“CLASS OF ’61” (1993) Review

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“CLASS OF ’61” (1993) Review

Twenty-six years, ABC Television aired the pilot episode for an American war drama about the U.S. Civil War. Written by Jonas McCord, “CLASS OF ’61” told the story about three West Point graduates from the class of 1861, who found themselves on opposites sides following the outbreak of war.

I have a few corrections to make. “CLASS OF ’61” told the story about one West Point graduate, an Irish immigrant named Devlin O’Neil of Baltimore, and one cadet who had dropped out of the Academy following the outbreak of war, Shelby Peyton of Virginia. And the third man turned out to be a young George Armstrong Custer, who did graduate with the Class of ’61, but only served as a supporting character in this production. Actually, the third major character in “CLASS OF ’61” is a young man named Lucius, who happened to be a slave owned by Shelby’s father, a doctor and plantation owner. The movie followed Devlin, Shelby, Lucius and yes, even young Custer from that last day of peace before the bombardment of Fort Sumter to the waning moment of the Battle of Bull Run (or Manassas).

After Shelby dropped out of West Point, following the Fort Sumter bombardment and surrender, Shelby Peyton visits Devlin O’Neil’s home in Baltimore and discovers that the latter’s father has withdrawn his permission for Shelby to marry Devlin’s sister, Shannon, due to Shelby’s decision to follow his state into the Confederacy. Shelby also discovers that Devlin and Shannon’s younger brother, Terry, has joined a local street mob that happened to be pro-Confederate. After participating in the Pratt Street Riot on April 19, 1861; Terry ends up temporarily imprisoned at Fort McHenry before heading south to join the Confederate Army. Following his graduation from West Point, Devlin experiences difficulty in receiving an Army assignment, due to Terry’s actions. Devlin meets a Virginia belle from nearby Alexandria named Lily Magraw at a soirée hosted by long-time Washington socialite named Rose O’Neal Greenhow. Unbeknownst to Devil, both Lily and Mrs. Greenhow are Confederate spies. Shelby’s friendship with his father’s slave Lucius is tested due to the latter’s brief attempt to escape slavery with his pregnant wife, Lavinia. After killing one (or two) of the slave catchers who had spotted him, Lucius is forced to leave the Shelby plantation without his wife and head north via the Underground Railroad.

One would immediately notice that “CLASS OF ’61” has no main narrative other than a handful of major characters experiencing the first three months of the U.S. Civil War. That is because this 93-minute movie was supposed to serve as a pilot for a new series . . . which never materialized. But this loose narrative structure featuring a handful of plot lines did not deter me from enjoying the production. When I first saw “CLASS OF ’61”, I was in the throes of an obsession for the U.S. Civil War. An obsession that has not abated with time, I might add. There is a possibility that due to this obsession, I may have viewed “CLASS OF ’61” through rose-colored glasses when I first saw it. Do not get me wrong. I still managed to enjoy it. But due to the “sands of time”, I have finally noticed the flaws.

“CLASS OF ’61” has a great deal of virtues. Its biggest virtue seemed to be the cast. The television pilot featured many young players who would eventually become well known or major stars. Dan Futterman, an excellent character actor in his own right and a two-time Academy Award nominated screenwriter, gave a complex performance as Shelby Peyton. Clive Owen, who became a bigger star, gave an emotional performance as Devlin O’Neil, the Irish immigrant torn between his friendship with Peyton and his family’s patriotism toward their new country. Andre Braugher was already somewhat known for his performance in the 1989 movie, “GLORY”, when he shot this pilot. He eventually became a major television star and has received numerous nominations and won two Emmys for his work. Frankly, I thought he gave the best performance in the production as the embittered Virginia slave whose initial attempt to escape slavery would lead to him being apart from his wife and mother for several years.

