“NORTH AND SOUTH: BOOK II” (1986) – Episode Six “March-April 1865” Commentary

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“NORTH AND SOUTH: BOOK II” (1986) – EPISODE SIX “March-April 1865” Commentary

I hate to say this, but whenever I watch “NORTH AND SOUTH: BOOK II”, I usually heave a sigh of relief after the last episode fades away. I have never done this with the other two miniseries – “NORTH AND SOUTH: BOOK I” and “HEAVEN AND HELL: NORTH AND SOUTH BOOK III”. But with the 1986 production, I usually do. There is something about watching this particular production usually ends up as hard work for me.

Episode Six of “BOOK II” began at least a month after Episode Five ended. This episode began with Orry Main hiring a former Pinkerton detective to find his missing wife, Madeline Fabray LaMotte Main. The latter continues her efforts to feed Charleston’s poor by appealing to Union general William Tecumseh Sherman. With nothing else to do, Orry has no choice but to help the Confederacy defend Richmond, Virginia; which is under siege from the Army of the Potomoc under Ulysses S. Grant. The episode eventually leads into the Battle of Fort Stedman, in which Orry, his cousin Charles, George and Billy Hazard all participate. The Union victory at Fort Stedman eventually lead to another military victory for the Army of Potomoc and Confederate General Robert E. Lee‘s surrender to Grant at Appomattox Court House. Once the episode puts these series of historical events behind, Episode Six refocuses on the main characters’ personal lives.

Episode Six closes more story arcs that began in Episode One than the previous episode did. The consequences of Charles Main and Augusta Barclay concludes in one stage and begins in another that will continue in 1994’s “HEAVEN AND HELL: NORTH AND SOUTH BOOK III”. The war’s end leads to a final romantic reunion for Billy and Brett Hazard. In fact, the Charles/Augusta and Billy/Brett relationships were not the only ones that came to fruition in this episode. Episode Sixalso resolved the romance between Semiramis and Ezra, with the former finally acknowledging her love for the latter. And yes, Orry finally finds Madeline and their son with the help of George and Madeline’s attorney, Miles Colbert. With war, there is always the chance for tragedy. While tragedy of one kind marked John Jakes’ 1984 novel, another kind of tragedy ends Virgilia Hazard’s relationship with Congressman Sam Greene and her character arc, which began in “BOOK I”. Tragedy also occurred during the attack upon Mont Royal near the end of the episode. Irony also seemed to be hallmark of this attack, for it was led by an alliance between former Mont Royal slave Cuffey and former overseer Salem Jones. I found it ironic that a black man and a white man, former enemies due to their positions as slave and overseer, should form an alliance against the very family that had controlled their lives in one form or another. Non-elites of two different races uniting against the elite. Talk about a rich man’s worst nightmare.

There was a good deal about Episode Six for me to praise. One of the miniseries’ strengths has always been its battle scenes. And this particular episode featured an exciting interpretation of the Battle at Fort Stedman. As I had earlier noted, this episode also featured a poignant recreation of the Surrender at Appomattox. There were some dramatic scenes that I found very satisfying. One of them included George and Orry’s emotional reunion following the Appomattox surrender and Charles’ return to Barclay’s Farm. A part of me realizes this might be wrong, but I felt a great sense of satisfaction in the way Virgilia dealt with her situation with Congressman Sam Greene. However, her act landed her in serious legal trouble and a very tearful reconciliation with her brother George. Last, but not least was Cuffey and Salem Jones’ action-packed assault on Mont Royal.

I have to give credit to several people for the manner in which both the action and dramatic sequences in this episode. One of them is Kevin Connor, who I must admit did a pretty solid job in helming this six-part, 540-minutes juggernaut for television from a script filled with plot holes. I also have to comment upon the work of cinematographer Jacques R. Marquette, whose excellent photography of the miniseries added a great deal of pathos to a story about one of the United States’ most traumatic periods in its history. I was especially impressed by how he handled the Fort Stedman sequence. Bill Conti’s score contributed a great deal to the production’s narrative. And I was also impressed by the work of the six men who served as the miniseries’ film editing team, especially for the Fort Stedman and Mont Royal attack sequences. And as usual, Robert Fletcher knocked it out of the ballpark with his costume designs . . . especially for the outfits shown in the images below:

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Judging from Fletcher’s filmography, I suspect that “NORTH AND SOUTH: BOOK II” was his best work on screen – movies or television.

“NORTH AND SOUTH: BOOK II” also featured some fine performances. Aside from one particular scene that I found particularly hammy, I was satisfied with the performances featured in this episode. For me, the best performances came from Patrick Swayze, Lloyd Bridges, Parker Stevenson, Forest Whitaker, Tony Frank, David Ogden Stiers, Jean Simmons, Inga Swanson, John Nixon. I was especially impressed by James Read and Kirstie Alley’s performances in the scene that featured George and Virgilia’s emotional reconciliation and discovery of President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination. And the poignancy in the Appomattox surrender sequence greatly benefited from Anthony Zerbe and William Schallert’s portrayal of Generals Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee. On a minor note, if you look carefully during the miniseries’ last half hour, you might spot future star Bryan Cranston as a Union officer whom George questions about Orry whereabouts, following the Fort Stedman battle.

