoon, Elizabeth went into labor, forcing Dwight to deliver the new Warleggan offspring, Valentine Warleggan . . . on the night of a “black moon”. And Caroline’s Uncle Ray Penvenen passed away on the same after giving his blessing to the newly married couple.

The first five episodes of Series Three also introduced several new characters. One of them happened to be Morwenna Chynoweth, Elizabeth Warleggan’s younger cousin. She was hired by the Warleggans to serve as governess to Elizabeth’s older son, Geoffrey Charles Poldark. Demelza Carne Poldark’s two brothers, Sam and Drake Carne, were also introduced in Series Three. Following the death of the Carne family’s patriarch, Tom Carne, the pair decided to seek their fortunes in the parish where Ross and Demelza resided. Not long after their introductions, both Morwenna and Drake became acquainted with one another and fell in love . . . fully supported by the young Geoffrey Charles. Other newcomers included the Reverend Osborne Whitworth, a young vicar from an local elite family; Tholly Tregirls, an old roguish friend of Ross’ late father; Sir Francis Basset, a high-born landowner who wants to sponsor Ross as a political candidate; Lord Falmouth, a local aristocrat also interested in finding a political candidate to sponsor; and Hugh Armitage, Dwight Enys’ fellow prisoner of war, a Royal Navy officer and kinsman to Lord Falmouth. However, there seemed to be a missing character in Series Three – namely Ross’ old servant, Jud Paynter. Due to showrunner Debbie Horsfield and the BBC deciding that dear old Jud would be underused, they gave actor Phil Davis the boot.

I noticed that a few story arcs had emerged between Episodes One and Five:

*Dwight Enys’ capture by the French and Ross’ efforts to find and rescue him
*Sam Carne’s efforts to establish a Methodist congregation in the parish
*The growing romance between Morwenna Chynoweth and Drake Carne
*The effect upon Valentine Warleggan’s birth upon the Trenwith household
*George Warleggan’s efforts to acquire political office

I like Dwight Enys. A lot. One of the reasons why I like him so much is that he has been willing to accept responsibility for his actions – namely his affair with Keren Daniels back in Season One. But for some reason, I could not get excited over Ross’ efforts to both find and rescue him from a French military prison. One, I knew he would be eventually rescued. And two, it is possible that I was not that interested in watching Ross Poldark play “Action Jackson in France” – not in Episode Three or Episode Five. One major result from the rescue mission proved to be the death of Captain Henshawe, Ross’ right hand man. Episode Five made a big deal of his death. So did the media and a good number of fans. However, I just could not summon any sense of grief on my part. I barely remember the guy. I am sorry, but I did not. All I remember is Captain Henshawe’s funeral, which Horsfield had transformed into a major production scene, and gave Ross another opportunity to engage in more of his brooding man pain.

And unless I am mistaken, I do not recall Ross’ first trip to France (shown in Episode Two) being that eventful . . . or long. Nor did it help that during Episode Five, Horsfield’s transcript had shifted between scenes of the actual rescue mission in France, and a soirée hosted by Lord Falmouth that the Warleggans, Morwenna, Demelza and Caroline attended. Why Horsfield made this narrative decision, I have no idea. It merely increased my disinterest in the rescue mission. The only aspect of this story arc that I found interesting were Horsfield’s additional scenes featuring Dwight’s struggles as a prisoner of war. I thought these scenes effectively conveyed the urgency for his rescue. But as I had earlier stated, I found it difficult to experience any interest in the actual rescue sequence.

Horsfield made even more additions to this story arc by having both Caroline Penvenen (Dwight’s lady love) and Verity Blamey (Ross’ cousin) discover that their significant others were missing at sea in Episode Three. However, this failed to drum up my interest in this story arc. And why did Horsfield allow Caroline and Dwight to get married in Episode One? The pair did not become man and wife until one of the early chapters of “The Four Swan”. And their wedding was a large one that included George and Elizabeth Warleggan as guests. So . . . what was the point of this secret wedding ceremony? So that Ray Penvenen would have the opportunity to give his blessing to the union before he died? How maudlin.

Then there was Sam Carne’s religious fervor and his desire to establish a Methodist congregation in the local neighborhood. I sympathized with Sam, especially when he tried to find a building for his growing congregation. But I found his earlier efforts to enforce Methodist worshiping practices during an Anglican service struck me as slightly off putting. There were moments when I found myself supporting George Warleggan’s opposition to Sam’s efforts – for a different reason. On the other hand, I found it odd that Ross had originally expressed no interest in helping Sam. He seemed to regard his two brothers-in-law as nuisances and mere extended versions of his father-in-law, Tom Carne. I should not have been surprised by Demelza’s willingness to help one of her younger brothers. But I was. For in Graham’s 1973 novel, she barely made any effort to help Sam find a building for his new congregation. I can only assume this was one of Horsfield’s excuses to push Demelza’s character to the forefront of this adaptation.

As for the younger Carne brother, Drake, an interesting story emerged, featuring his romance with Elizabeth Warleggan’s cousin, Morwenna Chynoweth. From a cold eye, Drake and Morwenna’s relationship seemed to be a remake of William Shakespeare’s play, “ROMEO AND JULIET”. None of the other major characters seemed to be interested in supporting this relationship, due to the ever lasting feud between Ross and George. Ross’ interest in Drake’s feelings for Morwenna seemed to be as non-existent as his interest in helping Sam. At least not until after Drake had accompanied him on the rescue trip to France in Episode Five. Apparently, poor Drake had to prove his manhood in order to attract Ross’ sympathy. George simply wanted to use Morwenna to further his own ambitions. Eager to find an elite sponsor to help him kick start a political career, George pushed Morwenna forward as a possible bride to a widowed vicar named the Reverend Osborne Whitworth. As his wife, Elizabeth naturally was willing to help him in his efforts.

Morwenna and Drake also received no support from Aunt Agatha Poldark and Demelza. Both had pointed out that marriage would difficult or near impossible between two people from different classes. I had expected this from an old snob like Aunt Agatha. Demelza’s opposition to the romance – at least according to Horsfield – proved to be mind-boggling and a little false to me. Especially since she had married a man outside of her class and supported another mixed marriage involving class – Dwight and Caroline. Drake and Morwenna’s only support came from Elizabeth and Francis’ son, Geoffrey Charles. However, the latter seemed more focused on Morwenna’s feelings, instead of Drake’s. Considering that Geoffrey Charles was only nine to ten years old at the time, the young couple’s desire to be together struck me as doomed. It did not surprise me that Morwenna eventually caved in and decided to end her romance with Drake. Her decision to end the romance led him to join Ross’ rescue expedition to France.

One of the aspects of Debbie Horsfield’s adaptation of “Warleggan” that I had despised so much was her handling of the night Ross and Elizabeth conceived their only son, Valentine Warleggan. I still despise it because Horsfield had transformed an act of rape on Ross’ part to barely disguised consented sex in order to save his reputation with the series’ viewers. In doing so, Horsfield managed to rob some of the tragic aspects of Elizabeth’s story – aspects filled with a gender theme. Thanks to Ross’ male ego and rage, Elizabeth found herself trapped in a situation in which she was forced to pass off his son as George’s. At least in the novel. In Horsfield’s version, Elizabeth is not really a victim of Ross’ ego, but merely of her own lust. In other words, Elizabeth brought upon this situation regarding Valentine upon herself. Horsfield managed to literally rob the gender aspect of Graham’s story arc for Elizabeth . . . for the sake of the leading man’s reputation. That a woman would write such a thing struck me as rather disgusting. But what Horsfield did to Elizabeth in regard to the latter’s relationship with Valentine lowered my opinion of the show runner even further. For reasons I cannot explain, Horsfield thought it would be more dramatic if Elizabeth Chynoweth Poldark Warleggan was portrayed as a cold parent, who resented her newly born son for forcing her to constantly lie to her husband George about his paternity. Elizabeth Warleggan . . . a cold parent? What a joke! I certainly do not recall her being a cold parent to either of her sons – not in the novels or in the 1975-77 series. More on this character arc later.

