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.

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“THE OREGON TRAIL” (1976; 1977) Retrospective

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“THE OREGON TRAIL” (1976; 1977) Retrospective

Nearly forty years ago saw the premiere of the NBC Western series called “THE OREGON TRAIL”. Produced by Carl Vitale, Michael Gleason and Richard Collins; the series told the story about the westbound journey of an Illinois widower named Evan Thorpe and his family in the 1840s.

NBC aired a ninety (90) minute pilot episode of “THE OREGON TRAIL” in 1976. Rod Taylor portrayed Evan Thorpe, a widower with three children who had recently remarried. Blair Brown portrayed his newly married second wife, Jessica. Douglas Fowley portrayed Evan’s widowed father, Eli. And Andrew Stevens, Tony Becker and Gina Smika Hunter portrayed his three children – Andrew, William and Rachel. Set during the year 1842, the pilot episode featured the Thrope family’s journey to the Oregon Territory from Illinois to as far as Fort Hall in present-day Idaho.

Another year passed before “THE OREGON TRAIL” returned to the television screen. A few changes had been made to the cast. Evan’s second wife Jessica had died and he found himself attracted to an Irish-born woman named Margaret Deviln, who was accompanying her gambler father to the west. In other words, Blair Brown had been replaced by Darlene Carr as the series’ leading lady. Eli had completely disappeared from the cast of characters. And Charles Napier had joined the cast as Luther Sprague, a former mountain man recruited by Evan to serve as scout/guide for the wagon train. At first, it seemed that the Thorpes’ destination had changed from Oregon to California . . . and back again. NBC aired six episodes of “THE OREGON TRAIL” before the latter was permanently yanked from the network’s line-up. The series faded into obscurity for thirty-three years, until the Timeless Media Group (TMG) released the entire series – the pilot and the other thirteen episodes – on DVD in 2010.

For the next five years, I ignored “THE OREGON TRAIL”, despite a deep interest in movie and television productions about mid-19th century western emigration. I was more interested in finding a DVD copy of the 1979 miniseries, “THE CHISHOLMS”, of which I owned a VHS copy. But eventually, I could not ignore “THE OREGON TRAIL” and purchased it at a reasonably cheap price. I must admit that I was impressed. It struck me as a decent series that featured excellent drama and some first-rate performances. Rod Taylor did a superb job in carrying the series on his soldier – which is not surprising. And he clicked very well with not only his two leading ladies – Blair Brown and Darlene Carr – but also with Charles Napier, Andrew Stevens, Tony Becker and Gina Smika Hunter. The series also featured excellent performances from guest stars such as Kim Darby, Gerald McRaney, Stella Stevens, Robert Fuller, William Smith, William Shatner, Nicholas Hammond, Linda Purl, Claude Akins, Clu Gulager and Kevin McCarthy. The series featured story lines regarding racial discrimination, religious beliefs, Native American culture, military oppression and especially survival. I am not saying that “THE OREGON TRAIL” was perfect. But I believe that it was a solid television drama. So what went wrong? Why did it fail to draw viewers after six weeks on the air?

First of all, “THE OREGON TRAIL” had the bad luck to compete against ABC’s new ratings hit, “CHARLIE’S ANGELS”. But I suspect that in the end, the series’ premise – wagon train emigration – proved to be the series’ Achilles’ heel. If the Thorpes had spent the series merely traveling from one location to another, without any real fixed destination – for example, the 1960-64 series, “ROUTE 66” – perhaps the series could have survived. But the Thorpes had a definite destination – Oregon (or possibly California). If “THE OREGON TRAIL” had been an anthology series, like NBC’s “WAGON TRAIN” (1957-1965); and Rod Taylor’s character could have been some frontiersman that guided wagon trains across the continent on a yearly basis . . . perhaps it could have survived. But “THE OREGON TRAIN” was about a family’s westward journey to Oregon (or California). And Taylor did not portrayed a wagon scout. The traits behind this particular series made it difficult to last as a long-running series, let alone one that could last more than one season.

What made the premise for “THE OREGON TRAIL” even harder to swallow were the number of characters that the Thorpe train encountered during their journey. They encountered outlaws, Army personnel, mountain men, Native Americans, settlers, miners, etc. Encountering Native Americans and mountain men during a wagon train journey in the 1840s struck me as plausible. Encountering settlers, miners and Army personnel during that same period did not. “THE OREGON TRAIL” was set either in the early or mid-1840s. There were no non-Native American settlements between western Missouri and Oregon (or California) . . . at least as far as I know. The only Army outpost in this region was probably Fort Leavenworth, established in northeastern Kansas in 1827. Fort Kearny was established in 1848 and Fort Laramie became a U.S. Army post in 1849. I could see the Thorpes encountering outlaws in present day Kansas. But further along the Oregon Trail? I just cannot see it.

