“THE POST” (2017) Review

the-post

“THE POST” (2017) Review

When one thinks of Katharine GrahamBen Bradlee and The Washington Post; the Watergate scandal comes to mind. So, when I heard that filmmaker Steven Spielberg planned to do a movie about the famous newspaper’s connection to the “Pentagon Papers” . . . I was very surprised. 

As many know, the Pentagon Papers had originated as a U.S. Department of Defense sponsored report that depicted the history of the United States’ political and military involvement in Vietnam from 1945 to 1967. Sometime between 1969 and 1971, former military/RAND Corporation strategic analyst Daniel Ellsberg and RAND colleague Anthony Russo secretly made several copies of classified documents about the U.S. involvement in Vietnam since 1945 and submitted them in 1971 to The New York Times correspondent, Neil Sheehan. The Times eventually published the first excerpts of the classified documents on June 13, 1971. For years, I have been aware of The New York Times‘s connection to the Pentagon Papers. I had no idea that The Washington Post had played a major role in its publication, as well.

There have been several productions and documentaries about the Pentagon Papers. However, most of those productions centered around Daniel Ellsberg or The New York Times‘s roles in the documents. “THE POST” marked the first time in which any production has depicted The Washington Post‘s role. Many people, including employees from The New York Times, have questioned Spielberg’s decision to make a movie about The Post‘s connection to the Pentagon Papers. Some have accused Spielberg of giving credit for the documents’ initial publication to the The Washington Post. And yet, the movie made it perfectly clear that The New York Times was the first newspaper to do so. It even went out of its way to convey Post editor-in-chief Ben Bradlee’s frustration at The Times‘ journalistic coup.

Following The New York Times‘s publication of the Pentagon Papers’ first excerpts, the Nixon Administration, at the urging of Secretary of State Henry Kissenger, opposed the publication. Later, President Richard Nixon ordered Attorney General John Mitchell to obtain a Federal court injunction, forcing The Times to cease publication after three articles. While The New York Times prepared a legal battle with the Attorney General’s office, Post assistant editor Ben Bagkikian tracks down Ellsberg as the source of the leak. Ellsberg provides Bagdikian with copies of the same material given to The Times, who turns them in to Bradlee. The movie’s real drama ensues when the newspaper’s owner, Katherine Graham, finds herself torn between Bradlee’s urging to publish the documents and the newspaper’s board of directors and attorneys, urging her not to.

I had at least two problems with “THE POST”. I am certain that others had more problems, but I could only think of two. I had a problem with Janusz Kamiński’s cinematography. I realize that the man is a legend in the Hollywood industry. And I have been more than impressed with some of his past work – many of it for Steven Spielberg’s movies. But I did not like his photography in “THE POST”. I disliked the film’s grainy and slightly transparent photography. I do not know the reasons behind Spielberg and Kamiński’s decision to shoot the movie in this style. I do know that I found it unappealing.

My second problem with the film centered around Spielberg’s directorial style. In other words, his penchant for sentimentality nearly made the film’s last ten minutes slightly hard for me to swallow. I refer to the scene in which one of the reporters read aloud the Supreme Court’s decision to allow both The Washington Post and The New York Times, along with any other newspaper, to continue publishing the Pentagon Papers. It simply was not a matter of actress Carrie Coon reading the Court’s decision out loud. Spielberg emphasized the profoundness of the moment with John Williams’ maudlin score wailing in the background. A rather teeth clenching moment for me.

Otherwise, I enjoyed the movie very much. Superficially, “THE POST” did not seem that original to me. When one has seen the likes of “ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN” and “SPOTLIGHT”, what is so different between them and “THE POST”. But there was a difference. For the movie’s real heart focused upon owner Katherine Graham and her conflict over whether or not to allow the next excerpts of the Pentagon Papers to be published. And what made this even more interesting is the woman’s character.

If one had read Graham’s memoir, “Personal History”, one would learn that for years, she had suffered from an inferiority complex since childhood, due to her strained relationship with her more assertive mother. In fact, her father, who was the newspaper’s original owner, had handed over the newspaper to her husband, Philip Graham, instead of her. And she saw nothing wrong with her father’s decision. Following her husband’s death, Graham found herself publisher of The Post. During the movie’s setting – June 1971 – not only did Graham found herself dealing with Ben Bradlee’s urgent demand that the newspaper publishes the Pentagon Papers, but also with the newspaper’s stock market launch. Even worse, Graham also found herself facing a board of directors who did not take her seriously as The Post‘s publisher.