Horsfield also changed Ross’ reaction to Valentine’s birth. Following his rape of Elizabeth and Valentine’s birth in the novel, Ross went out of his way to ignore his second son. He wanted nothing to do with Valentine. Yet, Horsfield had Ross galloping after a pregnant Elizabeth in some effort to save her and make up for ignoring her following the night of Valentine’s conception. What on earth? On the night of Valentine’s birth – the night of the “black moon” – Ross spent most of his time silently brooding not far from Trenwith like some emotionally immature schoolboy. Aunt Agatha’s gloom-filled declaration that young Valentine was cursed, due to being born on the night of a “black moon” added what I believe was one ridiculous element to this story arc. There was another aspect of Ross’ character arc that I disliked and it had a lot to do with his relationship with Francis and Elizabeth’s son, Geoffrey Charles. In “The Black Moon”, young Geoffrey Charles had developed a hero worship of Drake Carne, while Morwenna Chynoweth was serving as his governess. This led him to be the sole supporter of the pair’s romance. However, Horsfield seemed to believe it was necessary to have Geoffrey Charles develop a hero worship of Ross . . . to the point that his attitude toward his stepfather reeked with as much snobbery as Ross and Aunt Agatha’s. And Geoffrey Charles’ relationship with Drake, which remained relevant even in the series’ later novels, seemed to have diminished a bit. Why? Why did Horsfield do this? To make Ross’ role in this adaptation of “The Black Moon” more relevant? To further ease the taint of rapist that clouds his character? Who knows.

Following the birth of his “son”, George Warleggan took the opportunity to kick start his political ambitions. I never understood why Graham had George follow this path. The character was an extremely wealthy man and the owner (or part-owner) of one of the most powerful banks in Cornwall. If anything, George has always struck me as the type who would financially sponsor a politician to serve his needs in Parliament. Instead, George attempted to court the attention of the likes of Lord Falmouth and Sir Francis Basset to finance his candidacy in Parliament. He had already managed to become a magistrate after Ross had rejected the position. George’s new role as a magistrate featured him handing down judgments – including one in which he dismissed rape charges against a scion of a high-born family. When I viewed this scene, I could only shake my head in a mixture of disgust and disbelief. One, I believe this . . . rape trial was never in “The Black Moon”. And two, it struck me as nothing more than a hypocritical attempt by Horsfield to erase the rape or rape-fantasy taint of Ross’ actions against Elizabeth in Series Two. George’s role as a magistrate also struck me as odd, considering that he seemed to be the lead magistrate during the Truro assize. Despite being the youngest . . . and least experienced man on the bench.

After becoming a magistrate, George eventually set his sights upon becoming a Member of Parliament (M.P.). His efforts to do so led to his attempt to push his cousin-in-law into a marriage with the Reverend Whitworth, who has blood connections to the Godolphin family. However, his and Elizabeth’s efforts at matchmaking hit a roadblock, thanks to Morwenna’s romance with Drake Carne and her refusal to regard the widowed vicar as a future husband. Instead, George turns to Lord Falmouth as a possible sponsor and manages to secure invitations for himself, Elizabeth and Morwenna at the peer’s soirée in Episode Five. Needless to say, between George’s clumsy attempts at character assassination of Ross and the news of the latter’s rescue of Dwight and other prisoners of war, his efforts to impress Lord Falmouth failed. Especially since one of those prisoners happened to be one Hugh Armitage, a relative of the peer. Horsfield’s portrayal of George’s embarrassment at Lord Falmouth’s soirée seemed rather heavy-handed to me. And I found it odd that Falmouth was introduced in the story by this point. He was first introduced in “The Four Swans: A Novel of Cornwall, 1796-1797” . . . and Horsfield has yet to finish her adaptation of “The Black Moon”. Very confusing.

Episode Four also featured a ridiculous sequence in which Caroline Penvenen tried to raise money to purchase food for locals starving from a drought and failed crops. In the novel, George and other local landowners donated money and the food was purchased. In this version, George did donate money to the fund. And then . . . oh God, I cannot believe I am writing this. Ross used the money to purchase goods that had to be smuggled on shore. This led to a contrived scenario in which George organized a troop of militia to catch and arrest Ross and the smugglers for free trading. Needless to say, George’s plans failed and he ended up looking like a fool. And I ended up shaking my head in disbelief in this heavy-handed and puerile attempt by Horsfield to villify George even further. Ever since Series Three began, Horsfield seemed hellbent upon transforming George into a one-note moustache-twirling villain. The complex man from Series One and Two seemed seemed to have disappeared. And poor Jack Farthing sometimes looks as if he is drowning in Horsfield’s gradual one-note portrayal of his character.

Some of the characters in the series seemed to have change for the worst in Series Three. Well, in Ross’ case, he had regressed to the Gary Stu hero from Series One and early Series Two. Well . . . not completely. His refusal to serve as a local magistrate (giving George the opportunity to fulfill the position) and unwillingness to help his brothers-in-law may have saved him from being a complete Gary Stu. And yet, I thought that Horsfield had focused a bit too much on Ross’ French adventures – especially in Episode Three. Most people would wonder why I found this unsatisfying. One, I found the portrayal of his first trip to France rather laughable. I do not know. Perhaps I see this regression as some effort by Horsfield to make him heroic and ideal in the viewers’ eyes, following his transgression against Elizabeth in Series Two.

Ross may not have completely regressed into a Gary Stu. But I thought Demelza Poldark had become the epitome of a Mary Sue during these first five episodes of Series Three. Before Series Three had aired in Britain, Horsfield had complained about the limited number of scenes featuring the leading lady in Graham’s 1973 novel. However, I suspect that Horsfield may have overdone it a bit . . . to the point of Demelza emerging as a world-class Mary Sue. The show runner had allowed Demelza become more involved in helping her brother Sam establish a Methodist church than she was in the novel. Instead of Caroline collecting funds to purchase food for the starving locals, Horsfield had Demelza joining her in this endeavor. Demelza also recruited the help of Caroline, her brothers and Sam’s Methodist congregation to divert George and the militia from Ross’ smuggling operation for the starving locals. I also noticed that Demelza seemed rather controlling in these episodes – especially toward Ross. I suppose this was Horsfield’s idea of Demelza paying back Ross for that night with Elizabeth. In fact, Demelza’s whole demeanor in these first five episodes seemed to be that of an early 21st century female, instead of a late 18th century wife and mother. Not only has Demelza become a Mary Sue, but also an anachronism.

For reasons that still astound me, Horsfield had added scenes of Demelza trying to convince Morwenna to end her romance with Drake. I found this mind boggling for two reasons. One, Demelza and Morwenna did not interact with each other until the second half of the 1977 novel, “The Angry Tide”. And two, Horsfield’s efforts to paint Demelza with as much sympathy as possible in these scenes did not work for me. Considering that Morwenna was Elizabeth’s cousin and Demelza remained hostile toward her former cousin-in-law, the series’ leading lady came off as hypocritical to me. Apparently, she believed there was nothing wrong with her, a former miner’s daughter and kitchen maid, to marry a landowner. It was okay for an heiress like Caroline Penvenen to marry an impoverished doctor from a working-class family. But apparently, her working-class brother marrying a young woman from an impoverished, yet upper-class family was a bad idea. If Demelza had simply used the current feud between Ross and George as a reason, I could understand. But she never did. According to Horsfield, Demelza believed Morwenna was too fragile to withstand a marriage to someone from Drake’s class. Many viewers bought this argument. I did not. Demelza did not know Morwenna well enough to make this assumption.

