“CLASS OF ’61” (1993) Review

1940179,1tgxNZfitBLLxgAoaIpHKKdYNqC+RBWo31L8fKGDlG97irBsu61Qzdsh2ktT1jUfsbjg7uaGx+3xHqkPavJQhQ==.jpg

“CLASS OF ’61” (1993) Review

Twenty-six years, ABC Television aired the pilot episode for an American war drama about the U.S. Civil War. Written by Jonas McCord, “CLASS OF ’61” told the story about three West Point graduates from the class of 1861, who found themselves on opposites sides following the outbreak of war.

I have a few corrections to make. “CLASS OF ’61” told the story about one West Point graduate, an Irish immigrant named Devlin O’Neil of Baltimore, and one cadet who had dropped out of the Academy following the outbreak of war, Shelby Peyton of Virginia. And the third man turned out to be a young George Armstrong Custer, who did graduate with the Class of ’61, but only served as a supporting character in this production. Actually, the third major character in “CLASS OF ’61” is a young man named Lucius, who happened to be a slave owned by Shelby’s father, a doctor and plantation owner. The movie followed Devlin, Shelby, Lucius and yes, even young Custer from that last day of peace before the bombardment of Fort Sumter to the waning moment of the Battle of Bull Run (or Manassas).

After Shelby dropped out of West Point, following the Fort Sumter bombardment and surrender, Shelby Peyton visits Devlin O’Neil’s home in Baltimore and discovers that the latter’s father has withdrawn his permission for Shelby to marry Devlin’s sister, Shannon, due to Shelby’s decision to follow his state into the Confederacy. Shelby also discovers that Devlin and Shannon’s younger brother, Terry, has joined a local street mob that happened to be pro-Confederate. After participating in the Pratt Street Riot on April 19, 1861; Terry ends up temporarily imprisoned at Fort McHenry before heading south to join the Confederate Army. Following his graduation from West Point, Devlin experiences difficulty in receiving an Army assignment, due to Terry’s actions. Devlin meets a Virginia belle from nearby Alexandria named Lily Magraw at a soirée hosted by long-time Washington socialite named Rose O’Neal Greenhow. Unbeknownst to Devil, both Lily and Mrs. Greenhow are Confederate spies. Shelby’s friendship with his father’s slave Lucius is tested due to the latter’s brief attempt to escape slavery with his pregnant wife, Lavinia. After killing one (or two) of the slave catchers who had spotted him, Lucius is forced to leave the Shelby plantation without his wife and head north via the Underground Railroad.

One would immediately notice that “CLASS OF ’61” has no main narrative other than a handful of major characters experiencing the first three months of the U.S. Civil War. That is because this 93-minute movie was supposed to serve as a pilot for a new series . . . which never materialized. But this loose narrative structure featuring a handful of plot lines did not deter me from enjoying the production. When I first saw “CLASS OF ’61”, I was in the throes of an obsession for the U.S. Civil War. An obsession that has not abated with time, I might add. There is a possibility that due to this obsession, I may have viewed “CLASS OF ’61” through rose-colored glasses when I first saw it. Do not get me wrong. I still managed to enjoy it. But due to the “sands of time”, I have finally noticed the flaws.

“CLASS OF ’61” has a great deal of virtues. Its biggest virtue seemed to be the cast. The television pilot featured many young players who would eventually become well known or major stars. Dan Futterman, an excellent character actor in his own right and a two-time Academy Award nominated screenwriter, gave a complex performance as Shelby Peyton. Clive Owen, who became a bigger star, gave an emotional performance as Devlin O’Neil, the Irish immigrant torn between his friendship with Peyton and his family’s patriotism toward their new country. Andre Braugher was already somewhat known for his performance in the 1989 movie, “GLORY”, when he shot this pilot. He eventually became a major television star and has received numerous nominations and won two Emmys for his work. Frankly, I thought he gave the best performance in the production as the embittered Virginia slave whose initial attempt to escape slavery would lead to him being apart from his wife and mother for several years.

The television movie also featured solid performances from the like of Josh Lucas (as George C. Custer) Dana Ivey, Penny Johnson, Sue-Ann Leeds, Barry Cullison, Peter Murnik, Timothy Scott, Stephen Root, Christien Anholt and Andrew Stahl. However, I believe there were better supporting performances. One came from Sophie Ward, who gave a poignant performance as Devlin’s sister Shannon. Beverly Todd was excellent as Lucius’ pragmatic mother. Mark Pelligrino gave a very interesting performance as a fellow cadet from South Carolina named Skinner, especially in a scene in which the character provided off-putting instructions on how to breed healthy slaves to the discomfort of the Peytons. Robert Newman gave an intelligent performance as one of the main characters’ West Point instructors who become a Union artillery officer, Captain Wykoff. Len Cariou was effective as Shelby’s warm and intelligent father, Dr. Leland Peyton. Lorraine Toussaint shone brilliantly in her brief role as a slave woman named Sarah, who was accompanying her mistress on a southbound train also conveying Shelby had encountered on a southbound train from New York City. Niall O’Brien gave a very complex performance as Devlin and Shannon’s emotionally patriotic father, James O’Neil.

The production values for “CLASS OF ’61” struck me as solid, but not particularly top-notch. Although the movie’s setting stretched from West Point, New York to the Peyton plantation outside of Richmond, Virginia; it was easy for me to see that the television movie was set in South Carolina and Georgia . . . in the Deep South. I have noticed that many of these productions with an Antebellum or Civil War setting are shot in the Deep South states, even the narratives are set in the Upper South. Has the Upper South been developed too extensively to serve as locations for such movies? I found Michael T. Boyd’s costumes for the women characters very attractive and nearly accurate. However, I thought the men’s costumes looked as if they had came straight from a costume warehouse in Hollywood.