So in the end, “THE POST” was more than about the Papers itself and the question of the United States’ involvement in the Vietnam War. It seemed to be about how an unpopular war had an indirect impact upon a woman’s life through a political scandal. The movie also seemed to be about a struggle between the media’s belief in free press in order to inform the people and the government’s belief in its right to control what the people should know. In a way, the Vietnam War and Daniel Ellsberg’s release of the Pentagon Papers established The Washington Post‘s rise as an important national newspaper. And it opened the public’s eyes about the U.S. government’s involvement in Vietnam – something that had been hidden from the government for over two decades. The war and Ellsberg also kick started Katherine Graham’s elevation as a newspaper publisher willing to take a risk for an important news story and of her self-esteem. Spielberg’s movie could have simply been about The New York Times‘s scoop with its publication of the first excerpts of the Pentagon Papers and its battle with the Nixon Administration. But as I have earlier pointed out, his narrative has been seen in past productions.

Aside from my disappointment with Kamiński’s cinematography, there were other aspects of “THE POST” I admired. I certainly had no problems with Rick Carter’s production designs. One, he did an admirable job of re-creating Washington D.C. and New York City circa 1971. And I was especially impressed that both Carter and set decorator Rena DeAngelo’s recreation of The Washington Post‘s newsroom was as accurate as possible. I had learned that the newsroom depicted in the 1976 movie, “ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN” was slightly larger. Apparently, sometime between the newspaper’s coverage of the Pentagon Papers and Watergate, its newsroom had been renovated and enlarged. Good catch on Carter and DeAngelo’s part. Hollywood icon Ann Roth designed the costumes for the film and I must say that I was impressed. I was not impressed because I found her costumes dazzling or memorable. I was impressed because Roth, who had also served as costume designer for three of director Anthony Maghella’s films, perfectly captured the fashion styles of the conservative Washington political set of the early 1970s.

Both Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks earned acting nominations – for their portrayals of Katherine Graham and Ben Bradlee. Streep is the only one who earned an Academy Award nod. I am a little conflicted about it. On one hand, I cannot deny that the two leads gave very good performances. Streep did an excellent job in conveying Graham’s emotional growth into her role as her late husband’s successor as owner of The Washington Post. And Hanks was first-rate as the ambitious and tenacious Bradlee, who saw The Post‘s acquisition of more excerpts from the Pentagon Papers as a step into transforming the newspaper as a major national periodical. The movie also featured an interesting performance from Bob Odenkirk, who portrayed Ben Bagkikian, the assistant editor who had decided to set out and find Ellsberg after the Attorney General’s Office forced The New York Times to cease publication of the Papers. Another interesting performance came from Bruce Greenwood, whose portrayal of the besieged former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara really impressed me.

I was surprised to discover that “THE POST” won a Best Ensemble award from the Detroit Film Critics Society. But you know what? Perhaps I should not have been that surprised. With a cast that included Carrie Coon, David Cross and Philip Casnoff; I really enjoyed those scenes featuring Bradlee with his senior staff, whether they were discussing or examining the Pentagon Papers. The movie also featured solid performances from Bradley Whitford, Sarah Poulson, Matthew Rhys, Michael Stulhbarg, Alison Brie, Jesse Plemmons, Pat Healy, and Zach Woods.

I can honestly say that I would not regard “THE POST” as one of my top five favorite movies directed by Steven Spielberg. In fact, I am not sure if I would regard it as one of his best films. But the movie proved to be one of my favorites released in 2017, thanks to Spielberg’s direction, a first-rate screenplay written by Liz Hannah and Josh Singer, and an excellent cast led by Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks. I have a feeling that it is one movie that I would never get tired of watching.