One of the aspects of Horsfield’s adaptation of “The Black Moon” that I found puzzling was her decision to switch back and forth between scenes of the rescue mission in France and Lord Falmouth’s soirée. What was suppose to be the connection between the two scenes? The only connection I could summon was that one of the prisoners rescued by Ross was Lord Falmouth’s kinsman, Lieutenant Hugh Armitage. And George learned about this piece of bad news (for him) from Elizabeth during the soirée. But George, Elizabeth and Morwenna were not the only guests at the soirée. Demelza and Caroline also attended. And from the moment when Demelza first laid eyes upon Elizabeth and George, she made a snide comment, criticizing the couple for attending a party during wartime. I do not believe Demelza could ever be more hypocritical than she was at that moment. Especially since she was also attending the soirée . . . during wartime. But Horsfield needed another moment to make George look bad and Demelza to seem more ideal. What is even worse is that many fans lapped up this shit.

WHAT IN THE HELL DID DEBBIE HORSFIELD DO TO THE CHARACTER OF ELIZABETH WARLEGGAN? Why did Horsfield inflict these extreme changes upon the character? Why? What was the point of portraying Elizabeth in this ugly manner? It was bad enough that Horsfield refused to allow Elizabeth to remain angry at Ross for the rape. Oh I forgot. We are supposed to believe that he did not rape her, despite the fact that he had literally forced himself on her,until the last moment. Instead, Elizabeth is angry at Ross for abandoning her, following that night on May 9, 1793. And here is where I shake my head in disbelief at Horsfield’s failure to remember that this story is set in the late 18th century and not the 20th or 21st centuries. I have already complained about Horsfield portraying Elizabeth as an indifferent and cold parent to her second son. Why did the show runner do this? Someone had tried to explain that Elizabeth was suffering from postnatal depression. For how long? She had remained indifferent to Valentine months after his birth – even when he was diagnosed with rickets. Are we supposed to believe that this negative portrayal of Elizabeth was supposed to make her interesting? I did not find it interesting. I found this portrayal heavy-handed and infantile. Right now, I find myself doubting Debbie Horsfield’s talent as a writer.

I am not stating that Elizabeth was an ideal or perfect person. She was not. Elizabeth was definitely guilty of supporting George’s efforts to convince Morwenna to marry the odious Reverend Osborne Whitworth. In the novel, Elizabeth genuinely thought Whitworth would be a fine match for Morwenna – being unaware of the man’s true nature. She also believed that an arranged marriage for Morwenna would work as well as her marriage of convenience to George had worked for her. And to be honest, I believe that Elizabeth did not want to get into a conflict with George, especially since they had only been married for two years. But this production seemed to hint that Elizabeth’s efforts to play matchmaker for Morwenna and Whitworth stemmed from her resentment and jealousy toward Geoffrey Charles’ regard for her young cousin. Which was never the case in the novel.

But there was one change to Elizabeth’s character that truly irritated me. Horsfield had transformed Elizabeth into an addict who relied upon laudanum and wine to help her endure her marriage to George. Despite her occasional bouts of insecurity, Elizabeth never had to resort to using drugs and alcohol to endure marriage to George or her life in general. Two, Elizabeth may have been insecure at times, but I have always regarded her as a strong-willed person, despite her “fragile” appearance. Three, she never had to “endure” being married to George. Elizabeth realized that George was no picnic and had his flaws in the novel. But she found her second marriage more satisfying than she did being married to Francis. Unfortunately, Debbie Horsfield seemed incapable of understanding this. And apparently, so did many fans. Perhaps Horsfield and the fans could not endure any character preferring marriage to George over Francis . . . or any Poldark.

And I cannot help but wonder if was this addiction story line Horsfield’s way of kowtowing to those fans who wanted Elizabeth punished for marrying the wealthy George Warleggan in the first place? Was it really a crime to marry someone for money . . . especially when that person is aware that he or she has been chosen for their wealth? In the late 18th century, when such a marriage was common? Once more, Horsfield failed to understand that the “POLDARK” series was set in the Georgian Era and not in modern times? Ross did not marry Demelza for love. I believe he had married her as some middle-finger gesture to his upper-class neighbors, following Jim Carter’s conviction for poaching. And he would have never married her back in Series One if Demelza had not seduced him in the first place. Demelza’s reason for her act of seduction had more to do with giving Ross a reason to keep her at Nampara (as a kitchen maid and mistress) and not send her back to the home of her abusive father. Yet, neither Ross or Demelza has ever been condemned for their actions by Winston Graham, the producers from the 1970s series, Debbie Horsfield or the saga’s fans. Personally, I found Elizabeth’s reason to marry George a lot more practically and easier to understand than Ross’ reason for marrying Demelza.

Most of the performances in these first five episodes of Series Three seemed to be solid. I noticed that Robin Ellis made another appearance as the Reverend Doctor Halse in a scene in which he expressed regret at Ray Penvenen’s death. I like Ellis, but I find myself wondering over his continued appearances in this series, considering that Halse is no longer relevant in the saga, by this point. Aidan Turner and Eleanor Tomlinson were competent as usual. But there were moments when I found Tomlinson’s portrayal of Demelza rather anachronistic. I do not know whether to blame the actress or Horsfield’s writing. I read somewhere that the BBC and Horsfield had fired Phil Davis, who had portrayed Jud Paynter, because they felt that his character was no longer relevant. I found this assumption rather odd, considering that Jud played a major role in a plot development in “The Four Swans”. Ellise Chappell, Harry Richardson, Harry Marcus, Josh Whitehouse, Tom York and especially veteran James Wilby all made solid debuts in the series. But I found Christian Brassington’s debut as the slimy Reverend Osborne Whitworth rather fascinating. I understood he gained a few pounds for the role. I hope he will be able to lose those pounds, once the series ends. However, I have to give special kudos to Jack Farthing and Heida Reed for their portrayals of George and Elizabeth Warleggan. It must have been difficult for both actors to rise above the shitty material dumped into their laps by Horsfield. They may have struggled at times, but in the end, I believe they may have risen above it.

You know, it is one thing to make occasional changes, while adapting a novel, play, etc. for a movie or television production. With her adaptation of “The Black Moon”, Debbie Horsfield no longer seemed to be making the occasional changes. She seemed to be rewriting Winston Graham’s 1973 novel into this barely recognizable tale reeking with ham-fisted melodrama. And I find myself wondering know how long I can put up with this crap.

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Top Five Favorite Episodes of “COPPER” (2012-2013)

Below is a list of my five favorite episodes from the 2012-2013 BBC America series, “COPPER”. Created by Tom Fontana and Will Rokos, the series starred Tom Weston-Jones, Kyle Schmid and Ato Essandoh: 

TOP FIVE FAVORITE EPISODES OF “COPPER” (2012-2013)

1-1.02 Husbands and Fathers

1. (1.02) “Husbands and Fathers” – In this brutal episode, New York City detective Kevin “Corky” Corcoran set about rescuing child prostitute/abused wife Annie Sullivan from a Manhattan brothel and her perverse customer, a wealthy businessman named Winifred Haverford.

1 - 2.05 A Morning Song

2. (2.05) “A Morning Song” – Major counterfeiter Philomen Keating takes over the Sixth Ward precinct and hold hostages in an effort to retrieve his confiscated counterfeiting plates back.

2-1.09 A Day to Give Thanks

3. (1.09) “A Day to Give Thanks” – Following the reappearance of his missing wife Ellen in an asylum, Corky tracks down her former lover in order to learn what really happened to their dead daughter, while he was in the Army. Meanwhile, Confederate agents blackmail Robert Morehouse’s wealthy father into helping their plot to set New York City on fire, following the re-election of Abraham Lincoln.

3 - 2.03 The Children of the Battlefield

4. (2.03) “The Children of the Battlefield” – While Kevin searches for the person responsible for the kidnapping and murder of young Five Points men, Robert Morehouse and the widowed Elizabeth Haverford exchange wedding vows before the latter reveals an unpleasant surprise.

3-1.06 Arsenic and Old Cake

5. (1.06) “Arsenic and Old Cake” – Corky investigate the death of the dentist of one of his men, who died by arsenic poisoning. Widow Elizabeth Haverford tries to discipline an unruly Annie and return the latter to her abusive husband, a Mr. Reilly. An exhibition boxing match between a young African-American and an Irish-American local politician end with racial tension.

