“IRONCLADS” (1991) Review

“IRONCLADS” (1991) Review

Between the late 1980s and the first few years of the 21st century, communications mogul Ted Turner had produced or oversaw a series of period dramas in the forms of movies and miniseries. Aside from two or three productions, most of them were aired as television movies on the cable network TNT, which is owned by the Turner Broadcasting System. One of those productions was the 1991 movie, “IRONCLADS”

Set during the first year of the U.S. Civil War, “IRONCLADS” is a fictional account of the creations of the first two American ironclads, C.S.S. Virginia (also known as the U.S.S. Merrimack) and the U.S.S. Monitor, and their clash during the Battle of Hampton Roads in March 1862. The movie began in April 1861 with the U.S. Navy personnel being forced to evacuate the Gosport Navy Yard at Norfolk, Virginia, following the state of Virginia’s secession from the United States. During the evacuation, Quartermaster’s Mate Leslie Harmon deliberately interfered with the militarily necessary demolition of the Navy Yard’s dry dock at Hampton Roads Naval Base in order to prevent collateral damage and civilian casualties in the city, as Confederates overran the base. While stationed in Norfolk, Leslie had made friends. Unfortunately, his actions were noticed and he found himself facing court-martial. It seemed the newly formed Confederate Navy used the undamaged naval yard to raise the sunken U.S.S. Merrimack and refit it into an ironclad ship.

Union officer Commodore Joseph Smith gave him the choice between facing court-martial or serving as a Union spy. Leslie was assigned to work with a Virginia belle from Norfolk named Betty Stuart, who had become an abolitionist and Unionist during her years at a boarding school in Baltimore. Betty had also recruited her mother’s maid named Opal and the latter’s husband, Cletus, as part of her spy ring. Using Leslie’s past actions during the Union evacuation as an excuse to label him a Confederate sympathizer, Betty introduced him to Norfolk society. This allowed the pair to spy upon the activities surrounding the development of the Confederate Navy’s new ironclad ship. At the same time, the Union Navy recruited John Ericsson to design their own ironclad ship.

Many years – and I do mean many of them – had passed since I last saw “IRONCLADS”. It is a miracle that I was able to watch it, considering that it has yet to be released on DVD. When I first saw “IRONCLADS” over twenty years ago, I had been impressed, despite it being a low-budget television movie that aired on a Basic cable station. But seeing it again after twenty-five years or so . . . I am still impressed. I honestly did not think this movie would hold up after a quarter of a century. Mind you, “IRONCLADS” had its flaws. I think this movie could have been longer . . . at least thirty (30) to forty-five (45) minutes longer. After all, it is about the first two ironclads in both U.S. and world history and I believe that Leslie and Betty’s activities as spies in Norfolk could have been expanded a bit.

But my one real problem with the movie is the romance between Betty Stuart and Lieutenant Catesby ap Roger Jones of the Confederate Navy. It was bad enough that Lieutenant Jones, who was roughly 39 to 40 years old during the movie’s setting was portrayed by actor Alex Hyde-White, who must have been at least roughly 31 years old during the movie’s production. Worse, Betty Stuart was a fictional character. Lieutenant Jones . . . was not. The movie did an excellent job in portraying historical characters such as John Ericsson, Commodore Joseph Smith, Captain Franklin Buchanan of the C.S.S. Virginia, Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles and yes, President Abraham Lincoln. But the movie made a major misstep in creating a romance between the fictional Betty and the historical Lieutenant Jones. I hate it when writers do that. I still have bad memories of George MacDonald Fraser allowing a historical character to be the illegitimate son of his fictional character, Harry Flashman. And the real Catesby ap Jones was already a married man with children during that first year of the Civil War. For the likes of me, I could not understand why screenwriter Harold Gast could not allow Betty to have a romance with another fictional character, who happened to serve aboard the C.S.S. Virginia under Buchanan and Jones.

Despite the above problems, I can honestly say that I still managed to enjoy “IRONCLADS”. Thanks to Delmar Mann’s direction and Harold Gast’s screenplay, the movie proved to be a heady mixture of espionage, military conflict and history. Step-by-step, the movie took television viewers on a road mixed with fiction and fact to that famous sea battle that stunned the rest of the world. What I found even more interesting – and I am sure that many might find this a reason to criticize – is that in an odd way, the production provided well-rounded characters from both the North and the South.

