“ROSS POLDARK: A NOVEL OF CORNWALL, 1783-1787” (1945) Book Review

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“ROSS POLDARK: A NOVEL OF CORNWALL, 1783-1787” (1945) Book Review

During a period of fifty-seven, writer Winston Graham wrote a series of twelve historical novels that centered around a former British Army officer from Cornwall, who had fought for king and country during the American Revolutionary War. The first of the novels, “ROSS POLDARK: A NOVEL OF CORNWALL, 1783-1787” had been published in 1945. 

“ROSS POLDARK” begins in the fall of 1783. Ross Poldark returns home to Cornwall after spending three years in the Army. The former officer returns to discover that his father had been dead for several months. The estate he had inherited, which includes Nampara and a failing copper mine, had fallen in arrays. His home is being occupied by his father’s two slovenly servants – Jud and Prudie Paynter. Worst of all, he learns that his former love, Elizabeth Chynoweth, had given him up for dead and become engaged to his cousin, Francis Poldark. Ross sets out to restore his fortunes by acquiring financing for one of his family’s derelict tin mines. But dealing with the loss of Elizabeth prove to be a real problem. Emotional salvation seemed to come in the form of a young 13-14 urchin girl named Demelza Carne, whom Ross saves from a mob at the Reduth Fair. Ross hires her as his new kitchen maid. Over the course of three years, she develops into a beautiful 17 year-old, for whom he develops emotional feelings and eventually marries.

I have read a good number of reviews about this novel. With the exception of one or two, most of them seemed pretty positive. Personally, I believe that Winston Graham did a solid job in setting his multi-novel series in motion. I was impressed at how he introduced his major characters, the story’s historical setting and the story lines that reverberated throughout the series. One of those story lines proved to be the various love triangles that centered around Ross Poldark and Elizabeth Chynoweth Poldark. I find it amazing that most these different love triangles centered around Ross and Elizabeth, instead of Ross and the woman he would eventually marry – Demelza, who happened to be the saga’s leading lady. The 1945 novel included at least two triangles and a potential third:

*Ross Poldark-Elizabeth Chynoweth Poldark-Francis Poldark

*Demelza Carne Poldark-Ross Poldark-Elizabeth Chynoweth Poldark

*Ross Poldark-Elizabeth Chynoweth Poldark-George Warleggan

Anyone familiar with “ROSS POLDARK” would automatically know that no such triangle existed between Ross, Elizabeth and George. I would agree . . . to a certain extent. George Warleggan was more or less portrayed as a minor supporting character in this novel. His father, Nicholas Warleggan, had a more prominent role. Yet, Graham provided a hint of the Ross-Elizabeth-George triangle during the 1787 Trenwith Christmas party, in which George projected a deferential and infatuated attitude toward her. A sign of things to come, indeed.

In fact, the Christmas party proved to be one of those scenes in which I believe Graham did an excellent job in portraying life in Cornwall during the late 18th century. Other scenes that impressed me include Ross’ arrival at Truro upon his return from the war; Francis and Elizabeth’s wedding reception; Ross’ first meeting with Demelza at the Redruth Fair; and the trial of Jim Carter for poaching, one of Ross’ employees, at Truro’s court of assize. These scenes conveyed to me that Graham did some extended research of Britain’s history during the late Georgian era and life in Cornwall during that period. And although I found his use of this research impressive, I would not say that Graham was the best novelist in conveying historical research into stories. I have read novels that have a stronger historical background.

“ROSS POLDARK” is foremost a story about a war veteran who returns home to find his world drastically changed. I suppose one could compare Graham’s tale to the 1946 movie, “THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES”. But the Ross Poldark character seemed traumatized . . . so to speak, by the ruined state of his fortunes and his loss of fiancee Elizabeth Chynoweth, instead of any combat experiences during the war. It did not take Ross very long to set about restoring his fortunes. But the loss of Elizabeth proved to be another matter. He spent a long period of time drinking heavily over her marriage to his cousin Francis. And when he finally realized that he had fallen in love with Demelza near the novel’s end, he came to another realization that his marriage had not erased his feelings for Elizabeth. It is very rare to come upon a fictional story about war veteran trying to overcome a past trauma that focused on lost love, instead of past combat experiences. Very odd. And rather original, if I must add.

Another aspect of “ROSS POLDARK” that I found impressive was Graham’s strong portrayal of most of its characters. Ross Poldark came off as a very strong and well-rounded character. While many fans tend to view him as some borderline ideal fictional hero, I was too busy noticing his personal flaws to immediately accept this view. And I regard this as a good thing. At a younger age, I would have eagerly accepted Ross as something close to a perfect hero. But not at my current age. One, I find ideal characters rather boring. And two, while I found his virtues – especially his concern for the lower classes – rather admirable, I must admit that Ross’ flaws – his stubbornness, quick temper, massive ego, and occasional bouts of hypocrisy – made him more interesting to me than any personal virtue ever could. A good example would be his attitude toward women. Despite his respectful attitude toward most women below his class, Ross still managed to retain a strong patronizing and slightly sexist attitude. This was especially apparent in one scene in which his cousin-in-law, Elizabeth Chynoweth Poldark, requested his help in dealing with Francis’ growing penchant for reckless gambling. Instead of taking Elizabeth seriously, Ross dismissed her request as one from an over-emotional woman exaggerating about a husband’s flaws:

“It occurred to Ross in that moment that half of Elizabeth’s worry might be the eternal feminine bogey of insecurity. Francis drank. Francis gambled and lost money. Francis had been seen about with another woman. Not an amiable story. But not an uncommon one. Inconceivable to Ross in that case, and for Elizabeth it had the proportions of a tragedy. But it was unwise to lose one’s sense of perspective. Other men drank and gambled. Debts were fashionable. Other men found eyes to admire the beauty that was not theirs by right of marriage and to overlook the familiar beauty that was. It did not follow that Francis was taking the shortest route to perdition.”

