“HARRIET” (2019) Review

“HARRIET” (2019) Review

Many people are familiar with Harriet Tubman, the former slave-turned-Underground Railroad conductor-turned-Civil War operative-turned-political activist. She has appeared as a supporting character in a handful of television productions and the leading character in two other television productions. However, a full-length feature film has finally been made about the famous historical figure. That film is called “HARRIET”.

As I had earlier stated, there have been two television productions about the famous Underground Railroad conductor. One of them was an episode from the 1963-1964 historical anthology series “THE GREAT ADVENTURE” called (1.06) “Go Down, Moses”. It starred Ruby Dee. The other television production was the 1978 miniseries “A WOMAN CALLED MOSES”, which starred Cicely Tyson. Following the latter, the Harriet Tubman figure appeared in a few television productions about slavery and the Underground Railroad until the release of this new film.

“HARRIET” basically covered Tubman’s life during a nine-year period between 1849 and 1850, along with a sequence set in 1858. The movie began in 1849 Maryland with Harriet (or Araminta “Minty” Ross Tubman, as she was known then), along with her husband John Tubman and father Ben Ross (both who were free) approached Harriet’s owner Edward Bodress with a promise made by the latter’s ancestor that her mother Harriet “Rit” Ross would be freed by the age of 45, along with their children (including Harriet). Bodress refused to acknowledge the promise. He also forbade Harriet from seeing her husband John. Brodess’s adult son Gideon caught Minty praying for God to take Mr. Brodess. The latter died shortly afterward. Alarmed by this, Gideon decided to sell Minty as punishment. Suffering from spells that began after she had been struck in the head as a child, Minty had a vision of her being free and decided to run away. She convinced John to remain behind, in case he got caught and punished for escaping with her. Minty eventually reached Philadelphia and freedom. She managed to acquire a job, thanks to the assistance of Underground Railroad abolitionist/writer William Still and a fashionable free black woman named Marie Buchanon. After a few months in Philadelphia, Minty (who renamed herself as Harriet Tubman) returned to Maryland to retrieve John and discovered that he had remarried, believing she was dead. Instead, Harriet decided to escort some family members north to freedom and began her career as a conductor for the Underground Railroad.

I have been aware of Harriet Tubman ever since I was a child of nine years old. My mother had purchased a copy of Marcy Heidish’s 1976 novel called “A Woman Called Moses”, the basis for the 1978 miniseries. But “HARRIET” marked the first time that Tubman was featured as the a character in a motion picture, let alone the leading character. So naturally, I had to see it. I had some problems with the movie. One, I could easily see that it was not historical accurate. This is not a real problem for me. After seeing two television productions that erroneously featured Harriet Tubman operating in the Ohio River Valley, the historical inaccuracies in this film struck me as a piece of cake.

One example would be the scene during her own escape in which her new owner, Gideon Bodress, and a slave patrol cornered her on a bridge. Instead of surrendering, she evaded them by jumping into the river. Needless to say, no such thing happened, since her owner (Anthony Thompson), or any slave patrol were able to capture her during her journey to Philadelphia. But . . . I was able to tolerate this scene. Somewhat. I was also a bit confused about her relationship with John Tubman in this film. Director-writer Kasi Lemmons and co-writer Gregory Allen Howard portrayed Harriet or Minty’s marriage as loving and trouble free. This has not been the case in another Hollywood production I could think of. Unfortunately, no one really knows whether the Tubmans had experienced any marital strife before her flight from Maryland. So . . . I tolerated this portrayal. However, the movie indicated that Minty had suggested John not run with her so that he would not be caught aiding a runaway. This is false. According to history, John did not want her to run in the first place. They also made it clear that John had remarried because he had assumed Minty/Harriet was dead. I do not know whether this is true or not. But it seemed as if Lemmons and Howard seemed hell bent upon portraying John in a positive light as much as possible.

