“GANGS OF NEW YORK” (2002) Review

 

“GANGS OF NEW YORK” (2002) Review

With the exception of a few, many of Martin Scorsese’s films have been set in the City of New York – whether in the past or present. One of those films is his 2002 Oscar nominated film, “THE GANGS OF NEW YORK”

Loosely based upon Herbert Ashbury’s 1927 non-fiction book, “GANGS OF NEW YORK” had the distinction of being a crime drama about a gang war . . . set during the first half of the U.S. Civil War. Before I continue, I should add that the film was not only based upon Ashbury’s book, but also on the life and death of a street gang leader named William Poole.

“GANGS OF NEW YORK” began in 1846, when two street gangs – the Protestant”Nativists” led by William “Bill the Butcher” Cutting; and the “Dead Rabbits”, an Irish immigrant gang led by “Priest” Vallon; meet somewhere in the Five Points neighborhood of Manhattan for a fight. Near the end of a vicious street brawl, Cutting kills Vallon. A close friend of Vallon hides his young son inside an orphanage on Blackwell’s Island. Sixteen years pass and Vallon’s son, who has renamed himself Amsterdam, returns to the Five Points neighborhood to seek revenge against “Bill the Butcher”, who now rules the neighborhood. Against the back drop of the early years of the Civil War, Amsterdam maneuvers himself into Cutting’s confidence, as he waits for the right moment to strike and get his revenge against the man who killed his father.

There are aspects of “GANGS OF NEW YORK” that I either liked or found impressive. Considering that Scorsese shot the film at the Cinecittà Studios and the Silvercup Studios in Queens, New York; I must admit that I found Dante Ferretti’s production designs serving for Manhattan rather impressive. Impressive, but not exactly accurate or near accurate. The movie looked as if it had been shot on a sound stage. But I must say that I admired how the designs conveyed Scorsese’s own vision of Manhattan 1862-63. I also noticed that the color tones utilized by cinematographer Michael Ballhaus reminded me of the three-strip Technicolor process from the early-to-mid 1930s. Rather odd for a period movie set during the U.S. Civil War. However, thanks to Ferretti’s designs and Michael Ballhaus’ very colorful photography, the movie’s vision of 1860s Manhattan had a theatrical style to it – especially in the Five Points scenes. I did not love it, but I found it interesting.

I could probably say the same about Sandy Powell’s costume designs. They struck me as an extreme version of 1860s fashion, especially in regard to color and fabrics, as shown in the image below:

And there was something about the movie’s costume designs for men that I found slightly confusing. Mind you, I am not much of an expert on 19th century fashion for men. But for some reason, I found myself wondering if the costumes designed for the male cast were for a movie set in the 1840s, instead of the 1860s, as shown below:

But if I must be honest with myself, I did not like “GANGS OF NEW YORK”. Not one bit. The movie proved to be a major disappointment. One of the main problems I had with this film was that Scorsese; along with screenwriters Jay Cocks, Steven Zaillian and Kenneth Lonergan; took what should have been a character-driven period crime drama and transformed it into something nearly unwieldy. When you think about it, “GANGS OF NEW YORK” was basically a fictionalized account of a feud between American-born William Poole and an Irish immigrant named John Morrissey, the former leader of the real “Dead Rabbits” gang. And their feud had played out in the early-to-mid 1850s. Instead, Scorsese and the screenwriters shifted the movie’s setting to the early years of the Civil War and ended the narrative with the New York City Draft Riots of 1863 in some attempt to transform what could have been a more intimate period drama into this gargantuan historical epic. I found this perplexing, considering that the Civil War had little to do with the film’s main narrative. It also did not help that the film’s narrative struck me as a bit choppy, thanks to Scorsese being forced to delete a good deal of the film at the behest of the producers.

I did not have a problem with the conflict/relationship between Bill Cutting and Amsterdam Vallon. I thought Scorsese made an interesting choice by having Amsterdam ingratiate himself into Cutting’s inner circle . . . and keeping his true identity a secret. This paid off when Amsterdam saved Cutting from an assassinating attempt, leading the latter to assume the position of the younger man’s mentor. At first, I could not understand why Scorsese had included a romantic interest for Amsterdam in the form of a grifter/pickpocket named Jenny Everdeane. In the end, she proved to be a catalyst that led to Amsterdam and Cutting’s eventual conflict near the end of the film. One of the few people who knew Amsterdam’s true identity was an old childhood acquaintance named Johnny Sirocco, who became infatuated over Jenny. When he became aware of Amsterdam’s romance with Jenny, Johnny ratted out his friend’s identity to Cutting.

But what followed struck me as . . . confusing. On the 17th anniversary of his father’s death, Amsterdam tried to kill Cutting and failed. Instead of killing the younger man in retaliation, Cutting merely wounded Amsterdam, branded the latter’s cheek and declared him an outcast in the Five Points neighborhood. An outcast? That was it? I found it hard to believe that a violent and vindictive man like Bill “the Butcher” Cutting would refrain from killing someone who tried to kill him. Perhaps this scenario could have worked if Cutter had tried to kill Amsterdam and fail, allowing the latter to make his escape. Or not. But I found Scorsese’s scenario with Amsterdam being banished from Cutting’s circle and the Five Points neighborhood to be something of a joke.

As for the movie’s performances . . . for me they seemed to range from decent to below average. For a movie that featured some of my favorite actors and actresses, I was surprised that not one performance really impressed me. Not even Daniel Day-Lewis’ Oscar nominated performance as William “Bill the Butcher” Cutting. Mind you, Day-Lewis had one or two scenes that impressed – especially one that involved a conversation between Bill the Butcher and Amsterdam, inside a brothel. Otherwise, I felt that the actor was chewing the scenery just a bit too much for my tastes. Leonardo Di Caprio, on the other hand, was crucified by critics and moviegoers for his portrayal of the revenge seeking Amsterdam Vallon. Aside from his questionable Irish accent, I had no real problems with Di Caprio’s performance. I simply did not find his character very interesting. Just another kid seeking revenge for the death of his father. What made this desire for revenge ridiculous to me is that Bill the Butcher had killed “Priest” Vallon in a fair fight. Not many critics were that impressed by Cameron Diaz’s performance. Aside from her questionable Irish accent, I had no real problems with the actress. I had a bigger problem with her character, Jenny Everdeane. To put it quite frankly, aside from her role serving as a catalyst to Cutting’s discovery of Amsterdam’s true identity, I found Jenny’s role in this movie rather irrelevant.

