“THE MANIONS OF AMERICA” (1981) Review

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“THE MANIONS OF AMERICA” (1981) Review

Back in early 1981, ABC Television aired a miniseries about the lives of an Anglo-Irish immigrant family called “THE MANIONS OF AMERICA”. Starring Pierce Brosnan and Kate Mulgrew, the miniseries aired in three parts and was marketed as the Irish-American version of the 1977 miniseries, “ROOTS”.

“The Irish-American version of “ROOTS”? Hmmmm . . . I do not know if that similarity genuinely works. Yes, both miniseries focused upon the beginning of a family line in the United States. Both are family sagas set before the 20th century. But the differences between the two productions are so obvious that I found it hard to accept this comparison. The Kunta Kinte character from “ROOTS” was kidnapped from his homeland and dragged into forced labor in the Americas. Worse, he died as a slave. The Rory O’Manion character was forced to flee his Ireland homeland from British oppression. And despite facing American bigotry against Irish immigrants, he was able to become a well-respected businessman by the end of the series. “THE MANIONS OF AMERICA” focused upon one generation – Rory, his sister Deidre and their loved ones – within a period of two decades or so. As for “ROOTS”, it focused upon four to five generations for at least ten to eleven decades.

Part One of “THE MANIONS OF AMERICA”begins in 1845 Ireland. This episode focused upon the intoduction of the O’Manion family and their struggles during the Great Famine. Both Rory and his twin brother, Padric O’Manion, are hired by a newly arrived English landlord named Harry Clement to work on the latter’s estate. Rory meets and falls in love with Mr. Clement’s daughter and younger offspring, Rachel. Rory’s sister Deidre meets and falls in love with Rachel’s older brother, a British Army officer named David. Both couples face considerable strain, due to nationality and class. But Rory’s participation in the Young Ireland not only places considerable strain on his romance with Rachel, but also Deidre’s relationship with David. Worse, his political activism leads to a tragic parting between him and Padric. Rory is eventually forced to flee Ireland for the United States.

Part Two begins at least two to three years following the events of Part One. Rory is reunited with Rachel, who has moved to Philadelphia following the death of her father. She ends up living with with her aunt Charlotte Kent and the latter’s husband, a powder mill owner named James Kent. Rachel convinces her uncle to hire Rory as an employee. The young couple also become acquainted with a banker named Caleb Staunton, who becomes impressed by Rory’s ambition and business acumen. Caleb also ends up falling in love with Deidre, who finally arrives in the United States in the wake of a family tragedy involving the youngest O’Manion sibling. And Rachel receives disturbing news about her brother David . . . news that ends up having a major impact on Deidre’s future. Part Three mainly focused on the years following the end of the U.S. Civil War and Rory’s attempt to keep the Kent Powder Works that he has purchased with two partners (Caleb and David). Rory’s business dealings also clash with his resumed interest in his political activism regarding Ireland. And while Deidre finds herself struggling with Caleb’s jealousy of her past relationship with David, Rory endangers both his marriage and friendship with a fellow immigrant with a dangerous affair.

When I first saw “THE MANIONS OF AMERICA” when I was a kid, I was pretty impressed with it. Even back then, I was a literary and history nut with a weakness for family sagas. And this miniseries seemed to fulfill my desire for those stories to a “T”. A recent viewing of the production made me realize that I still found it very satisfying. I would not regard“THE MANIONS OF AMERICA” on the same level as a good number of historical television dramas I have seen over the following years. But I feel that Agnes Nixon and Rosemary Anne Sisson created a solid television drama that managed to hold up very well after three decades. As I had pointed out earlier, “THE MANIONS OF AMERICA” focused only on one generation . . . namely the one that featured Rory O’Manion, his sister Deidre, his twin brother Padric O’Manion, the youngest sibling who might or might not be the missing Sean O’Manion, Rachel Clements and her brother David. Nixon and Sisson did a solid job of balancing the experiences of the main characters’ experiences.

Part One focused upon the establishment of the romances between the O’Manion and the Clement siblings, along with the events that led to Rory’s flight from Ireland. Part Two focused not only on the reunions and problems of the two romantic couples, but also on Rory’s financial and professional rise in the United States. And Part Three focused on Rory and Deidre’s possible reunion with a young man they believe to be their missing brother Sean; the events that led to the culmination of the love triangle between Deidre, David and Caleb; Rory’s last hurrah with the movement to free Ireland from British rule; and the events that led to the birth of a new generation in the now Manion family. Frankly, I thought they balanced the miniseries’ narratives very well. More importantly, the story arcs featured first-rate direction by both Charles S. Dubin and Joseph Sargent; along with solid writing by Nixon and Sisson . . . with the exception of one story arc.