But there were changes in the narrative that left me scratching my head. “HARRIET” featured Minty making her escape from Maryland in the middle of the day . . . which I found odd. The movie had her working in a garden when someone warned her that Bodress had plans to sell her to the Deep South in order to alleviate family debts. No sooner had she received the warning, one of the plantation’s foremen appeared to grab her. Minty ran and . . . hid. She hid around the plantation for hours before she contacted her family and left. What made this even more odd is that Bodress did not learn of her escape from the foreman until hours later. Which I found very odd. Historically, most slave escapes began in the middle of the night, not in the middle of the day. Why did Minty wait so long to contact her family before her escape? And why did the plantation foreman wait so long to inform Bodress? Also, she made most of her journey by night and hid during the daytime. Which would have made that daytime encounter on the bridge with Bodress somewhat implausible. I can only assume Lemmons and Howard had added it for dramatic reasons.

In the movie, Minty/Harriet did not wait very long to return to Maryland and contact her family and John. After escorting several members of her family north, she returned to Maryland and helped others escape on several occasions before the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. Now this is ridiculous. One, Tubman returned to Maryland to help some relatives escape at least three to four months after the law’s passage. I find it very hard to believe that she had made so many trips to Maryland between her own escape in September 1849 and when the fugitive law was passed in September 1850. Another troubling aspect of the movie was the sequence featuring the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law. The movie featured a scene with former slaves – including Harriet – leaving en masse from the Philadelphia docks, while God knows how many slave catchers suddenly appeared to capture these fugitives. What the hell? I had felt as if I was watching a war movie with refugees escaping from an invaded city. Yes, many fugitive slaves were forced to flee the Northern states for Canada following the law’s passage. But not like THAT. Not like a scene from “CASABLANCA” or “THE WINDS OF WAR”.

I have two more complaints. Why did Lemmons and Howard added that . . . relationship between Harriet and Bodress? Why? It was bad enough that Gideon Bodress never existed. But Tubman had never recounted having to deal with the unwanted sexual interest or assault from any white man. And I got the impression that Lemmons wanted to include some watered down version of the Patsey-Edwin Epps relationship from the Oscar winning film, “12 YEARS A SLAVE” – but without the overt violence and sex. It was obvious that Bodress had never laid a violent hand on Harriet in the film, aside from the slap on the face after he had overheard her wish for his father’s death. But I find it implausible that Gideon Bodress had never attempted to sexually assault her. Even when his father was alive. Another sequence featured Northern black and white members discussing the Fugitive Slave Act passage and whether it would be safe to continue the Underground Railroad. What I disliked about this sequence is that most of them seemed to have this attitude without the organization’s conductors appearing on Southern plantations to lead them, many slaves would not be willing to escape or would not succeed in escaping. And this was far from the truth. One could argue that this scene was a perfect example of patronization from Northern abolitionists. But Harriet did not point out that slaves were capable of escaping on their own. Instead, she simply argued for the continuation of the Underground Railroad. Which simply made her equally patronizing to me.

One would think that I disliked “HARRIET”. That person would be wrong. I actually enjoyed it very much. Despite some of the narrative choices, lightweight characterizations and historical inaccuracies; “HARRIET” was both an entertaining and interesting film. One, it is nice to see Hollywood produce a feature film about the former abolitionist. “HARRIET” is a thoughtful drama about a period in United States history about which very few Americans want to discuss, let alone contemplate. Like other Hollywood productions, the movie mainly featured Tubman’s early career as an Underground Railroad conductor. I had assumed that it would also focus on her Civil War experiences, due to some publicity stills released before the film hit the theaters. But the movie only included a coda, featuring Tubman’s participation in a raid during the war. “HARRIET” was, without a doubt, about her role with the Underground Railroady.