Recently, I had come across an old review of “CLASS OF ’61”. The New York Times reviewer seemed to dismiss the production as a nostalgic television movie with a failed plot. He seemed unaware that the movie was basically a pilot for a potential television series. When I first saw the movie, I knew that this was basically a pilot. Which is why I was not that surprised that it ended with the Battle of Bull Run without any of the plot lines being resolved. As for “CLASS OF ’61” being nostalgic . . . I am not sure about that criticism. Jonas McCord’s narrative seemed to be a mixture of a straight forward look at how Americans behaved and spoke during this tumultuous period in 19th century American history and a slightly critical look at their society. And I found its portrayal of the Bull Run battle rather interesting and detailed. However, the television movie featured a good deal more criticism of Northern racism and the Abraham Lincoln Administration. Shelby’s encounter with an abolitionist, a Maryland woman and her enslaved maid led to the latter’s soliloquy about the racism she had encountered in New York City. And another scene featured Devlin revealing his family troubles to Lily Magraw and Rose Greenhow – namely brother Terry’s incarceration inside Baltimore’s Fort McHenry and how this led to his failure to being assigned to an Army regiment.

I must admit that I found it odd that McCord seemed to focus so much on the flaws of Northern society and the Lincoln’s Administration . . . and not on the flaws of Confederate President Jefferson Davis’ own administration. After all, the state of Virginia had lost its northwestern counties during the three-month period between Fort Sumter and Bull Run, due to its citizens breaking away from the state. Considering that Shelby’s family lived in Virginia, I found it rather odd that western Virginia’s break from the state was never mentioned. On the other hand, the series did focus a great deal on slavery. Although the Peyton family were portrayed as kind slave owners who almost treated their slaves as family, the movie still managed to portray their role in slavery as something to condemn – especially through Lucius’ bitterness over being a slave, the patronizing manner of Dr. Peyton’s kindness and Shelby’s inability to understand Lucius’ desire for freedom or lack of faith in the latter’s ability to survive as a free man. I have noticed in many other productions about slavery during the Antebellum period or the Civil War, slave owners are either portrayed as kind or cruel . . . with no ambiguity in between. I must applaud McCord for his more ambiguous portrayal of Shelby and his family in regard to the slavery topic.

Were there aspects of “CLASS OF ’61” that troubled me? Well . . . yes. There were a few things. When Devlin was first introduced to Rose Greenhow at her soirée, the latter revealed that she knew a great deal about him – including where his family lived and his ranking among the West Point Class of ’61. I am sorry, but I found this hard to swallow. Was this McCord’s idea of conveying Mrs. Greenhow’s greatness as a spy? Why on earth would she have bothered to collect so much information on a recent West Point graduate who had ranked in the middle of his class? Seriously? Also in the movie, Mr. O’Neil had accused a visiting Shelby of joining a volunteer regiment called the Palmetto Guards. Earlier in the production, a cadet named Upton had accused the South Carolinian Skinner of doing the same right after the news of Sumter was announced. So I checked the Internet and discovered that “Palmetto Guards” was one of the nicknames for the 2nd South Carolina Infantry. I could understand Skinner being considered for this regiment. But why on earth would Mr. O’Neil accuse Shelby, a Virginian, of joining it? Unsurprisingly, “CLASS OF ’61” had failed to be picked up as a series. But imagine my surprise to discover that McCord had added a brief epilogue to reveal the characters’ fates. He must have been very bitter over the pilot’s fate, because he had committed some kind of “Scorch Earth” policy on the characters. Only three or four of them had survived the war . . . and one of them was George Armstrong Custer. Worse, two of his characters died in a way that was historically impossible.

Ironically, my biggest problem with “CLASS OF ’61” proved to be Shelby and Lucius’ friendship. Now I realize that human beings are ambiguous creatures. And I am also aware that some complex friendships or relationships may have formed between slaves and the owners – especially relationships that began in childhood, like Shelby and Lucius. But there were aspects of the pair’s friendship that struck me as unrealistic. I found it unrealistic that Lucius would honestly express his bitterness over being a slave to Shelby, of all people. I also found it unrealistic that Lucius would tell Shelby about his lethal encounter with those slave catchers. The movie never portrayed Shelby as someone with pro-abolitionist leanings. And although he was friendly and familiar with his father’s slaves, he also shared Dr. Peyton’s patronizing attitude. It just seemed unnatural that Shelby would react with nothing more than mere surprise after Lucius had confessed to killing two slave catchers. I do not care how friendly he was with Lucius or any of the other Peyton slaves. He still harbored a good deal of his society’s casual racism and I could not see him allowing Lucius to leave the plantation after that confession.

Even after twenty-six years, I still managed to enjoy “CLASS OF ’61” Despite its flaws, the television movie managed to be an interesting and enjoying look into American society during the first three months of the U.S. Civil War. I thought Jonas McCord provided an interesting, yet inconclusive plot that showcased a first-rate cast starring Dan Futterman and Clive Owen. It is a pity that this pilot never became a series.

 

Favorite Episodes of “UNDERGROUND” (2016-2017)

Below are images of my favorite episodes from the WGN series, “UNDERGROUND”. Created by Misha Green and Joe Pokaski, the series stars Jurnee Smollett-Bell and Aldis Hodge: 

FAVORITE EPISODES OF UNDERGROUND (2016-2017)

1 - 1.05 Run and Guns

1. (1.05) “Run & Gun” – The attempt by the escapees from the Macon plantation to catch a northbound train out of the state is complicated at every turn; while Tom and Susanna Macon have the remaining slaves – especially Pearly Mae, who was captured while trying to run – questioned about their plans.

3 - 1.04 Firefly

2. (1.04) “Firefly” – A notorious slave hunter named August Pullman and his son Ben track Noah and Rosalee, following their escape from the Macon plantation at the end of the previous episode. The other slaves involved in Noah’s plot contemplate running, as well. Meanwhile, John and Elizabeth face a lethal predicament, when one of the runaways they are sheltering turns hostile.

3. (2.03) “Ache” – Underground Railroad conductor/Macon 7 fugitive slave Rosalee struggle to evade Patty Canon’s slave catching band. Her mother Ernestine is haunted by her past, while adjusting to her new role as a field hand on a South Carolina Sea Island plantation.

2 - 1.09 Black and Blue

4. (1.09) “Black & Blue” – One of the escapees, former house slave Rosalee, is captured in a small Kentucky town and held at a slaughter house, while fellow escapees Noah and Cato plot to rescue her. Underground Railroad agent John Hawkes (who is also Tom Mason’s brother) learns of his wife Elizabeth’s reckless action to save the orphaned escapee Boo from her ex-fiancé and U.S. Federal Marshal Kyle Risdin.