The one story arc that proved to be problematic for me was Rory and Rachel’s efforts to have children. I had no problem with Rachel’s miscarriage near the end of Part Two. It was basically used as a plot device to reconcile her with Rory and Deidre, who were angry about the lie she told about David’s fate in India. The lie encouraged Deidre to go ahead and marry Caleb Staunton, who was planning to form a partnership with Rory over a powder sale. But Part Three opened with Rachel suffering another miscarriage during the Civil War (she had suffered other miscarriages in the period between the two episodes). This latest miscarriage eventually led Rory to have an affair with another woman, in order to prevent himself from having sex with Rachel and impregnating her. And with whom does he have this affair? With the unmarried daughter of one of his closest friends and colleagues. Is this bat-shit crazy or what? I will give kudos to Rory being more concerned with his wife’s health than the idea of conceiving an heir. But I found this story arc just plain stupid and the main reason why Part Three is my least favorite episode. I find it odd that a good number of people seemed dismissive of the Deidre-David-Caleb love triangle. Yet, no one complained about this idiotic story arc about Rory and Rachel’s marriage. And it ended on a note that to this day, I still detest.

“THE MANIONS OF AMERICA” was filmed in Ireland and England (one or two scenes). And it showed. Part One benefited from the Irish locations . . . especially since it was that episode was set in Ireland. But once the story shifted to the United States, the locations did not serve the setting very well. I suppose the miniseries’ producers called themselves trying to save money on the production. If so, they could have shot the film in the United States or Canada. Unless filming in Ireland was considered cheap back in the early 1980s. “THE MANIONS OF AMERICA” featured three cinematographers – Lamar Boren, Héctor R. Figueroa and Frank Watts. I found this rather odd for a television miniseries that only featured three episodes. And yet, this would explain the inconsistent style of photography for the production. The scenes ranged from bright and colorful – especially in Part Two – to dark and rather depressing. And from what I have seen, the dark photography DID NOT serve any particular scene, aside from those featuring the interior of the O’Manions’ dank hovel in Part One. I also have mixed feelings regarding the costumes designed by Barbara Lane. The costumes she designed especially for Kate Mulgrew, Linda Purl, Kathleen Beller and Barbara Parkins in Episodes Two and Three were beautiful and excellent examples of women’s fashion between the 1840s and the 1860s. However, I had a problem with Mulgew’s costumes in Part One. They looked as if they came straight from a costume warehouse in Hollywood. And they seemed a bit of a come down for a character that was supposed to be the daughter of a well-to-do English landowner.

A good number of the reviews I have read for “THE MANIONS OF AMERICA” did not seem that impressed by the supporting cast. Well, I feel differently. I thought the three-part miniseries was blessed by excellent performances – not only from the leads Pierce Brosnan and Kate Mulgrew – but also the supporting players. I was very impressed by Linda Purl’s command of an Irish accent and the amazing way that she conveyed both the quiet and demure side of Deidre O’Manion, along with the character’s sharp temper and strong will. Simon MacCorkindale’s portrayal of young British officer, David Clements, made it very easy for me to see why Deidre had no problems with falling in love with his character. MacCorkindale gave a very passionate, yet charming performance. David Soul’s performance as Caleb Staunton struck me as very interesting, complex and also very appealing. Despite his Caleb being a more introverted man, Soul did an excellent job in making it clear why Deidre would find him attractive as a mate . . . and why Rory regarded him as a potential business partner. Steve Forrest was very interesting as Rachel’s uncle-by-marriage, James Kent. Forrest did an excellent job in conveying Kent’s respectable facade and the chaotic emotions he felt toward his niece. His attempt to “seduce” his niece was a squirm worthy moment. Barbara Parkins gave a very competent performance as Rachel’s chilly aunt Charlotte. Yet, Parkins managed to show the hot jealousy toward Rachel, underneath the chilly facade. Anthony Quayle made his presence known as the temperamental English landowner and magistrate, Lord Montgomery. There were moments when Quayle seemed a bit over-the-top The movie also boasted some first-class performances from Kathleen Beller, Peter Gilmore, Simon Rouse, Hurd Hatfield, Jim Culleton and Tom Jordan.