The television movie also featured solid performances from the like of Josh Lucas (as George C. Custer) Dana Ivey, Penny Johnson, Sue-Ann Leeds (as Rose O’Neal Greenhow), Barry Cullison, Peter Murnik, Timothy Scott, Stephen Root, Christien Anholt and Andrew Stahl. However, I believe there were better supporting performances. One came from Sophie Ward, who gave a poignant performance as Devlin’s sister Shannon. Beverly Todd was excellent as Lucius’ pragmatic mother. Another came from future star Laura Linney, who portrayed the charming and charismatic Lily Magraw. Mark Pelligrino gave a very interesting performance as a fellow cadet from South Carolina named Skinner, especially in a scene in which the character provided off-putting instructions on how to breed healthy slaves to the discomfort of the Peytons. Robert Newman gave an intelligent performance as one of the main characters’ West Point instructors who become a Union artillery officer, Captain Wykoff. Len Cariou was effective as Shelby’s warm and intelligent father, Dr. Leland Peyton. Lorraine Toussaint shone brilliantly in her brief role as a slave woman named Sarah, who was accompanying her mistress on a southbound train also conveying Shelby had encountered on a southbound train from New York City. Niall O’Brien gave a very complex performance as Devlin and Shannon’s emotionally patriotic father, James O’Neil.

The production values for “CLASS OF ’61” struck me as solid, but not particularly top-notch. Although the movie’s setting stretched from West Point, New York to the Peyton plantation outside of Richmond, Virginia; it was easy for me to see that the television movie was set in South Carolina and Georgia . . . in the Deep South. I have noticed that many of these productions with an Antebellum or Civil War setting are shot in the Deep South states, even the narratives are set in the Upper South. Has the Upper South been developed too extensively to serve as locations for such movies? I found Michael T. Boyd’s costumes for the women characters very attractive and nearly accurate. However, I thought the men’s costumes looked as if they had came straight from a costume warehouse in Hollywood.

Recently, I had come across an old review of “CLASS OF ’61”. The New York Times reviewer seemed to dismiss the production as a nostalgic television movie with a failed plot. He seemed unaware that the movie was basically a pilot for a potential television series. When I first saw the movie, I knew that this was basically a pilot. Which is why I was not that surprised that it ended with the Battle of Bull Run without any of the plot lines being resolved. As for “CLASS OF ’61” being nostalgic . . . I am not sure about that criticism. Jonas McCord’s narrative seemed to be a mixture of a straight forward look at how Americans behaved and spoke during this tumultuous period in 19th century American history and a slightly critical look at their society. And I found its portrayal of the Bull Run battle rather interesting and detailed. However, the television movie featured a good deal more criticism of Northern racism and the Abraham Lincoln Administration. Shelby’s encounter with an abolitionist, a Maryland woman and her enslaved maid led to the latter’s soliloquy about the racism she had encountered in New York City. And another scene featured Devlin revealing his family troubles to Lily Magraw and Rose Greenhow – namely brother Terry’s incarceration inside Baltimore’s Fort McHenry and how this led to his failure to being assigned to an Army regiment.

I must admit that I found it odd that McCord seemed to focus so much on the flaws of Northern society and the Lincoln’s Administration . . . and not on the flaws of Confederate President Jefferson Davis’ own administration. After all, the state of Virginia had lost its northwestern counties during the three-month period between Fort Sumter and Bull Run, due to its citizens breaking away from the state. Considering that Shelby’s family lived in Virginia, I found it rather odd that western Virginia’s break from the state was never mentioned. On the other hand, the series did focus a great deal on slavery. Although the Peyton family were portrayed as kind slave owners who almost treated their slaves as family, the movie still managed to portray their role in slavery as something to condemn – especially through Lucius’ bitterness over being a slave, the patronizing manner of Dr. Peyton’s kindness and Shelby’s inability to understand Lucius’ desire for freedom or lack of faith in the latter’s ability to survive as a free man. I have noticed in many other productions about slavery during the Antebellum period or the Civil War, slave owners are either portrayed as kind or cruel . . . with no ambiguity in between. I must applaud McCord for his more ambiguous portrayal of Shelby and his family in regard to the slavery topic.