As for the other members of the cast . . . I found their performances solid, but not particularly noteworthy. I thought Henry Thomas gave a decent performance as the lovelorn and vindictive Johnny Sirocco. The movie featured Jim Broadbent, Roger Ashton-Griffiths, Cara Seymour and Michael Byrne portraying true-life characters like William “Boss” Tweed, P.T. Barnum, Hell Cat Maggie and Horace Greeley. They gave competent performances, but I did not find them particularly memorable. The movie also featured solid performances from the likes of Liam Neeson, John C. Reilly, Brendan Gleeson, Gary Lewis, Lawrence Gilliard Jr., Stephen Graham, Eddie Marsan, David Hemmings, Barbara Bouchet and Alec McCowen. But honestly, I could not think of a performance that I found memorable.

My real problem with “GANGS OF NEW YORK” was Scorsese’s handling of the movie’s historical background. Quite frankly, I thought it was appalling. I am not referring to the film’s visual re-creation of early 1860s Manhattan. I am referring to how Scorsese utilized the movie’s mid-19th century historical background for the film. Earlier, I had pointed out that the Civil War setting for “GANGS OF NEW YORK” barely had any impact upon the movie’s narrative. I think it may have been a bit in error. Scorsese and the screenwriters did utilize the Civil War setting, but in a very poor manner.

“GANGS OF NEW YORK” should never have been set during the U.S. Civil War. It was a big mistake on Scorsese’s part. Day-Lewis’ character is based upon someone who was killed in 1855, six years before the war’s outbreak. Scorsese should have considered setting the movie during the late antebellum period, for his handling of the Civil War politics in the movie struck me as very questionable. From Scorsese’s point of view in this film, the Union is basically a militaristic entity bent upon not only oppressing the Confederacy, but also its citizens in the North – including immigrants and African-Americans. This view was overtly manifested in two scenes – the U.S. Naval bombing of the Five Points neighborhood during the Draft Riots . . . something that never happened; and a poster featuring the images of both Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass that appeared in the movie:

What made this poster even more ridiculous is that the image of Frederick Douglass was anachronistic. Douglass was roughly around 44 to 45 years old during the movie’s time period. He looked at least 15 to 20 years older in the poster.

In “GANGS OF NEW YORK”, Americans of Anglo descent like Bill the Butcher were the real bigots of 1860s Manhattan. Not only did they hate immigrants, especially Irish-born immigrants, but also black Americans. I am not claiming that all 19th century Anglo-Americans tolerated blacks and immigrants. Trust me, they did not. But did Scorsese actually expected moviegoers to believe that most of the Irish immigrants were more tolerant of African-Americans than the Anglos? Apparently, he did. He actually portrayed one character, an African-American named Jimmy Spoils, as one of Amsterdam’s close friends and a member of the latter’s newly reformed “Dead Rabbits” gang. Honestly? It was bad enough that Scorsese’s portrayal of Jimmy Spoils was so damn limited. I cannot recall a well-rounded black character in any of his movies. Not one.

Scorsese and his screenwriters made the situation worse by portraying the Irish immigrants as generally more tolerant toward blacks than the Anglos. In fact, the only Irish-born or characters of Irish descent hostile toward African-Americans in the film were those manipulated by Anglos or traitors to their own kind. According to the movie, the violent inflicted upon blacks by Irish immigrants was the instigation of Federal military policy. By embracing this viewpoint, Scorsese seemed unwilling to face the the real hostility that had existed between Irish immigrants and African-Americans years before the draft riots in July 1863. Actually, both the Irish and the Anglo-Americans – “the Natives” – were racist toward the blacks. One group was not more tolerant than the other. The movie also featured Chinese immigrants as background characters. In other words, not one of them was given a speaking part. If Scorsese had really wanted the New York Draft Riots to be the centerpiece of this movie, he should have focused more on race relations and been more honest about it.

I really wish that I had enjoyed “GANGS OF NEW YORK”. I really do. I have always been fascinated by U.S. history during the Antebellum and Civil War periods. But after watching this film, I came away with the feeling that Martin Scorsese either had no idea what kind of film that he wanted or that he tried to do too much. Was “GANGS OF NEW YORK” a period crime drama or a historical drama about the events that led to the New York Draft Riots? It seemed as if the director was more interested in his tale about Amsterdam Vallon and William “Bill the Butcher” Cutting. If so, he could have followed the William Poole-John Morrissey conflict more closely, set this film where it truly belonged – in the 1850s – and left the Civil War alone. I believe his handling of the Civil War proved to be a major stumbling block of what could have been an well done film.

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“THE CHISHOLMS” (1979): Chapter II Commentary

“THE CHISHOLMS” (1979): CHAPTER II Commentary

The first episode of the 1979 miniseries, “THE CHISHOLMS” – otherwise known as Chapter I had focused on the Chisholm family’s last year at their western Virginia farm. The episode also explored the circumstances that led to patriarch Hadley Chisholm’s decision to move the family west to California during the spring of 1844 and their journey as far as Evansville, Indiana. This second episode focused on the next stage of their journey. 

This new episode or Chapter II focused on a short period of the Chisholms’ migration to California. It covered their journey from southeastern Illinois to Independence, Missouri. Due to the addition of a guide named Lester Hackett, who had agreed to accompany them as far as Missouri, the Chisholm family experienced its first crisis – one that led to a temporary split within the family ranks. The family’s journey seemed to be smooth sailing at first. They managed to become used to the routine of wagon train traveling. Lester proved to be an agreeable companion who helped with both hunting for game and cooking. He even managed to save Bonnie Sue Chisholm, who briefly found herself trapped in the family’s wagon being pulled away by their pair of skittish mules. Eventually, Bonnie Sue and Lester began expressing romantic interest in each other.

