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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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.

“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.

“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.