Due to the film’s focus on Harriet’s career as an Underground Railroad conductor, it did not focus that strongly on her family life . . . with the exceptions of her attempts to lead them to freedom. Many critics have complained about this. But I can understand why Lemmons only focused on one aspect of Harriet’s life. This was a feature-length film that ran nearly two hours, not a television miniseries. Frankly, I thought it was smart of her to focus one one aspect of Harriet’s life, considering the format she had used. And she focused on one of the former slave/abolitionist’s most famous period in her life – namely that as an Underground Railroad conductor. Only through this story arc was the movie able to somewhat focus on her connection to her family. In fact, one the most interesting arcs in this narrative proved to be a sequence that featured Tubman’s attempts to rescue her sister Rachel and the latter’s children.

This focus on Harriet’s career with the Underground Railroad allowed Lemmons and Howard to reveal Harriet as action heroine she truly was. The writers’ narrative arc also featured some well staged action sequences. Among my favorite sequences are Harriet’s initial escape from Maryland and her successful rescue of Rachel’s children in the film’s second half. Both struck me as well-shot sequences that featured a great deal of more tension and drama than action. And I thought the focus on these two aspects may have allowed the sequences to be more effective without the obvious action. I also enjoyed the movie’s final action sequence in which Harriet attempted to rescue and lead her parents to freedom in the late 1850s. Not only was this sequence filled with the usual solid action for this trope, it featured a tense-filled final confrontation between Harriet and Bodress.

I certainly did not have a problem with the film’s production values. I thought Warren Alan Young did an exceptional job in re-creating antebellum America, especially in scenes that featured the Bodress plantation, Baltimore (at least I think it is), Canada and especially Philadelphia. I believe Young was ably supported by John Troll’s sharp and colorful cinematography, Wyatt Smith’s film editing, Kevin Hardison and Christina Eunji Kim’s art direction, and Marthe Pineau’s set decorations. I also have to commend Paul Tazewell for his costume designs. I thought Tazewell did an excellent job of conveying the movie’s setting and characters through his costumes, as shown in the images below:

I have a confession to make. Aside from a handful, I was not exactly blown away by the performances featured in “HARRIET”. I am not claiming that most of the performances were terrible or even mediocre. I simply found them solid . . . or serviceable. There were a few that I found slightly above being serviceable – like Janelle Monáe, Leslie Odom Jr., Zackary Momoh, Tim Guinee, Henry Hunter Hall, Joseph Lee Anderson, Jennifer Nettles and Omar J. Dorsey. But like I had said, there were a few that struck me as memorable. One of them Clarke Peters, who gave a subtle, yet warm portrayal of Harriet/Minty’s father, Ben Ross. I was also impressed by Vanessa Bell Calloway, who gave an exceptional performance as the abolitionist’s emotional and slightly edgy mother, Harriet Ritt Ross. Joe Alwyn did an excellent job of portraying Gideon Bodress as a slightly complex character without transforming the character into a one-note, moustache-twirling villain. And I really enjoyed Vondie Curtis-Hall’s subtle, yet colorful portrayal of Reverend Green, the local free black minister, who also happened to be a member of the Underground Railroad.

But the performance that really counted in “HARRIET” came from leading lady Cynthia Erivo. It is almost a miracle that Erivo managed to give such an exceptional performance as Harriet Tubman. I say this, because Lemmons and Howard had failed to fully portray Tubman as a complex human being with not only virtues, but also a few flaws. Their Tubman almost struck me as a borderline Mary Sue, due to their determination to basically portray her as an action heroine. But they did provide some intimate moments between Tubman, her family and friends. And this gave Erivo the opportunity to skillfully convey the warm, yet strong-willed individual underneath the heroic facade. This was especially apparent in scenes that featured Tubman’s desperation to put as much distance between her and the Bodress plantation as possible; her determination to return to Maryland to rescue her family; and her discovery that her husband had married another woman. Thanks to her superb performance, Erivo managed to earn both Golden Globe and Academy Award nominations for Best Actress. And if I must be brutally honest, she deserved them.