What I found ironic is that Ross’ sexist dismissal of Elizabeth’s concerns about Francis will eventually bite him in the ass.

Thanks to Graham’s sharp writing, the novel featured other strong characters. One of them include his kitchenmaid-turned-wife, Demelza Carne Poldark. At first I did not know what to make of Demelza. Perhaps the reason I had such difficulty in embracing her as a character is that she was so young. Demelza remained a adolescent throughout the novel, despite becoming a wife who ends the story pregnant. I noticed that anyone in Ross’ life – namely his family and Elizabeth – made her incredibly jealous. And Demelza expressed her jealousy in a rather infantile manner. This was apparent in her internal reaction to Elizabeth’s discovery that she and Ross had sex, following Jim Carter’s trial:

“She is one day too late; just one day. How beautiful she is. How I hate her.”

This jealousy was also evident in her determination to avoid the company of Ross’ cousin Verity Poldark following her marriage to Ross. I find it interesting that neither of the two television adaptations of the novel never explored this situation between the two cousins-in-law. Another example of Demelza’s infantile expression of her jealousy appeared near the end of the novel, when she contemplated on her social success at the Trenwith Christmas party. Even though Demelza had internally expressed pity toward Elizabeth’s marriage to Francis, she also reveled in the idea that Ross still wanted her and not Elizabeth – unaware that Ross’ feelings for Elizabeth have not abated. Demelza’s hostility even managed to shift toward Ruth Treneglos, who had originally expressed hope to become Ross’ wife a few years earlier. I can understand why Graham had portrayed Demelza’s jealousy in such a volatile manner. She was – after all – an adolescent in this story. Despite marrying Ross two-thirds into the story, Demelza remained a teenager from the beginning of the novel to the end.

Graham’s portrayal of Francis and Elizabeth Poldark seemed a bit more . . . limited. Especially Elizabeth. Considering that Ross’ reaction to their marriage played such a major role in the novel’s plot, I found it odd that Graham did not explore the couple’s characters a bit deeper. Ironically, Elizabeth suffered from Graham’s superficial portrayal a lot more than Francis. I am not claiming that her character had suffered from a weaker portrayal than Francis’. I have noticed that many fans of the saga have claimed that she is a cold and haughty character. But after my recent re-reading of “ROSS POLDARK”, I found this hard to accept. Elizabeth struck me as slightly conservative, quiet and private woman, with a pragmatic streak. The only time she became “haughty” was when she lost her temper after Ross had insulted her mother at hers and Francis’ wedding reception. More importantly, she proved to be a very warm and caring parent. But I was surprised to discover upon my last reading of this novel that Elizabeth also harbored an inferiority complex, as revealed in a scene following Geoffrey Charles’ christening:

“Verity had gotten over her disappointment very well, Elizabeth thought. A little quieter, a little more preoccupied with the life of the household. She had wonderful strength of mind and self-reliance. Elizabeth was grateful for her courage. She thought, quite wrongly that she had very little herself, and admired it in Verity.”

Quite wrongly. It seemed as if Graham had inserted those words to explain to the readers that Elizabeth underestimated her own inner strength. And considering the number of times Elizabeth resorted to fainting in dealing with many crisis, I got the feeling that instead of acknowledging or even being aware of her own inner strength, Elizabeth had decided the best way to survive in a world that did not favor women was to play the role that society demanded of her – that of a quietly submissive woman. Francis, on the other hand, had three things going for him – he was not portrayed as an introvert, he did not stand in the way of Ross and Demelza’s relationship, and he is a man. Even though Francis tend to resort to infantile behavior to hide his own securities, sometimes I got the impression that many of Graham’s readers are more tolerant of his character than of Elizabeth’s. Is this due to modern society’s intolerance toward reserved or introverted women? Or is this due to many of Graham’s readers view of Elizabeth as a threat to Ross and Demelza’s romance? I wonder.

“ROSS POLDARK” featured an array of interesting supporting characters. The most colorful to me seemed to be Jud and Prudie Paynter, Ross’ servants; a fellow landowner by the name of Sir Hugh Bodrugan; Ross’ former schoolmaster Reverend Doctor Halse; Demelza’s father, Tom Carne; Elizabeth’s mother Mrs. Chynoweth and Ross’ great-aunt, Agatha Poldark. Ross’ Uncle Charles struck me as a particularly interesting character. If there was one character who matched Elizabeth in terms of pragmatism, it was Charles Poldark. Yet, for such a pragmatic man, I am amazed that he was unable to produce a bigger fortune for his family. And his determination to ensure Francis’ marriage to Elizabeth literally smacked of sheer manipulation. When I first read this novel, I had wondered why Charles was determined to set this marriage in motion. After all, the Chynoweths were cash poor. Did Charles have designs on the Chynoweth land, which would eventually go to the man who marries Elizabeth? I wish Graham had been a little clear on the matter.