Despite these hiccups, I still enjoyed “THE OREGON TRAIL”. In fact, I enjoyed it so much that I was able to list five episodes that truly impressed me, as shown below:

1. (1.01) “Pilot – The Oregon Trail”

2. (1.04) “Trapper’s Rendezvous”

3. (1.07) “The Man Who Wouldn’t Die”

4. (1.02) “The Last Game”

5. (1.11) “Evan’s Dilemma”

It is a pity that “THE OREGON TRAIL” did not last beyond thirteen to fourteen episodes. And it is even more of a pity that NBC lacked the good sense to either make it an anthology series or a miniseries. Oh well, I still have my DVD box set to enjoy.

Ten Favorite CIVIL WAR Movies and Miniseries

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Below is a list of my favorite movies set during the American Civil War:

TEN FAVORITE CIVIL WAR MOVIES AND MINISERIES

1. “North and South: Book II” (1986) – An almost excellent miniseries adaptation of John Jakes’ 1984 novel, “Love and War”, despite having a few problems with some of the plotlines and characters. If you like over-the-top period pieces, this is your story. The miniseries starred Patrick Swayze, James Read and Lesley Anne-Down.

2. “Gettysburg” (1993) – Movie adaptation of Michael Shaara’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel about the three-day battle at Gettysburg during the war. First class. Starring Tom Berrenger, Jeff Daniels and Martin Sheen.

3. “Glory” (1989) – Movie about the famous all black 54th Massachusetts Infantry regiment during the war. Superb and highly recommended. The movie starred Matthew Broderick, Oscar winner Denzel Washington, Morgan Freeman, Andre Braugher and Cary Elwes.

4. “Lincoln” (1988) – Sam Waterson and Mary Tyler Moore starred in this excellent, two-part television adaptation of Gore Vidal’s 1984 novel about the 16th president.

5. “Cold Mountain” (2003) – Love story about a Confederate deserter trying to return home to North Carolina and the love of his life. Beautiful love story. Starring Jude Law, Nicole Kidman and Oscar winner Renee Zellewiger.

6. “The Blue and the Gray” (1982) – A three-part miniseries about two related families – one from Pennsylvania and one from Virginia during the Civil War. Pretty good. The miniseries starred John Hammond and Stacy Keach.

7. “Class of ’61” (1993) – TV movie about two West Point graduates during the first months of the Civil War and the people in their lives. The movie starred Dan Futterman, Clive Owen, Andre Braugher, Laura Linney and Josh Lucas.

8. “The Beguiled” (1971) – Intriguing Civil War melodrama about a wounded Union soldier convalescing at girls’ school in Mississippi. The movie starred Clint Eastwood, Geraldine Page and Elizabeth Hartman.

9. “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” – Three men search for missing Confederate gold in this Spaghetti Western set in New Mexico, during the Civil War. Great movie that starred Clint Eastwood, Eli Wallach and Lee Van Cleef.

10. “Gone With the Wind” (1939) – The best thing about this Oscar winner is its first half, which featured the trials and tribulations of Georgia belle, Scarlett O’Hara, during the war. The movie starred Oscar winners Vivien Leigh and Hattie McDaniel, along with Clark Gable, Olivia DeHavilland and Leslie Howard.

What are your favorite Civil War movies?

“THE BLUE AND THE GRAY” (1982) Review

“THE BLUE AND THE GRAY” (1982) Review

In 1982, CBS television aired a three-part miniseries about the experiences of two families during the Civil War. Sounds familiar? It should, for John Jakes had wrote something similar in three novels between 1982 and 1987 – namely the ”NORTH AND SOUTH” Trilogy. Jakes’ novels were adapted for television in 1985, 1986 and 1994. However this miniseries was produced by Larry White and Lou Reda. And despite the mildly similar theme to the ”NORTH AND SOUTH” saga, there are some vast differences. 

”THE BLUE AND THE GRAY” had not been based upon any particular novel or series of novels. Instead, it was based upon a story concept by Bruce Catton, a famous historian who had written a book on the Civil War with the same title. As I had stated before, the miniseries told the story of two families and their experiences between 1859 and 1865. The two families in question are the Geysers and the Hales. The Geyers and the Hales are linked by two sisters portrayed by Colleen Dewhurst and Diane Baker. Although the miniseries revealed the families’ experiences via many characters, the two main characters in the story are John Geyser (John Hammond), who is the third son of the Virginia Geysers and Jonas Steele (Stacy Keach), a former Pinkerton agent and abolitionist who befriends John and marries the latter’s Pennsylvania cousin, Mary Hale (Julia Duffy).

Many sagas about the Civil War – especially those on television – tend to focus upon wealthy families or those from exclusive families. Prime examples of this would be ”GONE WITH THE WIND”, the ”NORTH AND SOUTH” Trilogy, ”BEULAH LAND” and ”LOUISIANA””THE BLUE AND THE GRAY” took another route in which its main characters hailed from a middle-class background. The patriarchs of the two families seemed to reek of the middle class. As I had earlier pointed out, John Geyer’s father was a middling farmer named Ben Geyser (Lloyd Bridges). And his uncle by marriage – Jacob Hale Sr. (Robin Gammell) – happens to be the owner and editor-in-chief of a small newspaper in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.