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“GEORGE WASHINGTON” (1984) Review

 

“GEORGE WASHINGTON” (1984) Review

Twenty-four years before the award-winning HBO miniseries “JOHN ADAMS” aired, the CBS network aired a miniseries about the first U.S. President, George Washington. Simply titled “GEORGE WASHINGTON”, this three-part miniseries was based upon two biographies written by James Thomas Flexner – 1965’s “George Washington, the Forge of Experience, 1732–1775” and 1968’s “George Washington in the American Revolution, 1775–1783”

“GEORGE WASHINGTON” spanned at least forty years in the life of the first president – from 1743, when his father Augustine Washington died from a sudden illness; to 1783, when Washington bid good-bye to the officers who had served under him during the American Revolutionary War. The miniseries covered some of the major events of Washington’s life:

*His training and profession as a surveyor of Western lands
*His experiences as an officer of the Virginia militia during the Seven Years War
*His friendship with neighbors George William and Sally Cary Fairfax between the 1750s and the 1770s
*The romantic feelings between him and Sally Fairfax
*His marriage to widow Martha Dandridge Custis and his role as stepfather to her two children
*His life as a Virginia planter
*His role as a member of Virginia’s House of Burgesses
*His growing disenchantment with the British Parliament
*His brief experiences as a representative of the Second Continental Congress
*And his experiences as Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army

Actually, one half of the miniseries covered Washington’s life from his childhood to his years as a Virginia planter. The other half covered his experiences during the American Revolution. Glancing at the list above, I realized that “GEORGE WASHINGTON”covered a great deal in Washington’s life. More importantly, Jon Boothe and Richard Fielder did a first-rate job by delving into the many aspects of the man’s life and his relationships with great details and depth. This was especially apparent in Washington’s relationships with his controlling mother, Mary Ball Washington; his friendship with George William Fairfax; his light romance with Sally Fairfax; his relationships with his military aides during the American Revolution and especially his marriage to Martha Custis.

I found it interesting that the miniseries managed to convey how difficult and controlling Mary Washington was as a parent. However, I found it slightly disappointing that the miniseries did not further explore Washington’s relationship with his mother, once he became swept up into the Seven Year’s War – especially since she had survived long enough to witness him become the first U.S. president.

Washington’s relationship with George William “Will” Fairfax proved to be a complex matter for two reasons. One, Will Fairfax had remained loyal to the British Crown throughout his life. During the decade leading to the outbreak of the American Revolution, that relationship threatened to fall apart due to the two friends’ different political belief – something I was happy to see that the miniseries had conveyed. Another aspect that posed a threat to Washington’s friendship with Fairfax was his romantic feelings for the man’s wife, Sally Fairfax . . . and her feelings for him. There have been rumors that Washington’s relationship with Sally had led to physical adultery, but no proof. But there is proof that they had strong feelings for one another and the miniseries; due to Fiedler and Boothe’s screenplay, along with the performances of Barry Bostwick and Jaclyn Smith; did an excellent job of conveying the pair’s emotional regard for each other in a subtle and elegant manner. What I found even more amazing was the miniseries’ portrayal of Washington’s courtship of and his marriage to Martha Custis. I was surprised that Boothe and Fiedler had portrayed Washington’s feelings toward her with such ambiguity. This left me wondering if he had married her for love . . . or for her fortune. By the last half hour or so of the miniseries, Washington finally admitted to Martha that he did love her. However, the manner in which Bostwick portrayed that scene, I found myself wondering if Washington was himself amazed by how much his feelings for Martha had grown.

I do not know what to say about the miniseries’ portrayal of Washington’s relationships with his military aides during the American Revolution. I do not doubt that his aides were loyal to him or probably even worship him. But I must admit that it seemed the miniseries’ portrayal of this relationship seemed to make Washington’s character just a touch too ideal for my tastes. In fact, one of the miniseries’ main problems seemed to be its idealistic portrayal of the main character. Aside from Washington’s bouts of quick temper, his ambiguous affections for his wife Martha, and his cold relationship with his less than ideal stepson, John “Jacky” Parke Custis; the miniseries made very little effort to portray Washington in any negative light. In fact, Washington’s demand for higher rank within the Virginia militia and British Army during the Seven Years War is portrayed as justified, thanks to Fiedler and Boothe’s screenplay. Personally, I found his demand rather arrogant, considering his young age (early to mid-20s) and limited training and experience as a military officer at the time. Not only did I found his demand arrogant, but also rather astounding. What I found even more astounding was the miniseries’ attitude that television viewers were supposed to automatically sympathize with Washington’s demands.