Were there aspects of “CLASS OF ’61” that troubled me? Well . . . yes. There were a few things. When Devlin was first introduced to Rose Greenhow at her soirée, the latter revealed that she knew a great deal about him – including where his family lived and his ranking among the West Point Class of ’61. I am sorry, but I found this hard to swallow. Was this McCord’s idea of conveying Mrs. Greenhow’s greatness as a spy? Why on earth would she have bothered to collect so much information on a recent West Point graduate who had ranked in the middle of his class? Seriously? Also in the movie, Mr. O’Neil had accused a visiting Shelby of joining a volunteer regiment called the Palmetto Guards. Earlier in the production, a cadet named Upton had accused the South Carolinian Skinner of doing the same right after the news of Sumter was announced. So I checked the Internet and discovered that “Palmetto Guards” was one of the nicknames for the 2nd South Carolina Infantry. I could understand Skinner being considered for this regiment. But why on earth would Mr. O’Neil accuse Shelby, a Virginian, of joining it? Unsurprisingly, “CLASS OF ’61” had failed to be picked up as a series. But imagine my surprise to discover that McCord had added a brief epilogue to reveal the characters’ fates. He must have been very bitter over the pilot’s fate, because he had committed some kind of “Scorch Earth” policy on the characters. Only three or four of them had survived the war . . . and one of them was George Armstrong Custer. Worse, two of his characters died in a way that was historically impossible.

Ironically, my biggest problem with “CLASS OF ’61” proved to be Shelby and Lucius’ friendship. Now I realize that human beings are ambiguous creatures. And I am also aware that some complex friendships or relationships may have formed between slaves and the owners – especially relationships that began in childhood like Shelby and Lucius. But there were aspects of the pair’s friendship that struck me as unrealistic. I found it unrealistic that Lucius would honestly express his bitterness over being a slave to Shelby, of all people. I also found it unrealistic that Lucius would tell Shelby about his lethal encounter with those slave catchers. The movie never portrayed Shelby as someone with pro-abolitionist leanings. And although he was friendly and familiar with his father’s slaves, he also shared Dr. Peyton’s patronizing attitude. It just seemed unnatural that Shelby would react with nothing more than mere surprise after Lucius had confessed to killing two slave catchers. I do not care how friendly he was with Lucius or any of the other Peyton slaves. He still harbored a good deal of his society’s casual racism and I could not see him allowing Lucius to leave the plantation after that confession.

Even after twenty-six years, I still managed to enjoy “CLASS OF ’61” Despite its flaws, the television movie managed to be an interesting and enjoying look into American society during the first three months of the U.S. Civil War. I thought Jonas McCord provided an interesting, yet inconclusive plot that showcased a first-rate cast starring Dan Futterman and Clive Owen. It is a pity that this pilot never became a series.

 

Top Ten Favorite Movies Set in the 1860s

Below is my current list of favorite movies set in the 1860s: 

TOP TEN FAVORITE MOVIES SET IN THE 1860s

1. “Lincoln” (2012) – Steven Spielberg directed this highly acclaimed film about President Abraham Lincoln’s last four months in office and his efforts to pass the 13th Amendment to end slavery. Oscar winner Daniel Day-Lewis, Oscar nominee Sally Field and Oscar nominee Tommy Lee Jones starred.

2. “Shenandoah”(1965) – James Stewart starred in this bittersweet tale about how a Virginia farmer’s efforts to keep his family out of the Civil War failed when his youngest son is mistaken as a Confederate soldier by Union troops and taken prisoner. Andrew V. McLaglen directed.

3. “Angels & Insects” (1995) – Philip Haas directed this adaptation of A.S. Byatt’s 1992 novella, “Morpho Eugenia” about a Victorian naturalist who marries into the English landed gentry. Mark Rylance, Kristin Scott-Thomas and Patsy Kensit starred.

4. “Class of ’61” (1993) – Dan Futterman and Clive Owen co-starred in this television movie about recent West Point graduates and their experiences during the first months of the Civil War. Produced by Steven Spielberg, the movie was directed by Gregory Hoblit.

5. “The Tall Target” (1951) – Anthony Mann directed this suspenseful tale about a New York City Police sergeant who stumbles across a plot to kill President-elect Lincoln and travels aboard the train carrying the latter to stop the assassination attempt. Dick Powell starred.