The novel featured another love story – one between Francis’ sister, Verity Poldark and a sea captain by the name of Andrew Blamey. I thought Graham did an excellent job in portraying the charming and subtle love story between the plain, yet sweet and soft-spoken Verity and the intense Captain Blamey. But the latter’s revelation of how his alcoholism and temper led to the manslaughter of his wife led both Verity’s father and brother to put a stop in the romance before it could continue. A part of me felt sorry for Verity. Another part of me felt that both Charles and Francis Poldark had done the smart thing. I could not blame them for not wanting a former alcoholic who had killed his wife in a drunken rage anywhere near Verity or within the family ranks. Which makes me wonder why Graham had created this character in the first place.

As I had earlier hinted, I found “ROSS POLDARK” was a solid novel. Solid . . . not perfect or anywhere near perfect. The novel proved to be a good starting point for Graham’s saga, but it was certainly not one of his best. It had its flaws. I have already hinted at one of the novel’s flaws – namely Graham’s portrayal of Francis and Elizabeth Poldark. I realize that Francis and Elizabeth are not the story’s main protagonists. Yet, they are among the saga’s main characters after Ross and Demelza. And the couple played major roles in the protagonists’ lives. Especially Elizabeth. Unfortunately, I discovered upon re-reading the novel that Graham had not explored their characters as much as I wish he had. Characters like Verity Poldark, the Paynters, Jim Carter, Reuben Clemmow and Jinny Carter née Martin seemed to have been written with more depth than either Francis or Elizabeth.

Speaking of Jinny Carter and Reuben Clemmow, this brings me to the sequence that featured Reuben’s attack upon her. I have no problems with Graham’s portrayal of the incident. I thought the scene reeked with tension and violence. What irritated me to no end was that Graham had ended the sequence on a cliffhanger with Clemmow stabbing Jinny before accidentally falling out of a window, while trying to opening it. Following those violent moments, the novel jumped two years later in which the next chapter featured Ross in a meeting with potential shareholders for Wheal Leisure. Readers had to wait until another chapter before learning that Jinny had survived the stabbing and Reuben had fallen to his death. Perhaps other readers had no problems with Graham ending the Jinny-Clemmow sequence on this note. I did. I found it irritating. It seemed as if Graham had spent a great deal of energy in building up to Jinny and Clemmow’s confrontation, only to end it by “telling” how it ended, instead of “showing” it. And why on earth Graham felt the need to jump the story another two years before revealing the conclusion of this plot line?

As someone who has read countless number of novels over the years, I have encountered a good share of them in which the writer has a tendency to shift the point-of-view from one character to another in the middle of the scene. And unfortunately, Winston Graham seemed to be onen of those novelists that share this flaw. This was especially apparent in one scene between Francis and Elizabeth Poldark, following the christening of their son. The scene started with Elizabeth’s point-of-view, as she contemplated on the christening’s success, her love for young Geoffrey Charles and her anticipation for more rest, as she continued her recovery from childbirth. Just before Francis could enter her bedroom for a little marital sex, the scene shifted to his point-of-view and readers experience his anticipation and his disappointment at Elizabeth’s rejection of his attempt to seduce her. To this day, I still wonder why Graham had shifted the viewpoint from one character to another. Why could he not reveal Elizabeth’s point-of-view, when Francis tried to seduce her for some post-natal sex? Or explain to viewers – from her point-of-view – why she wanted more rest, instead of sex with Francis? Was it easier for him to convey Francis’ disappointment? This shift in viewpoint seemed to have left many fans of the saga to assume that Elizabeth simply wanted no more sex with her husband – or that she was sexually frigid.

One last sequence that bothered me in “ROSS POLDARK” focused on Ross and Demelza. Not long after meeting the thirteen (or fourteen) year-old Demelza at the Reduth Fair, Ross brought her home to Nampara. He had wanted Prudie to clean the lice-infested Demelza before the latter could step foot inside the house. But since Prudie was not there, he set about cleaning her himself. Ross ordered Demelza to remove all of her clothes so that he could clean her, using water from the water pump behind the house:

“He worked the handle with vigor. The first rinsing would not get rid of everything but would at least be a beginning. It would leave his position uncompromised. She had an emaciated little body, on which womanhood had onl just begun to fashion its designs.”

The idea of a 23-24 year-old man washing the naked body of a 13-14 year old girl left me feeling very uncomfortable. Squemish. I had noticed that the topic had been mentioned on the The Winston Graham & Poldark Literary Society message board, but those members who had responded did not seem bothered by the scene. I had mentioned it on Tumblr and someone had the same response as me. Perhaps an adult man washing the naked body of an early adolescent girl he had recently met and hired as a servant did not seem out of place in the late 18th century. But as a woman of the late 20th and early 21st centuries, it seemed out of place to me. And I can only wonder how many early-to-mid 20th century readers felt about this scene when the novel was first published in 1945. And honestly . . . why on earth did Graham include this scene in the novel in the first place? Why not allow Prudie to be at Nampara to wash the very young Demelza? Especially since the latter ended up as Ross’ wife some three years later? I mean . . . honestly . . . all I can say is “Ewww!”.

Speaking of Demelza, how old was she? The handling of Demelza’s age struck me as confusing. According to the novel, she was 13 years old when she and Ross first met at the Reduth Fair in the early spring of 1794. When she married Ross in June 1787, she was 17 years old. And during the Christmas party at Trenwith near the end of 1787, she told Francis and Elizabeth’s guests that she was 18 years old. Exactly when was Demelza born? In 1769 or 1770? Perhaps it is wise if I just give up on the matter.