5 - 1.01 Macon Seven

5. (1.01) “The Macon 7” – In the series premiere, Noah begins to plot an escape from the Macon plantation to the Ohio River and free states. He contemplates on choosing which slaves to be included in his plan, while dealing with a hostile Cato, who also happens to be one of the plantation field drivers.

Honorable Mention: (2.08) “Auld Acquaintance” – When Rosalee’s plan to rescue her younger brother James from the Macon plantation fails in the previous episode, (2.07) “28”, fellow Macon 7 fugitive Noah struggles to form a new plan to save sister and brother. Ernestine’s attempt to escape from the South Carolina plantation is thwarted by slave catcher August Pullman.

 

Eggs Benedict

Below is an article about the breakfast dish known as Eggs Benedict

EGGS BENEDICT

I have known about the American breakfast dish, Eggs Benedict, since I was a child. However, I have yet to experience it. After learning about the origins and ingredients for Eggs Benedict, I believe it is time to remedy my lack of experience. 

Eggs Benedict is a traditional American breakfast or brunch dish that consists of the following – two halves of an English muffin, topped with a poached egg, bacon or ham, and Hollandaise sauce. Many variations of Eggs Benedict have been created over the years. Among the most popular are:

*Eggs Florentine – which substitutes spinach for the ham or adds it underneath. Older versions of eggs Florentine add spinach to poached or shirred eggs.

*Eggs Chesapeake – substitutes a Maryland blue crab cake in place of the ham.

*Eggs Mornay – substitutes Mornay cheese sauce for the Hollandaise sauce.

*Irish Benedict – which replaces the ham/bacon with corned beef or Irish bacon.

*Eggs Cochon – a variation from New Orleans restaurants which replaces the ham with pork “debris” (slow roasted pork shredded in its own juices) and the English muffin with a large buttermilk biscuit.

The following are conflicting accounts to the origins of Eggs Benedict:

One of those accounts claimed that Delmonico’s, the famous restaurant in lower Manhattan claimed on its menu that the dish was first created in one of its ovens in 1860. The restaurant also claimed that one of its former chefs, Charles Ranhofer, had published the recipe for Eggs à la Benedick in 1894, naming it in honor of two of the restaurant’s patrons, Mr. and Mrs. LeGrand Benedict.

A retired Wall Street stockbroker named Lemuel Benedict claimed in an interview recorded in the “Talk of the Town”column of The New Yorker in 1942, the year before his death, that he had wandered into the Waldorf Hotel in 1894 ordered “buttered toast, poached eggs, crisp bacon, and a hooker of hollandaise” in the hopes to find a cure for his morning hangover. Oscar Tschirky, Waldorf’s maître d’hôtel, was so impressed with the dish that he put it on the breakfast and luncheon menus, but substituted ham for the bacon and a toasted English muffin for the toast.

The third account to the dish’s origin came from Edward P. Montgomery on behalf of Commodore E. C. Benedict. In 1967, Montgomery wrote a letter to then food columnist Craig Claiborne that included a recipe he claimed he had received through his uncle, a friend of the commodore. Commodore Benedict’s recipe, via Montgomery, varies greatly from Ranhofer’s version. The recipe called for the addition of a “hot, hard-cooked egg and ham mixture” in the Hollandaise Sauce.

Below is a classic recipe for Eggs Benedict from the Betty Crocker website:

Eggs Benedict

Ingredients – Hollandaise Sauce

3 egg yolks
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1/2 cup firm butter

Ingredients – Eggs Benedict

3 English muffins
3 tablespoons butter, softened
1 teaspoon butter
6 thin slices Canadian-style bacon or fully cooked ham
6 eggs
4 teaspoons distilled white vinegar
Paprika, if desired

Preparation

1. In 1-quart saucepan, vigorously stir egg yolks and lemon juice with wire whisk. Add 1/4 cup of the butter. Heat over very low heat, stirring constantly with wire whisk, until butter is melted.

2. Add remaining 1/4 cup butter. Continue stirring vigorously until butter is melted and sauce is thickened. (Be sure butter melts slowly so eggs have time to cook and thicken sauce without curdling.) If the sauce curdles (mixture begins to separate and melted butter starts to appear around the edge of the pan and on top of the sauce), add about 1 tablespoon boiling water and beat vigorously with wire whisk or egg beater until smooth. Keep warm.

3. Split English muffins; toast. Spread each muffin half with some of the 3 tablespoons butter; keep warm.

4. In 10-inch skillet, melt 1 teaspoon butter over medium heat. Cook bacon in butter until light brown on both sides; keep warm.

5. Wipe out skillet to clean; fill with 2 to 3 inches water. Add vinegar to water. Heat to boiling; reduce to simmering. Break cold eggs, one at a time, into custard cup or saucer. Holding dish close to water’s surface, carefully slip eggs into water. Cook 3 to 5 minutes or until whites and yolks are firm, not runny (water should be gently simmering and not boiling). Remove with slotted spoon.

6. Place 1 slice bacon on each muffin half. Top with egg. Spoon warm sauce over eggs. Sprinkle with paprika.

“DRAGONWYCK” (1946) Review




“DRAGONWYCK” (1946) Review

Being an aficionado of old Hollywood period dramas, I noticed that it was rare to find movies set in the antebellum North. Very rare. I have tried to think of how many of these films I have come across. And to be honest, I can only think of four or five so far, in compare to the numerous films set in the antebellum South. One of those Northern antebellum tales proved to be the 1946 movie, “DRAGONWYCK”

Based upon Anya Seton’s 1944 novel, adapted by Joseph L. Mankiewicz and directed by him; “DRAGONWYCK” began in 1844 Greenwich, Connecticut; when Miranda Wells, the daughter of a religious farm couple, receives a letter from distant cousin Nicholas Van Ryn. Nicholas, the autocratic and charming owner (Patroon) of a Hudson River Valley estate called Dragonwyck, asks if one of Ephraim and Abigail’s daughters could act as governess for his eight year-old daughter, Katrine. Miranda, who daydreams about a more romantic and luxurious lifestyle, manages to convince her doubting parents to let her go.