6. “Far From the Madding Crowd” (1967) – John Schlesinger directed this adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s 1874 novel about a young Victorian woman torn between three men. The movie starred Julie Christie, Alan Bates, Terence Stamp and Peter Finch.

7. “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” (1966) – Sergio Leone directed this epic Spaghetti Western about three gunslingers in search of a cache of Confederate gold in New Mexico, during the Civil War. Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef and Eli Wallach starred.

8. “Cold Mountain” (2003) – Anthony Minghella directed this poignant adaptation of Charles Fraizer’s 1997 novel about a Confederate Army deserter, who embarks upon a long journey to return home to his sweetheart, who is struggling to maintain her farm, following the death of her father. The movie starred Oscar nominees Jude Law and Nicole Kidman, along with Oscar winner Renee Zellweger.

9. “Little Women” (1994) – Gillian Armstrong directed this adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s 1868 novel about four sisters from an impoverished, yet genteel New England family. The movie starred Winona Ryder, Trini Alvarado, Christian Bale and Susan Sarandon.

10. “The Beguiled” (1971) – Clint Eastwood starred in this atmospheric adaptation of Thomas Cullinan’s 1966 novel about a wounded Union soldier who finds refuge at an all-girl boarding school in 1863 Mississippi. Directed by Don Siegel, the movie co-starred Geraldine Page and Elizabeth Hartman.

Top Ten Favorite Movies Set in the 1960s

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

 

TOP TEN FAVORITE MOVIES SET IN THE 1960s

1 - Saving Mr. Banks

1. “Saving Mr. Banks” (2013) – Emma Thompson and Tom Hanks starred in this superb biopic about the struggles between author P.L. Travers and producer Walt Disney over the film rights for the “Mary Poppins” stories. John Lee Hancock directed.

 

2 - That Thing You Do

2. “That Thing You Do!” (1996) – Tom Hanks directed and starred in this very entertaining look at the rise and fall of a “one-hit wonder” rock band in the mid 1960s. Tom Everett Scott and Liv Tyler co-starred. The movie earned a Best Song Oscar nomination.

 

3 - The Butler

3. “The Butler” (2013) – Forest Whitaker and Oprah Winfrey starred in this excellent historical drama about a butler’s experiences working at the White House and with his family over a period of decades. Lee Daniels directed.

 

4 - Operation Dumbo Drop

4. “Operation Dumbo Drop” (1995) – Simon Wincer directed this comedic and entertaining adaptation of U.S. Army Major Jim Morris’ Vietnam War experiences regarding the transportation of an elephant to a local South Vietnamese village that helps American forces monitor Viet Cong activity. Ray Liotta and Danny Glover starred.

 

5 - Infamous

5. “Infamous” (2006) – Douglas McGrath wrote and directed this excellent movie about Truman Capote’s research for his 1966 book, “In Cold Blood”. Toby Jones, Sandra Bullock and Daniel Craig starred.

 

6 - Brokeback Mountain

6. “Brokeback Mountain” (2005) – Oscar winner Ang Lee directed this marvelous adaptation of Annie Proulx’s 1997 short story about the twenty-year love affair between two cowboys that began in the 1960s. Oscar nominees Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal starred.

 

7 - The Right Stuff

7. “The Right Stuff” (1983) – Philip Kaufman wrote and directed this fascinating adaptation of Tom Wolfe’s 1979 book about NASA’s Mercury program during the early 1960s. The Oscar nominated movie starred Scott Glenn, Dennis Quaid, Ed Harris and Sam Shepard.

 

8 - Dreamgirls

8. “Dreamgirls” (2006) – Bill Condon directed this first-rate adaptation of the 1981 Broadway play about the evolution of American Rhythm and Blues through the eyes of a female singing group from the mid 20th century. Jamie Foxx, Beyoncé Knowles, Oscar winner Jennifer Hudson and Oscar nominee Eddie Murphy starred.

 

9 - Capote

9. “Capote” (2005) – Oscar winner Philip Seymour Hoffman starred in the other biopic about Truman Capote’s research for his 1966 book, “In Cold Blood”. The movie was directed by Bennett Miller and written by Oscar nominee Dan Futterman.