The miniseries’ portrayal of Washington in the second half – the period that covered the American Revolution – nearly portrayed the planter-turned-commander as a demigod. Honestly. Aside from his occasional bursts of temper, General George Washington of the Continental Army – at least in this miniseries – was a man who could do no wrong. And at times, I found this rather boring. I cannot recall any moment during the miniseries’ second half that questioned Washington’s decisions or behavior. Most of his military failures were blamed on either military rivals or limited support from the Continental Congress.

And then . . . there was the matter of black soldiers serving in the Continental Army. According to “GEORGE WASHINGTON”, Southern representative in Congress wanted blacks – whether they were former slaves or freemen – banned from serving in the army. It was Washington who demanded that Congress allow black men to fight alongside white men in the country’s rebellion against the British Empire. By the way . . . this was a complete lie. Despite black men fighting in the Massachusetts militias during the Battles at Lexington and Concord and the Battle of Bunker Hill, Washington signed an order forbidding them to become part of the Continental Army when the white New England militiamen did. Come to think of it, when it came to racism and slavery, “GEORGE WASHINGTON” presented a completely whitewashed portrait of the future president. The miniseries even featured a pre-war scene in which Washington prevented his overseer from breaking apart slave families at Mount Vernon by selling some of the slaves for needed funds for the plantation. In reality, Washington was not above selling off slaves or breaking up families for the sake of profit or punishing a slave. At a time when historians and many factions of the American public were willing to view the Founding Fathers in a more ambiguous light; Fiedler and co-producers Buzz Kulik and David Gerber lacked the guts to portray Washington with a bit more honestly . . . especially in regard to race and slavery. If they had been more honest, they could have portrayed Washington’s growing unease over slavery and race, following Congress’ decision to allow them within the ranks of the Continental Army in 1777. Unfortunately, putting Washington on a pedestal seemed more important than allowing him some semblance of character development.

Production wise, “GEORGE WASHINGTON” struck me as first-rate. The miniseries had been shot in locales in Virginia and Southern Pennsylvania, adding to the production’s 18th century Colonial America atmosphere. I cannot say whether Harry Stradling Jr.’s cinematography also contributed to the miniseries’ setting. If I must be honest, I did not find his photography that memorable. But I was impressed by Alfred Sweeney’s production designs, along with Sig Tingloff’s art direction and Arthur Jeph Parker’s set decorations. However, I had a problem with the costume choices selected by a costume team supervised by Michael W. Hoffman. To be honest, I did not have much trouble with the costumes for the men. The women’s costumes proved to be another man. A good deal of the story is set among the colonial Virginia gentry. I hate to say this, but I found a good deal of the women’s costumes less than impressive. They looked as if they came straight from a costume warehouse in the middle of Hollywood. I especially had a problem with Jaclyn Smith’s wardrobe as Sally Fairfax. I realize that she is supposed to be an 18th century version of a Southern belle. But there were one or two costumes that seemed to be some confusing mixture of mid 18th and mid 19th centuries. Yikes.

I certainly had no problem with the performances featured in the 1984 miniseries. The latter featured solid performances from legendary actors like Lloyd Bridges, Jose Ferrer, Trevor Howard, Jeremy Kemp, Clive Revill, Anthony Zerbe, Robert Stack and Hal Holbrook. However, I really enjoyed James Mason’s energetic portrayal of the doomed General Edward Braddock; Rosemary Murphy’s skillful performance as the future president’s demanding mother, Mary Ball Washington; Richard Kiley’s emotional portrayal of Washington’s neighbor, planter George Mason; and John Glover’s ambiguous performance as the ambitious Revolutionary officer, Charles Lee. I was also impressed by Stephen Macht’s performance as the ambitious and volatile Benedict Arnold. I could also say the same about Megan Gallagher’s portrayal of Arnold’s wife, Peggy Shippen. Ron Canada provided a good deal of depth in his limited appearances as Washington’s slave valet, Billy Lee. Philip Casnoff, who was a year away from his stint in the “NORTH AND SOUTH” miniseries, gave a very charming and humorous performance as Washington’s French-born aide and close friend, the Marquis de Lafayette. And Leo Burmester gave an excellent performance as Eban Krutch, the New England born Continental soldier, who served as the viewers’ eyes of both Washington and the war throughout the miniseries’ second half.