Even after twenty-six years, I still enjoy ”THE BLUE AND THE GRAY”. It has not lost its allure one bit. It rarely played footloose with history. And aside from the miniseries’ last fifteen to twenty minutes, it managed to maintain a brisk pace despite being at least eight (8) hours. The two leads – John Hammond and Stacy Keach managed to create an excellent chemistry and it was easy to view the pair as close friends. And both men were ably supported by a first-class cast. But amongst them, I was especially impressed by the performances of Julia Duffy as Mary Hale – John’s cousin and Jonas’ wife; Brian Kerwin as Malachy Hale, Mary’s oldest brother; Cooper Huckabee as Matthew Geyser, John’s oldest brother; Dan Shor as Luke Geyser, John’s irrepressible younger brother; and Gerald S. O’Loughlin as the Hale brothers’ sergeant, O’Toole. I also have to commend upon Gregory Peck’s steady, yet humorous take on Abraham Lincoln and Sterling Hayden for refraining from an over-the-top performance, while portraying abolitionist John Brown.

Someone once complained that the battle sequences in ”THE BLUE AND THE GRAY” came off as rather bloodless. I found this complaint a little ridiculous, considering that this story was presented as an eight-hour television miniseries, rather than a theatrical movie. Besides, I saw plenty of blood in the miniseries. But two of the most chilling scenes in ”THE BLUE AND THE GRAY” barely featured any blood:

*John Geyser’s brother Mark (Michael Horton) found himself badly wounded during the Battle of the Wilderness, while the woods surrounding him burn from shellfire.

*John’s close friend, a free black named Jonathan Henry (Paul Winfield), is lynched for helping two runaway slaves by a local slave patrol led by a fanatical pro-slavery preacher (Warren Oates). What is amazing about this scene is that it happened partially off screen.

As much as I like ”THE BLUE AND THE GRAY”, it does have its flaws. My main complaint about the miniseries has a lot to do with the vast number of extras and minor characters in the story. Granted, there are some minor characters portrayed by veteran character actors like Rory Calhoun, Christopher Stone, Julius W. Harris and Geraldine Page. Unfortunately, their presence could not hide the number of amateur . . . or should I say very untalented actors and actresses in minor roles. A prime example would be a nameless actor who portrayed a patriotic Union officer that John Geyser met at the Willard’s Hotel. And there was the actor who portrayed Confederate general Barnard Bee, whose declaration of a famous line was at best hammy. I have no idea why producers White and Reda had hired these people in the first place. Perhaps they were desperate to fill as many roles as possible.

Another problem I had was the romance between John Geyser and the daughter of a Massachusetts senator named Kathy Reynolds, portrayed by Kathleen Beller. Quite frankly, they made quite a boring pair. There is nothing more boring than a couple consisted by two people inclined to be reserved. Superficially, they looked cute. Individually, both John Hammond and Beller gave very solid performances. But as an on-screen romantic pair . . . they bored the pants off me.

One last problem with the miniseries centered on its last half hour. Its coverage of the war’s last months dragged incessantly. This period stretched from John, Emma and Jonah’s efforts to free John and Emma’s younger brother Luke from prison in Fort Elmira, New York; to the aftermath of President Lincoln’s asassination. The pacing during this sequence was incredibly slow and it took a great deal of effort on my part just to stay awake. The only segment that struck me as interesting during this sequence was Jonah and John’s failed efforts to prevent the president’s asassination.

But ”THE BLUE AND THE GRAY” had some memorable scenes. Two of them featured actor Cooper Huckabee. Portraying the oldest Geyser sibling Matthew, I believe that he gave the best performance. And Huckabee had the opportunity to shine in the following scenes:

*A brief, yet emotional reunion between Matthew and John Geyser (Hammond) in the lines right outside Vicksburg, Mississippi.

*Matthew’s death, following a minor battle at the Geyser Farm (beautifully acted by Huckabee).

And there were other memorable scenes, as well. There was what I consider to be the two funniest in the entire miniseries – namely Malachai Hale’s hilarious encounter with a Confederate soldier, while both were trying to hide from a battle; and the barn dance behind enemy lines that the Hale brothers and John Geyser had attended at the invitation of John’s younger brother Luke (Dan Shor), a mischievous Confederate soldier. The latter scene also featured Canadian actor Duncan Regehr (”Zorro”) as a Confederate officer, affronted at the idea of two Union soldiers and a correspondent behind enemy lines at a barn dance. I also enjoyed the scene featuring the Hale family witnessing a speech by President-elect Lincoln at a whistle stop in Southern Pennsylvania. And both the lynching of Jonathan Henry and the entire Battle of the Wilderness sequence seemed both poignant, yet too harrowing to believe.

It seems a shame that ”THE BLUE AND THE GRAY” is barely mentioned by film critics or fans in regard to Civil War movies in the theaters or television. Quite frankly, it is one of the better ones I have ever seen. It gave a view of the late antebellum period and the Civil War through the eyes of the masses rarely seen in movies like ”GONE WITH THE WIND”or the ”NORTH AND SOUTH” trilogy. I heartily recommend it.