But alas, the family’s luck began to fade. A lone rider began trailing the Chisholm party. Lester discovered that he was a friend of someone named James Peabody, who believes Lester was responsible for the theft of some valuables that include a pair of Spanish pistols . . . the same pistols that Lester had claimed he lost in a poker match in Louisville. He and Bonnie Sue enjoyed a night of intimacy together before he abandoned the Chisholms . . . while riding Will Chisholm’s horse. Around the same time, Hadley’s violent encounter with a drunken Native American at a local tavern fully revealed his deep-seated bigotry towards all Native Americans and foreshadowed the problems it will cause. Then Hadley made one of the worst decisions of his life by allowing Will and middle son Gideon to pursue Lester to Iowa and recover the former’s stolen horse.

Upon their arrival in Iowa, Will made an equally disastrous decision. Instead of requesting information and help from the local sheriff, he and Gideon appeared at the Hackett farm, asking for Lester’s whereabouts. The two brothers ended up being arrested for the theft of chicken eggs and trespassing. Although the charges of theft were dropped, Will and Gideon were convicted of trespassing and ordered to serve on a prison work gang for a month. This left the rest of the family to continue on to Independence, Missouri – the jump-off point for all westbound wagon trains. During their journey through Missouri, the Chisholms joined with the Comyns, a family from Baltimore. Upon their arrival in Independence, the Chisholms and the Comyns discover that most of the wagons trains had already departed. However, they managed to form a wagon party with a plainsman named Timothy Oates and his Pawnee wife, Youngest Daughter. Unaware that Will and Gideon have been sentenced to a prison work gang, and aware that they are already behind schedule, the Chisholms have no choice but to head west into the wilderness.

For an episode that began in a light-hearted manner, Chapter II ended on a rather ominous note. You know, I have seen this production so many times. Yet, it never really occurred until recently how the turmoil caused by Lester Hackett in this episode, ended up causing so much turmoil for the family. What makes this ironic is that it all began with the sexual attraction that had sprung up between him and Bonnie Sue Chisholm back in Louisville. The first sign of this turmoil manifested in Lester’s abandonment of the family and especially, his theft of Will Chisholm’s horse. The horse theft led to the separation of the family at a time when it would have been more imperative for them to be together as a unit.

Hadley did not help matters by allowing Will and Gideon to search for Lester in Iowa. And the two brothers made the situation worse by failing to immediately contact the local sheriff before appearing at the Hackett farm – an act that led them to be sentenced one month on a prison work gang. Will and Gideon’s situation made it impossible for them to catch up with the rest of the family on the trail. And as Beau Chisholm had pointed out to Hadley in Independence, they were not in a position to wait for the other two. The Chisholms had no choice but to leave with two other westbound parties – the Comyns from Baltimore and the frontiersman Timothy Oates and his wife, Youngest Daughter. Two families and a couple does not seem large enough for a safe journey on the overland trail. But considering they were all behind schedule, they could either take the risk continue west or hang around Independence until the next year.

But I did notice that despite all of this turmoil, the light-hearted atmosphere of the episode’s beginning seemed to have persisted. More importantly, Chapter II seemed to be marked by a good deal of humor. The episode included humorous moments like Hadley’s negative comments about the Illinois and Missouri landscapes, Will and Lester’s lively debate over using mules or oxen to pull wagon overland, Lester’s attempts to win over the family – especially Minerva, and especially his sexy courtship of Bonnie Sue.

Once Lester had abandoned the family near St. Louis, the humor continued. Will and Gideon’s experiences in Iowa were marked with a good deal of sardonic humor. That same humor marked Hadley and Minerva’s low opinion of the Comyn family. Even Hadley’s quarrel with the Independence saloon owner permeated with humor and theatricality. Looking back on Chapter II, I can only think of two moments that really emphasized the gravitas of the Chisholms’ situation – Hadley’s violent encounter with the Native American inside an Illinois tavern and that final moment when the family continued west into the wilderness without Will and Gideon.

When the Chisholms left Virginia in Chapter I, their journey was marked with a good number of interesting settings. That episode featured a detailed re-creation of Louisville and travel along the Ohio River. There seemed to be no such unusual settings for Chapter II. The entire episode focused on the family’s journey through Illinois, Iowa and Missouri. Not once did the episode featured the family in St. Louis. And a few set pieces (or buildings) served as Independence, Missouri circa 1844.

The performances from Chapter I held up very well. Robert Preston and Rosemary Harris, as usual, gave excellent performances as the family’s heads – Hadley and Minerva Chisholm. I was especially impressed by Preston’s performance in the scene involving Hadley’s encounter with the intoxicated Native American. In it, the actor did a superb job in conveying both Hadley’s racism toward all Native Americans and his poignant regret over the tragic circumstances (Allen Chisholm had been killed by a Native American in a drunken fight over a slave woman from the Bailey plantation) behind his toxic attitude. Both Ben Murphy and Brian Kerwin clicked rather well during those scenes that involved Will and Gideon Chisholm’s search for Lester. The episode also featured solid performances from James Van Patten, Susan Swift, Katie Hanley (as the amusingly mild-mannered Mrs. Comyn) and David Heyward (as Timothy Oates). Veteran character actor Jerry Hardin gave an excellent performance the slightly proud, yet finicky Mr. Comyn, who seemed to run his life by his pocketwatch.

But if I must be honest, this episode belonged to Stacy Nelkin and Charles Frank, who did superb jobs in conveying Bonnie Sue Chisholm and Lester Hackett’s burgeoning romance. I was impressed by how both of them developed Bonnie Sue and Lester’s relationship from sexual attraction to playful flirtations and finally, to a genuine romance that was sadly cut short by Lester’s need for self-preservation from a charge of theft.

Overall, I enjoyed Chapter II. In a way, it seemed to be the calm before the storm that threatens to overwhelm the Chisholm family on their trek to California. The episode seemed to be filled with a good deal of humor and romance. On the other hand, Lester Hackett’s past and current choices in this episode seemed to hint an ominous future for the family by the end of the episode.