Adapting “WARLEGGAN”

ADAPTING “WARLEGGAN”

Do many fans of the current adaptation of Winston Graham’s “POLDARK” saga have an unnatural hatred of the character known as Elizabeth Chynoweth Poldark Warleggan? Or do they merely dislike her? Did this “dislike” lead producer Debbie Horsfield and the BBC to sanction a major change in the relationship between Elizabeth and the saga’s protagonist, Ross Poldark during the current series’ Season Two? A change that I personally found disturbing? Or was it something else? 

Last summer, I encountered rumors that “POLDARK” producer Debbie Horsfield and the BBC had decided to make a major change to the series’s adaptation of the 1953 novel, “Warleggan: A Novel of Cornwall, 1792-1793” – a change that eventually reflected in Episode Eight (Episode Seven in the U.S.) of the series’ second season. Horsfield and the BBC decided to deliberately change the nature of an encounter between Ross Poldark and Elizabeth Poldark in an effort to preserve Ross’ “heroic” image. Nearly a month after learning this decision, I learned that both leading man Aidan Turner and co-star Heida Reed (who portrays Elizabeth Poldark) had met with Horsfield. Turner claimed, along with Horsfield and Graham’s son, Andrew Graham, that the May 9, 1793 encounter between Ross and Elizabeth had been consensual sex and not rape, when the protagonist appeared at his cousin-in-law’s home (the Trenwith estate) to convince her not to marry his on-going nemesis, banker George Warleggan. Judging from what I had read in the 1953 novel, I find this opinion hard to accept:

“‘I can’t help this either.’ He kissed her. She turned her face away but could not get it far enough round to avoid him.

When he lifted his head, her eyes were lit with anger. He’d never seen her like it before, and he found pleasure in it.

‘This is – contemptible! I shouldn’t have believed it of you! To force yourself . . . To insult me when – when I have no one . . .

‘I don’t like this marriage to George, Elizabeth. I don’t like it! I should be glad of your assurance that you’ll not go through with it.’

‘I’d be surprised if you believed me if I gave it you! You called me a liar! Well, at least I do not go back on my promises! I love George to distraction and shall marry him next week-‘

He caught her again, and this time began to kiss her with intense passion to which anger had given an extra relish, before anger was lost. Her hair began to fall in plaited tangles. She got her hand up to his mouth, but he brushed it away. Then she smacked his face, so he pinioned her arm . . .

She suddenly found herself for a brief second nearly free. ‘You treat me -like a slut-‘

‘It’s time you were so treated-‘

‘Let me go, Ross! You’re hateful — horrible! If George –’

‘Shall you marry him?’

‘Don’t! I’ll scream! Oh, God, Ross … Please . . .’

‘Whatever you say, I don’t think I can believe you now. Isn’t that so?’

‘Tomorrow-‘

‘There’s no tomorrow,’ he said. ‘It doesn’t come. Life is an illusion. Didn’t you know? Let us make the most of the shadows.’

‘Ross, you can’t intend . . . Stop! Stop, I tell you.’

But he took no further notice of the words she spoke. He lifted her in his arms and carried her to the bed.”

This is how Graham had ended both the chapter and the scene . . . with Ross forcing Elizabeth on her bed . . . against her will. It did not end with any hint that they were about to embark upon consensual sex.

Many fans of the series, especially young female fans had reacted with joy over the news. What they had failed to realize was that in making this change, Horsfield threatened to undermine the lesson of Ross and Elizabeth’s story arc and what it really meant. Winston Graham – a male writer – had the balls to show that even the “heroic” Ross Poldark was capable of a monstrous act. He had the courage to reveal that Ross was not some romance novel hero, but a complex and ambiguous man, capable of not only decent acts, but monstrous ones as well. Like any other human being on the face of this Earth. More importantly, his assault of Elizabeth revealed the consequences that rape victims tend to pay in a patriarchal society – past or present – in the novels that followed. It seemed Debbie Horsfield and the BBC were only willing to portray Ross as an adulterer. Is it possible they believed it would be easier for viewers to accept Ross simply as an adulterer, instead of an adulterer/rapist? Some individuals, including Turner, claimed that Ross was incapable of rape. Bullshit! Although a fictional character, Ross Poldark is also a human being. And humans are basically capable of anything. Hell, Agatha Christie had the good sense to realize this. Why is it that so many other humans are incapable of doing the same?

The moment I had learned that she had decided to turn Ross’ rape into an act of consensual sex between him and Elizabeth, I suspected that fans would end up slut shaming the latter. I suspected that even though many fans would be “disappointed” in Ross, they would eventually forgive him. However, I also suspected that these same fans would end up branding Elizabeth as a whore until the end of this series. It is soooo typical of this sexist society. The woman is always to blame. Even in the eyes of other women.

So, what actually happened between Ross and Elizabeth in the BBC’s recent adaptation of “Warleggan”? In Episode 8 (Episode 7 in the U.S.), Ross returned home to Nampara, his personal estate, and discovered a letter from Elizabeth in which she announced her engagement to George Warleggan. Despite his wife Demelza’s protests, Ross decided to go to Trenwith and try to convince or perhaps coerce Elizabeth into breaking the engagement. He showed up at Trenwith, barged into both the house and Elizabeth’s bedroom. An argument commenced between the two in which Ross tried to shame Elizabeth into breaking the engagement. She refused to comply, making it clear that her actions stemmed from saving her immediate family at Trenwith from further financial problems and ensuring her son (and Ross’ cousin) Geoffrey Charles’ future.

And . . . what happened next? Ross began to force himself upon Elizabeth. She tried to put up a fight, while insisting that he leave. He eventually forced her on the bed. And just as he was about to rape her, Elizabeth capitulated at the last minute. This last moment of consent was Horsfield and the BBC’s way of stating that the entire scene between Ross and Elizabeth was basically consensual sex. Can you believe it? Considering the manner in which Elizabeth tried and failed to fight off Ross before she “consented”, the entire scene might as well have been rape. After all, Elizabeth fought Ross until he had her pinned on the bed. If she had not “consented”, chances are he would have raped her anyway. Worse, the culmination of the entire scene projected the negative image of a “rape fantasy”. I am sure that many of you know what I mean. When a woman or a man says “no”, he or she really means “yes”.

You may be wondering why I would include a potential male victim in this scenario. Simple . . . many people harbor the illusion that men do not mind being the victim of a woman’s rape. Also, I saw this same scenario play out in a “BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER” Season Six episode called (6.11) “Gone”. In this episode, the series’ protagonist had been rendered invisible by some ray gun (go with me here) invented by a trio of geeky scientists. Using her invisibility to indulge in her own desires, Buffy decided to pay a call to chipped vampire Spike (with whom she had begun an affair earlier in the season) at his crypt. She barged into the latter, shoved a frightened Spike against the wall and started to rip off his clothes. He only consented to have sex at the last minute when an uncontrolled giggle from Buffy revealed her identity. What made this scene rather sickening to watch was that it was written as comedy relief. I have the oddest feeling that producer Debbie Horsfield may have seen this particular episode and decided to write her own version of the situation in order to spare Ross Poldark from being labeled a rapist.

Someone had pointed out that the 1975 adaptation produced by Morris Barry and Anthony Coburn had adapted this sequence with more honesty. After a recent viewing of this series, I am afraid that I cannot agree. What happened? Well … one scene featured a conversation between Elizabeth and her sister-in-law, Verity Poldark Blamey, in which she made it clear that her reason for marrying George Warleggan was for money and more social clout. To make matters worse, the scene had Verity instructing Elizabeth to explain to Ross that the latter was considering the family’s salvation from a future filled with poverty and Geoffrey Charles’ future. But Elizabeth made it clear – in a rather bitchy and unsympathetic manner conveyed by actress Jill Townsend – that her reasons for George was all about a new life for her – with a wealthy husband. And she set out to include this in her letter to Ross. Even worse, the screenwriter had drastically changed Elizabeth’s personality once the series had commenced upon adapting “Warleggan” in Episode Thirteen. She suddenly began behaving as “The Bitch of the Century”.