Upon her arrival at Dragonwyck, Miranda meets the young Katrine and Nicholas’ wife, a gluttonous, yet slightly high-strong woman named Johanna. She also meets the handsome local doctor, Dr. Jeff Turner, at the “kermess” – a ceremony where landowner Nicholas receives the rents of his tenants. Not only does Miranda become aware of the strange atmosphere at Dragonwyck and the tense relationship between Nicholas and his tenants; she also finds herself falling in love with her cousin and employer . . . and he with her. This budding relationship between the pair proves to be quite disastrous for all concerned.

After my second viewing of “DRAGONWYCK”, I realized that I could never regard it as a personal favorite. The writing for some of the film’s supporting characters struck me as theatrical and one-dimensional. Unfortunately, I have to include the Ephraim Wells character, who came off as a clichéd version of the 19th century religious American male and Peggy, the young maid loyal to Miranda. During the film’s third act, the narrative revealed that Nicholas Van Ryn’s lack of religious belief. Was this supposed to cap his position as an immoral and villainous man? Because honestly . . . I realized that I could not care less about his lack of belief. And I found it ridiculous that his status as a non-believer was supposed to be a sign of his villainy. I understand. Perhaps the majority of moviegoers felt differently in 1946. Needless to say, this aspect of Nicholas’ character did not age well over the past 72 to 73 years. I was not that impressed by the film’s finale in which Nicholas had a showdown with his discontented tenants. Although it featured an excellent performance by Vincent Price, I found the actual sequence a bit anti-climatic. I noticed that the film’s ending was different from the one written by Anya Seton. However, I found Seton’s ending in the novel more dramatic, but somewhat ludicrous. I could see why Mankiewicz had changed the ending.

Although I could never regard “DRAGONWYCK” as a personal favorite of mine, I must admit that I found it to be a rather first-rate film. The movie – the story itself – struck me as a prime example of American Gothic literature. In fact, I would go as far to claim that the narrative almost reminds me of Charlotte Brontë’s 1847 novel, “Jane Eyre”, but with a darker twist. Unlike Brontë’s tale, “DRAGONWYCK” included the specter of murder and class conflict. The latter included the historical conflict known as the Anti-Rent War, in which tenants in upstate New York revolted and declared their independence from the manor system operated by patroons, by resisting tax collectors and successfully demanding land reform between 1839 and 1845.

One would think that the Miranda Wells character would be the narrative’s center or force. A part of me feels sad that I cannot make that claim. For the most interesting aspect of “DRAGONWYCK” proved to be the Nicholas Van Ryn character. Was he supposed to be a mere villain? If a person viewed him from how he had ended his marriage to the voracious Johanna, he or she could regard him as such. On the other hand, I found it difficult to regard his refusal to embrace his wife’s new-founded religious fervor as monstrous. Which meant that in the end, Nicholas became something of a repellent, yet fascinating character to me. A true force of nature. I wish I could have said the same about Miranda. I found her charming and extroverted, but after her marriage to Nicholas turned sour, she became something of an annoyance. Being the offspring of religious parents, I was not surprised that she eventually turned to religion. But I found it annoying that religious fervor was the only literary device used to develop her character and nothing else. Nicholas, on the other hand, proved to be a lot more complex.

A part of me wishes that “DRAGONWYCK” had been filmed in Technicolor. It would have been interesting to view Twentieth Century-Fox’s version of antebellum New York State in color. Especially the Hudson River Valley. I am not begrudging Arthur C. Miller’s cinematography. His work for the film’s interior shots, especially those for the Dragonwyck manor had provided a great deal of atmosphere, adding to the film’s Gothic narrative. But I was not that impressed by the exterior shots. I must admit that I have no memories of the film’s score by Alfred Newman. I thought Lyle R. Wheeler and J. Russell Spencer’s art direction, along with Thomas Little’s set decorations were excellent . . . especially for the Dragonwyck manor and New York City hotel’s interiors. However, I truly enjoyed René Hubert’s beautiful costume designs for the movie. Were they accurate examples of mid-1840s fashion? I have my doubts. But as the images below reveal, they were gorgeous:

 

I might as well focus on the movie’s actual performances. Were there any bad performances? No. “DRAGONWYCK” can honestly boast some solid or excellent performances. The supporting cast featured some solid performances from the likes of Harry Morgan as one of Nicholas’ angry tenants, Connie Marshall as Nicholas’ daughter Katrine, and Trudy Marshall as neighbor Elizabeth Van Borden. Future Oscar winner Jessica Tandy’s portrayal of Miranda’s Irish-born maid Peggy O’Malley struck me as a bit theatrical. I could also say the same about another future Oscar winner Walter Huston, who portrayed Miranda’s religious father Ephraim Wells. Anne Revere’s portrayal of Miranda’s mother Abigail Wells seemed a lot more subtle . . . and skillful. Spring Byington portrayed the Van Ryns’ manipulative and slightly creepy maid Magda. A part of me wondered if it was Mankiewicz or Seton’s intention to create a more benign version of the Mrs. Danvers character from “REBECCA”. Vivienne Osborne, on the other hand, gave a very skillful performance as Nicholas’ first wife, the gluttonous and insecure Johanna Van Ryn. I did not know whether to share Nicholas’ disgust for her or feel any sympathy toward her for being married to a creep.

I was prepared to dismiss Glenn Langan’s performance as the handsome local physician, Dr. Jeff Turner, who befriends Miranda. I had assumed that he would be another one of those bland leading men that the Hollywood system tried to transform into a movie star. After my recent viewing of “DRAGONWYCK”, I realized that Langan gave an interesting performance by skillfully conveying Jeff’s barely concealed anger toward Nicholas’ arrogance. However, my vote for the best performance would go to Vincent Price’s portrayal of Nicholas Van Ryn. I thought he gave a brilliant and dynamic performance as the arrogant, yet charismatic Nicholas, whose villainy proved to be rather enigmatic. Gene Tierney did an excellent job in carrying the film as the lead Miranda Wells. I was very impressed by her portrayal of the more ebullient and naive Miranda during the first two-thirds of the film. But once Miranda’s marriage to Nicholas began to fail, Tierney’s portrayal of the character fell flat. I do not blame her. I blame the manner in which the character had become one-dimensional, thanks to Anya Seton’s novel and Joseph Mankiewicz’s screenplay.