Unlike many fans of the literary POLDARK series, I cannot say that “ROSS POLDARK: A NOVEL OF CORNWALL, 1783-1787” was among the best. In fact, I would not regard it as one of the best historical novels I have ever read. It possessed some flaws that prevent me from proclaiming it as such. But . . . I must admit that Graham had created a solid story that maintained my interest from the beginning to the end. And more importantly, I thought Graham did a pretty good job in using this novel to set up the twelve-book series.

Stargazy Pie

Below is an article about the dish known as Stargazy Pie:

STARGAZY PIE

One of the more . . . uh, interesting dishes that has recently attracted my attention is the British dish known as Stargazy Pie. Created in the county of Cornwall, the dish is also known as Starrey Gazey Pie. The dish is a pie made from baked pilchards (sardines), eggs and potatoes and covered with a pastry crust. Other variations of fish have been used for the pie. However, the dish is unique for having fish heads (or tails) protruding through the crust, so that they appear to be gazing skyward. This allows the oils released during cooking to flow back into the pie.

The pie originated from the fishing village of Mousehole in Cornwall to celebrate the bravery of a local fisherman named Tom Bawcock in the 16th century. According to legend, a particularly stormy winter prevented Mousehole’s fishing boats from leaving the harbor. The villagers were on the verge of facing starvation, as Christmas approached, for they depended upon the pilchards as a primary food source. Two days before Christmas, Bawcock had decided to face the stormy weather and head out into the water. Despite the difficult sea, Bawcock managed to catch enough pilchards and six other types of fish to feed the entire village. Some of the fish caught by Bawcock was baked into a pie, with the fish heads poking through to prove that there were fish inside. Ever since then, the Tom Bawcock’s Eve festival has been held on 23 December in Mousehole. During the festival, villagers parade a huge Stargazy Pie during the evening with a procession of handmade lanterns, before eating the pie itself.

However, there have been rumors that the entire festival was a myth created by The Ship Inn’s landlord in the 1950s. However, an author on Cornish language named Morton Nance had recorded the festival in 1927 for a magazine called Old Cornwall. He believed that the festival actually dated by to pre-Christian times, but expressed doubt that Tom Bawcock ever existed.

The original pie included sand eels, horse mackerel, pilchards, herring, dogfish and ling along with a seventh fish. In a traditional pie, the primary ingredient is the pilchard, although mackerel or herring was used as a substitute. Richard Stevenson, chef at The Ship Inn in Mousehole, suggests that any white fish can be used as the filling, with pilchards or herring just added for the presentation.

Below is a recipe for Stargazy Pie from the BBC Food website:

Stargazy Pie

Ingredients

For the Mustard Sauce
9fl oz white chicken stock
4½oz crème fraîche
1oz English mustard
1 pinch salt
½ tsp mustard powder
squeeze lemon juice

For the pie
5oz piece streaky bacon
16 baby onions, peeled
9oz all-butter puff pastry, rolled to 3-4mm thick
1 free-range egg yolk, beaten
4-8 Cornish sardines, filleted, carcasses and heads reserved
1-2 tbsp rapeseed oil
1oz butter
1 tbsp white wine vinegar
16 quails’ eggs

Preparation

For the mustard sauce, bring the stock to the boil in a non-reactive saucepan. Whisk in the crème fraîche, mustard, salt, mustard powder and lemon juice until well combined. Bring back to the simmer. Pass the sauce through a fine sieve into a jug and set aside.

For the pie, cook the bacon in boiling water for 20 minutes. Drain, then allow to cool slightly before chopping into lardons.

Bring another pan of water to the boil and cook the baby onions for 6-7 minutes, or until tender. Drain and refresh in cold water, then slice each onion in half. Set aside.
Preheat the oven to 400F/Gas 6.

Roll out the puff pastry until 3-4mm thick, then cut into 4 equal-sized squares. Using a small circular pastry cutter the size of a golf ball, cut out 2 holes in each pastry square.

Place each square on a baking tray and brush with the beaten egg yolk. Chill in the fridge for 15 minutes.

Bake the pastry squares in the oven for 18-20 minutes, or until golden-brown and crisp.
Remove from the oven and set aside.

Turn the grill on to high.

Place the sardine fillets, heads and tails on a solid grill tray, brush with the oil and season with salt and freshly ground black pepper. Grill for 2-3 minutes, or until golden-brown and just cooked through (the fish should be opaque all the way through and flake easily).

Heat a frying pan until medium hot, add the butter and bacon lardons and fry gently for 3-4 minutes, or until golden-brown. Add the onions and stir in enough sauce to coat all the ingredients in the pan. Reserve the remaining sauce and keep warm.

Bring a small pan of water to the boil, add the vinegar and a pinch of salt. Reduce the heat to a simmer.

Crack the quail’s eggs into a small bowl of iced water, then pour off any excess (there should only be just enough water to cover the eggs). Swirl the simmering water with a wooden spoon to create a whirlpool effect, then gently pour the quails’ eggs into the centre of the whirlpool. Poach for about 1-2 minutes, or until the egg whites have set and the yolk is still runny. Remove with a slotted spoon and drain on kitchen paper.

To serve, divide the onion and bacon mixture between 4 serving plates. Arrange the sardine fillets on top, then place four poached quails’ eggs around the fillet. Using a stick blender, blend the remaining sauce until frothy. Spoon the froth over the top of the sardines and eggs. Top each pile with the puff pastry squares, then place the sardine heads and tails through each hole in the pastry. Serve immediately.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“4.50 FROM PADDINGTON” (2004) Review

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“4.50 FROM PADDINGTON” (2004) Review

I have been a major fan of Agatha Christie’s 1957 novel, “4.50 From Paddington”, ever since I was in my teens. In fact, I consider it one of my top ten favorite Christie novels of all time. So, it is not surprising that I would approach any movie or television adaptation of this story with great anticipation.