The Betty Stuart character proved to be rather ambiguous. She was a product of the Virginia upper-class, who became an abolitionist and pro-Union . . . without informing her friends and family about her change of allegiance. And yet, her love for Lieutenant Jones led her to betray her allegiance and beliefs. Her situation proved to be so complicated that the only advice I can give is to watch the film, if you can find it. Another complicated character proved to be the Northern-born navy quartermaster-turned-spy, Leslie Harmon. He got into trouble in the first place, because he thought more of the Norfolk civilians than destroying that dry dock. And while one can admire him for his humanity, I found it interesting that he never really considered the slaves who served the upper-and-middle-class citizens of that city. Until he became a spy and witnessed a Confederate Naval intelligence officer named Lieutenant Gilford harshly ordered Cletus to provide another glass of champagne for him. Leslie eventually confessed that he had never paid attention to Norfolk’s slaves before the war.

As anyone can see, the topic of slavery managed to play a strong role in this production. After all, Betty’s embrace of the abolitionist movement led her to become a pro-Union spy against her fellow Virginians. And she had recruited two of her mother’s slaves as part of her slave ring. What I found interesting about this movie is that it presented two incidents in which Opal and Cletus had individually faced the price of being slaves. I have already mentioned Leslie witnessing Lieutenant Gilford’s harsh and racist attitude toward Cletus. But for me, I was really put off by Mrs. Stuart’s decision to limit Opal’s “visit” to her sister to once a year. It was the manner in which she made this order. I found it cool, subtle, indifferent and self-involved. Naturally, Opal serving Mrs. Stuart’s needs was more important than the latter having the opportunity to see a relative.

However, this story is about the Monitor and the Merrimack. As I had earlier stated, the movie did a pretty damn good job in leading up to the events of the Battle of Hampton Roads. But let us be honest . . . the actual battle proved to be the movie’s pièce de résistance – from that first day when the Merrimack nearly made the Union blockade near Norfolk and Newport News obsolete; to the second in which the two ironclads faced each other. In fact, the battle took up the entire second half. Here, I think Mann, along with film editor Millie Moore, visual effects artist Doug Ferris and the special effects team led by Joel P. Blanchard did an exceptional job of re-creating the Battle of Hampton Roads.

However, the Battle of Hampton Roads sequence was not the only aspect of “IRONCLADS” that I enjoyed. Moore, Ferris and the visual and special effects teams did an admirable job in recreating Washington D.C. and Northern Virginia circa 1861-62. Their work was ably supported by Joseph R. Jennings’ production designs; the sound effects created by the sound editing team led by Burton Weinstein; the sound mixing team led by Kenneth B. Ross; Joseph R. Jennings’ production designs. By the way, the two sound teams both earned Emmy nominations for their work. I was surprised to discover that another Emmy nomination was given to Noel Taylor for his costume designs. Do not get me wrong. I enjoyed looking at them, especially those costumes worn by Virginia Masden, as shown below:

I found Taylor’s costumes colorful and yes . . . beautiful to look at. But if I must be honest, his costumes seemed to have a touch of late 20th century glamour – namely those worn by the Virginian elite – that I found unrealistic.

Looking back at “IRONCLADS”, I can honestly say that there was not a performance that blew my mind. The television movie did not feature a performance I would consider worthy of an Emmy nomination. Solid performances came from the likes of E.G. Marshall, Kevin O’Rourke, Leon B. Stevens, Carl Jackson, Andy Park, Burt Edwards and Marty Terry. I thought James Getty was pretty serviceable as President Abraham Lincoln. However, I think he managed to really evoke the memory of “Old Abe” with one particular line – “All I can say is what the girl said when she put her foot in the stocking. It (the U.S.S. Monitor) strikes me there’s something in it.”

But there were performances that I found very noticeable and effective. One would think that Philip Casnoff’s portrayal of naval intelligence officer, Lieutenant Guilford, to be a remake of the villainous character he had portrayed in the television adaptations of John Jakes’ “North and South” novels. However, Casnoff’s Guilford was no copycat of Elkhannah Bent. The actor effectively portrayed a cool and ruthless spymaster willing to do what it took to protect his new nation. Joanne Dorian gave a very interesting and varied performance as Betty Stuart’s shallow and self-involved mother, Blossom Stuart. At times, I found her portrayal of Mrs. Stuart hilarious or amusing. And yet . . . there was that scene in which the actress conveyed the ugliness of her character’s selfishness and racism.