Overall, I enjoyed “HARRIET”. I have always been interested in Harriet Tubman as a historical figure and was happy to see a motion picture about her. It was not the best or most compelling biopic I have ever seen. Nor was it the best biopic about Tubman I have ever seen. But I cannot deny that thanks to Kari Lemmons and Gregory Allen Howard’s interesting screenplay, Lemmons’ solid direction and a first-rate cast led by Cynthia Erivo, “HARRIET” is a movie that I will be more than happy to watch on many occasions in the future.

 

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“NORTH AND SOUTH” (1982) Book Review

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“NORTH AND SOUTH” (1982) Book Review

During the first twenty years or so following his graduation from college, John Jakes spent that period writing many short stories and novels that featured science fiction, fantasy, westerns and the occasional historical fiction. Then he achieved literary success in the 1970s with the publication of The Kent Family Chronicles, a series of eight novels about a family between 1770 and 1890. Three years after the publication of that series’ last novel, Jakes embarked upon another literary series called the North and South Trilogy.

The North and South Trilogy was a literary series that depicted the lives of two wealthy families – the Hazards of Pennsylvania and the Mains of South Carolina – during the years before, during and immediately after the U.S. Civil War. The first novel, 1982’s “NORTH AND SOUTH”, began with the establishment of the two families when their founders immigrated to the New World in the late 17th century. The novel jumped a century-and-a-half later when George Hazard, son of a wealthy Pennsylvania iron industrialist; and Orry Main, the son of a South Carolina rice planter, Orry Main; met as cadets at the United States Military Academy at West Point in 1842. The pair immediately become fast friends as they endure the brutal hazing of an older sadistic cadet from Ohio named Elkhannah Bent, and action during the Mexican-American War. The friendship between the two young men eventually form a connection between their respective families as they become acquainted with each other during family trips to the Newport summer resorts and Mont Royal, the Mains’ rice plantation in the South Carolina low country. The two families consist of:

The Hazards
*George Hazard – one of the main protagonists, who is like his father, an iron industrialist
*Constance Flynn Hazard – George’s Irish-born wife and an abolitionist
*Stanley Hazard – George’s older brother, an incompetent businessman who left the iron trade to become involved in politics
*Isobel Truscott Hazard – Stanley’s shrewish and social-climbing wife
*Virgilia Hazard – George’s only sister and die-hard abolitionist
*Billy Hazard – George’s younger brother
*Maude Hazard – the Hazard family’s matriarch
*William Hazard – the Hazard family’s patriarch and iron industrialist

The Mains
*Orry Main – one of the protagonists, who becomes a rice planter like his father
*Cooper Main – Orry’s older brother and owner of a shipping company who harbors moderate abolitionist views
*Ashton Main – Orry’s younger sister and die-hard secessionist
*Charles Main – Orry’s young cousin, who is saved from a future as a wastrel by Orry
*Judith Stafford Main – Cooper’s wife, who also happens to be a more hardcore abolitionist than her husband
*James Huntoon – Ashton’s future husband, who is also a secessionist and attorney
*Clarissa Brett Main – the Main family’s matriarch
*Tillet Main – the Main family’s patriarch and rice planter

Two other major characters featured in “NORTH AND SOUTH”:

*Elkhannah Bent – The Ohio-born sadist who becomes an enemy of George and Orry during their years at West Point; and both Charles’ enemy and Army commander on the Texas frontier
*Grady – James Huntoon’s slave, who later escaped and became Virgilia Hazard’s common-law husband

Both the Hazards and the Mains find love, marriage or both throughout the novel. George meets and marries Constance Flynn, the daughter of an Irish immigrant attorney. Orry falls in love at first sight with Madeline Fabray, the daughter of a New Orleans sugar factor. Unfortunately for Orry . . . and Madeline, they meet and fall in love as she is preparing to marry the Mains’ neighbor, the brutal and venal Justin LaMotte. George’s younger brother, William (Billy) Hazard II falls in love . . . first with Orry’s sister Ashton Main and later, with the youngest Main sibling, Brett. And George’s older sister Virgilia, an ardent abolitionist, meets and fall in love with Grady, who turned out to be the slave of James Huntoon, Ashton’s future husband.