Overall, I rather enjoyed “DRAGONWYCK”. It was not perfect. No film is. But I was a little put off by some theatrical acting in the film, the decline of the Miranda Wells character and the writing overall during the movie’s final fifteen to twenty minutes. But I must admit I enjoyed most of the film’s narrative. Many would dismiss it as costume melodrama. Personally, I see no reason to dismiss melodrama. It can be appreciated, if written well like other forms of fiction. Thanks to Joseph Mankiewicz’s screenplay and direction, along with a competent cast led by Gene Tierney and Vincent Price; “DRAGONWYCK” proved to be more entertaining than I had previously surmised.

Top Favorite U.S. CIVIL WAR Novels

Below is a current list of my top favorite novels set during the U.S. Civil War: 

TOP FAVORITE U.S. CIVIL WAR NOVELS

1. “Love and War” (1984) by John Jakes – This is the second 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 about the two families’ experiences during the U.S. Civil War.

2. “The Beguiled” (1966) by Thomas Cullinan – A wounded Union soldier ends up in the care of the occupants of an all girls’ school in Virginia, during the Civil War; and ends up having an emotional impact on both students and teachers.

3. “The Killer Angels” (1974) by Michael Shaara – This historical novel about the Gettysburg Campaign during the summer of 1863 won the Pulitzer Prize For Fiction in 1975.

4. “The Titans” (1976) by John Jakes – This fifth novel in Jakes’ “Kent Family Chronicles” told the story of various members of the Kent family and their experiences during the first few months of the U.S. Civil War.

5. “Lincoln: A Novel” (1984) by Gore Vidal – Part of Vidal’s “Narratives of Empire” series, this novel told the story of President Abraham Lincoln’s presidency via the eyes of various historical figures.

6. “Freedom” (1987) by William Safire – This novel focused on the first two years of the U.S. Civil War via the eyes of historical figures as they grapple with the dilemmas of political morality raised by secession and war.

7. “Cold Mountain” (1997) by Charles Frazier – The author won the U.S. National Book Award for Fiction for this tale about a Confederate Army deserter during the last year of the Civil War who walks for months to return to the love of his life in North Carolina.

8. “Unto This Hour” (1984) by Tom Wicker – This novel recounted five long during the Second Battle of Bull Run campaign via several characters.

9. “The Last Full Measure” (2000) by Jeff Shaara – The author wrote this sequel to his father’s novel, “The Killer Angels”, about the last two years of the Civil War.

10. “Grant’s War” (1992) by Ted Jones – This novel proved to be an interesting take on the “mock documentary” in which an early 20th historian interviews several Civil War veterans on how General Ulysses Grant conducted the war.

TIME MACHINE: John Brown’s Christmas Raid Into Missouri

TIME MACHINE: JOHN BROWN’S CHRISTMAS RAID INTO MISSOURI

When people think of 19th century abolitionist John Brown, they would usually bring up his activities against pro-slavery factions in the Kansas Territory in the mid 1850s, especially the lethal attack he had led against five pro-slavery settlers near Pottawatomie Creek in May 1856. Or they would especially bring up the famous raid on the federal armory at Harpers Ferry, Virginia (West Virginia), with the intent to start a slave liberation movement. However, toward the end of the 1850s, Brown became known for another raid that led him from Missouri to the Canadian border. 

On December 19, 1858; a biracial Missouri slave named Jim Daniels had encountered one George Gill, a free black man who happened to be one of Brown’s lieutenants near the Missouri-Kansas border. Daniels complained to Gill that his owner Harvey Hicklan planned to sell his wife and children, along with another slave. This sale threatened to break up his family. Gill informed Brown, who saw Daniels’ situation as an opportunity for a raid to liberate slaves and strike a blow for abolitionism. Earlier, he had conveyed his plans for an anti-slavery raid into the South, via the Appalachian Mountains to his Northern-born abolitionist supporters. But they had dismissed the idea as unrealistic and advised Brown to return to Kansas and lie low. However, Brown saw Daniels’ plea to help prevent his family from being sold as an opportunity. He believed this raid and the 1,100 mile exodus to Canada would provide a good deal of press attention for his cause.

Brown’s previous activities, especially the Pottawatomie Creek killings had made him persona non grata with many Americans – including a good number of abolitionists – by late 1858. Many Southerners wanted him captured or dead. His return to Missouri soil had infuriated many citizens of that state. By December 20, Brown had managed to gather twenty (20) riders to lead this latest raid into Western Missouri. He split his followers into three groups in order to free neighboring blacks on the same trip. Brown’s group held up Harvey Hicklan at gunpoint, extracted Jim Daniels and the latter’s family and took some of Hicklan’s possessions to support the freed slaves. Brown sent a second group to John Larue’s nearby farm t liberate four slaves and kidnap Larue as a hostage. A third group, led by Aaron Stevens (another Brown lieutenant), surprised David Cruise at his farmhouse and liberated a female slave. Believing that Cruise was reaching for a weapon, Stevens shot him dead.

Cruise’s death transformed the raid from a rescue into an act that infuriated Kansans, Missourians and Southerners. The act, the slave escapes and Larue’s kidnapping led to a great deal of negative press by the newspapers in those regions. Missouri’s governor, Robert Marcellus Stewart, offered a reward of $3,000 for Brown’s capture. Because of the publicity, Brown’s efforts to lead the fugitive slaves and his men through Kansas and up north became increasingly difficult. Brown and his men were forced to keep the fugitives hidden inside the homes of anti-slavery supporters in the area near Osawatomie, Kansas for a month. One of the fugitives, a woman who happened to be pregnant around the time of her rescue, gave birth to a baby boy, who was named after Brown. However, the abolitionist, his men and the fugitives realized that none of them were safe, especially after nearly being spotted by pro-slavers on two separate occasions. On January 20, 1859; Brown, his men and fugitives resumed their journey north by heading for the Kansas-Nebraska Territory border.