Another performance that caught my eye came from Beatrice Bush, who portrayed Mrs. Stuart’s enslaved maid, Opal and Betty’s fellow spy. During the teleplay’s first half, Bush gave a solid performance. But I was truly impressed by how the actress had expressed Opal’s shock and suppressed anger over Betty’s decision to inform Catesby about their findings regarding the C.S.S. Virginia’s plating. I wsa impressed by how Bush effortlessly expressed Opal’s anger without allowing the character to lose control. I also enjoyed Fritz Weaver’s portrayal of John Ericsson, the Swedish-born immigrant, who became one of the best naval engineers of the 19th century and designer of the U.S.S. Monitor. Weaver gave a very entertaining performance as the tart-tongued engineer who was constantly irritated by U.S. Navy and the Lincoln Administration’s doubts over his work or the use of iron clad ships.

Alex Hyde-White gave a charismatic portrayal of Confederate Naval officer, Lieutenant Catsby ap Jones. The actor did a good job in conveying his character charm, professionalism. He also effectively conveyed Jones’ anger and confusion upon discovering his love’s role as a Union spy. I really enjoyed Reed Diamond’s engaging portrayal of the earnest Union Navy quartermaster, Leslie Harmon. I enjoyed how his character had learned a lesson about himself and what this war was about. He also gave, what I believe to be one of the best lines in the movies. Both Hyde-White and Reed managed to create solid chemistry with leading actress, Virginia Madsen.

Speaking of Madsen, and managed to create a solid screen chemistry with lead Virginia Madsen. Superficially, Madsen’s Betty Stuart seemed like the typical lead in a period drama – a beautiful and noble woman of high birth who has become dedicated to a cause. What made Betty interesting is that she was a Southern-born woman from a slave-owning family who became a dedicated abolitionist. And this led her to become an effective and yes, manipulative spy. But what I found interesting about Madsen’s skillful portrayal is that her character proved to be surprisingly a bit complicated . . . especially when her role as a spy and her feelings for Catsby Jones produced a conflict within her.

I am not going to push the idea that TNT’s “IRONCLADS” was a television hallmark or masterpiece. It was a solid 94-minute account of the circumstances that led to the creations of the world’s first two ironclads – the C.S.S. Virginia (Merrimack) and the U.S.S. Monitor – and their historic clash in Virginia waters. A part of me wished that this movie – especially the details leading to the Battle of Hampton Roads – had been a bit longer. And I am not that thrilled over screenwriter Harold Gast using a historical figure like Catesby ap Jones as the love interest of the fictional Betty Stuart. But I believe that both Gast and director Delmar Mann had created an interesting, complex and exciting narrative that was enhanced by excellent performances from a cast led by Virginia Madsen.

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Top Ten Favorite Television Productions Set in the 1960s

Below is a list of my favorite television productions (so far) that are set in the 1960s: 

TOP TEN FAVORITE TELEVISION PRODUCTIONS SET IN THE 1960s

1. “Mad Men” (2007-2015) – Matthew Weiner created this award-winning series about the professional and personal life of an advertising executive during the 1960s. Jon Hamm starred.

2. “Kennedy” (1983) – Martin Sheen, Blair Brown and John Shea starred in this seven-part miniseries about the presidency of John F. Kennedy. The miniseries was written by Reg Gadney and directed by Jim Goddard.

3. “Tour of Duty” (1987-1990) – Steve Duncan and L. Travis Clark created this television series about an U.S. Army infantry platoon during the Vietnam War in the late 1960s. Terence Knox and Stephen Caffrey starred.

4. “Pan Am” (2011-2012) – Jack Orman created this series about the lives of four Pan Am stewardesses and two pilots during the early 1960s. The series starred Kelli Garner, Margot Robbie, Karine Vanasse, Mike Vogel, Michael Mosley and Christina Ricci.

5. “Vegas” (2012-2013) – Nicholas Pileggi and Greg Walker created this series about the conflict between Las Vegas Sheriff Ralph Lamb and a Chicago mobster named Vincent Savino. Dennis Quaid and Michael Chiklis starred.

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6. “The Astronaut Wives Club” (2015) – Stephanie Savage produced this adaptation of Lily Kopel’s 2013 book about the wives of the Mercury Seven astronauts. The cast included Joanna García Swisher, Yvonne Strahovski and Dominique McElligott.