When Ross had finally confronted her in Episode Fifteen, Elizabeth still insisted that a marriage to George was a way for her to have a new life. What I found distasteful about the whole thing is that this was NOT Elizabeth’s true reason for marrying George Warleggan in the 1953 novel. She truly made the decision to marry George in order to spare her family – especially Geoffrey Charles – a long future trapped in poverty, as was conveyed in the 2016 series. But I ended up acquiring the ugly feeling that Barry, Coburn and screenwriter Jack Russell had decided to change Elizabeth’s reason for marrying George in order to justify Ross’ rape of her.

And yes . . . Ross did rape Elizabeth in the 1975 series. Unlike the 2016 version, there was no last minute consent on Elizabeth’s part. But I found the entire scene rather rushed. Once Ross and Elizabeth barely had time to discuss or argue over the matter, the former quickly tackled the latter to the bed and began to rape her, as the scene faded to black. However, both versions set out to regain Ross’ reputation with the viewers by the end of their respective adaptations of “Warleggan”. How did they achieve this? Screenwriter Jack Russell included a scene in the last episode of the 1975 series in which George Warleggan had enclosed the Trenwith land from the tenants, forcing them to transform from small peasant proprietors and serfs into agricultural wage-laborers. This action led to a riot in which the former tenant farmers stormed the Trenwith manor house and burn it to the ground. During the riot, Ross and Demelza arrived to save the recently married Elizabeth and George from mob violence. This also gave the series’ producers and Russell to have Elizabeth ask Ross why he had decided to save George from the mob. What the hell? The enclosures happened in the novel. But not the riot. What was the purpose of this? To give Ross an opportunity to give Elizabeth a “you are beneath me” glare?

Debbie Horsfield decided to resort to a similar scenario in the 2016 version. However, before she could subject television audiences to this idiocy, she included a scene in which an angry Demelza Poldark got a chance to slut shame Elizabeth during an encounter between the pair on a deserted road. This scene, by the way, never happened in the novel. And quite frankly, I never understood Horsfield’s purpose by including this scene. What did she expect from the audience? Viewers pumping their fists in the air while crying, “Demelza, you go girl?” Perhaps there were fans that actually did this or something similar. I did not. In fact, I merely shook my head in disbelief. Pardon me, but I found it difficult to cheer on Demelza’s behalf, when I just recently watched her husband force himself on Elizabeth. Unlike the 1975 version, the Trenwith riot sequence did not end with the house burned to the ground. Instead, it ended with Nampara servant Jud Paynter, whipping up a mob to march on Trenwith and Ross preventing Demelza (who had gone to Trenwith to warn Elizabeth and George about the impending riot) from being shot by one of the rioters. The scene even included Ross riding through the crowd on a horse and sweeping Demelza up onto the saddle. It seemed like a scene straight from a Harlequin Romance novel. And I had to struggle to force down the bile that threatened to rise up my throat.

From the moment Elizabeth Poldark had decided to inform Ross of her upcoming marriage to George Warleggan to the latter’s confrontation with Ross over the Trenwith enclosures, the adaptations of Winston Graham’s 1953 novel for both the 1975 and 2016 series . . . well, for me they have been major disappointments. I am certain that many would continue to insist that Ross did not rape Elizabeth. Despite Debbie Horsfield and Andrew Graham, Winston Graham had verified what happened in this passage from his last “Poldark” novel, 2002’s Bella Poldark: A Novel of Cornwall, 1818-1820″:

“They took Ross to Trenwith, the nearest of the big houses and about equidistant from the nearest cottage of St Ann’s. They made an improvised stretcher of an old door, and he lay on a blanket and covered by a blanket. Amadora, confronted by the emergency, in all ignorance put him in the very bedroom where he had taken Elizabeth against her will twenty-seven or more years ago, and so had started all this trouble, which had gone on so relentlessly and for so long. Dwight caught up with the procession just as it reached Trenwith, so followed the four men carrying the door upstairs.”

Were producers Morris Barry, Anthony Coburn and Debbie Horsfield unwilling to allow television audiences to face the truth about Ross’ violent act against his soon-to-be former cousin-in-law? Was that why all three television producers had insisted upon changing the circumstances that surrounded Ross and Elizabeth’s encounter on that May 1793 night? Or were they pressured by the BBC to make these changes, who may have feared that television audiences could not openly face or accept Ross as a rapist? Or perhaps the three producers, along with the BBC, knew that many viewers could accept Ross as an adulterer, but not as a rapist? Who knows? I know one thing. I hope and pray that one day, some television producer would be able to adapt “Warleggan” without resorting to excessive changes.

 

Second Look: “MANDINGO” (1975)

 

SECOND LOOK: “MANDINGO” (1975)

About forty-three years ago, Paramount Pictures released an adaptation of Kyle Onscott’s 1957 novel of the Old South, ”MANDINGO”. This movie, which has developed a reputation as lurid, exploitive and racist, is considered to be one of the worst films to be released in the 1970s. Directed by Richard Fleischer, it starred Perry King, Ken Norton, James Mason, Brenda Sykes, Susan George and Ben Masters. 

However, there are recent film critics who refuse to dismiss ”MANDINGO” as simply lurid trash. They contend that despite its melodramatic tone, the movie offered a portrait of the antebellum South that may have been a lot more accurate than shown in Hollywood movies before or since. I have found two articles on the movie you might find interesting:

““Expect the Truth”: Exploiting History with Mandingo 

NOTCOMING.COM: “Mandingo”

“The Greatest Film About Race Ever Filmed in Hollywood”: Richard Fleischer’s Mandingo

“SLIFR: ‘Mandingo'”

“MANDINGO” (1975) Images

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“GEORGE WASHINGTON” (1984) Review

 

“GEORGE WASHINGTON” (1984) Review

Twenty-four years before the award-winning HBO miniseries “JOHN ADAMS” aired, the CBS network aired a miniseries about the first U.S. President, George Washington. Simply titled “GEORGE WASHINGTON”, this three-part miniseries was based upon two biographies written by James Thomas Flexner – 1965’s “George Washington, the Forge of Experience, 1732–1775” and 1968’s “George Washington in the American Revolution, 1775–1783”

“GEORGE WASHINGTON” spanned at least forty years in the life of the first president – from 1743, when his father Augustine Washington died from a sudden illness; to 1783, when Washington bid good-bye to the officers who had served under him during the American Revolutionary War. The miniseries covered some of the major events of Washington’s life:

*His training and profession as a surveyor of Western lands
*His experiences as an officer of the Virginia militia during the Seven Years War
*His friendship with neighbors George William and Sally Cary Fairfax between the 1750s and the 1770s
*The romantic feelings between him and Sally Fairfax
*His marriage to widow Martha Dandridge Custis and his role as stepfather to her two children
*His life as a Virginia planter
*His role as a member of Virginia’s House of Burgesses
*His growing disenchantment with the British Parliament
*His brief experiences as a representative of the Second Continental Congress
*And his experiences as Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army

Actually, one half of the miniseries covered Washington’s life from his childhood to his years as a Virginia planter. The other half covered his experiences during the American Revolution. Glancing at the list above, I realized that “GEORGE WASHINGTON”covered a great deal in Washington’s life. More importantly, Jon Boothe and Richard Fielder did a first-rate job by delving into the many aspects of the man’s life and his relationships with great details and depth. This was especially apparent in Washington’s relationships with his controlling mother, Mary Ball Washington; his friendship with George William Fairfax; his light romance with Sally Fairfax; his relationships with his military aides during the American Revolution and especially his marriage to Martha Custis.

I found it interesting that the miniseries managed to convey how difficult and controlling Mary Washington was as a parent. However, I found it slightly disappointing that the miniseries did not further explore Washington’s relationship with his mother, once he became swept up into the Seven Year’s War – especially since she had survived long enough to witness him become the first U.S. president.