Southern Belle Fashionistas

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Below are images featuring my favorite costumes worn by two Southern Belle characters in fiction – Scarlett O’Hara from Margaret Mitchell’s 1936 novel and its 1939 movie adaptation, “GONE WITH THE WIND”; and Ashton Main from John Jakes’ 1982-1987 literary trilogy and its 1985-1994 television adaptation, “NORTH AND SOUTH” Trilogy: 

SOUTHERN BELLE FASHIONISTAS

Scarlett O’Hara – “GONE WITH THE WIND”

I may have mixed feelings about the 1939 movie, “GONE WITH THE WIND”, I cannot deny that I really liked some of the costumes designed by Walter Plunkett for the story’s protagonist, Scarlett O’Hara Hamilton Kennedy Butler. Here are my five (5) favorite costumes:

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Wedding Dress – The dress that Scarlett wore when she married Charles Hamilton in the spring of 1861.

 

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Christmas 1863 Dress – Scarlett wore this dress when she bid good-bye to Ashley Wilkes at the end of his army furlough around the Christmas 1863 holiday.

 

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Wedding Announcement Dress – She wore this dress when she informed her sisters and the Wilkes about her marriage to second husband, Frank Kennedy, in 1866.

 

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Businesswoman Dress – Scarlett wore this outfit in one scene featuring her role as manager of her second husband Frank Kennedy’s sawmill.

 

Post-Honeymoon Visit to Tara Dress – Scarlett wore this dress when she and third husband Rhett Butler visited Tara following their honeymoon in 1868.

 

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Sawmill Visit Dress – Scarlett wore this dress when she paid a visit to Ashley Wilkes, who was manager of the sawmill she had inherited from Frank Kennedy in the early 1870s.

 

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Ashton Main – “NORTH AND SOUTH” Trilogy

I am a fan of the ABC adaptations of John Jakes’ “NORTH AND SOUTH” Trilogy. Among my favorite costumes worn by the character, Ashton Main and designed by Vicki Sánchez, Robert Fletcher and Carol H. Beule. Here are my favorite costumes:

 

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Mont Royal Ball Gown – Ashton Main wore this gown at the ball held at her family’s plantation during the summer of 1854.

 

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Wedding Gown – Ashton wore this gown when she married her first husband, James Huntoon, in the fall of 1856.

 

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Richmond Ball Gown – Ashton Huntoon wore this ballgown when she met her future lover Elkhannah Bent at a reception held in Richmond, Virginia in July 1861.

 

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Day Dress – Ashton wore this dress during her first visit to Elkhannah Bent’s Richmond home during the summer of 1861 and when she was married to her second husband, salesman Will Fenway, in 1866-67.

 

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Huntoon Reception Dress – Ashton wore this dress at a reception she and her husband James Huntoon had hosted at their Richmond home in November 1861.

 

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Evening Dress – Ashton wore this dress during an evening visit to Bent’s Richmond home in August 1862.

 

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Travel Dress – Ashton wore this dress during a visit to her family’s plantation, Mont Royal, in August 1863.

 

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Factory Visit Dress – Ashton wore this dress when she paid a visit to her husband Will Fenway’s Chicago piano factory in 1868.

Favorite Television Productions Set During the U.S. CIVIL WAR

Below is a list of my favorite television productions set during the U.S. Civil War: 

FAVORITE TELEVISION PRODUCTIONS SET DURING THE U.S. CIVIL WAR

1. “The Blue and the Gray” (1982) – This three-part CBS miniseries focused on the experiences of two families linked by two sisters – the Geysers of Virginia and the Hales of Pennsylvania – during the U.S. Civil War. John Hammond and Stacy Keach starred.

2. “Copper” (2012-2013) – Tom Fontana and Will Rokos created this BBC America series about an Irish immigrant policeman/war veteran who patrols and resides in New York City’s Five Points neighborhood during the last year of the U.S. Civil War. Tom Weston-Jones, Kyle Schmid and Ato Essandoh starred.

3. “North and South: Book II” (1986) – James Read and Patrick Swayze starred in this six-part television adaptation of John Jakes’s 1984 novel, “Love and War”, the second one in John Jakes’ “North and South” Trilogy. David L. Wolper produced and Kevin Connor directed.

4. “Gore Vidal’s Lincoln” (1988) – Sam Waterston and Mary Tyler Moore starred in this two-part miniseries adaptation of Gore Vidal’s 1984 novel about the 16th U.S. President during the U.S. Civil War. Lamont Johnson directed.

5. “The Young Riders” (1989-1992) – Ed Spielman created this ABC television series about six riders who rode for the Pony Express between 1860 and 1861. Ty Miller, Josh Brolin and Anthony Zerbe starred.

6. “Class of ’61” (1993) – Steven Spielberg produced this ABC television movie about a few West Point graduates who found themselves on opposite sides of the U.S. Civil War. Dan Futterman, Clive Owen and Andre Braugher starred.

7. “Mercy Street” (2016-2017) – Lisa Wolfinger and David Zabel created this PBS series that followed two hospital nurses on opposite sides, at the Mansion House Hospital in Alexandria, Virginia during the U.S. Civil War. Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Hannah James and Josh Radnor starred.

8. “Lincoln” (1974-1976) – Hal Holbrook and Sara Thompson starred in this NBC six-part miniseries about the life of the 16th U.S. President. George Schaefer directed.

9. “The Million Dollar Dixie Deliverance” (1978) – Brock Peters starred in this Disney television movie about an escaped Union soldier who flees to the Union lines with five Northern children who had been snatched and held as hostages by Confederate soldiers during the war. Russ Mayberry directed.

10. “For Love and Glory” (1993) – Roger Young directed this failed CBS pilot about a wealthy Virginia family disrupted by the older son’s marriage to a young working-class woman and the outbreak of the U.S. Civil War. Daniel Markel, Tracy Griffith, Kate Mulgrew and Robert Foxworth starred.