“THE MANIONS OF AMERICA” marked Pierce Brosnan’s first role in an American production. And he really took it to the max as the fiery political immigrant, Rory O’Manion. Brosnan’s performance is probably one of the most energetic he has given throughout his career. That is due, of course, to the hot-tempered and obsessive nature of his character. But as much as I admired Brosnan’s performance, I must admit there were times when I found the Rory O’Manion character a bit hard to like. He struck me as unrelentingly obsessed with his political activities against the English and too self-righteous for me to relate with. Equally fiery was Kate Mulgrew, who portrayed Rory’s English wife, Rachel. Mulgrew did a superb job in portraying Rachel’s strong, romantic nature; her intelligence and talent for manipulation. Also, both she and Brosnan made such a fiery screen team that they were almost resembled a bonfire. Yet, my vote for the best performance in the miniseries would have gone to Nicholas Hammond, who had the difficulty of portraying two members of the O’Manion family (allegedly). In Part One, Hammond gave a complex and skillful performance as Rory’s non-identical twin brother, Padric O’Manion, whose quiet and pacifist nature led to conflict and great tragedy within the family. And in Part Three, he gave another superb performance as a rowdy and independent-minded ex-Confederate soldier who may or may not be Rory and Deidre’s missing younger brother, Sean. I was impressed by how Hammond conveyed Sean’s blunt personality and inner conflict over the possibility of finally discovering his family and retaining his independence.

Overall, “THE MANIONS OF AMERICA” is a pretty solid production that did a first-rate job in presenting a family saga that began in Ireland and ended in the United States during the mid 19th century. Yes, the miniseries suffered from inconsistent photography that ranged from colorful to unnecessarily dark. And the subplot regarding the main protagonists’ marriage in the third episode struck me as particularly ridiculous. But I still managed to enjoy the production as a whole and regard it as a fine example of what both Pierce Brosnan and Kate Mulgrew were capable during the early stages of their careers.

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Favorite Films Set in the 1950s

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Below is a list of my favorite movies set in the decade of the 1950s:

FAVORITE FILMS SET IN THE 1950s

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1. L.A. Confidential (1997) – Curtis Hanson directed this outstanding adaptation of James Ellroy’s 1990 novel about three Los Angeles police detectives drawn into a case involving a diner massacre. Kevin Spacey, Russell Crowe, Guy Pierce and Oscar winner Kim Basinger starred.

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2. “Grease” (1978) – John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John starred in this entertaining adaptation of the 1971 Broadway musical about a pair of teenage star-crossed lovers in the 1950s. Randal Kleiser directed.

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3. “The Godfather, Part II” (1974) – Francis Ford Coppola directed his Oscar winning sequel to the 1972 Oscar winning adaptation of Mario Puzo’s 1969 novel. Al Pacino, Diane Keaton, Robert Duvall and Oscar winner Robert De Niro starred.

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4. “Quiz Show” (1994) – Robert Redford directed this intriguing adaptation of Richard Goodwin’s 1968 memoir, “Remembering America: A Voice From the Sixties”, about the game show scandals of the late 1950s. Ralph Fiennes, Rob Morrow and John Tuturro starred.

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5. “The Mirror Crack’d (1980) – Angela Landsbury starred as Miss Jane Marple in this adaptation of Agatha Christie’s 1962 novel. Directed by Guy Hamilton, the movie also starred Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson and Edward Fox.

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6. “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skulls” (2008) – Harrison Ford returned for the fourth time as Dr. Henry “Indiana” Jones in this adventurous tale in which he is drawn into the search for artifacts known as the Crystal Skulls. Directed by Steven Spielberg, the movie was produced by him and George Lucas.

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7. “Champagne For One: A Nero Wolfe Mystery (2001)” – Timothy Hutton and Maury Chaykin starred as Archie Goodwin and Nero Wolfe in this television adaptation of Rex Stout’s 1958 novel. The two-part movie was part of A&E Channel’s “A NERO WOLFE MYSTERY” series.

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8. “Hollywoodland” (2006) – Adrien Brody, Diane Lane and Ben Affleck starred in this intriguing tale about a private detective’s investigation into the life and death of actor George Reeves. Allen Coulter directed.

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9. “My Week With Marilyn” (2011) – Oscar nominee Michelle Williams starred as Marilyn Monroe in this adaptation of Colin Clark’s two books about his brief relationship with the actress. Directed by Simon Curtis, the movie co-starred Oscar nominee Kenneth Branagh and Eddie Redmayne as Clark.

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10. “Boycott” (2001) – Jeffrey Wright starred as Dr. Martin Luther King in this television adaptation of Stewart Burns’ book,“Daybreak of Freedom”, about the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott. Directed by Clark Johnson, the movie co-starred Terrence Howard and C.C.H. Pounder.

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Honorable Mention: “Mulholland Falls” (1996) – Nick Nolte starred in this entertaining noir drama about a married Los Angeles Police detective investigating the murder of a high-priced prostitute, with whom he had an affair. The movie was directed by Lee Tamahori.

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?

“THE BLUE AND THE GRAY” (1982) Review

“THE BLUE AND THE GRAY” (1982) Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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