 

10 - SHAG

10. “SHAG” (1989) – Phoebe Cates, Page Hannah, Bridget Fonda and Annabeth Gish starred in this entertaining comedy about four teenage girlfriends, who escape from their parents for a few days in 1963 for an adventure in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina during Spring Break. Zelda Barron directed.

“CAPOTE” (2005) Review

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“CAPOTE” (2005) Review

I finally got around to watching the first of two movies about writer Truman Capote and his work on the non-fiction novel, “In Cold Blood”. This particular movie, “CAPOTE”, starred American actor Philip Seymour Hoffman, who eventually won a SAG award, a Golden Globe award and an Oscar for his performance. 

Penned by actor Dan Futterman and directed by Bennett Miller, “CAPOTE” turned out to be a more somber affair than its 2006 counterpart, “INFAMOUS”. Miller had once commented that he wanted to create a more subtle portrait of the flamboyant author in order to emphasize on Capote’s lonely and alienated state . . . despite his relationships with authors, Nelle Harper Lee (Catherine Keener) and Jack Dunphy (Bruce Greenwood); and his popularity with New York high society. This subtle approach not only permeated the movie’s tone and pace, it also affected the cast’s performances – especially Hoffman and Clifton Collins Jr., as Perry Smith.

I do not know if I would have automatically given Philip Seymour Hoffman that Oscar for his performance as Truman Capote. I am still inclined toward Heath Ledger receiving the award for his performance in “BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN”. But I must admit that Hoffman certainly deserved his nomination. He managed to skillfully portray Capote’s ambition and determination to create a literary masterpiece from the real life murders surrounding the Herb Clutter family in Holcomb, Kansas. Hoffman also revealed how Capote used his charm to manipulate others . . . especially Perry Smith. Catherine Keener earned both BAFTA and Academy Award nominations for her warm portrayal of “To Kill Mockingbird” author, Nelle Harper Lee. Granted, she deserved her nominations and I especially enjoyed how she managed to project a mixture of friendly warmth, reserve and moral fortitude in her performance. But I could not help but wonder if she could receive acting nominations, why not Clifton Collins, Jr.?

It seemed a shame that more praise had not been heaped upon Clifton Collins’ shoulders for his portrayal of the intense and soft-spoken convicted murderer, Perry Smith. His scenes with Hoffman gave the movie an extra bite of emotionalism that saved it from being too subtle. Like Daniel Craig’s performance of Smith in “INFAMOUS”, Collins brought an interesting balance of soft-spoken politeness and intense danger in his performance. Well . . . almost. The real KBI investigator in charge of the Clutter case, Alvin Dewey, had once described Perry Smith as a quiet, intense and dangerous man. In “CAPOTE”, Smith’s own sister had warned Capote that despite her brother’s quiet and polite demeanor, he was easily capable of committing the crimes against the Clutters. And yet, I never did sense any real danger in Collins’ performance. Not quite. Except in two scenes – namely his confrontation with Capote over the “In Cold Blood” title; and the flashbacks revealing the Clutters’ murders. The ironic thing is that I suspect that Collins was not to blame. I suspect that Miller’s direction and Futterman’s script simply did not really allow Collins to reveal Smith’s more dangerous aura.

All of this led to what became my main problem with “CAPOTE” – namely the somber subtlety that seemed to permeate the production. Not only did the director’s desire to create a subtle film seem to mute Collins’ potential for a more balanced portrayal of Perry Smith, it also forced Hoffman to hold back some of Capote’s more flamboyant traits. I am quite certain that this was both the director and the screenwriter’s intentions. But I also feel that this deliberate attempt at subtlety may have robbed both the Capote and Smith characters of a more balanced nuance. It also denied the audience a deeper look into Capote’s New York lifestyle and bogged down the movie’s pacing in the end. During the last thirty or forty minutes, I found myself begging for the movie to end.

But despite the movie’s “too somber” mood and pacing, “CAPOTE” is an excellent movie and I would highly recommend it for viewing.

8/10