The UNDERGROUND RAILROAD in Television

Recently, the WGN Network began airing a new series about a group of Georgia slaves who plan and conduct a daring 600 miles escape to freedom in the Northern states called “UNDERGROUND”. However, it is not the first television production about American slaves making a bid for freedom. Below is a list of previous productions that I have seen over the years:

 

THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD IN TELEVISION

“A WOMAN CALLED MOSES” (1978) – Cicely Tyson starred in this two-part miniseries adaptation of Marcy Heidish’s 1974 novel about the life of escaped slave-turned Underground Railroad conductor/activist Harriet Tubman during the years before the Civil War. The miniseries’ first half focused on Tubman’s years as a Maryland slave and her escape to freedom in December 1849. The second half focused on her years as a conductor with the Underground Railroad. Paul Wendkos directed.

“THE LIBERATORS” (1987) – Robert Carradine and Larry B. Scott portrayed Virginia-born abolitionist John Fairfield and Bill, the escaped slave of the former’s uncle; who become conductors for the Underground Railroad. After the former helps the latter escape from Virginia, the pair reunite nearly a year later to rescue the relatives of African-American freedmen living in the North. Kenneth Johnson directed.

“RACE TO FREEDOM: THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD” (1994) – Janet Bailey and Courtney B. Vance starred in this cable television movie about a group of slaves who risk their lives to escape from their master’s North Carolina plantation to Canada, following the passage of the Compromise of 1850. Look for the surprise twist at the end. The movie co-starred Glynn Turman, Dawnn Lewis, Michael Riley, Falconer Abraham, and Ron White. Don McBrearty directed.

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“THE JOURNEY OF AUGUST KING” (1995) – Jason Patric and Thandie Newton starred in this adaptation of John Ehle’s 1971 novel about an early 19th century farmer in North Carolina, who finds himself helping a runaway slave, while on his way home from the market. Co-starring Larry Drake and Sam Waterston, the movie was directed by John Duigan.

“CAPTIVE HEART: THE JAMES MINK STORY” (1996) – Lou Gossett Jr. and Kate Nelligan portrayed a Canadian mixed race couple who sought a husband for their only daughter, Mary. The latter ends up marrying a Northern American. Upon their arrival in the United States, he sells her to a Virginian slave dealer and she ends up as a slave in that slave. After Mary manages to send word to her parents, Mr. and Mrs. Mink set out for Virginia to organize a rescue of their daughter with the help of the Underground Railroad. Bruce Pittman directed.

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Four of the productions on this list – “A WOMAN CALLED MOSES”, “RACE TO FREEDOM: THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD”, “THE JOURNEY OF AUGUST KING”, and “CAPTIVE HEART: THE JAMES MINK STORY” can be found on DVD. Only “THE LIBERATORS” has not been released on DVD. In fact, I do not know if it has ever been released on VHS.

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NORTH AND SOUTH: BOOK II” (1986) – Episode Five “December 1864 – February 1865”

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“NORTH AND SOUTH: BOOK II” (1986) – EPISODE FIVE “December 1864 – February 1865” Commentary

“NORTH AND SOUTH: BOOK II” finally reached its home stretch in Episode Five, the penultimate episode. Well . . . almost. Beginning several weeks after the end of Episode Four, Episode Five continued the miniseries’ portrayal of the Civil War’s last year for the Hazards and the Mains. It also put three or four subplots to rest.

Episode Five opened with George Hazard still imprisoned inside Libby Prison in Richmond, Virginia. The episode also continued with Madeline Main’s efforts to feed Charleston’s poor and war refugees, Charles Main and Augusta Barclay’s wartime romance, and the survival of Mont Royal’s remaining inhabitants. Episode Five also closed several subplots that included Stanley and Isobel Hazard’s war profiteering, Elkhannah Bent and Ashton Main Huntoon’s plot against Jefferson Davis’ administration, and Madeline’s relationship with former officer Rafe Beaudine.