More importantly, “NORTH AND SOUTH” depicted those last nineteen years of American history before the outbreak of the Civil War. Through the eyes of George, Orry and their families; John Jakes conveyed readers through life at the Military Academy at West Point – first through George and Orry’s eyes during the 1840s and later, through Billy and Charles’ eyes during the 1850s. Although John Jakes portrayed George and Orry’s West Point experiences with more detail, the author’s portrayal of the Military Academy during the following decade proved to be more interesting, as he conveyed how Billy Hazard and Charles Main struggled to maintain their own friendship amidst the growing sectional conflict that threatened to overwhelm the Academy and the nation.

What I found even more interesting is that the novel began during the 1840s – a decade in which the abolitionist movement began to become increasingly popular in many parts of North. Another significant event had also occurred during this decade – namely the Mexican-American War. Because of the war, George met his future wife, Constance Flynn, during a stop at Corpus Cristi, Texas; on the way to the battlefields in Mexico. The war also featured a backdrop for George and Orry’s last dangerous encounter with Elkhannah Bent in the novel – during the Battle of Churabusco. The most important aspect of the Mexican-American War is that it left the United States with more Western territory to settle – including California. Although both the North and the South had been in conflict over the slavery issue for several decades, the addition of the new Western lands, along with the rise of the Republican Party in the following decade, heightened the conflict between the two regions. In fact, the conflict over whether or not slavery would be practiced in the new Western territories helped lead to the creation of the Republican Party and eventually, the election of Abraham Lincoln as the country’s 16th president.

For some reason, many of today’s readers seem very critical of long and thick novels. They are even more critical of a historical novel filled with a great deal of melodrama. As I have stated in my review of Jakes’ 1984 novel, “LOVE AND WAR”, I simply do not understand this criticism. “NORTH AND SOUTH” is a novel . . . a work of fiction. It is not a history book. Fans either complained over the presence of melodrama in Jakes’ story or they complained over the abundance of historical facts that served as the novel’s backstory. Like I said . . . I do not understand this mentality. Even if many literary critics have been unwilling to admit this, a great deal of melodrama have been featured in the novels of literary giants. And novelists like John Jakes have proven that one can create a first-rate novel with a solid balance of both melodrama and history.

Since “NORTH AND SOUTH” told the story of two families during the last two decades leading up to the outbreak of the Civil War, it only seemed natural that the topic of slavery would dominate its narrative. I can recall a YOUTUBE vlogger complaining that Jakes seemed a bit too “in the middle of the road” about slavery. This only seemed natural, considering the story’s two main characters came from different parts of the country. Following their stints in the Army, George took over the management of his family’s Pennsylvania steel manufacturing company and Orry took control of his family’s rice plantation in South Carolina that included slaves. It was only natural that the novel’s narrative would be about two men and their families trying to main their close friendship during the conflict over slavery.

Being slave owners, it only seemed natural that the Mains would see nothing wrong with slavery. Only three members of the family felt differently. Orry’s older brother Cooper viewed slavery as a moral wrong and refused to own slaves himself when he assumed control of a shipping line acquired from a man who had borrowed money from his father. However, Cooper seemed more concerned with how emancipation would impact his family and state’s economic situation than with the freedom of enslaved African-Americans. This would explain why he supported gradual emancipation. Charles Main, Orry and Cooper’s younger cousin, also felt that slavery was wrong. But he was too young to understand that slavery could end and merely tolerated the institution . . . until he became a cadet at West Point. And Cooper’s wife, Judith Stafford, a former teacher who had been schooled in New England, believed in the absolute abolition of slavery and civil rights for non-whites. Yet, she rarely expressed her views to others than her husband. Despite being Northerners, the Hazard family did not begin the saga as abolitionists – with three exceptions. George never gave slavery a thought until his first visit to the Mains’ plantation, Mont Royal, following his and Orry’s graduation from West Point in 1846. This visit led him to become an abolitionist, his politics remained moderate like Cooper Main’s. Neither older brother Stanley, younger brother Billy, sister-in-law Isobel Truscott or his mother Maude seemed interested in abolitionism. This was not surprising since the Hazards struck me as a moderately conservative family. Only George’s wife Constance and his sister Virgilia were fervent abolitionists. Virgilia’s abolitionism was viewed as “fanatical” due to her unwillingness to hide her hatred of slavery and slave owners beneath a veneer of politeness.