Washington’s relationship with George William “Will” Fairfax proved to be a complex matter for two reasons. One, Will Fairfax had remained loyal to the British Crown throughout his life. During the decade leading to the outbreak of the American Revolution, that relationship threatened to fall apart due to the two friends’ different political belief – something I was happy to see that the miniseries had conveyed. Another aspect that posed a threat to Washington’s friendship with Fairfax was his romantic feelings for the man’s wife, Sally Fairfax . . . and her feelings for him. There have been rumors that Washington’s relationship with Sally had led to physical adultery, but no proof. But there is proof that they had strong feelings for one another and the miniseries; due to Fiedler and Boothe’s screenplay, along with the performances of Barry Bostwick and Jaclyn Smith; did an excellent job of conveying the pair’s emotional regard for each other in a subtle and elegant manner. What I found even more amazing was the miniseries’ portrayal of Washington’s courtship of and his marriage to Martha Custis. I was surprised that Boothe and Fiedler had portrayed Washington’s feelings toward her with such ambiguity. This left me wondering if he had married her for love . . . or for her fortune. By the last half hour or so of the miniseries, Washington finally admitted to Martha that he did love her. However, the manner in which Bostwick portrayed that scene, I found myself wondering if Washington was himself amazed by how much his feelings for Martha had grown.

I do not know what to say about the miniseries’ portrayal of Washington’s relationships with his military aides during the American Revolution. I do not doubt that his aides were loyal to him or probably even worship him. But I must admit that it seemed the miniseries’ portrayal of this relationship seemed to make Washington’s character just a touch too ideal for my tastes. In fact, one of the miniseries’ main problems seemed to be its idealistic portrayal of the main character. Aside from Washington’s bouts of quick temper, his ambiguous affections for his wife Martha, and his cold relationship with his less than ideal stepson, John “Jacky” Parke Custis; the miniseries made very little effort to portray Washington in any negative light. In fact, Washington’s demand for higher rank within the Virginia militia and British Army during the Seven Years War is portrayed as justified, thanks to Fiedler and Boothe’s screenplay. Personally, I found his demand rather arrogant, considering his young age (early to mid-20s) and limited training and experience as a military officer at the time. Not only did I found his demand arrogant, but also rather astounding. What I found even more astounding was the miniseries’ attitude that television viewers were supposed to automatically sympathize with Washington’s demands.

The miniseries’ portrayal of Washington in the second half – the period that covered the American Revolution – nearly portrayed the planter-turned-commander as a demigod. Honestly. Aside from his occasional bursts of temper, General George Washington of the Continental Army – at least in this miniseries – was a man who could do no wrong. And at times, I found this rather boring. I cannot recall any moment during the miniseries’ second half that questioned Washington’s decisions or behavior. Most of his military failures were blamed on either military rivals or limited support from the Continental Congress.

And then . . . there was the matter of black soldiers serving in the Continental Army. According to “GEORGE WASHINGTON”, Southern representative in Congress wanted blacks – whether they were former slaves or freemen – banned from serving in the army. It was Washington who demanded that Congress allow black men to fight alongside white men in the country’s rebellion against the British Empire. By the way . . . this was a complete lie. Despite black men fighting in the Massachusetts militias during the Battles at Lexington and Concord and the Battle of Bunker Hill, Washington signed an order forbidding them to become part of the Continental Army when the white New England militiamen did. Come to think of it, when it came to racism and slavery, “GEORGE WASHINGTON” presented a completely whitewashed portrait of the future president. The miniseries even featured a pre-war scene in which Washington prevented his overseer from breaking apart slave families at Mount Vernon by selling some of the slaves for needed funds for the plantation. In reality, Washington was not above selling off slaves or breaking up families for the sake of profit or punishing a slave. At a time when historians and many factions of the American public were willing to view the Founding Fathers in a more ambiguous light; Fiedler and co-producers Buzz Kulik and David Gerber lacked the guts to portray Washington with a bit more honestly . . . especially in regard to race and slavery. If they had been more honest, they could have portrayed Washington’s growing unease over slavery and race, following Congress’ decision to allow them within the ranks of the Continental Army in 1777. Unfortunately, putting Washington on a pedestal seemed more important than allowing him some semblance of character development.

Production wise, “GEORGE WASHINGTON” struck me as first-rate. The miniseries had been shot in locales in Virginia and Southern Pennsylvania, adding to the production’s 18th century Colonial America atmosphere. I cannot say whether Harry Stradling Jr.’s cinematography also contributed to the miniseries’ setting. If I must be honest, I did not find his photography that memorable. But I was impressed by Alfred Sweeney’s production designs, along with Sig Tingloff’s art direction and Arthur Jeph Parker’s set decorations. However, I had a problem with the costume choices selected by a costume team supervised by Michael W. Hoffman. To be honest, I did not have much trouble with the costumes for the men. The women’s costumes proved to be another man. A good deal of the story is set among the colonial Virginia gentry. I hate to say this, but I found a good deal of the women’s costumes less than impressive. They looked as if they came straight from a costume warehouse in the middle of Hollywood. I especially had a problem with Jaclyn Smith’s wardrobe as Sally Fairfax. I realize that she is supposed to be an 18th century version of a Southern belle. But there were one or two costumes that seemed to be some confusing mixture of mid 18th and mid 19th centuries. Yikes.

I certainly had no problem with the performances featured in the 1984 miniseries. The latter featured solid performances from legendary actors like Lloyd Bridges, Jose Ferrer, Trevor Howard, Jeremy Kemp, Clive Revill, Anthony Zerbe, Robert Stack and Hal Holbrook. However, I really enjoyed James Mason’s energetic portrayal of the doomed General Edward Braddock; Rosemary Murphy’s skillful performance as the future president’s demanding mother, Mary Ball Washington; Richard Kiley’s emotional portrayal of Washington’s neighbor, planter George Mason; and John Glover’s ambiguous performance as the ambitious Revolutionary officer, Charles Lee. I was also impressed by Stephen Macht’s performance as the ambitious and volatile Benedict Arnold. I could also say the same about Megan Gallagher’s portrayal of Arnold’s wife, Peggy Shippen. Ron Canada provided a good deal of depth in his limited appearances as Washington’s slave valet, Billy Lee. Philip Casnoff, who was a year away from his stint in the “NORTH AND SOUTH” miniseries, gave a very charming and humorous performance as Washington’s French-born aide and close friend, the Marquis de Lafayette. And Leo Burmester gave an excellent performance as Eban Krutch, the New England born Continental soldier, who served as the viewers’ eyes of both Washington and the war throughout the miniseries’ second half.

I really enjoyed David Dukes’ performance as Washington’s neighbor, mentor and close friend, Will Fairfax. I found it quite energetic and charming. And he managed to develop a first-rate chemistry with Barry Bostwick. Come to think of it, so did Jaclyn Smith, who portrayed Fairfax’s wife and the object of Washington’s desire, Sally Fairfax. I also found Smith’s performance rather complex as she had to convey her character’s feelings for Washington in a subtle manner. At first, I found Patty Duke’s portrayal of the future First Lady, Martha Washington, solid but not particularly interesting. Thankfully, the last quarter of the miniseries allowed Duke to prove what a first-rate actress she could be, as it explored Mrs. Washington’s reaction to the privations suffered by the Continental Army’s rank-and-file. Her performance led to an Emmy nomination. And finally, I come to the man of the hour himself, Barry Bostwick. Despite the miniseries being guilty of whitewashing some of Washington’s character, I cannot deny that Bostwick gave a superb performance. The actor skillfully conveyed Washington’s character from the callow youth who was dominated by his mother and his ambition to the weary, yet iconic military general who carried the rebellion and the birth of a country on his shoulders. It is a pity that he did not receive any award nominations for his performance.

I may have my complaints about “GEORGE WASHINGTON”. Despite its detailed account of the first president’s life, I believe it went out of its way to protect his reputation with occasional whitewashing. And some of the miniseries’ production values – namely the women’s costumes – struck me as a bit underwhelming. But despite its flaws, “GEORGE WASHINGTON” proved to be a first-rate miniseries that delved into the history of the United States during the mid-and-late 18th century, via the life of one man. It also benefited from excellent direction from Buzz Kulik and superb performances led by the talented Barry Bostwick. Not surprisingly, the miniseries managed to earn at least six Emmy nominations.