“BAND OF ANGELS” (1957) Review

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“BAND OF ANGELS” (1957) Review

I have been a fan of period dramas for a long time. A very long time. This is only natural, considering that I am also a history buff. One of the topics that I love to explore is the U.S. Civil War. When you combined that topic in a period drama, naturally I am bound to get excited over that particular movie or television production. 

I have seen a good number of television and movie productions about the United States’ Antebellum period and the Civil War. One of those productions is “BAND OF ANGEL”, an adaptation of Robert Warren Penn’s 1955 novel set during the last year of the Antebellum period and the first two years of the Civil War.

The story begins around 1850. The privileged daughter of a Kentucky plantation owner named Amantha Starr overhears one house slave make insinuations about her background to another slave. Before Amantha (or “Manthy”) could learn more details, she discovers that Mr. Starr had the offending slave sold from the family plantation, Starwood. He also enrolls her in a school for privileged girls in Cinncinati. A decade later in 1860, Amantha’s father dies. When she returns to Starwood, Amantha discovers that Mr. Starr had been in debt. Worse, she discovers that her mother had been one of his slaves, making her a slave of mixed blood. Amantha and many other Starwood slaves are collected by a slave trader and conveyed by steamboat to New Orleans for the city’s slave mart.

Upon her arrival in New Orleans, Amantha comes dangerously close to be purchased by a coarse and lecherous buyer. However, she is rescued by a Northern-born planter and slave owner named Hamish Bond, and becomes part of his household as his personal mistress. She also becomes acquainted with Bond’s other house slaves – his right-hand-man named Rau-Ru, his housekeeper and former mistress Michele and Dollie, who serves as her personal maid. Although Amantha initially resents her role as a slave and Bond’s role as her owner, she eventually falls in love with him and he with her. But the outbreak of the Civil War and a long buried secret of Bond’s threaten their future.

Many critics and film fans have compared “BAND OF ANGELS” to the 1939 Oscar winner, “GONE WITH THE WIND”. Frankly, I never understood the comparison. Aside from the setting – late Antebellum period and the Civil War, along with Clark Gable as the leading man, the two films really have nothing in common. “GONE WITH THE WIND” is a near four-hour epic that romanticized a period in time. Although “BAND OF ANGELS” have its moments of romanticism, its portrayal of the Old South and the Civil War is a bit more complicated . . . ambiguous. Also, I would never compare Scarlett O’Hara with Amantha Starr. Both are daughters of Southern plantation owners. But one is obviously a member of the Southern privileged class, while the other is the illegitimate and mixed race daughter of a planter and his slave mistress. Also, Gable’s character in “BAND OF ANGELS” is a Northern-born sea captain, who became a planter; not a semi-disgraced scion of an old Southern family.

Considering the political ambiguity of “BAND OF ANGELS”, I suppose I should be more impressed with it. Thanks to Warren’s novel, Ivan Goff and Ben Roberts’ screenplay and Raoul Walsh’s direction; the movie attempted to provide audiences with a darker view of American slavery and racism. For instance, Amantha’s journey from Kentucky to Louisiana as a slave proved to be a harrowing one, as she deals with a slave trader with plans to rape her, a traumatic experience at the New Orleans slave mart, Bond’s lustful neighbor Charles de Marigny and her attempts to keep her African-American ancestry a secret from a Northern beau later in the film. The film also touches on Rau-ru’s point of view in regard to slavery and racism. Despite being educated and treated well by Hamish Bond; Rau-ru, quite rightly, is resentful of being stuck in the role of what he views as a cosseted pet. Rau-ru also experiences the ugly racism of planters like de Marigny and slave catchers; and Northerners like some of the Union officers and troops that occupied New Orleans and Southern Louisiana in the movie’s last half hour. I also noticed that the movie did not hesitate to expose the ugliness of the slave trade and the system itself, the racist reveal the fate of a great number of slaves who found themselves being forced by Union forces to continue toiling on the cotton and sugar plantations on behalf of the North.

There are other aspects of the movie that I found admirable. Not all of “BAND OF ANGELS” was shot at the Warner Brothers Studios in Burbank. A good of the movie was shot on location in Louisiana. I have to give credit to cinematographer Lucien Ballard for doing an exceptional job for the film’s sharp and vibrant color, even if the film lacked any real memorable or iconic shot. If I must be honest, I can say the same about Max Steiner’s score. However, I can admit that Steiner’s score blended well with the movie’s narrative. Marjorie Best, who had received Oscar nominations for her work in movies like “ADVENTURES OF DON JUAN”and “GIANT”, served as the movie’s costume designer. I was somewhat impressed by her designs, especially for the male characters, ironically enough. However, I had a problem with her costumes for Yvonne De Carlo. Nearly dress that the Amantha Starr character possessed a low cut neckline that emphasized her cleavage. Even her day dresses. Really?

After reading a few reviews about “BAND OF ANGELS”, I noticed that some movie fans and critics were not that impressed by the film’s performances. I have mixed feelings about them. Clark Gable seemed to be phoning it in most of the film. But there were a few scenes that made it easy to see why he not only became a star, but earned an Oscar well. This was apparent in two scene in which the Hamish Bond character recalled the enthusiasm and excitement of his past as a sea captain and in another, the “more shameful” aspects of his past. At age 34 or 35, I believe Yvonne De Carlo was too old for the role of Amantha Starr, who was barely into her twenties in the story. Some would say that the role could have benefited being portrayed by a biracial actress and not a white one. Perhaps. But despite the age disparity, I still thought De Carlo gave a very strong performance as the passionate and naive Amantha, who suddenly found her life turned upside down. Ironically, I thought her scenes with Sidney Poitier seemed to generate more chemistry than her ones with Gable. Speaking of Poitier . . . I might as well say it. He gave the best performance in the movie. His Rau-ru bridled with a varying degree of emotions when the scene called for it. And the same time, one could easily see that he was well on his way in becoming the Hollywood icon that Gable already was at the time.