Despite the negative press that covered Brown’s journey; Brown, his men and the fugitives continued to receive aid from local anti-slavery supporters. On the night of January 24, 1859; Brown, Gill, eleven fugitives and the newborn baby had arrived at the farm of Major James Abbott near Lawrence, Kansas. Abbott provided them with food, clothing and fresh horses before they resumed their journey. Brown and his companions were nearly captured, following their arrival in Topeka, during a severe snowstorm. They were forced to spend the night at a nearby village called Holton. The following day, the party – including the remaining raiders – reached Spring Creek. Unfortunately, the water was too high for crossing by wagon or horseback. Brown was nearly in a state of panic, for he had learned both a local posse and one sent by Missouri’s governor were waiting for them. Brown and his party managed to slip away to Fuller’s Crossing . . . where a large posse of around one hundred men awaited them.

Brown remained calm and led his party across the raging creek. Following the crossing, the raiders and the fugitive slaves became engaged in a gun battle with eighty members of the posse. In a bold move, Brown and his party charged the posse members and drove the latter out of the area. The posse members were so intent upon retreating that two men rode some of their horses, digging their boot spurs into the animals. Ironically, there were no fatalities during the incident. Not only was it reported by the press, but also dubbed in newspapers as “the Battle of the Spurs”.

After traveling through the eastern half of the Nebraska Territory, Brown and his party reached the free state of Iowa. Brown had used the state as a hideout during his anti-slavery activities in 1855 and 1856. Although they were allowed shelter in some of the Iowans’ homes, they were not allowed to remain longer than one night, due to David Cruise’s death. However, Brown and his party received friendlier receptions in communities like Des Moines, Grinnell and Springdale. Brown and fellow raider John Henry Kagi were nearly captured when they made an overnight visit to Iowa City. On March 9, Springdale’s citizens accompanied Brown’s party to West Liberty, where the latter boarded a railroad box car to Chicago, Illinois. They arrived in the latter city on March 11, at 3:30 a.m.

The party remained at the home of private detective and future Secret Service leader and Presidential bodyguard,Allan Pinkerton. The detective hid them at his home and at two other houses for several days, as he tried to raise funds for the raiders. Ironically, Pinkerton managed to raise a good deal of cash from fellow members of the Chicago Judiciary Convention, when he blurted out John Brown’s presence in the city.

After raising $600 dollars, Pinkerton and his son conveyed Brown, the fugitives and the raiders to the Chicago railroad station. They boarded a boxcar for Detroit, Michigan. Upon their arrival in Detroit, the fugitive slaves and most of the raiders boarded a ferry that conveyed them across the Detroit River into Canada and freedom. Only Brown remained in the United States. After bidding them farewell, he headed for Oberlin, Ohio in order to visit the imprisoned rescuers involved in the Oberlin-Wellington Rescue.

The Christmas 1858 Raid of 1858 led to a 1,100 mile journey from Missouri, through Kansas Territory, Nebraska Territory, Iowa, Illinois, Michigan and finally Canada. The raid provided a great deal of national press coverage for John Brown. President James Buchanan offered a reward of $250 for Brown’s capture. Missouri Governor Robert Marcellus Stewart continued to offer a reward of $3,000. The raid convinced Brown’s Northern abolition supporters that his plan for a raid into the South via the Appalachian Mountains in order to lead the slaves into a major rebellion might work. Seven months later, John Brown led his famous raid to Harper’s Ferry, Virginia.

“RAINTREE COUNTY” (1957) Review

“RAINTREE COUNTY” (1957) Review

As much as some people would hate to admit it, “GONE WITH THE WIND”, the 1939 adaptation of Margaret Mitchell’s 1936 novel, had really cast a long shadow upon the Hollywood industry. Before its release, movies about the Antebellum and Civil War period were rarely released. And by the mid-1930s, Civil War movies especially were considered box office poison. Following the success of “GONE WITH THE WIND”, many Hollywood studios seemed determined to copy the success of the 1939 movie. 

Although “GONE WITH THE WIND” was definitely a Selznick International product, it had been released in theaters by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) Studios, thanks to a deal that allowed the latter to help producer David Selznick finance the movie. Although MGM had released a few movies set during the mid-19th century – including “LITTLE WOMEN” and “SOUTHERN YANKEE” – it did not really try to copy Selznick’s success with “GONE WITH THE WIND”, until the release of its own Antebellum/Civil War opus, “RAINTREE COUNTY”.

Based upon Ross Lockridge Junior’s 1948 novel, “RAINTREE COUNTY” told the story of a small-town Midwestern teacher and poet named John Shawnessy, who lived in 19th century Indiana. Although most of Lockridge’s novel is set in the decade before the Civil War and the next two-to-three decades after the war, the movie adaptation took a different direction. The movie began with John’s graduation from his hometown’s local academy. Many people in Freehaven, Indiana – including John’s father, his teacher/mentor Professor Jerusalem Webster Stiles, and his sweetheart Nell Gaither – expect great things from him, due to his academic excellence. But when John meet a visiting Southern belle named Susanna Drake and has a brief tryst with her during a Fourth of July picnic, his life unexpectedly changes. Susanna returns to Freehaven a month or two later with the news that she is pregnant with his child. Being an honorable young man, John disappoints both Nell and his father by marrying Susanna. Their honeymoon in Louisiana starts off well, but John becomes aware of Susanna’s mental instability and her suspicions that she might be the daughter of a free black woman who had been Susanna’s nanny for the Drake family. However, the Civil War breaks out. Susanna’s emotional state becomes worse and she eventually leaves Indiana for Georgia, the home of her mother’s family. John joins the Union Army in an effort to find her.

After viewing “RAINTREE COUNTY”, a part of me wondered why it was regarded as a Civil War movie. The majority of the film’s action occurred between 1859-1861, the two years before the war’s outbreak. A great deal of the film’s Civil War “action” focused on the birth of John and Susanna’s son – the day the war started, one night in which Susanna informed John about her family’s history, and his rescue of young Johnny at a cabin outside of Atlanta. Otherwise, not much happened in this film during the war. Hell, John eventually found Susanna at a Georgian asylum . . . right after the war. Why this movie is solely regarded as a Civil War movie, I have no idea.