As far as I know, there have been at least two adaptations of Christie’s 1957 novel. Both were television movies that starred Joan Hickson as Jane Marple in 1987 and Geraldine McEwan in 2004. Just recently, I watched the McEwan version and all I can say is . . . hmmmmm. “4.50 FROM PADDINGTON” (also known as “WHAT MRS. McGILLICUDDY SAW”) begins with Mrs. Elspeth McGillicuddy leaving London by train, following a Christmas shopping trip. She is on her way to St. Mary Mead to visit her old friend, Miss Jane Marple in St. Mary Mead. Sometime during the journey, Mrs. McGillicuddy looks out of her window and spots a man with his back to her strangling a woman in a train traveling parallel to hers. Upon reaching St. Mary Mead, Mrs. McGillicuddy reports the murder to Miss Marple, before the pair reports it to an unbelieving railway official.

While Mrs. McGillicuddy travels on to visit relatives in Ceylon for the holidays, Miss Marple takes matters into her own hands. She comes to the conclusion that the murderer had dumped the body off the train before it could be discovered at an estate owned by the Crackenthorpe family called Rutherford Hall, near Brackhampton. Miss Marple recruits a professional housekeeper named Lucy Eylesbarrow to hire herself out to the Crackenthorpes with the pretense that she wants to be near her “aunt” – namely Miss Marple – and hunt for the missing body. Eventually, Lucy does find the body . . . and more mayhem ensues.

I was not particularly fond of the 1987 Joan Hickson adaptation. And if I must be brutally honest, I do not have a high opinion of this 2004 version. Both versions seemed to be marred by two major problems – too many changes and the love triangle involving the Lucy Eylesbarrow character. And if I must be honest, Lucy proved to be a problem all on her own. Stephen Churchett made changes that I found particularly unnecessary. The movie began with a World War II flashback that featured the death of the Crackenthorpe family matriarch, which seemed to have an impact on the family patriarch, Luther Crackenthorpe. Although poignant, this scene struck me as a complete waste of time that did not seem to have anything to do with the main narrative. And once again, this version ended with a resolution to the love triangle that surrounded Lucy Eylesbarrow. Apparently, no one seemed to care how Christie deliberately left the matter opened in regard to Lucy’s choice. I have always regarded the Lucy Eylesbarow character as something of a “Mary Sue”. The 1987 version of the character was transformed into a humorless prig. Although the 2004 version of the character managed to regain some wit, she also came off as an even bigger “Mary Sue” than the literary version. The television movie introduced Lucy singing with Noel Coward (of all people) to his guests at a dinner party. She was dressed to the nines . . . and still serving as a housekeeper. What the hell? When I saw this, I could not believe my eyes. And why on earth did Churchett and director Andy Wilson allowed Miss Marple to reveal the murderer to an audience . . . aboard a moving train? This struck me as incredibly contrived and rather uncomfortable.

The movie also featured some severe character changes. Harold Crackenthorpe was transformed into a serial rapist, who has targeted Lucy as his latest victim. Alfred Crackenthorpe remained a minor crook, who seemed to be constantly weeping over a former girlfriend who had dumped him. Instead of being the oldest living brother, Cedric Crackenthorpe became the youngest sibling in the family and a failed painter. Why? I have not the foggiest idea. And Churchett completely jettisoned him from the love triangle concerning Lucy Eylesbarrow. This version featured a love triangle between Lucy, Bryan Eastley (Luther’s son-in-law), and Inspector Tom Campbell, the investigating detective for the case. Yes, that is correct. Once again, the Dermot Craddock character (who was the investigating detective in the novel) was eliminated from another adaptation. In his place was another detective with close ties to Miss Marple. Which is ironic, considering that he had appeared in the 2004 version of“A MURDER IS ANNOUNCED”. Speaking of Bryan Eastley, he was transformed into an American war veteran. Only the Luther Crackenthorpe, Emma Crackenthorpe and Dr. Quimper characters remained intact.

However, “4.50 FROM PADDINGTON” did have its share of virtues. I have to give kudos to Jeff Tessler for his excellent production designs. His work made it very easy for television audiences to find themselves transported back to 1951. Also adding to the movie’s setting were Pilar Foy’s art direction and Phoebe De Gaye’s costume designs. I also enjoyed the production’s cinematography, thanks to Martin Fuhrer’s sharp and colorful work. And Jeremy Gibbs’s editing greatly enhanced the sequence in which Elspeth McGillicuddy first witnessed the murder. Despite my dissatisfaction with the overall adaptation of Christie’s 1957 novel, I must admit that Andy Wilson did a solid job as director. This was evident in the movie’s pacing and performances.

Speaking of performances, I tried to think of one or two performance that seemed out of step to me. But if I must be honest, I could not find one. “4.50 FROM PADDINGTON” provided some pretty good, solid performances. Geraldine McEwan was in fine form, as usual, as Miss Jane Marple. And she clicked very well with three particular cast members – Pam Ferris, who did an excellent job in portraying the pragmatic Elspeth McGillicuddy; John Hannah, who gave a nice performance as the rather quiet and intelligent Tom Campbell; and Amanda Holden, who seemed to be a bundle of charm as the talented and dependable Lucy Eylesbarrow. Jenny Agutter gave a very poignant performance in her brief appearance as the dying Agnes Crackenthorpe. The movie also featured solid performances from the likes of Niamh Cusack, Griff Rhys Jones, Charlie Creed-Miles, Kurtis O’Brien, Ciarán McMenamin, and Celia Imrie, who was rather funny as a Russian dancing mistress being interviewed by Tom Campbell and Miss Marple.