I noticed that in the novel’s second half, political moderates like George, Orry and Cooper seemed willing to blame political hardliners like Virgilia and rigid pro-slavery like Ashton Main and her husband, James Huntoon for the eventual outbreak of the Civil War. I could understand their aversion toward the country being driven toward war. And I realized they believed that compromise (namely the sacrifice of any future freedom for the slaves) could have prevented the outbreak of war. But unlike that YOUTUBE vlogger, I realized that Jakes was simply conveying the mindset of characters like George and Orry to his readers. If he truly believed George, Orry and Cooper’s moderate mindset regarding politics and slavery, why bother creating characters like Judith Main or Constance Hazard?

Another complaint that YOUTUBE blogger had brought up was Jakes’ lack of any slave characters. I believe her complaint was at best, minimal. Unlike the two novels that “NORTH AND SOUTH”, 1984’s “LOVE AND WAR” and 1987’s “HEAVEN AND HELL”, I must admit that the 1982 novel featured very little in-depth characterizations of either slaves or Northern blacks. There were occasional black characters that received brief viewpoints. But “NORTH AND SOUTH” only portrayed one non-white character with any real depth – namely Grady, James Huntoon’s slave, who eventually became a fugitive and later, Virgilia Hazard’s lover and common-law husband. For a novel in which the topic of slavery dominated the narrative, I found this rather odd and lacking.

I must also admit I do have some issues with Jakes’ portrayals of his villains. Although I believe he did an excellent of delving into psyches, many of them were in danger of being portrayed as one-note personalities. And his worst villains seemed to be wrapped in a great deal of sexual perversion, violence or both. This especially seemed to be the case for characters like Elkhanah Bent, Ashton Main Huntoon, Justin LaMotte and the latter’s nephew Forbes LaMotte. Bent is portrayed as a man with a sexual preference for anyone who happened to attract his attention – whether that person is a man, woman or child. Ashton is portrayed as a promiscuous female since the age of 14 . . . or younger. In fact, one sequence featured a visit made to West Point by her, Orry and their younger sister Brett in which Ashton ended up having sex with a handful of Northern-born cadets. Frankly, I thought Jakes had went too far in this sequence and he seemed to portray Ashton’s highly sexual nature as something ugly and perverse. He also did the same for Virgilia Hazard, whose emotions regarding abolition and black men in general seemed to ring with excessive sexuality. On the other end of the scale; Jakes portrayed other villainous characters like George’s sister-in-law, Isobel, as sexually frigid; and Orry’s brother-in-law James Huntoon as sexually inadequate.

By the way, why did he portray Virgilia Hazard as a borderline villain? Many fans of his saga viewed her as a villain due to a general dislike of Southerners. Yet, the novel made it clear that Virgilia also harbored a strong dislike to those Northerners who opposed slavery, regardless if they were fellow citizens of Lehigh Station or members of her own family. I have to be honest. I still find it difficult to view Virgilia as a villain. As a character, she was on the right side of history – not only in her support of abolition and civil rights for non-white, but also in her embrace of interracial relationships. I found it difficult to condemn her for her beliefs.