There were other performances in “BAND OF ANGELS”, but very few seemed that memorable. The movie featured solid performances from Rex Reason, who portrayed Amantha’s Northern-born object of her earlier infatuation Seth Parson; Efrem Zimbalist Jr., who not only portrayed Amantha’s later suitor Union officer Lieutenant Ethan Sears, but was already on the road as a television star; Carroll Drake, who portrayed Hamish Bond’s introverted and observant housekeeper Michele; Andrea King, who portrayed Amantha’s hypocritical former schoolmistress Miss Idell; William Schallert, who had a brief, but memorable role as a bigoted Union Army officer; and Torin Thatcher, who portrayed Bond’s fellow sea captain and friend Captain Canavan. Many critics had accused Patric Knowles of bad acting. Frankly, I found his performance as Bond’s neighbor and fellow planter Charles de Marigny effectively slimy . . . in a subtle way. Ray Teal was equally effective as the slimy and voracious slave trader Mr. Calloway, who conveyed Amantha to the slave marts of New Orleans. The only performance that hit a sour note from me came from Tommie Moore, who portrayed one of Bond’s house maids, the loud and verbose Dollie. Every time she opened her mouth I could not help but wince at her over-the-top and if I may say so, cliched performance as Dollie. I think I could have endured two hours in the company of Prissy and Aunt Pittypat Hamilton from “GONE WITH THE WIND” than five minutes in Dollie’s company. I guess I could have blamed the actress herself. But a part of me suspect that the real perputrators were screenwriter and Walsh.

I wish that was all I had to say about “BAND OF ANGELS”. I really do. But . . . despite the movie’s portrayal the ugliness of slavery and racism, it ended up undermining its attempt. Quite frankly, I found “BAND OF ANGELS” to be a very patronizing movie – especially in regard to race. And the figure of this patronization is centered around the character of Hamish Bond. Someone once complained that although the movie initially seemed to revolve around Amantha Starr, in the end it was all about Bond. I do not know if I could fully agree with this, but I found it disturbing that the character “growths” of both Amantha and Rau-ru revolved around Bond and their opinion of him.

One aspect of “BAND OF ANGELS” that I found particularly bizarre was Amantha’s opinion of Hamish Bond’s connection to slavery. At first, she simply resented him for being her owner. But she eventually fell in love with him and opened herself to being his mistress. Amantha certainly had no problems with that ridiculous scene that featured Bond’s field slaves lined up near the river side to welcome him back to his plantation with choral singing. Really? This was probably the most patronizing scene in the movie. Yet, when Amantha discovered that his past as a sea captain involved his participation in the Atlantic slave trade, she reacted with horror and left him. Let me see if I understand this correctly. Once she was in love with Bond, she had no problems with being his slave mistress or his role as a slave owner. Yet, she found his participation in the slave trade to be so awful that she . . . left him? Slave owner or slave trader, Hamish Bond exploited the bodies of black men and women. Why was being a slave trader worse than being a slave owner? Not only do I find this attitude hypocritical, I also noticed that it permeated in a good deal of other old Hollywood films set in the Antebellum era. Even more disturbing is that after becoming romantic with an Union officer named Ethan Sears, Amantha has a brief reunion with her former object of desire, Seth Parsons. He reveals knows about her mother’s ancestry and her role as Bond’s mistress, and tries to blackmail her into becoming his. In other words, Seth’s knowledge of her racial background and her history with Bond leads Amantha to run back into the arms of Bond. And quite frankly, this makes no sense to me. Why would Seth’s attempt to blackmail lead Amantha to forgive Bond for his past as a slave trader? The movie never really made this clear.

I found the interactions between Rau-ru and Hamish Bond even more ridiculous and patronizing. Rau-ru is introduced as Bond’s major-domo/private secretary, who also happens to be a slave. Despite receiving education from Bond and a high position within the latter’s household, Rau-ru not only resents Bond, but despises him. And you know what? I can understand why. I noticed that despite all of these advantages given to Rau-ru, Bond refuses to give him his freedom. Worse, Bond treats Rau-ru as a pet. Think I am joking? I still cannot think of the scene in which Bond’s friend, Captain Canavan, visited and demanded that Rau-ru entertain him with a song without any protest from Bond without wincing. This scene was really vomit inducing. What made the situation between Rau-ru and Bond even worse is that the former made an abrupt about face about his former master during the war . . . all because the latter had revealed how he saved Rau-ru’s life during a slave raid in Africa and – get this – some bigoted Union Army officer tried to cheat Rau-ru from a reward for capturing Bond. The former sea captain/planter ended up leaving his estate to Rau-ru in a will. How nice . . . but I suspect he did so after Amantha left him. If not, my mistake. And why did Bond failed to give Rau-ru his freedom before the outbreak of war? Instead, Rau-ru was forced to flee to freedom after saving Amantha from being raped by Charles de Marigny. In Robert Warren’s novel, Rau-ru eventually killed Bond. Pity this did not happen in the movie.

Overall, I see that my feelings for “BAND OF ANGELS” is mixed. There are some aspects of the movie that I found admirable. I might as well admit. The movie especially benefited from Lucien Ballard’s colorful photography, an interesting first act and an excellent performance by Sidney Poitier. Otherwise, I can honestly say that “BAND OF ANGELS” focused too much on the Hamish Bond character and was a bit too patronizing on the subject of race and slavery for me to truly enjoy it.

“THE CHISHOLMS” (1979): Chapter I Commentary

 

Eps. 1.3

 

“THE CHISHOLMS” (1979): CHAPTER I Commentary

Years ago, before the advent of DVDs, I had perused my local video rental store for something to watch. I came across a miniseries called “THE CHISHOLMS”. Due to it being a Western and possessing a running time of four hours and thirty minutes, I decided to give it a chance. I managed to purchase a VHS copy of the miniseries and enjoy for several years. But with the advent of the DVD and my VHS player going on the blink, I had to wait quite a while before I could finally get a DVD copy of it. 