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7. “The Kennedys” (2011) – Jon Cassar directed this award winning miniseries that chronicled the lives of the Kennedy family between the 1940s and the 1960s. Greg Kinnear, Katie Holmes, Barry Pepper, Diana Hardcastle and Tom Wilkinson starred.

8. “Crime Story” (1986-1988) – Chuck Adamson and Gustave Reininger created this television series about the bitter conflict between a Chicago police lieutenant and a mobster in the mid 1960s. Dennis Farina and Anthony Denison starred.

9. “Path to War” (2002) – John Frankenheimer directed this HBO movie that dealt with the Vietnam War through the eyes of President Lyndon B. Johnson. Michael Gambon, Donald Sutherland and Alec Baldwin starred.

10. “Public Morals” (2015) – Edward Burns created and starred in this TNT limited series about police detectives who worked for the Public Morals Division of the New York City Police Department.

“BROKEN LANCE” (1954) Review

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“BROKEN LANCE” (1954) Review

Six years had passed since I last saw a movie based upon a William Shakespeare play. Needless to say, I was not that impressed by it. In fact, I went out of my way to avoid another cinematic adaptation of one of the playwright’s works for years. Image my surprise when I discovered that the 1954 movie movie, “BROKEN LANCE” proved to be another.

Although set in the Old West of the 1880s, “BROKEN LANCE” is based upon elements from Shakespeare’s 1606 play,“King Lear”. It is also a remake of the 1949 movie, “HOUSE OF STRANGERS”, but critics have found connections to the play a lot stronger in the 1954 Western. The latter told the story of an Arizona cattle baron named Matt Devereaux, who has tried to raise his four sons – Ben, Mike, Denny and Joe – with the same hard-working spirit that has made him a successful rancher. However, Devereaux had never learned to express affection to his three older sons, as a consequence. His marriage to a Native American woman resulted in a fourth son – the mixed-blood Joe, to whom he was affectionate. Matt’s “tough love” attitude and affection toward Joe led the other three sons to harbor resentment toward their father and racial prejudice toward their half-brother. After disrupting a cattle rustling attempt by his sons, Mike and Denny, Devereaux discovers that 40 of his cattle had died from a polluted stream. He and his sons also discover that a copper mine, located 20 miles away, is responsible for the pollution. Devereaux’s violent reaction to his discovery will not only lead to legal ramifications, but also further disruptions and tragedy.

I have never read “King Lear” or seen any of the screen adaptations of the actual play. Nor have I ever seen “HOUSE OF STRANGERS”. So, I have nothing to compare “BROKEN LANCE” with. All I can say that I enjoyed most of the film and was especially impressed by the film’s strong characterizations. Despite its Old West setting, “BROKEN LANCE” is not your typical Western. In fact, it is easy to see that it is basically a character drama. One might add there are plenty of Westerns that feature strong character drama. True. But aside from a minor gunfight and a brawl in one of the movie’s final scenes, this is no real action in “BROKEN LANCE”. This is a drama set in the Old West. I had no problem with this. Why? Because “BROKEN LANCE” is basically a damn good story about the disintegration of a family. What makes“BROKEN LANCE” a tragedy is that Matt Devereaux is responsible. That “hard-working” spirit that led him to become a wealthy cattle baron and dominate his family, also led his three older sons to dislike and resent him. Devereaux’s “spirit” also affected his business operation, took away three years of his youngest son’s life and in the end, even affected his oldest son.

I was also impressed by how the movie handled the topic of racism in this film. Granted, all of the non-white characters in the film seemed ideally likable – something that human beings of all ethnic and racial groups are incapable of being on a 24/7 basis. But at least they were not portrayed as simple-minded or childlike. Joe Devereaux came the closest to being naive, but that was due to his age. And even he developed into a more hardened personality. One of the best scenes that conveyed the racism that permeated in 1880s Arizona Territory featured Matt Devereaux being asked by the Territorial Governor to keep Joe from furthering any romance with the latter’s daughter, Barbara. It struck me as subtle, insidious, ugly and very effective.