I really enjoyed David Dukes’ performance as Washington’s neighbor, mentor and close friend, Will Fairfax. I found it quite energetic and charming. And he managed to develop a first-rate chemistry with Barry Bostwick. Come to think of it, so did Jaclyn Smith, who portrayed Fairfax’s wife and the object of Washington’s desire, Sally Fairfax. I also found Smith’s performance rather complex as she had to convey her character’s feelings for Washington in a subtle manner. At first, I found Patty Duke’s portrayal of the future First Lady, Martha Washington, solid but not particularly interesting. Thankfully, the last quarter of the miniseries allowed Duke to prove what a first-rate actress she could be, as it explored Mrs. Washington’s reaction to the privations suffered by the Continental Army’s rank-and-file. Her performance led to an Emmy nomination. And finally, I come to the man of the hour himself, Barry Bostwick. Despite the miniseries being guilty of whitewashing some of Washington’s character, I cannot deny that Bostwick gave a superb performance. The actor skillfully conveyed Washington’s character from the callow youth who was dominated by his mother and his ambition to the weary, yet iconic military general who carried the rebellion and the birth of a country on his shoulders. It is a pity that he did not receive any award nominations for his performance.

I may have my complaints about “GEORGE WASHINGTON”. Despite its detailed account of the first president’s life, I believe it went out of its way to protect his reputation with occasional whitewashing. And some of the miniseries’ production values – namely the women’s costumes – struck me as a bit underwhelming. But despite its flaws, “GEORGE WASHINGTON” proved to be a first-rate miniseries that delved into the history of the United States during the mid-and-late 18th century, via the life of one man. It also benefited from excellent direction from Buzz Kulik and superb performances led by the talented Barry Bostwick. Not surprisingly, the miniseries managed to earn at least six Emmy nominations.

Southern Belle Fashionistas

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Below are images featuring my favorite costumes worn by two Southern Belle characters in fiction – Scarlett O’Hara from Margaret Mitchell’s 1936 novel and its 1939 movie adaptation, “GONE WITH THE WIND”; and Ashton Main from John Jakes’ 1982-1987 literary trilogy and its 1985-1994 television adaptation, “NORTH AND SOUTH” Trilogy: 

SOUTHERN BELLE FASHIONISTAS

Scarlett O’Hara – “GONE WITH THE WIND”

I may have mixed feelings about the 1939 movie, “GONE WITH THE WIND”, I cannot deny that I really liked some of the costumes designed by Walter Plunkett for the story’s protagonist, Scarlett O’Hara Hamilton Kennedy Butler. Here are my five (5) favorite costumes:

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Wedding Dress – The dress that Scarlett wore when she married Charles Hamilton in the spring of 1861.

 

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Christmas 1863 Dress – Scarlett wore this dress when she bid good-bye to Ashley Wilkes at the end of his army furlough around the Christmas 1863 holiday.

 

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Wedding Announcement Dress – She wore this dress when she informed her sisters and the Wilkes about her marriage to second husband, Frank Kennedy, in 1866.

 

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Businesswoman Dress – Scarlett wore this outfit in one scene featuring her role as manager of her second husband Frank Kennedy’s sawmill.

 

Post-Honeymoon Visit to Tara Dress – Scarlett wore this dress when she and third husband Rhett Butler visited Tara following their honeymoon in 1868.

 

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Sawmill Visit Dress – Scarlett wore this dress when she paid a visit to Ashley Wilkes, who was manager of the sawmill she had inherited from Frank Kennedy in the early 1870s.

 

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Ashton Main – “NORTH AND SOUTH” Trilogy

I am a fan of the ABC adaptations of John Jakes’ “NORTH AND SOUTH” Trilogy. Among my favorite costumes worn by the character, Ashton Main and designed by Vicki Sánchez, Robert Fletcher and Carol H. Beule. Here are my favorite costumes:

 

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Mont Royal Ball Gown – Ashton Main wore this gown at the ball held at her family’s plantation during the summer of 1854.

 

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Wedding Gown – Ashton wore this gown when she married her first husband, James Huntoon, in the fall of 1856.

 

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Richmond Ball Gown – Ashton Huntoon wore this ballgown when she met her future lover Elkhannah Bent at a reception held in Richmond, Virginia in July 1861.

 

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Day Dress – Ashton wore this dress during her first visit to Elkhannah Bent’s Richmond home during the summer of 1861 and when she was married to her second husband, salesman Will Fenway, in 1866-67.

 

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Huntoon Reception Dress – Ashton wore this dress at a reception she and her husband James Huntoon had hosted at their Richmond home in November 1861.