One could condemn Virgilia for her willingness to embrace violence to end slavery. But honestly, this willingness only exposed the other characters’ hypocrisy. In other words, many Americans like the other Hazards and the Mains continued to celebrate the country’s use of violence to win independence from Great Britain during the late 18th century. Yet, they condemned Virgilia and other abolitionists like her for supporting the use of violence to end slavery. Even to this day, there are historians who continue to express this wish or desire that slavery had never ended via a four-year war, yet see nothing wrong in celebrating the violence of the American Revolution. I do not know if Jakes had intended this, but in another sequence in the novel, Virgilia had confronted Orry and Brett Main during the pair’s visit to Lehigh Station in 1859. During a quarrel between her and Orry, Virgilia pointed out that it was only natural for those who participated in evil would deny it. And she was right. No matter how decent most members of the Main family were, they participated in evil – namely slavery – for their benefit. And they saw nothing wrong with this. Northern businessmen like George also profited from their business connections to the South. In the novel, George had agreed to help finance Cooper Main’s new vessel that would ship slave-produced cotton to Europe. No matter how “fanatical”, violent or confrontational people like Virgilia were . . . they were right about the country’s ties to slavery.

Although I love the novel overall, there were segments that I really enjoyed. Among them were George’s first visit to Mont Royal, Constance’s early clashes with sister-in-law Isobel, the Hazard and Main families’ first summer vacation at Newport, the Hazards’ 1851 visit to Mont Royal, the Mains’ visit to West Point, Ashton and Forbes’ attempt to murder Billy following his wedding to Brett, and the whole Harper’s Ferry segment beginning with Orry and Brett’s visit to Lehigh Station and ending with their experiences during the Harper’s Ferry raid. But if I had to choose the segments that I truly enjoyed, they were – the train crash that the Hazard family experienced on their way to Newport; Charles’ conflict with Elkhanah Bent in Texas during the late 1850s; and especially Billy’s experiences during the crisis at both Fort Moultrie and Fort Sumter.

I will admit that “NORTH AND SOUTH” has its flaws – especially the one-dimensional portrayals of its villains and a minimum of African-American characters in a story dominated by the topic of slavery. But after so many years, I still love the novel. I think it is one of the best literary depictions of life in the United States during the last two decades before the Civil War. And to that YOUTUBE vlogger who believed that Jakes’ view on slavery may seemed a bit too conservative and suspect, I should point out that he ended the novel with a partial quote from Virginia-born Founding Father George Mason, who condemned the entire country for its participation in slavery . . . and expressed a prophecy that it will pay the consequences for that participation. Which it did.

“NORTH AND SOUTH” Trilogy Locations

Below are images of locations used in the television adaptation of John Jakes’ “NORTH AND SOUTH” Trilogy. The three miniseries aired between 1985 and 1994:

 

 

“NORTH AND SOUTH” TRILOGY LOCATIONS

Boone Hall Plantation; Mount Pleasant, South Carolina – This plantation had served as the exterior shots for the Main family’s South Carolina plantation, Mont Royal in “NORTH AND SOUTH: BOOKS I & II”:

 

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Stanton Hall; Natchez, Mississippi – This mansion was used for the interior shots of the Main family’s South Carolina plantation house, Mont Royal in “NORTH AND SOUTH: BOOKS I & II” :

 

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Calhoun Mansion; Charleston, South Carolina – This manor house served as the Hazard family’s Lehigh Station, Pennsylvania mansion, Belvedere in “NORTH AND SOUTH: BOOKS I & II”:

 

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Greenwood Plantation; St. Francisville, Louisiana – This plantation had served as the South Carolina plantation, Resolute; which was owned by the Mains’ neighbor, Justin LaMotte in “NORTH AND SOUTH: BOOKS I & II”:

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Jefferson College; Washington, Mississippi – The rooms at this former all-male college had served as the barracks at the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, New York in “NORTH AND SOUTH: BOOK I”:

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Sunset Station; San Antonio, Texas – This historic train station had served as the rail terminal station in St. Louis, Missouri in “HEAVEN AND HELL – NORTH AND SOUTH: BOOK III”:

 

“CLASS OF ’61” (1993) Review

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“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 (as Rose O’Neal Greenhow), 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. Another came from future star Laura Linney, who portrayed the charming and charismatic Lily Magraw. 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.

 

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.