Top Favorite HISTORICAL NOVELS

Below is a current list of my top favorite historical novels: 

 

TOP FAVORITE HISTORICAL NOVELS

1. “North and South” (1982) by John Jakes – This is the first of a trilogy about two wealthy American families – the Hazards of Pennsylvania and the Mains of South Carolina – during the mid-19th century. This superb novel is set during the two decades before the U.S. Civil War.

 

2. “Flashman and the Redskins” (1982) by George MacDonald Fraser – This excellent novel from the Flashman series picks up where the 1971 novel, “Flash For Freedom” left off . . . with British Army officer Harry Flashman stuck in New Orleans in 1849. He eventually joins a wagon train bound for the California gold fields. The story concludes 27 years later, on the Little Bighorn battlefield.

 

3. “The Wheel of Fortune” (1984) by Susan Howatch – This excellent saga tells the story of a wealthy Anglo-Welsh family named the Goodwins between 1913 and the early 1970s.  Filled with family feuds, traumas, insanity, murder and romance; I regard this as the best of Howatch’s family sagas.

 

4. “Love and War” (1984) by John Jakes – The saga of the Hazards and the Mains continues in this story about their experiences during the U.S. Civil War. I regard this as one of the best Civil War novels I have ever read, despite being underappreciated by some critics.

 

5. “Shadow of the Moon” (1956; 1979) by M.M. Kaye – Set against the backdrop of mid-19th century India and the Sepoy Rebellion, this novel tells the story of a young Anglo-Spanish woman named Winter de Ballesteros and her love for British Army officer, Alex Randall.

 

6. “Voodoo Dreams” (1993) by Jewell Parker-Rhodes – The novel is a fictional account of the famous Voodoo priestess, Marie Laveau, in early 19th century New Orleans. Despite a slow start, the novel unveiled a very engrossing tale.

 

7. “Flashman and the Dragon” (1985) by George MacDonald Fraser – This entry in the Flashman series is an account of Harry Flashman’s experiences during the Taiping Rebellion and the March to Pekin in 1860 China. A personal favorite of mine.

 

8. “Centennial” (1974) by James Michner – A superb, multi-generational saga about the history of a small northern Colorado town, between the 1790s and the 1970s. I regard this superb novel as one of Michner’s best.

 

9. “The Bastard” (1974) by John Jakes – The first novel in Jakes’ Kent Family Chronicles series, this story is about Philip “Charbanneau” Kent, the illegitimate offspring of a French actress and a British nobleman during the years leading to the American Revolution. A personal favorite of mine.

 

10. “Flashman in the Great Game” (1975) by George MacDonald – This fifth entry in the Flashman series follows Harry Flashman’s harrowing adventures during the Sepoy Rebellion of 1857-58. Another one of Fraser’s best, which features plenty of drama, action and some pretty funny moments. A must read.

 

11. “The Killer Angels” (1974) by Michael Shaara – This Pulitzer Prize winning novel about the Gettysburg Campaign is considered one of the finest Civil War novels ever written. And I heartily agree.

 

12. “Lonesome Dove” (1985) by Larry McMurty – This Pulitzer Prize winning novel tells the story about two former Texas Ranges who lead a cattle drive on a perilous journey from South Texas to Montana in the late 1870s.

“THE BEGUILED” (2017) Review

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“THE BEGUILED” (2017) Review

I have never been a diehard fan of Southern Gothic fiction. Not really. But there have been some fictional works in that genre that have appealed to me. In fact, if you ask me, I could come up with a pretty good list of Southern Gothic movie and television productions that I have always enjoyed. 

Thomas Cullinan’s 1966 novel, “The Beguiled” aka “A Painted Devil” first came to my attention when I saw the 1971 movie adaptation of the novel years ago. I became an instant fan of the film and read Cullinan’s novel. Then I became a fan of the novel. So when I heard that director Sofia Coppola planned to direct her own film adaptation, I looked forward to it. One, I liked the story. Two, I am a sucker for a good Civil War film, being an amateur historian and movie nut. And I had also learned Coppola had won the Palme d’Or Best Director award (the second woman to do so) at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival for this film.

Don Siegel’s 1971 adaptation had made a few changes to Cullinan’s novel. One, he and the movie’s screenwriters made the story’s leading man an American of Irish descent, instead of the Irish immigrant portrayed in the novel. The story was set in 1863 Mississippi, during the Vicksburg Campaign. And two of the novels’ characters – the 17 year-old biracial Edwina Morrow and the nearly middle-aged Miss Harriet Farnsworth – were merged into a young white schoolteacher named Edwina Dabney. Sofia Coppola’s movie maintained the novel’s portrayal of leading man as an Irish immigrant and Cullinan’s setting – 1864 Virginia, during the Civil War’s Overland Campaign. However, Coppola’s movie followed Siegel’s example by merging the Edwina Morrow and Harriet Farnsworth characters into a schoolteacher.

“THE BEGUILED” began in the woods, near the Farnsworth Seminary, an all girls’ school in 1864 Virginia. When one of its students, a thirteen year-old girl named Amy is searching the woods for mushrooms to pick, she comes across a wounded Union Army soldier named Corporal John McBurney. He had been wounded in the leg before deserting the battlefield. Amy brings McBurney to the school where he falls unconscious. The school’s headmistress, Miss Martha Farnsworth, decides to heal the corporal’s wounded leg before turning him over to the Confederate Army as a prisoner. But Miss Farnsworth, Amy and the other females inside the school become “charmed” by the Irish-born soldier, as he slowly heals from his wounds. Amy, another student named Alicia and the school’s remaining teacher, Edwina Morrow, become especially captivated by McBurney’s charm. However, McBurney’s presence in the school generate a good deal of jealousy between the young students and the two women before an unexpected incident spirals the entire situation out of control.

Like the 1966 novel and its 1971 adaptation, “THE BEGUILED” took me by surprise in many ways. One of the film’s most noteworthy aspects was Philippe Le Sourd’s cinematography. I have never seen any of his previous film work. But I must admit that his photography did an excellent job in creating this film’s Old South atmosphere:

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Le Sourd’s cinematography definitely helped setting up the film’s atmosphere, especially due to the lack of any solid score. I also have to give points to Stacey Battat for creating costumes designs indicative to the Civil War period – especially for women and girls. Mind you, I thought some of the costumes may have been slightly anachronistic.

I also cannot deny that “THE BEGUILED” featured some strong performances from the cast. Nicole Kidman, Colin Farrell and Kirsten Dunst were top-notched, as usual. Kidman did a fine job portraying the no-nonsense and pragmatic headmistress, Martha Farnsworth, who seemed to have little problems with controlling those around her . . . including her only schoolteacher. Despite Martha Farnsworth being her second role as a Southerner (I think), I was surprised that Kidman’s Southern accent wavered a bit. Although Farrell is at least twenty years older than the literary John McBurney, he was free to portray the character as was described in Cullinan’s novel – an Irish immigrant recently recruited into the Union Army upon his arrival in the United States. However, his McBurney’s charm seemed to have more of an edge of desperation, due to his circumstances. And Kirsten Dunst gave a very competent performance as the emotionally repressed Edwina Morrow, a young schoolteacher who finds herself drawn to the handsome McBurney, despite her efforts to ignore him. Dunst also did a competent job in not only conveying Edwina’s growing attraction to McBurney, but also her wariness of being under Miss Farnsworth’s control.

The movie could also boast some surprisingly excellent performances from the younger cast members, who portrayed the school’s students. Elle Fanning gave a decent performance as the adolescent Alicia, whose attraction to McBurney partly stems from her growing awareness of her sexuality. However, there were moments when it seemed she was losing some control of the character. Oona Laurence, Angourie Rice, and Emma Howard also gave very competent performances. But I was especially impressed by Addison Riecke’s portrayal of young Marie, an impish student who borrowed Edwina’s earrings for the dinner party with McBurney and managed to manipulatively avoid returning them to the schoolteacher. Excellent performance by the young actress.