 

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Evening Dress – Ashton wore this dress during an evening visit to Bent’s Richmond home in August 1862.

 

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Travel Dress – Ashton wore this dress during a visit to her family’s plantation, Mont Royal, in August 1863.

 

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Factory Visit Dress – Ashton wore this dress when she paid a visit to her husband Will Fenway’s Chicago piano factory in 1868.

Favorite Television Productions Set During the U.S. CIVIL WAR

Below is a list of my favorite television productions set during the U.S. Civil War: 

FAVORITE TELEVISION PRODUCTIONS SET DURING THE U.S. CIVIL WAR

1. “The Blue and the Gray” (1982) – This three-part CBS miniseries focused on the experiences of two families linked by two sisters – the Geysers of Virginia and the Hales of Pennsylvania – during the U.S. Civil War. John Hammond and Stacy Keach starred.

2. “Copper” (2012-2013) – Tom Fontana and Will Rokos created this BBC America series about an Irish immigrant policeman/war veteran who patrols and resides in New York City’s Five Points neighborhood during the last year of the U.S. Civil War. Tom Weston-Jones, Kyle Schmid and Ato Essandoh starred.

3. “North and South: Book II” (1986) – James Read and Patrick Swayze starred in this six-part television adaptation of John Jakes’s 1984 novel, “Love and War”, the second one in John Jakes’ “North and South” Trilogy. David L. Wolper produced and Kevin Connor directed.

4. “Gore Vidal’s Lincoln” (1988) – Sam Waterston and Mary Tyler Moore starred in this two-part miniseries adaptation of Gore Vidal’s 1984 novel about the 16th U.S. President during the U.S. Civil War. Lamont Johnson directed.

5. “The Young Riders” (1989-1992) – Ed Spielman created this ABC television series about six riders who rode for the Pony Express between 1860 and 1861. Ty Miller, Josh Brolin and Anthony Zerbe starred.

6. “Class of ’61” (1993) – Steven Spielberg produced this ABC television movie about a few West Point graduates who found themselves on opposite sides of the U.S. Civil War. Dan Futterman, Clive Owen and Andre Braugher starred.

7. “Mercy Street” (2016-2017) – Lisa Wolfinger and David Zabel created this PBS series that followed two hospital nurses on opposite sides, at the Mansion House Hospital in Alexandria, Virginia during the U.S. Civil War. Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Hannah James and Josh Radnor starred.

8. “Lincoln” (1974-1976) – Hal Holbrook and Sara Thompson starred in this NBC six-part miniseries about the life of the 16th U.S. President. George Schaefer directed.

9. “The Million Dollar Dixie Deliverance” (1978) – Brock Peters starred in this Disney television movie about an escaped Union soldier who flees to the Union lines with five Northern children who had been snatched and held as hostages by Confederate soldiers during the war. Russ Mayberry directed.

10. “For Love and Glory” (1993) – Roger Young directed this failed CBS pilot about a wealthy Virginia family disrupted by the older son’s marriage to a young working-class woman and the outbreak of the U.S. Civil War. Daniel Markel, Tracy Griffith, Kate Mulgrew and Robert Foxworth starred.

“A Family Scandal in the ‘NORTH AND SOUTH’ Trilogy”

“A FAMILY SCANDAL IN THE ‘NORTH AND SOUTH’ TRILOGY”

I love John Jakes’ “NORTH AND SOUTH” Trilogy. Honestly, I do. I love it so much that I have copies of the novels published between 1982 and 1987 that make up the trilogy. I love it so much that I have also copies of the television adaptations (1985-1986; 1994) of the novels, produced by Wolper Productions. Unfortunately, the trilogy has a few narrative problems. And I feel that one of its biggest problems centered around a particular painting. 

I am referring to a certain painting that hung inside an expensive New Orleans. This particular painting depicted a beautiful young woman, who also happened to be one of the prostitutes that worked there. This particular prostitute was favored by the bordello’s owner. More importantly, she left the bordello and her profession in order to marry one of her customers. Despite her European ancestry, this woman was the granddaughter of an African-born slave. She also happened to be the mother of one of the “NORTH AND SOUTH” Trilogy’s main characters – Madeline Fabray. And she eventually became the mother-in-law of three other main characters.