But there were four performances that proved to be my favorite. One came from Rose Keegan, who was even more funny as Lady Alice Crackenthorpe, Harold’s aristocratic wife. My second favorite performance came from David Warner was at times, poignant, rather funny and very sardonic (depending on the scene) as family patriarch Luther Crackenthorpe. Ben Daniels was equally funny and sardonic as the despairing Alfred Crackenthorpe, who seemed to have more regard for the woman who had dumped him, than his family. And perhaps I should be grateful that screenwriter Stephen Churchett transformed the Bryan Eastley character to an American. This gave American-born Michael Landes a chance to make the character more than bearable. Landes did something that Christie’s novel and actor David Beames failed to do in the 1987 version . . . make Bryan Eastley sexy and charismatic.

I will not deny that “4.50 FROM PADDINGTON” had its virtues. The movie can boast fine performances from a cast led by Geraldine McEwan. I really had no problem with Andy Wilson’s direction. And the movie’s 1951 was beautiful to look at, thanks to the production staff. But I still had problems with the movie’s adaptation of Agatha Christie’s 1957 novel. There were too many unnecessary changes to a story that had become one of my favorites penned by the author. Pity.

Five Favorite “MAD MEN” Season Three (2009) Episodes

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Below is a list of my top five (5) favorite episodes from Season Three (2009) of “MAD MEN”. Created by Matthew Weiner, the series stars Jon Hamm:

FIVE FAVORITE “MAD MEN” SEASON THREE (2009) Episodes

1 - 3.11 The Gypsy and the Hobo

1. (3.11) “The Gypsy and the Hobo” – Don’s past finally catches up with him when Betty confronts him about his identity theft. Roger Sterling meets a former client/lover who wishes to rekindle their affair. And Joan discovers that her husband, Greg Harris, has joined the Army after failing to start a medical career in New York.

2 - 3.12 The Grown Ups

2. (3.12) “The Grown Ups” – The assassination of President John Kennedy serves as the backdrop of the wedding for Roger’s daughter and the final breakup of the Draper marriage.

3 - 3.07 Seven Twenty-Three

3. (3.07) “Seven Twenty-Three” – Don’s attempts to land the Conrad Hilton account leads to him being blackmailed by Bert Cooper to sign a three-year contract with Sterling Cooper. Peggy begins an affair with former Sterling-Cooper Accounts Head, Duck Phillips. And Betty expresses interest in the Governor’s aide, Henry Francis, when she becomes involved in civic politics.

4 - 3.06 Guy Walks into an Advertising Agency

4. (3.06) “Guy Walks into an Advertising Agency” – A visit by the British owners of the Sterling Cooper agency and an account involving a motorized lawn motor results in mishap and bloodshed.

5 - 3.09 Wee Small Hours

5. (3.09) “Wee Small Hours” – An executive from Sterling Cooper’s client, Lucky Strikes, demands that the agency fire art director Sal Romano after the latter rejects the executive’s sexual advances. Betty grows closer to Henry Francis and Don begins an affair with Sally’s teacher, Suzanne Farrell.

“OPERATION PETTICOAT” (1959) Review

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“OPERATION PETTICOAT” (1959) Review

Many would find this hard to believe, but I first came aware of the 1959 comedy, “OPERATION PETTICOAT”, when its television spinoff aired during the late 1970s. Mind you, the television series was no where as good as the 1959 movie, it was enough to attract my attention.

Over a decade had past before I first saw the movie. And I became an even bigger fan of the film than the TV series. Directed by Blake Edwards, “OPERATION PETTICOAT” is basically a flashback tale in which U.S. Navy Admiral Matthew Sherman visits the U.S.S. Sea Tiger, an old and obsolete submarine scheduled to be sent to the scrapyard. Because Sherman was the Sea Tiger’s first commanding officer, he begins reading his old log book, which recounted the submarine’s time during its first difficult month following the Japanese Navy’s attack at Pearl Harbor in December 1941.

On December 10, 1941, the Sea Tiger is sunk by a Japanese air raid, while it is docked at the Cavite Navy Yard in the Philippines. Sherman, then a Lieutenant-Commander, and his crew begin repairs, hoping to sail the Sea Tiger to Darwin, Australia. The submarine squadron’s commodore believes there is no chance of saving the Sea Tiger and begins to transfer some of Sherman’s crew to other boats. Sherman convinces the commodore otherwise and the latter begins to replace Sherman’s crew, beginning with an admiral aide with no submarine experience named Lieutenant (junior grade) Nick Holden. Unfortunately for Sherman, Holden had become a naval officer to escape poverty and find a wealthy spouse. Fortunately for the submarine commander, Holden proves to be a very effective supply officer, due to his skills as a scavenger and con artist. Thanks to Holden, the Sea Tiger acquires enough parts for repair and their departure from the Philippines. Once restored to seaworthy condition – barely – with only two of her four diesels operational, the Sea Tiger reaches Marinduque, where Sherman reluctantly agrees to evacuate five stranded Army nurses. Between dealing with Holden’s reluctance to reveal officer material, a partially operating submarine and five nurses with no where to go and causing mayhem on board, Sherman’s first month at war proves to be very difficult.