Although there seemed to be a good about Episode Six that strikes me as praiseworthy . . . and there is, I found a good deal that I found problematic. Which strikes me as a pity, for the emotional levity featured in this episode could have made Episode Six my favorite in the entire miniseries. Alas . . . I have too much to complain about. Three of my problems centered around the Charles Main character. First of all, two months after he last saw Augusta Barclay in Episode Five, Charles discovered that he was the father of an infant boy. Apparently Augusta had died while giving birth to their son. Unfortunately . . . Augusta DID NOT look pregnant during her last meeting with Charles. And considering that they had made love in the previous episode, her pregnancy should not have come as a surprise to him. To make matters worse, young Augustus Charles Main looked as if he had been conceived nearly two years ago. Honestly. The kid looked at least one year old. And Charles and Augusta had started their affair eleven months before the end of the war. Unlike Jakes’ novel, Charles found his son being cared for by Augusta’s South Carolina relatives in Charleston. Really? Was that necessary? I found it ridiculously convee-ee-ee-ient that Augusta had Charleston relatives, who managed to be in Virginia at the time she gave birth to her son. My second problem with Charles is the fact that it took him less than a week to travel from Spotsylvania County, Virginia to Charleston, South Carolina. Less than a week? On horseback? Charles’ journey should have taken him longer. This seemed like an extreme reversal of Brett and Semiramis’ ludicrous four-month journey from Washington D.C. to Mont Royal.

Quite frankly, I felt a bit put out that the screenwriters (which include John Jakes) dumped a tragic ending to Virgilia Hazard’s story arc. Unlike the miniseries, Virgilia survived her affair with Congressman Greene and ended up marrying another black man – the same man who had befriend George, Constance and Brett in the novel. Apparently, Wolper Productions felt that since Virgilia’s five-year marriage had ended in tragedy, it seemed proper to give her a tragic ending, as well. Or perhaps many of the trilogy’s fans had found Virgilia’s radical politics and marriage to Grady so off-putting that David Wolper and the screenwriters had decided to appease them by giving her a tragic ending. Regardless their reason, I found Virgilia’s tragic ending very annoying and clichéd. As much as Patrick Swayze’s portrayal of Orry Main had impressed me in this episode, there is one scene in which his acting skills failed to impress. I hate to say this, but I cannot hold it back. I refer to the scene in which Orry finds the body of his mother Clarissa Main, following the attack upon Mont Royal and expresses his grief. Can I say . . . OVER-THE-TOP? Seriously. I found it to be one of the hammiest moments in the entire television trilogy.

But the episode’s real problems were made obvious during the Fort Stedman battle sequence. Granted, I was impressed by the visual style of this segment. But I noticed the screenwriters went out of their way to ensure that the major four military characters – George, Billy, Orry and Charles – all participated in this battle. In ensuring this, the screenwriters committed a great deal of inconsistencies and bloopers. Orry led a group of infantry troops into battle for the first time, since the Battle of Churubusco, nearly eighteen years earlier. Personally, I never saw the need for him to be put into the field. The Army of Northern Virginia still had enough commanders to lead men into battle. One of the officers under his command proved to be Charles. Charles? Charles, who spent the entire war as a cavalry officer and scout under Wade Hampton III? I am aware that Charles had led infantry troops during the Battle Antietam, during Episode Three. And I had pointed that this was a major blooper. Yet, the screenwriters repeated this same blooper by allowing him to lead infantry troops again during the Battle at Fort Stedman . . . this time, under Orry’s command. Also leading infantry troops for the Union was George Hazard. Now, I am baffled. George had command of Artillery troops during the Battle of Gettysburg in Episode Three and when he was captured during Episode Four. Could someone explain why the screenwriters had decided to have him lead Infantry troops in this episode? Among the troops under George’s command proved to be his brother Billy, who continued to serve with the Sharpshooters. It was bad enough that the writers had Charles serving under Orry during this battle. But they had Billy serving under George, as well? There is more, folks. Not only did Billy continued to serve with the Sharpshooters, he also seemed to be in command of them. For, I saw no other officers during this scene. I am aware that Hiram Burdan was no longer in command of this regiment by the end of the war. But what happened to the other officers in the regiment? What happened to Rudy Bodford and Stephen Kent? They seemed to have disappeared. And how did Billy end up in this position, considering that he had spent nearly 10 months AWOL between the summer of 1863 and the spring of 1864? What the hell, guys? Come on!

Do not get me wrong. There is still plenty to admire about “NORTH AND SOUTH: BOOK II”. Like its predecessor,“NORTH AND SOUTH”; it has its share of good acting, exciting sequences, drama, superb production values, and probably the best costume design in the entire trilogy, thanks to Robert Fletcher’s work. Unfortunately, the 1986 miniseries has its share of major flaws that included clunky dialogue and probably some of the worst writing in the entire trilogy. And when I say the entire trilogy, I am including the much reviled “NORTH AND SOUTH III: HEAVEN AND HELL”. “NORTH AND SOUTH: BOOK II” might be my least favorite chapter in the television trilogy, thanks to a great deal of plot holes and historical inaccuracies . . . I still managed to enjoyed it anyway.

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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 Vivian Leigh and Hattie McDaniel, along with Clark Gable, Olivia DeHavilland and Leslie Howard.

What are your favorite Civil War movies?