Before I continued, I want to say a few words about the painting of Madeline Fabray’s mother that was created for the first two miniseries, 1985’s “NORTH AND SOUTH: BOOK I” and 1986’s “NORTH AND SOUTH: BOOK II”. I did not find it impressive. Look at that dress worn by the painting’s subject. It looks cheap and tacky. Not even a high-priced prostitute like Madeline’s mother would wear such a dress. Even worse, the dress and hairstyle worn by the subject failed to reflect the right decade. Madeline Fabray had been born in the mid-1820s. This meant that her mother must have been a prostitute between the late 1810s and early 1820s. The hairstyle and dress worn by Madeline’s mother seemed to reflect that the painting had been created between in the mid-1840s and early 1850s – at least two to three decades after Mrs. Fabray’s death. Wolper Productions really made a mistake in allowing this painting to serve as an image of the late Mrs. Fabray. But the story that surrounded both the character and the painting struck me as a lot more problematic. And the trouble began in John Jakes’ 1982 novel, “North and South”.

In 1846, two years after her marriage to South Carolina rice planter Justin LaMotte, Madeline Fabray LaMotte had traveled back to her hometown of New Orleans to care for her dying father. Before he finally passed away, Nicholas Fabray informed his daughter that both she and her mother were of mixed blood. One of Madeline’s ancestresses was an African-born slave, which meant the late Mrs. Fabray was one-fourth black and Madeline, one-eighth. Shocked by this revelation, Madeline kept this secret to herself for years, until she finally confessed it to her lover and husband’s neighbor Orry Main – one of the novel’s two main characters – after she left her brutish husband in the late winter of 1861. Despite his initial shock, Orry took the news rather well and eventually married Madeline, following Justin’s death during the early months of the Civil War.

Unbeknownst to Madeline and Orry, an Army officer named Elkhannah Bent had already learned about her mother’s background . . . former profession. Bent first met Orry during their years at West Point. Orry, along with his best friend, Pennsylvania-born George Hazard, became Bent’s enemies. When they nearly caused his expulsion from West Point, he vowed to get his revenge. He nearly got Orry killed at the Battle of Churubusco, during the Mexican-American War. Neither the Hazards nor the Mains had heard about Bent for years, until they learned he was the immediate commanding officer of Charles Main, Orry’s younger cousin, in Texas during the late 1850s. Either in 1858 or 1859, Bent visited Charles’ quarters for a talk and spotted a photograph taken at a picnic held at the Main family’s estate, Mont Royal. Among the subjects in the photograph were Madeline and Justin LaMotte. Bent seemed taken by Madeline’s looks. In January 1861, Bent was recalled back to the War Department in Washington D.C. During his journey from Texas to the East Coast, Ben visited an expensive bordello in New Orleans – the same one where Mrs. Fabray had worked some decades ago. There, he spotted the infamous painting inside the office of Madam Conti, the bordello’s owner. Bent learned from Madam Conti that the painting’s subject was not only of mixed blood, but also a former prostitute who had married well. Noticing the physical similarities between Madeline LaMotte and the painting’s subject, Bent ascertained that the two women were related. For reasons that still amaze me, he decided that this bit of knowledge could serve as a weapon against Orry Main.

In the 1984 novel, “Love and War”, Bent returned to New Orleans about a year-and-a-half later, during the second year of the Civil War, and stole the painting, jeopardizing his Army career. Realizing that he no longer had a military career, Bent deserted from the Union Army and journeyed toward Richmond, Virginia – the capital of the Confederacy. Nearly two years later, he managed to find and acquaint himself with one of Orry’s younger sisters, Ashton Main Huntoon. Bent had chosen well. Orry’s vain and unpleasant sister had estranged herself from the Main family, following her attempt to arrange the murder of her brother-in-law, Billy Hazard, for rejecting her years earlier for younger sister Brett. Once Bent had revealed the infamous painting, along with Madeline’s family history, to Ashton; the latter revealed everything to guests at a private reception that included Confederate Senator Judah Benjamin of Louisiana and Christopher Memminger, a South Carolinian resident who was serving as a Secretary of the Treasury for the Confederate States. Orry’s superior, General John H. Winder had “requested” that he send Madeline away from Richmond. Orry sent Madeline to the Hazards’ home in Lehigh Station, Pennsylvania and resigned his position at the War Department before assuming a field command toward the end of the Overland Campaign in June 1864.