I realize that “RAINTREE COUNTY” is supposed to be about the life of John Shawnessey, but he came off as a rather dull protagonist. Some critics have blamed leading actor Montgomery Clift’s performance, but I cannot. I simply find John to be a rather dull and ridiculously bland character. Aside from losing control of his libido when he first met and later married Susanna, and being slightly naive when the movie first started; John Shawnessey never really made a mistake or possessed a personal flaw. How can one enjoy a movie, when the protagonist is so incredibly dull? Even if the movie had followed Lockbridge’s novel by exploring John’s post-war involvement in politics and the late 19th century Labor movement, I would still find him rather dull and slightly pretentious. Characters like the volatile Susanna, the mercenary and bullying Garwood P. Jones, the witty Professor Stiles, the gregarious local Orville ‘Flash’ Perkins and even Nell Gaither, who proved to harbor flashes of wit, malice and jealousy behind that All-American girl personality were more interesting than John. How can I get emotionally invested in a movie that centered around such a dull man?

I find his goal in this movie – the search for the “raintree” – to be equally dull. Thanks to Lockridge’s novel and Millard Kaufman’s screenplay, the “raintree” symbolizes the Tree of Knowledge, whose golden boughs shed fertilizing blossoms on the land. In other words, John’s goal is to search for self-knowledge, maturity, wisdom . . . whatever. Two main problems prevented this theme from materializing in the story. One, Kaufman barely scratched the surface on this theme, aside from one scene in which Professor Stiles discussed the “raintree” to his students and how its location in Indiana is also a metaphor for American myth, another scene in which John foolish searches for this tree in the local swamp, a third scene in which John and Susanna discusses this myth and in one last scene featuring John, Susanna, their son James, and Nell in the swamp at the end of the movie. Am I to believe that the movie’s main theme was only featured in four scenes of an 182 minutes flick? And the idea of John spending most of the film finding self-knowledge, wisdom, etc. strikes me as superfluous, considering that he comes off as too much of a near ideal character in the first place.

To make matters worse, the movie had failed to adapt Lockridge’s entire novel. Instead, it focused on at least half or two-thirds of the novel – during John Shawnessey’s years during the antebellum period and the Civil War. Let me re-phase that. “RAINTREE COUNTY” has a running time of 160 minutes. At least spent 90 minutes of the film was set during the antebellum period. The next 40 minutes was set during the war and the right after it. at least half or two-thirds of the film during the antebellum period. The rest focused on the Civil War, which struck me as something of a rush job on director Edward Dmytryk’s part, even if I did enjoyed it. In fact, I wish that the film’s Civil War chapter had lasted longer.

Since the John Shawnessey character and his story arc proved to be so boring (well, at least to me), I did not find it surprising that Dmytryk and screenwriter Millard Kaufman ended up focusing most of the film’s attention on the Susanna Drake Shawnessey character. After all, she emerged as the story’s most interesting character. Her childhood neuroses not only made her complex, but also reflected the country’s emotional hangups (then and now) with race. And there seemed to be a touch of Southern Gothic about her personal backstory. But in the end, both Kaufman and Dmytryk fell short in portraying her story arc with any real depth. It is obvious that the conflict between Susanna’s love for her nanny Henrietta and her racism, along with the survivor’s guilt she felt in the aftermath of family’s deaths had led to so much emotional trauma for her. But Kaufman’s screenplay failed to explore Susanna’s racism, let alone resolve it one way or the other.

In fact, the topic of race is never discussed or explored in “RAINTREE COUNTY”. I found this odd, considering how Susanna’s emotional trauma played such a big role in the film’s narrative. The movie featured two African-American actresses – Isabel Cooley and Ruth Attaway – who portrayed the maids that Susanna brought with her from Louisiana. Their presence in the Shawnessey household created a major quarrel between the pair in which John had demanded that Susanna free them or he would leave. And yet . . . Kaufman’s screenplay never gave the two maids a voice. John Shawnessey never really explained or discussed his reasons for being an abolitionist. Although the movie did point out both Southern and Northern racism, no one really discussed slavery with any real depth. Racism only played a role in Susanna’s emotional hangups about her family and nothing else.

In one of the movie’s final scenes; John’s father, Professor Stiles, and Nell were among those who tried to encourage John, a former abolitionist, to run for Congress. To protect the South from the post-war Republicans like Garwood Jones . . . who was definitely a Copperhead Democrat during the war. Watching this scene, I found myself scratching my brow. To protect . . . which South? All of the South? Or the white South? One would think that a former abolitionist and pro-Lincoln supporter like John would be a Republican. I can understand him not being interested in “punishing the South”, or white Southerners. But what about the former slaves of the South? Kaufman’s screenplay did not seem the least interested in pointing out how the freedmen would need protection. And John Shawnessey seemed like the type of character – judging from his pre-war and wartime views on abolition – who would be interested in the fate of those former slaves. Unfortunately . . . the topic never came up.

I have two last complaints about “RAINTREE COUNTY” – its score and title song. I was surprised to learn that Johnny Green had earned an Academy Award nomination for the score he had written for the movie. How in the hell did that happen? I found it so boring. And bland. It was a miracle that the music did not put me to sleep while watching the film. Producer David Lewis had hired Nat King Cole to perform the movie’s theme song, also written by Green. Look, I am a big fan of Cole’s work. But not even he could inject any real fire into this song. Like the score, it was dull as hell. And the song’s style struck me as a bit too modern (for the mid 1950s) for a period movie like “RAINTREE COUNTY”.

Was there anything about “RAINTREE COUNTY” that I enjoyed? Well . . . I enjoyed the art direction and set decorations featured in it. Both teams received deserved Academy Award nominations for their work. Academy Award winner Walter Plunkett (who had won for “GONE WITH THE WIND”) had received an Oscar nomination for his work in this film:

However, I have noticed that like his costumes for female characters in “GONE WITH THE WIND”, Plunkett’s costumes for “RAINTREE COUNTY” have touches of modern fashion in them . . . especially some of the hats worn by Elizabeth Taylor and Eva Marie Saint.