This episode featured some excellent dramatic moments. Lewis Smith certainly shined in his portrayal of Charles Main, who had hardened considerably after three-and-a-half years of war. This was especially apparent in scenes that included Charles’ reluctance to help his cousin Orry Main rescue George Hazard from Libby Prison, his cold-blooded killing of a Union prisoner, his attempt prevent fellow scout Jim Pickles from deserting and his emotionally distant attitude toward lady love Augusta Barclay and her manservant, Washington. Another well acted scene featured Brett Main Hazard and Semiramis’ encounter with former Mont Royal overseer, Salem Jones. Watching Erica Gimpel point a shotgun at Tony Frank, considering their characters’ past history, brought a smile to my face. I also enjoyed the poignant scene between Brett and her mother, Clarissa Main, while the latter painfully reminisced about the past; thanks to Genie Francis and Jean Simmons’ performances. And both James Read and Jonathan Frakes knocked it out of the ballpark in the scene that featured George’s confrontation with Stanley and Isobel over their war profiteering. They were supported by fine performances from Wendy Kilbourne and Mary Crosby.

But another truly superb performance came from Terri Garber, who got a chance to portray Ashton Huntooon’s increasing doubts over Elkhannah Bent’s scheme against Davis. This was especially apparent in one scene in which Ashton silently expressed shame over her willingness to prostitute herself to a potential contributor for Bent’s plot. She received fine support from Jim Metzler as her husband James Huntoon and Patrick Swayze as Orry Main. But I felt that Philip Casnoff’s Bent nearly became slightly hammy by the scene’s end. Even Lesley Anne Down and Lee Horsley managed to shine as Madeline and the infatuated Rafe Beaudine. But I must admit that I found one of their later scenes slightly melodramatic.

Yet, despite these dramatic gems, I was not particularly impressed by the writing featured in Episode Five. I had a problem with several subplots. One, I had a problem with the subplot involving Stanley and Isobel’s profiteering. It made me wish the screenwriters had adhered to author John Jakes’ original portrayal of the couple in his 1984 novel, “Love and War”. I felt this subplot had ended with a whimper. It was bad enough that George had killed Stanley and Isobel’s partner in a bar fight. But aside from the dead partner, the only way the couple could face conviction was to confess. And I found it implausible that a remorseful Stanley would still be willing to do that after receiving an earful of angry insults from George. Very weak.

Episode Five also allowed Madeline and Bent’s subplots to interact for the purpose of killing off Rafe Beaudine. Frankly, I found the idea of Bent traveling from Richmond to Charleston for more funds . . . only to be told to seek hard cash from“the Angel of Charleston” – namely Madeline. The latter recruited a retired stage actress portrayed by Linda Evans to impersonate her and discover Bent’s plans. And what was Madeline’s next act? She left her boarding house (in the middle of the night) to warn . . . who? The script never made it clear about whom Madeline had intended to warn. Why? Because her night time task was interrupted by Bent, who had recognized the stage actress. And before Bent could lay eyes upon Madeline, Rafe comes to her rescue. What can I say? Contrived.

I also found Bent’s scheme to get rid of Jefferson Davis and assume political and military control of the Confederacy rather ludicrous. Audiences never really saw him recruit any real political support for his scheme . . . just money from various wealthy Southerners. The screenplay never allowed Bent to make any effort to recruit military support for the weapons he had purchased. In the end, I found the entire subplot lame and a waste of my time.

And finally, we come to the efforts of “Madeline the Merciful” to find food for Charleston’s poor. Personally, I found this subplot ludicrous. Madeline did not bother to recruit other women from Charleston’s elite to help her. And I suspect some of them would have been willing to help. I also found this subplot extremely patronizing. Again, it seemed to embrace the“savior complex” trope to the extreme. The subplot seemed to infantilize all social groups that were not part of the city’s white elite or middle-class – namely fugitive slaves, working-class whites and all free blacks. I found this last category surprising, considering that the screenwriters failed to acknowledge that not all free blacks were poor. In the end, this entire subplot struck me as a white elitist fantasy that Julian Fellowes would embrace.