The production values for “BROKEN LANCE” struck me as very admirable. Twentieth-Century Fox, the studio that produced and released the film, developed the CinemaScope camera to achieve wide lens shots – especially for their more prominent films between the early 1950s and late 1960s. Joseph MacDonald’s photography of Arizona and use of the CinemaScope camera struck me as very colorful and beautiful. Also adding to the movie’s late 19th Arizona setting were Lyle Wheeler (who won an Oscar for his work on 1939’s “GONE WITH THE WIND”) and Maurice Ransford’s art direction, the set decorations by Stuart A. Reiss and Walter M. Scott, and the scenic designs by an uncredited Jack Poplin. I also thought that Travilla’s costume designs for the film greatly added to the movie’s setting . . . especially those designs for the costumes worn by Jean Peters and Katy Jurado.

If there is one aspect of “BROKEN LANCE” that bothered me, it was the film’s last scene. I wish I could explain what happened, but I do not want to reveal any spoilers. Needless to say, I found it vague, unsatisfying and a bit unrealistic. I realize that writers Philip Yordan and Richard Murphy, along with director Edward Dmytryk, were more or less trying to follow the ending for “HOUSE OF STRANGERS”. But in doing so, I think they had failed to consider the film’s Western setting, along with the racial and ethnic makeup of the Joe Devereaux character. Otherwise, I had no real problems with the movie.

I certainly had no problems with the movie’s performances. Spencer Tracy was larger than life as the domineering Matt Deveareaux. He has always been one of those performers who can either give a subtle performance, or be very theatrical without chewing the scenery. He managed to be both in “BROKEN LANCE”. I have read a few review of the movie in which some were not that impressed by Robert Wagner’s performance as Deveareaux’s youngest son, Joe. Yes, I could have done with the slight make-up job to indicate Joe’s racial status. But I was impressed by Wagner’s performance. He did a very good job in conveying different aspects of Joe’s personality – from the enthusiastic young man, who is desperate to maintain peace within his family to the embittered man, who finally realizes how much his older half-brothers disliked him. Another excellent performance came Richard Widmark, who portrayed Deveareaux’s oldest son, Ben. There were times when Widmark almost seemed as larger than life as Tracy. Yet, he reigned in his performance a little tighter. But what I really found interesting about Widmark’s performance is that despite his character’s resentment of Deveareaux and racist dislike of Joe, he seemed to have a clear head on his shoulders and an awareness of how business had changed in the later years of the Old West. The only acting Oscar nomination went to Katy Jurado, who portrayed Deveareaux’s second wife, “Señora” Devereaux. I am a little perplexed by this nomination. Granted, she gave a very good performance as a Native American woman trying to maintain peace between her husband and three stepsons. But there was nothing about her performance that I thought deserved an Oscar nod. Frankly, I found her performance in 1952’s “HIGH NOON” a lot more impressive.

Jean Peters portrayed the Governor’s daughter and Joe’s love interest, Barbara. I thought she gave a spirited, yet charming performance. I was also impressed by how Peters conveyed Barbara’s strong-will and open-minded nature in regard to Joe’s Native American ancestry. Remember my comments about that scene between Deveareaux and the Governor? I believe what made this scene particularly effective were the performances of both Tracy and E.G. Marshall as the Governor. In fact, I would say that Marshall’s skillful conveyance of the Governor’s insidious racism in regard to Joe really sold this scene. Although their roles seemed lesser as Deveareaux’s second and third sons Mike and Denny, I thought both Hugh O’Brian and Earl Holliman gave effective performances. O’Brian’s Mike struck me as an insidious personality, who seemed to hover in the background, watching older brother Ben and their father battle over the family’s fortunes. And Holliman was equally effective as the gutless pushover Denny, who seemed more interested in clinging to whomever could make his life more easy than any resentful feelings toward his father and younger brother. The movie also featured solid performances from Eduard Franz, Carl Benton Reid and Philip Ober.

In the end, I rather liked “BROKEN LANCE” . . . a lot. I knew from my past viewing of the film that it was not a traditional Western, but more of a character-driven drama. And I thought director Edward Dmytryk, along with writers Philip Yordan and Richard Murphy did a first-rate job of translating William Shakespeare’s “King Lear” to this family drama set in the Old West. The movie also boasted first-rate performances from a cast led by Spencer Tracy and Robert Wagner. My only problem with the movie proved to be its last five minutes or so. I found the ending rather vague and lacking any consideration of the Old West setting and the racial background of the Joe Deveareaux character. Otherwise, I no further problems with the film.