The movie also featured scenes and sequences that I enjoyed. I thought the Fourth-of-July foot race between John Shawnessey and “Flash” Perkins rather permeated with the atmosphere of a mid-19th century Midwestern town. I also enjoyed the humor featured in this sequence. I was also impressed by the New Orleans ball that John and Susanna had visited during their honeymoon, along with John’s visit to a New Orleans “quadroon ball” (I think it was) in order to privately speak with Susanna’s cousin Bobby Drake. Thanks to Dmytryk’s skillful direction and the production designs, I was impressed with the sequence that began with the celebration of Abraham Lincoln’s election as president on Freehaven’s streets and ended with the party as the Shawnessey home held in honor of Susanna’s emancipation of her two slaves. Another sequence that impressed me featured Susanna’s revelations about the true circumstances of her parents’ deaths to John. I found it very dramatic in the right way and it featured a fine performance from Elizabeth Taylor.

But the one sequence I actually managed to truly enjoyed featured John Shawnessey’s experiences as a Union soldier with the Army of the Cumberland. The sequence began with John’s humorous and enjoyable reunion with both “Flash” Perkins and Professor Stiles (who had become a war correspondent). The film continued with a fascinating montage featuring John and Flash engaged in battles at Chickamauga, Resaca and Atlanta, punctuated by Professor Stiles’ grim and sardonic commentaries on the warfare. The action and suspense, along with my interest, went up several notch when John and Flash had become two of Sherman’s “Bummers” (foragers) during the general’s march through Georgia. The entire sequence featured the pair’s arrival at Susanna’s Georgia home, the discovery of young Jim Shawnessey and their encounter with a Georgia militia unit led by a wily Confederate officer. This sequence featuring John’s Army experiences proved to be the movie’s high point . . . at least for me.

“RAINTREE COUNTY” featured some decent performances from the supporting cast. Walter Abel and Agnes Moorehead portrayed John’s parents, T.D. and Ellen Shawnessey. I found Moorehead’s performance satisfactory, but I thought Abel’s portrayal of the idealistic Shawnessey Senior rather annoying and a bit over-the-top. I have to say the same about John Eldredge and Jarma Lewis, who portrayed two members of Susanna’s Louisiana family. DeForest Kelley (who was eight or nine years away from “STAR TREK”) seemed both sardonic and witty as the Confederate officer captured by John and Flash. Rosalind Hayes gave a poignant performance as the housekeeper formerly owned by Susanna’s Georgia family, who rather “delicately” explained Susanna’s emotional turmoil to John.

The supporting performances in “RAINTREE COUNTY” that really impressed me came from Lee Marvin, who was a delight as the extroverted and good-natured Orville “Flash” Perkins. A part of me wishes that his role had been bigger, because Marvin’s performance struck me as one of the film’s highlights to me. I heard that Rod Taylor had went out of his way to be cast as the local scoundrel (read: bully) Garwood Jones. Taylor gave a first-rate performance, but his role struck me as a bit wasted throughout most of the film. I was impressed by Tom Drake’s restrained, yet sardonic portrayal of Susanna’s Cousin Bobby, especially in the scene in which he revealed that Susanna had been somewhat older at the time of her parents’ deaths. Nigel Patrick gave a very memorable performance as John’s mentor, Jerusalem Webster Stiles. Mind you, there were times when I found Patrick’s performance a bit theatrical or overbearing. But I also found his performance very entertaining and humorous – especially his monologue for the Army of the Cumberland montage in the film’s second half.

Eva Marie Saint had the thankless task of portraying the one character that most moviegoers seemed inclined to dismiss or ignore – local belle and John Shawnessey’s first love, Nell Gaither – the type most people would dismiss as some bland All-American girl. And yet, the actress managed to add a good deal of fire, passion and intensity in her performance, transforming Nell into a surprisingly complex character with some semblance of tartness. Elizabeth Taylor was luckier in that she was cast as the movie’s most interesting character – Susanna Drake Shawnessey. Taylor, herself, had once pointed out that she seemed to be chewing the scenery in this film. Granted, I would agree in a few scenes in which I found her Susanna a bit too histronic for my tastes. And Taylor’s Southern accent in this film struck me as somewhat exaggerated. I found this surprising, considering that I found her Upper South accent in 1956’s “GIANT” more impressive. But in the end, I could see how Taylor had earned her Oscar nomination for portraying Susanna. She took on a very difficult and complex character, who was suffering from a mental decline. And I was especially impressed by her performance in that one scene in which Susanna finally revealed the details behind her parents and Henrietta’s deaths. No wonder Taylor ended up receiving an Oscar nod.

Poor Montgomery Clift. He has received a great deal of flack for his portrayal of the film’s main protagonist, John Shawnessey. Personally, I agree that his performance seemed to be lacking his usual intensity or fire. There were moments when he seemed to be phoning it in. Many critics and moviegoers blamed his alcoholism and the car accident he had endured during the movie’s production. Who knows? Perhaps they are right. But . . . even if Clift had not been an alcoholic or had been in that accident, he would have been fighting a losing battle. John Shawnessey never struck me as an interesting character in the first place. Perhaps Clift realized it and regretted his decision to accept the role. However, the actor actually managed to shine a few times. He was rather funny in one humorous scene featuring Saint’s Nell Gaither and Taylor’s Garwood Jones. He was also funny in the moments leading up to John’s foot race against Flash Perkins. Clift certainly seemed to be on his game in the scene featuring John’s angry confrontation with Susanna over her slaves. Also, he managed to create some good chemistry with Marvin and Patrick during the Civil War sequence.

Yes, “RAINTREE COUNTY” had some good moments. This was especially apparent in the film’s Civil War sequences. I found the movie’s production values up to par and I was especially impressed by Walter Plunkett’s costume designs. Most of the cast managed to deliver excellent performances. But in the end, I feel that the movie was undermined by lead actor Montgomery Clift’s listless performance and uneven direction by Edward Dmytryk. However, the real culprit for “RAINTREE COUNTY” proved to be the turgid and unstable screenplay written by Millard Kaufman. Producer David Lewis should have taken one look at that script and realize that artistically, it would be the death of the film.