Although “THE BEGUILED” possessed some admirable traits, overall I was not that impressed by the film. Frankly, I am at a loss over how Coppola managed to win such a prestigious award at the Cannes Film Festival. Perhaps the voters had no idea that the narrative for this film is basically a Southern Gothic tale? Who knows? Coppola had erased so much from Cullinan’s story.

One aspect of “THE BEGUILED” that came to my attention was the lack of background for most of the characters at the Farnsworth Seminary. Now, unless my memory is failing me, the movie only revealed the fact that Edwina Morrow had a father living in Richmond. I believe the movie also touched upon the wartime fate of Amelia’s brothers. I believe. To be honest, I am not that certain. Coppola deleted Martha Farnsworth’s family history – especially her incestuous relationship with her brother. After all, one of the reasons Miss Farnsworth eventually opened up to McBurney was his resemblance to this “much loved” brother. Although the film revealed the existence of Edwina’s father, the screenplay never touched upon his role as a war profiteer or his lack of concern toward his daughter. The movie revealed nothing about Alicia’s family background – especially her prostitute mother who had abandoned her at the seminary. The movie revealed nothing about the remaining students’ backgrounds. McBurney’s discoveries and knowledge of their personal histories played a role in the events that occurred in the movie’s third act. Without the revelations of the female characters’ backgrounds, Coppola resorted to whitewashing the reasons behind their actions in the film’s third act.

Coppola claimed that she wanted “THE BEGUILED” to give a “voice” to the story’s female characters. Why did she make that claim? Each chapter in Cullinan’s 1966 novel was written from the viewpoints of a major female character and NOT . . . from Corporal McBurney’s point of view. Although the 1971 film featured scenes from McBurney’s point of view, it also did the same for the female characters. Also, McBurney was the only major character who lacked an inner monologue. Since the novel and the 1971 film featured the females’ points of view, what on earth was Coppola’s goal? To portray her female characters as ideal as possible? I noticed that neither anger or jealousy played a role in the violence that marked the film’s third act.

Alicia slept with McBurney because she was an adolescent “exploring her growing sexuality”. Not once did Coppola’s screenplay hint how her past experiences with her prostitute mother may have influenced her behavior with the opposite sex. By removing Martha Farnsworth’s incestuous history with her late brother – the one whom McBurney resembled, Coppola removed any possibility of Miss Farnsworth being driven by anger and jealousy over his tryst with Alicia to amputate his leg. By having McBurney behave like a borderline stalker in one scene following his amputation, Coppola justified the females’ decision to kill him with poisonous mushrooms. It seemed as if Coppola’s idea of feminist sensibilities is to portray her female characters with as little flaws as possible. And this led to her portraying the female characters’ decisions in the film’s last hour to be marred by a lack of moral ambiguity of any kind. This decision on Coppola’s part strikes me as cowardly.

If Coppola’s decision to portray her females characters with as little ambiguity as possible was bad enough, she also eliminated the school’s remaining slave, an African-American woman named Matilda (“Mattie”). Coppola gave a reason for this decision in the following statement:

“I didn’t want to brush over such an important topic in a light way. Young girls watch my films and this was not the depiction of an African-American character I would want to show them.”

What depiction was she referring to? Cullinan’s portrayal of Mattie in the 1966 novel? The only character who saw through McBurney’s charming bullshit and wanted nothing to do with him? Or Hallie (who was renamed) from the 1971 film, who also saw through his charm, despite their occasional bouts of flirting. I had no problems with either Cullinan or Siegel’s depictions of the character. Naturally, some movie reviewers supported Coppola’s decision, including one reviewer from the ALLIANCE OF WOMEN FILM JOURNALIST, who stated:

“The film has been criticized for its lack of comment on the Civil War or slavery. The war is a backdrop, the circumstance that isolated than part of the story. Unlike the 1966 novel and the 1971 movie, there are no African American characters in this film, explained by a single line says they left. Because it is set in the Civil War, it is a valid point but addressing the issue would have taken the focus off the women’s issues that are Coppola’s main point.”

Apparently, Coppola and her supporters do not regard women of color as a part of “women’s issues”. Or perhaps they feel that non-white women are not . . . women. White feminism at its height. If Coppola felt uncomfortable at the idea in exploring a non-white character, why on earth did she adapt Cullinan’s novel in the first place?

The lack of Mattie/Hallie in Coppola’s adaptation raised other problems. One, the slave woman’s presence allowed both Cullinan and Siegel to portray the school’s other occupants with a level of ambiguity that Coppola lacked the guts to face. I wonder if Mattie’s presence would have robbed Coppola the opportunity to explore her fantasies regarding Southern white women. Mattie was one of two characters who knew why Martha Farnsworth was willing to amputate McBurney’s leg in the novel. In Don Siegel’s movie, she was the only one. This knowledge led to an interesting scene between the two women in both the novel and the 1971 film. In both the novel and the Siegel film, Mattie/Hallie was the person who actually prepared the poisoned mushrooms for McBurney . . . and she did it out of her own anger toward the Union soldier. Without the slave woman, who prepared the mushrooms in this film? Edwina Morrow, who had been serving as the establishment’s cook, following the slaves’ departure? At the time, she was busy enjoying lustful relations with McBurney. Miss Farnsworth? Did she know how to cook? The movie never established this.

“BEGUILED” did feature scenes of the students and the two teachers engaged in household and garden duties. First of all, none of them looked as if they knew what they were doing. Second of all, since they were such abysmal housekeepers, how did they managed to keep their clothing looking so pristine? Without the benefit of servants?

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Judging from the costumes worn in the above image, Dunst and her younger co-stars do not look as if they are dressed for household duties. Instead, they seemed to be dressed for Sunday church services in the mid 19th century, an afternoon tea party or a picnic. At least other Civil War movie and television productions have their Southern female characters dressed more realistically . . . even the 1939 movie, “GONE WITH THE WIND”. I find it difficult to believe that Miss Farnsworth and her fellow inhabitants were capable of keeping their daily clothes looking so pristine – with or without a servant. All of the look like figures in some Southern belle fantasy.

For me, there were other problems in Coppola’s adaptation. I had a problem with her characterization of McBurney. Both the novel and the 1971 presented the character as something of a snake-tongued charmer. Farrell’s interpretation seemed to present McBurney more as an obsequious man who resorts to slavish politeness, instead of charm, to win over the school’s inhabitants. Farrell had the skill to convey McBurney’s charm, but it seemed as if Coppola had somehow held him back. Worse, the movie barely touched upon the Civil War, despite the presence of a Union soldier. I also did not understand why Coppola maintained the character of Emily Stevenson, and yet transferred Emily’s “pro-Confederate” personality to a character created for the film. Why did she do that? Why did she film this movie in Louisiana? Coppola retained the setting from the novel – Virginia 1864. Yet, she shot the film in the Deep South – a region that looked nothing like Virginia. Coppola could have changed the setting to the Deep South or shoot the film in the Upper South. She did neither. I also need to rephrase my comments regarding Philippe Le Sourd’s cinematography. Although I admired his exterior shots in the film, I cannot say the same about his interior shots. Quite frankly, I could barely see a damn thing, even when a scene was set during the daytime.

I am still at a loss on how Sofia Coppola thought she could improve both Thomas Cullinan’s novel and Don Siegel’s 1971 adaptation. Granted, the cast – including Nicole Kidman, Colin Farrell and Kirsten Dunst – gave competent performances. But Coppola stripped away so much from this story. She stripped away a lot of the characters’ ambiguity. She stripped away an important character who had the misfortune – at least in the director’s eyes – to be an African-American. Which meant that she stripped away the topic of slavery and to a certain extent, even the war itself. In the end, “THE BEGUILED” seemed like a Southern Gothic tale with barely any life. It struck me as a shell of Cullinan’s novel and Siegel’s own adaptation. After watching this film, I found myself asking why Coppola felt she could adapt the 1966 novel in the first place, considering that she seemed incapable of exploring it with any semblance of real honesty.