The production values featured in the episode struck me as top-notch. Both director Kevin O’Connor and the film editing team did excellent work for the actions scenes in Episode Five. I found myself impressed by the scenes that featured George’s escape from Libby Prison, his bar fight with Stanley and Isobel’s profiteering partner, Bent and Rafe’s fight in Charleston and the former’s encounter with Orry and the Huntoons back in Virginia. More importantly, Robert Fletcher continued to shine with his outstanding costume designs, as shown in the following images:

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Yes, Episode Five featured some fine dramatic moments and performances. It even featured some solid action scenes. But . . . I was not particularly happy with most of the subplots. I also found the ending of one particularly subplot rather disappointing. No one felt more relieved than me when Episode Five finally ended.

“NORTH AND SOUTH: BOOK II” (1986) – Episode Four “April-November 1864” Commentary

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“NORTH AND SOUTH: BOOK II” (1986) – EPISODE FOUR “April-November 1864” Commentary

Episode Four of the 1986 miniseries, “NORTH AND SOUTH: BOOK 2” picked up at least seven to eight months after Episode Three left off. The miniseries arrived at a point in which the Civil War began to embark upon its last year. And yet, the miniseries itself had reached its mid point. I found it odd that producer David Wolper, director Kevin Reynolds and the production’s screenwriters would portray the war’s last year (in reality, eleven months) within three episodes. Oh well.

The episode began with a strong sequence that featured George Hazard’s capture by John Mosby’s Rangers, while he and his men were transporting artillery guns and units to the front. The episode would return to George’s travails as a prisoner of war at Libby Prison in two more sequences. This first half hour also featured the beginning of Charles Main’s affair with Augusta, Billy Hazard’s return to the Sharpshooters’ regiment and the Battle of the Wilderness. Episode Four also portrayed the marriage woes of Ashton and James Huntoon, along with Elkhannah Bent’s attempt to woo Huntoon into his conspiracy against Confederate President Jefferson Davis; Madeline Main’s first meeting with former army officer Rafe Beaudine and her efforts to raise food and money for war refugees in Charleston; and Virgilia Hazard’s feud with her nursing supervisor, Mrs. Neal.

I have mixed feelings about Episode Four. I did not harbor a low opinion of it, as I did Episode Two and Episode Five. But I did not love it. I thought it began on a strong note with George’s capture and the Battle of the Wilderness. It also ended on a strong note with George’s experiences at Libby Prison and Virgilia’s troubles with Mrs. Neal. I must admit that I had a problem with the episode’s second act. Aside from the interesting scene that featured George’s arrival at Libby Prison and the revelation of the state of the Huntoon marriage, I had a bit of a struggle staying awake. One again, the 1986 miniseries managed to provide a battle sequence interesting enough to maintain my interest and impress me at the same time. Director Kevin Connor did an excellent job with this sequence by shooting it in a documentary style that gave it a stark and realistic look. And he was aptly supported by Jacques R. Marquette’s photography. For once, Marquette’s hazy photography served the narrative very well. The episode also benefited from Robert Fletcher’s lovely costumes, as shown in the images below:

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I found General Ulysses Grant’s angry response to his staff’s fears over Robert E. Lee, following the Wilderness battle particularly enjoyable. What is interesting about this moment is that it actually happened. And I noticed that actor Anthony Zerbe not only used Grant’s actual words, but also improvised a few words into the speech. Actually, I felt it was the episode’s highlight, thanks to Zerbe’s performance. Another positive aspect of Episode Four turned out to be Ashton and James Huntoon’s marriage woes. Terri Garber and Jim Metzler did an excellent job of conveying how Ashton’s infidelity, Huntoon’s political failures and the war had put a toll on a marriage that had been loveless from the start. The venomous conflict between Virgilia Hazard and her supervisor, Mrs. Neal proved to be very interesting, thanks to Kirstie Alley and Olivia De Havilland’s excellent performances. I found both ladies unsympathetic, until Mrs. Neal decided to harass Virgilia, while the other was having trouble staying awake after long hours of work. I found the older woman’s attitude simply bitchy. I also noticed that despite Mrs. Neal’s accusations of Virgilia’s poor ministrations to Confederate patients, the miniseries failed to substantiate her claims. And I found myself wondering if Mrs. Neal simply disliked Virgilia for the latter’s abolitionist leanings and marriage to a former slave.