When I first saw “OPERATION PETTICOAT”, I wondered if I would like it as much as I did the television series. Needless to say . . . I did. I enjoyed this movie very much. It had a lot going for it. One, it had Blake Edwards as director. Before he directed“OPERATION PETTICOAT”, Edwards had worked as an actor, screenwriter and the occasional producer/director or writer of a series of television shows. The 1959 World War II comedy proved to be his first feature movie as a director . . . and he scored big. The movie featured every aspect of first-rate Blake Edwards comedy – the director’s unique humor; a cast of some very interesting and offbeat characters; and most importantly a well-written story.

Because of his past as a screenwriter, I had assumed that Edwards had written the movie’s script. I was wrong. Credit went to four writers – Paul King, Joseph B. Stone, Stanley J. Shapiro, Maurice Richlin. And I must that they had written one hell of a story. I liked how they and Edwards managed to recapture those desperate, early days of the war’s Pacific Theater, when the Japanese seemed to be grabbing a great deal of territory in the Pacific. I liked the fact that despite the presence of Cary Grant, Tony Curtis and five attractive actresses portraying nurses, neither Edwards or the four screenwriters did not glamorize the movie’s setting . . . aside from the spotless uniform worn by Nick Holden upon his arrival at the Sea Tiger or the characters. The Sea Tiger remained in a questionable condition throughout most of the film. And believe it or not, a good deal of the events featured in this film actually happened during those early months of the war in the Pacific . . . including the evacuation of military nurses from the Philippines, a submarine being forced to paint its surface pink, due to the lack of enough red or white lead undercoat paint. The movie nearly ended on an ironic note, when it faced great danger of being sunk . . . but not by the Japanese Navy.

I did have a few problems with “OPERATION PETTICOAT”. Although most of the movie was set between December 1941-January 1942, the hairstyles and makeup for the actresses portraying the nurses clearly reflected the late 1950s. Hollywood tend to be rather sloppy about women’s hairstyles and fashion in movies set in the near past. And “OPERATION PETTICOAT” was mainly set seventeen to eighteen years before its release. The nurses proved to be another problem in the film. The moment the nurses boarded the Sea Tiger, a hint of sexism seemed to permeate the movie. Nearly every scene that featured the nurses, the score written by David Rose and an uncredited Henry Mancini would shift into a cheesy tune fit for a soft core porn film . . . 1950s style. The biggest problem proved to be two characters – the commanding officer of the nurses, Major Edna Heywood; and the Sea Tiger’s Chief Machinist’s Mate Sam Tostin. The latter proved to be something of a misogynist, who could not stand the idea of women aboard the submarine. I could have tolerated that. I could have tolerated his dismay over Major Heywood’s interest in the Sea Tiger’s engines, due to her father being an engineer. What I could not tolerate was Tostin’s lack of respect toward Major Heywood’s status as an officer . . . and the fact that the screenwriters allowed him to get away with such lack of respect due to her being a woman. And the fact that the screenwriters wrote a romantic subplot for the pair struck me as ridiculous. The moment Tostin said these words to Major Heywood:

Chief Mechanic’s Mate Sam Tostin: [speaking to Maj.Heywood in the engine room] You know, I spent alot of years disliking women. But I don’t dislike you.

Maj. Edna Heywood, RN: Oh?

Chief Mechanic’s Mate Sam Tostin: You’re not a woman. You’re more than a woman. You’re a *mechanic*

I hope the screenwriters and Edwards did not expect audiences to take this relationship seriously. A deep-seated misogynist like Tostin had no business being given a romantic interest in this film . . . especially with an upright woman like Major Heywood.

In my opinion, the two best aspects of any movie are usually the screenplay and the performances. I have already expressed my views of the movie’s plot. As the performances, “OPERATION PETTICOAT” was blessed with a first-rate cast. I was surprised to see that a few cast members went on to become television stars – Gavin MacLeod (“THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW” and“THE LOVE BOAT”), Dick Sargeant (“BEWITCHED”), and Marion Ross (“HAPPY DAYS”). Ross did not get much of a chance to strut her stuff in this film. But MacLeod gave a hilarious performance as the high-strung and nervous Yeoman Ernest Hunckle, who worked closely with supply officer Nick Holden.  Sargeant gave a very endearing, yet funny performance as the young Ensign Stovall, who seemed to be Holden’s number one fan aboard the Sea Tiger and possessed a penchant for putting his foot into his mouth. Gene Evans was equally funny as the gruff Chief of the Boat (COB) Chief Torpedoman “Mo” Molumphry. Joan O’Brien seemed to display a talent for physical humor as the well-meaning, yet clumsy Second Lieutenant Dolores Crandall. And Clarence Lung made a great straight man for Tony Curtis as Holden’s “partner-in-crime” U.S.M.C. Sergeant Ramon Gallardo. Other fine supporting performances came from Ross, Madlyn Rhue, Robert F. Simon, Robert Gist and George Dunn.