Based upon Evan Hunter’s 1976 novel, “THE CHISHOLMS” told the story of a family from western Virginia, who make the momentous decision to travel west to California after losing part of their farm to a neighbor, due to some unusual circumstances. Unlike many other television and movie productions about the westward migration during the 1840s, “THE CHIISHOLMS” took its time in setting up the story. In this first episode, it spent at least an hour introducing the Chisholm family – namely:

*Hadley Chisholm – the family’s patriarch and owner of a farm in western Virginia
*Minerva Chisholm – the family’s matriarch
*William “Will” Chisholm – Hadley and Minerva’s oldest son, who is also a veteran of the Texas Revolution
*Gideon Chisholm – Hadley and Minerva’s second son
*Bonnie Sue Chisholm – Hadley and Minerva’s older daughter and Beau’s twin
*Beau Chisholm – Hadley and Minerva’s youngest son and Bonnie Sue’s twin
*Annabel Chisholm – Hadley and Minerva’s younger daughter and youngest offspring

The first episode or Chapter I began with Will’s wedding to a young local woman named Elizabeth during the spring of 1843. Also, the family is unaware of Bonnie Sue’s romance with a young man named Brian Cassidy. Unfortunately for her and Brian, the Chisholms and the Cassidys have been engaged in a feud ever since Hadley’s brother had rejected Brian’s aunt at the wedding altar several decades ago. When the latter died, the Chisholms and the Cassidys discovered that she had received a portion of the Chisholm land – the farm’s most fertile – from Hadley’s brother as compensation for being dumped. She never revealed this to her family or the Chisholms. But she did leave her land to her brother and Brian’s father, Luke Cassidy, who did not wait long to demand that the Chisholms hand over the land. Matters worsen for the Chisholms when Will’s bride die from an infection after giving birth to an unborn child.

With no fertile land to farm, Hadley Chisholm decides to pack his family and migrate to California. Most of the family agrees with his decision, except Minerva, who is reluctant to leave Virginia; and Bonnie Sue, who is reluctant to leave Brian. The journey west goes without a hitch, until the family reaches Louisville, Kentucky. There, they discover from a young Western guide named Lester Hackett that they had departed Virginia at least a month or two late for the journey to California. The family had reached Louisville in mid-May 1844, around the time when most emigrant wagon trains usually departed Independence, Missouri. Upon learning this, Hadley changes his mind about the journey to California and decides to return to Virginia. But Will informs him that there are other members of the family are willing to utilize Lester’s plan that would eliminate some time from their trip to Independence. After the Chisholms decide to continue west via a family vote, they utilize Lester’s plan by boarding a flat-bottom boat that takes them to Evansville in western Indiana, cutting off their journey by a few weeks.

Some people might find the first hour of “THE CHISHOLMS” rather hard to endure. Most movie and television productions usually spend at least fifteen minutes in introducing its characters and conveying the reasons behind their decision to migrate to the West. “THE CHISHOLMS” spent an hour. Personally, this did not bother me, for I found the circumstances behind the Chisholms’ decision to head for California rather interesting. Especially since the circumstances involved a potential feud with another family. Other reasons why I rather enjoyed the miniseries’ first hour was how the circumstances in which the family made its departure originated with Hadley Chisholm’s displeasure over the neighborhood’s new minister from Vermont and how the latter conducted Elizabeth Chisholm’s funeral. I would explain how Hadley’s conflict over the new minister led to the family sneaking away from their home in the middle of the night. But it would require a great deal of narration on my part. And honestly, I would suggest that you simply watch the miniseries.

Once the family hit the road for California, the miniseries went into full steam. Chapter I only followed the Chisholms from Virginia to southwestern Indiana, but a good deal happened in that half hour. The temptation to return home to Virginia hovered over the family all the way to Louisville. And when the family learned from Lester Hackett that they had left Virginia about a month or so too late, even Hadley was tempted to turn around. What I found interesting about this turn of events is that Chisholms’ decision on whether to return to Virginia or continue west to California depended upon a family vote . . . and the instant attraction between Bonnie Sue Chisholm and Lester. Personally, I would have ended Chapter I with that scene inside a Louisville stable. Hadley and Minerva’s willingness to decide the whole matter on a vote, along with the sexual attraction between Bonnie Sue and Lester, would end up producing strong consequences later in the miniseries and in the short-lived television series that followed. Instead, the Chisholms experienced a brief journey down the Ohio River on a broad horn (flat-bottom raft), while Minerva endured the unwanted attention of the broad horn’s captain (or patroon) named Jimmy Jackson. By the time the family reached the outskirts of Evansville, it had reached the point of no return.

Another aspect about “THE CHISHOLMS” that I enjoyed, was how the producers, director Mel Stuart and the screenwriters utilized the production’s historical background without hitting viewers over the head with facts. The family had departed Virginia in 1844, a year that featured a Presidential election. Not once did the topic of the election graced anyone’s lips. But the miniseries made it clear that Will Chisholm was a veteran of the Texas Revolution of 1836. The miniseries also brought up the topic of slavery. The narrative pointed out that Hadley’s wealthiest neighbor was a planter and slave owner. And during the last half hour of Chapter I, a coffle of slaves was among the other passengers aboard Jimmy Jackson’s broad horn, leading Minerva Chisholm to express anti-slavery sentiments. I also enjoyed how the miniseries gave television viewers a lengthy peek into life in the early-to-mid 19th century Appalachia. I have always admired Aaron Copeland’s score for the miniseries. But I must admit that his score contributed to this episode’s first hour, which featured the Chisholms’ life in western Virginia.

Most of the production’s historical background seemed to revolve around the family’s westward journey. Unlike many Hollywood productions, television viewers did not see the Chisholms’ wagon being pulled by horses (which is historically inaccurate). And the narrative went out of its way to point out that the family began its westbound journey about a month or two late. I also enjoyed the brief montage that featured the Chisholms’ early start on the journey and what it took for them to maintain supplies and keep their wagon in condition. Steven P. Sardanis’s production designs, the art direction that he provided with Fred Price, Charles Korian and Charles B. Price’s set decorations, and Tom Costick’s costumes (to a certain extent), did a great job in re-creating western Virginia and the Ohio River Valley circa 1844.