Kirstie Alley had another chance to shine in a sequence that involved Virgilia’s reconciliation with none other than Orry Main, who had been injured and captured by Union troops. No only did Alley give an excellent performance in this poignant sequence, but so did Patrick Swayze. I also have to give kudos to both James Read and Wayne Newton for the crackling hostility they managed to produce between George Hazard and his Libby Prison tormentor, Captain Thomas Turner. In fact, I never thought I would say this, but Newton made a damn fine villain. He nearly put Philip Casnoff, David Carradine and Terri Garber to shame. His performance certainly gave the Libby Prison sequence a creep factor that I found very effective. And if you look carefully, you might find actor Billy Drago (of “THE UNTOUCHABLES” fame) as one of the Union prisoners.

I do have several problems about this episode. One, I wish that Charles and Augusta’s affair had begun a lot sooner than three years after they first met. In other words, I wish the screenwriters had followed Jakes’ original portrayal of their relationship. I believe this could have given Charles and Augusta’s affair more depth and paced a lot better. The portrayal of their affair developed into a major problem in Episode Six. Their affair began in the aftermath of one of the battles during the Wilderness Campaign. And for the likes of me, I could never understand what Charles was doing there, while wearing a heavy overcoat in the middle of May. The screenplay never explained why he was there.

Then we come to the problem of Billy’s return to his regiment after deserting for nearly ten months (he departed right after the Gettysburg battle in July 1863 and returned to his regiment either in late April 1864). The consequences he paid for deserting were ridiculous. Billy received a lecture from Colonel Hiram Burdan, passed over for a promotion to captain and threatened with court martial if he ever deserted again. What on earth were the writers thinking? Billy should have faced a court-martial or forced to resign his commission for being absent without leave for nearly ten months. Whoever had written this episode must have been completely ignorant of military protocol . . . or smoking something. And what was Berdan’s excuse for his leniency toward Billy? He needed all available men. Hogwash! This was the spring of 1864, when the Union Army’s ranks were literally swollen for the remainder of the war, despite desertion. No other TV show, novel, play or etc., would have featured such a major writing gaffe. Then again, you never know. And why was Berdan still in command of the Sharpshooters in this episode? By keeping Berdan as Billy’s commanding officer in this episode, the writers committed a historical gaffe. Berdan had decided to leave the Union Army by the late winter/early spring of 1864.

On the other hand, I found Madeline Main’s efforts to help the poor – refugee slaves, free black and poor whites – in Charleston rather noble and dull as hell. Madeline’s first husband, Justin LaMotte, had contemptuously given her the nickname – “Madeline the Merciful” in the first miniseries. I hate to say this, but after viewing the beginning of this story line in Episode Four, I found myself sharing his contempt. Her actions were admirable, but I feel the writers went too far in portraying her in a noble light. Quite simply, one could easily accuse Madeline of harboring a savior complex – one that struck me as incredibly pretentious. This sequence also introduced a young former slave named Michael and his mother, who came from Tennessee. I really had a problem with this. Why on earth would Tennessee slave refugees head deep into Confederate territory, when they could have easily ended up in Union held cities like Nashville, Memphis and Vicksburg? However, this sequence featured a young Bumper Robinson as Michael, who managed to act circles around Lesley Anne Down (as if that were possible). And it also introduced the delicious Lee Horsley as a disgraced army officer-turned-wastrel named Rafe Beaudine, who came to Madeline’s aid against a band of scavengers. Horsley and Lesley Anne Down managed to create a sparkling screen chemistry that nearly put all of the other on-screen romantic pairings to shame.

In the end, Episode Four proved to be a mixed bag. It featured some excellent dramatic scenes and a well-shot battle sequence that helped me maintained my interest. On the other hand, it also featured some questionable writing that left me shaking my head with disappointment. It was not one of my favorite episodes, but was certainly not a disappointment either.