Despite my dislike of the Major Heywood/Chief Tostin relationship, I must admit that both Virginia Gregg and Arthur O’Connell did great jobs in capturing the essence of their characters. Especially O’Connell, who still managed to be funny, despite portraying one of the most misogynist characters I have ever seen on screen. Dina Merrill gave a solid performance as Second Lieutenant Barbara Duran, the lovely nurse who managed to captured the attention of the very engaged Nick Holden. Before he did “OPERATION PETTICOAT”, Tony Curtis worked on Billy Wilder’s famous Roaring Twenties comedy, “SOME LIKE IT HOT”. In that film, he did an impersonation of Cary Grant that caught a great deal of attention at the time. Ironically, the two ended up co-starring in this film in less than a year. And they clicked very well on screen, despite the clash between their characters. Curtis was smooth as ever as the morally gray Nick Holden, who hid a larcenous and opportunist nature behind a charming and affable façade. Looking back, it occurred to me that if Curtis had been older than Grant, he could have easily portrayed the Matt Sherman character . . . and that Grant could have portrayed Holden. I realize that many people might disagree with me, but the acting styles of both actors seemed strongly similar to me. And although Grant could have easily portrayed a character like Nick Holden, I cannot deny that he did a superb job as the harried, yet strong-willed Matt Sherman. Watching Grant convey Sherman’s confusion, resolve, and quick thinking over a series of personal and military crisis was a joy to behold. In a way, Grant marvelously managed to keep the story together, thanks to his performance.

The television series, “OPERATION PETTICOAT” did not last beyond its second season. The ABC network made too many changes to the show. Besides, the idea of five Army nurses aboard a Navy submarine for such a long period of time seemed a bit too ludicrous to accept. I did enjoy its first season. However, I enjoyed even more its predecessor, the 1959 film. During his first stint as a movie director, Blake Edwards took a gritty and realistic setting – namely the early weeks of World War II for the United States forces in the Pacific – a sly sense of humor, a crazy premise of nurses aboard a pink-coated submarine and a superb cast led by Cary Grant and Tony Curtis; and created a comedic piece of cinematic gold. I could watch this movie over and over again.

TIME MACHINE: Sherman’s March to the Sea – Part Two

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Here is Part Two on my look at Sherman’s March to the Sea.

 

TIME MACHINE: SHERMAN’S MARCH TO THE SEA – PART TWO

December 21 marked the 150th anniversary of the end of Major General William Tecumseh Sherman‘s military march from Atlanta to Savannah, Georgia. The date also marked the 150th anniversary of Savannah’s surrender to his forces.

Sherman’s famous march across the state of Georgia began in Atlanta, Georgia on November 15, 1864. Utilizing aspects ofLieutenant-General Ulysses S. Grant’s successful Vicksburg Campaign and Winfield Scott‘s march to Mexico City, during theMexican-American War, Sherman cut his army’s ties to tradition supply lines and led his forces across Georgia, as they lived off the land, foraging food and livestock. Sherman’s forces also destroyed military targets as well as industry, infrastructure, and civilian property and disrupted not only the State of Georgia’s economy and its transportation networks, but also those that belonged to the Confederacy.

The Union forces that departed from Atlanta in mid-November 1864 consisted of two wings. Major General Oliver O. Howardcommanded the Army of the Tennessee, also known as the right wing. The left wing consisted of the Army of Georgia, which was under the command of Major General Henry W. Slocum. A calvary division under Brigadier General Judson Kilpatricksupported both wings. And the First Alabama Calvary Regiment, a unit Southern Unionists, served as Sherman’s personal escort.

Sherman’s forces encountered military opposition from Confederate forces led by Lieutenant-General William J. Hardee‘s Department of South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida; and the state militia. Both the Union and Confederate forces clashed on several occasions; including the Battle of Griswoldville, the Battle of Griswoldville, and the Battle of Waynesboro. All were Union victories. More troops from Hilton Head, South Carolina under the command of Brigadier General John P. Hatch were sent to join Sherman’s march by Major General John G. Foster. Hatch’s forces fought an action against Georgia militiamen under G.W. Smith at the Battle of Honey Hill, resulting in a Confederate victory.

Sherman’s forces finally reached the outskirts of Savannah on December 10, 1864. Unfortunately, he discovered that Hardee had entrenched 10,000 men in good positions. The latter’s soldiers also flooded the surrounding rice fields, leaving only narrow causeways available to approach the city. Sherman found himself blocked from linking up with the U.S. Navy under Admiral John A. Dahlgren and new supplies, as he had planned. To unblock his route to the U.S. Navy, he dispatched William B. Hazen’s division of Howard’s wing and the cavalry to Fort McAllister, guarding the Ogeechee River, in hopes of unblocking his route. On December 13, Hazen and his forces stormed the fort in the Battle of Fort McAllister and captured it within 15 minutes.

Once Sherman managed to connect to Dahlgren and the Navy’s supplies, he set about preparing a siege of Savannah. On December 17, he sent a message to Hardee in the hopes that the latter would surrender. Instead, Hardee and his men escaped across the Savannah River on December 20, leaving the city to the mercy of Sherman’s forces. On the following day, December 21, 1864; Mayor Richard Dennis Arnold, with a delegation of aldermen and ladies of the city, rode out to Union lines and offered a surrender of the city in exchange for protection of the city’s citizens and their property. Sherman accepted their proposition and later in the day, rode into Savannah with the Union forces that had accompanied him across Georgia. Later, Sherman sent the following telegram to President Abraham Lincoln:

“I beg to present you as a Christmas gift the City of Savannah, with one hundred and fifty guns and plenty of ammunition, also about twenty-five thousand bales of cotton.”

For more detailed information on Sherman’s March to the Sea, I recommend the following books:

*“Sherman’s March: The First Full-Length Narrative of General William T. Sherman’s Devastating March through Georgia and the Carolinas” (1988) by Burke Davis

*“Through the Heart of Dixie: Sherman’s March and American Memory” (2014) by Anne Sarah Rubin