But in the, the cast proved to be the best thing about “THE CHISHOLMS”. I must commend casting director Vicki Rosenberg for gathering a first-rate collection of performers for the cast. The miniseries featured solid performances from Dean Hill, Jack Wallace, Maureen Steindler, Tom Taylor, James O’Reilly and Gavin Troster; even if they did not exactly rock my boat. Glynnis O’Connor gave a charming performance as Will’s young wife, Elizabeth Chisholm. Anthony Zerbe gave a spotless performance as the sleazy flat boat patroon, Jimmy Jackson. But the one supporting performance that caught my eye came from Charles Frank, who gave the first of a series of dazzling performance as the charmingly ambiguous Lester Hackett.

Rosenberg casting of the Chisholm family proved to be even more impressive to me. Susan Swift gave a very charming and balanced performance as the family’s youngest member, Annabel Chisholm, who seemed divided between the adventure of migrating to California and being mindful of her mother’s reluctance to move. James Van Patten gave a very energetic and intense performance as the family’s hot-tempered member, Beau Chisholm. Stacy Nelkin’s portrayal of the sensual, yet pragmatic Bonnie Sue Chisholm struck me as very skillful, which is why her performance was one of my favorites in the series. Brian Kerwin, whom I remember from the 1982 miniseries, “THE BLUE AND THE GRAY”, seemed a bit laid back as middle son, Gideon Chisholm. But he gave a charming performance in the end. Ben Murphy portrayed the oldest sibling, Will Chisholm. And I thought he did a great job in revealing how Will seemed to be an interesting combination of his parents. I was especially impressed by how he handled Will’s grief over Elizabeth’s death.
Years after I had first seen “THE CHISHOLMS”, I was surprised to learn that the two leads – Robert Preston and Rosemary Harris – had first worked together on the 1966 Broadway play, “THE LION IN THE WINTER”. I do not if having them reunite for the 1979 miniseries was Rosenberg or someone’s idea, but it was a damn good one, all the same. What can I say? Whatever magic Preston and Harris had created on Broadway back in the mid-1960s, they managed to re-create it front of the television camera some 12 to 13 years later. In some ways, the pair seemed like the yin and yang of the Chisholm family. They were so perfect together that I do not know how else to describe their performance.

Before I end this article, I must admit there were one or two aspects of “THE CHISHOLMS” that either did not impress me or . . . confused me. Although I believe that Tom Costick’s costumes added to the production mid-1840s setting . . . but only to a certain degree. It did seem that a great deal of Costick’s costumes looked as if they had come out of a Hollywood warehouse, instead of being created by him. Especially the women’s costumes. Even those costumes worn by well-to-do women in the Louisville sequence gave that impression. And I am a little confused about the circumstances surrounding Hadley’s loss of his most fertile cornfield. I understood how he lost the actual land to Luke Cassidy. What I did understand was how Cassidy managed to take possession of the corn that the Chisholm family had already sown. Surely the court would have allowed the Chisholms to profit from the corn sown from seeds purchased by them? If someone could clear this matter for me, please do so.

Despite my quibbles regarding the costumes and the matter surrounding the cornfield lost to the Chisholms, I enjoyed Chapter I of “THE CHISHOLMS” very much. In fact, watching it reminded me why it had become one of my favorite miniseries in the first place. Why on earth did I wait so long in watching it again? Oh well . . . on to Chapter II.

Top Ten Favorite Movies Set in the 1860s

Below is my current list of favorite movies set in the 1860s: 

TOP TEN FAVORITE MOVIES SET IN THE 1860s

1. “Lincoln” (2012) – Steven Spielberg directed this highly acclaimed film about President Abraham Lincoln’s last four months in office and his efforts to pass the 13th Amendment to end slavery. Oscar winner Daniel Day-Lewis, Oscar nominee Sally Field and Oscar nominee Tommy Lee Jones starred.

2. “Shenandoah”(1965) – James Stewart starred in this bittersweet tale about how a Virginia farmer’s efforts to keep his family out of the Civil War failed when his youngest son is mistaken as a Confederate soldier by Union troops and taken prisoner. Andrew V. McLaglen directed.

3. “Angels & Insects” (1995) – Philip Haas directed this adaptation of A.S. Byatt’s 1992 novella, “Morpho Eugenia” about a Victorian naturalist who marries into the English landed gentry. Mark Rylance, Kristin Scott-Thomas and Patsy Kensit starred.

4. “Class of ’61” (1993) – Dan Futterman and Clive Owen co-starred in this television movie about recent West Point graduates and their experiences during the first months of the Civil War. Produced by Steven Spielberg, the movie was directed by Gregory Hoblit.

5. “The Tall Target” (1951) – Anthony Mann directed this suspenseful tale about a New York City Police sergeant who stumbles across a plot to kill President-elect Lincoln and travels aboard the train carrying the latter to stop the assassination attempt. Dick Powell starred.

6. “Far From the Madding Crowd” (1967) – John Schlesinger directed this adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s 1874 novel about a young Victorian woman torn between three men. The movie starred Julie Christie, Alan Bates, Terence Stamp and Peter Finch.

7. “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” (1966) – Sergio Leone directed this epic Spaghetti Western about three gunslingers in search of a cache of Confederate gold in New Mexico, during the Civil War. Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef and Eli Wallach starred.

8. “Cold Mountain” (2003) – Anthony Minghella directed this poignant adaptation of Charles Fraizer’s 1997 novel about a Confederate Army deserter, who embarks upon a long journey to return home to his sweetheart, who is struggling to maintain her farm, following the death of her father. The movie starred Oscar nominees Jude Law and Nicole Kidman, along with Oscar winner Renee Zellweger.

9. “Little Women” (1994) – Gillian Armstrong directed this adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s 1868 novel about four sisters from an impoverished, yet genteel New England family. The movie starred Winona Ryder, Trini Alvarado, Christian Bale and Susan Sarandon.

10. “The Beguiled” (1971) – Clint Eastwood starred in this atmospheric adaptation of Thomas Cullinan’s 1966 novel about a wounded Union soldier who finds refuge at an all-girl boarding school in 1863 Mississippi. Directed by Don Siegel, the movie co-starred Geraldine Page and Elizabeth Hartman.