“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and surrender, Shelby Peyton visits Devlin O’Neil’s home in Baltimore and discovers that the latter’s father has withdrawn his permission for Shelby to marry Devlin’s sister, Shannon, due to Shelby’s decision to follow his state into the Confederacy.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.

 

“Celebrating Unoriginality”

“CELEBRATING UNORIGINALITY”

Many people love to praise FOX science-fiction series, “THE ORVILLE” to the sky. Many praise it for being the epitome of the “traditional aspects” of the STAR TREK franchise. Even more so than the latest entry of the latter, “STAR TREK DISCOVERY”.

I have my suspicions on why so many love to praise “THE ORVILLE” to the detriment of the CBS Access series. I suspect that both sexism and racism are two of the reasons behind this sentiment . . . especially in regard to the leading lady of “STAR TREK DISCOVERY”. However, there is some aspect or style of “THE ORVILLE” that makes me understand why many others would make this claim about the series being “traditional Trek”. Unfortunately, I do not think this aspect has proven to be beneficial to the FOX series.

How can I be anymore blunt? To me, “THE ORVILLE” is basically a remake of the second Trek series, “STAR TREK NEXT GENERATION”, but with a touch of leading actor Seth MacFarlane’s style of humor. I just wish the series could be different. Offer A DIFFERENT STYLE in its presentation of episodes. It had recently occurred to me that “NEXT GENERATION” reminded me a lot “STAR TREK THE ORIGINAL SERIES” than any of the other Trek shows. In terms of format and the style of shows, it is almost seems like a remake or continuation of the 1966-69 series. Perhaps this is not surprising considering that the 1987-94 series, along with “THE ORIGINAL SERIES”, was created by Gene Roddenberry. This could be a reason why it seems more beloved by the franchise’s fandom and producers, save for the first series.

My recent viewing of “THE ORVILLE” made me suspect that it pretty much repeated what “NEXT GENERATION” had done in terms of storytelling and format. Although both shows were willing to explore the different quirks and minor flaws of its main characters, both seemed hellbent upon portraying Humans as generally more superior than other alien races. Both shows seemed willing to put humanity on a pedestal. The Moclus race, as personified by the Lieutenant Commander Bortus character, bears a strong resemblance to the Klingons of the 24th century. And Bortus seems to be another Lieutenant (later Commander) Worf. Even the relationship between MacFarlane’s Captain Ed Mercer and Adrianne Palicki’s Commander Kelly Grayson almost seems like a re-hash of the Commander William Riker and Counselor Deanna Troi relationship, as portrayed by Jonathan Frakes and Marina Sartis in “NEXT GENERATION”. And yet, the Trek shows that followed “NEXT GENERATION” seemed to be willing to offer something different.

“STAR TREK DEEP SPACE NINE” was set on a space station and possessed a narrative structure that very slowly developed into a serial format by its third season. “STAR TREK VOYAGER” featured a crew traveling alone on the other side of the galaxy that comprised of Starfleet officers and crewmen, Maquis freedom fighters, an ex-convict/former Starfleet officer, two aliens and a former Borg drone. Superficially, “STAR TREK: ENTERPRISE” seemed a lot like “THE ORIGINAL SERIES” and “NEXT GENERATION”, but it was set a century before 1966-69 series – during the few years before the establishment of the Federation, and it featured a serialized narrative about a major war during its third season. “STAR TREK DISCOVERY” proved to be a Trek series that has been serialized since its first episode. More importantly, its main character IS NOT a star ship or space station commander.

The Trek shows that had followed “NEXT GENERATION” have been more willing to explore the uglier side of the Federation, Starfleet and Humanity; than the first two series. This has been especially apparent in “DEEP SPACE NINE”“VOYAGER” and “DISCOVERY”. And aside from “VOYAGER, the Trek shows that followed “NEXT GENERATION” have been willing to utilize a serialized format – something that many fans seemed to lack the patience to endure lately. Most of this criticism toward a serialized narrative has been directed against “DISCOVERY”. However, I personally find this ironic, considering that the other Trek shows have used this narrative device with the same quality as the other shows. At least in my eyes. I suspect that this heavy criticism toward “DISCOVERY” has more to do with the show’s lead than its writing quality. Even “VOYAGER” has been willing to serialized some of its episodes on a limited scale, especially during its mid-Season Four.

Officially, “THE ORVILLE” is not a part of the Trek franchise. Why does it feel that it is? And Why does it have to feel like it? Because its creator and star, Seth MacFarlane, had this need to pay homage to “NEXT GENERATION”? Or even “THE ORIGINAL SERIES”? Why? Some advocates of “THE ORVILLE” have pointed out the series’ style of humor and the fact that it features a LGBTQ couple. However, “DISCOVERY”, which had premiered during the same month and year, also features a LGBTQ couple. And previous Trek shows and movies have featured or hinted LGBTQ romance and/or sexuality in the past – namely “DEEP SPACE NINE” and the 2016 movie, “STAR TREK BEYOND”. Even television series like “BABYLON 5” and “BATTLESTAR: GALACTICA” have featured or hinted LGBTQ issues. But more importantly, both shows, along with “FARSCAPE” and others in the science-fiction genre have managed to be completely original both style and substance. Why did MacFarlane feel he had to literally copy “NEXT GENERATION” when other Trek shows have managed to be more original? The only aspect of “THE ORVILLE” that I truly find original is its occasional use of twisted humor. And even that has appeared even less during the series’ second season.

This is what I find so frustrating about “THE ORVILLE”. One, I feel that it is basically “traditional Trek” disguised as another science-fiction franchise. Even worse, it seems like a close rip-off of “STAR TREK NEXT GENERATION”. I see nothing complimentary about this. I find it sad that so many people do. And I find it even sadder that so many people are willing to put “THE ORVILLE” on a pedestal for . . . what? For the series’ lack of originality? Because these fans want to cling to the past? This is just sad. No . . . not, sad. Pathetic. At least to me.

 

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.