The adaptations of the 1982 and 1984 novels – 1985’s “NORTH AND SOUTH: BOOK I” and 1986’s “NORTH AND SOUTH: BOOK II” – took a different spin on the tale. One, Madeline did not learn the truth about her mother from her father until 1854, ten years following her marriage to Justin LaMotte. She told Orry about her secret some three months later, leading him to insist that she leave Justin and accompany him to the North. However, events involving Madeline and a secret abortion for a pregnant and still single Ashton Main led to the end of Orry’s plans. Madeline more or less became a prisoner of her husband for nearly six-and-a-half years. Justin LaMotte died during the summer of 1861 and a few months later, Madeline and Orry became husband and wife.

As for Elkhannah Bent, his discovery of the painting also unfolded differently. In the television version, Bent (who was an amalgamation of the literary Bent and a character named Lamar Powell), was visiting New Orleans in 1856 or 1857, when he met Ashton’s new husband, James Huntoon. He was in New Orleans to give a pro-secession speech. The pair, along with two other men, proceeded to Madam Conti’s bordello. When James removed his wallet from his jacket, a photograph of his and Ashton’s wedding reception fell from his wallet. The photograph contained the bridal pair, the Main family and a few guests that included Justin and Madeline La Motte. Apparently, this was not Bent’s first visit to the bordello. While waiting for one of the madam’s prostitutes to finish with a customer, Bent and Madam Conti had refreshments in her private office that contained the painting of Mrs. Fabray. While the madam told Bent about the painting’s subject, he quickly surmised that Mrs. Fabray and the Mains’ neighbor were blood related. Some four years later – between the end of “NORTH AND SOUTH: BOOK I” and “NORTH AND SOUTH: BOOK II” – Bent managed to acquire the painting. Only neither miniseries revealed how he did it. I can only make the assumption that he had purchased it from Madam Conti. In Episode 2, Bent revealed the painting to Ashton, who had become his lover. Instead of revealing Madeline’s secret to Richmond society, Ashton used her knowledge of the painting and Mrs. Fabray’s past to blackmail Madeline into leaving Orry and Mont Royal for good. Two years later, days after the war ended, Madeline and Orry reconciled in Charleston.

Superficially, there seemed to be nothing wrong with the narrative regarding Madeline’s mother and the painting in both Jakes’ novels and the television miniseries. Superficially. However, both the novels and the miniseries revealed a major blooper. Why on earth did Elkhannah Bent went out of his way to get his hands on that painting? Why? In both the 1982 novel and the 1985 miniseries, Madeline was revealed to Bent as the wife of a neighboring planter. Neither Charles Main in the novel or James Huntoon in the miniseries knew about Madeline’s romantic connection to Orry. Which meant that Bent was not aware of this relationship, as well. In both the novels and the miniseries, Bent did not find out about Madeline and Orry’s relationship until after he got his hands on the painting. so, Why would Bent risk his professional career in “Love and War” to steal the painting featuring Madeline’s mother, if he was unaware of Orry’s emotional connection to her daughter? Or pay good money to purchase the painting (which is my theory, by the way) in the television adaptations?

I wish I could say that matters got better in the third act of Jakes’ trilogy. But it did not. Another mystery regarding the painting manifested. In both the third novel, 1987’s “Heaven and Hell” and the third miniseries, 1994’s “HEAVEN AND HELL: NORTH AND SOUTH BOOK III”, the locals who lived in the same neighborhood as the Mains seemed aware of Madeline’s African ancestry and the profession of her mother. My question is . . . how? How did locals like her first husband’s cousin, Gettys La Motte discover her family secret in the first place? Who had spilled the beans?

In “Love and War”, Jakes had made a point of both Judah Benjamin and Christopher Memminger attending the reception where Ashton had revealed Madeline’s secret. However, Benjamin moved to Great Britain after the war and Memminger ended up in North Carolina, following his resignation as Secretary of the Treasurer in July 1864. Ashton, her husband James, and her lover Lamar Powell were forced to flee Richmond for the New Mexico Territory after Orry exposed their plot to assassinate the Confederacy’s president, Jefferson Davis. Lamar Powell killed James Huntoon before being killed by an Apache warrior upon their arrival in the Southwest. Ashton arrived in Santa Fe a few days later, stranded and without any funds. It took her at least four years to return to South Carolina. So none of the above could have revealed Madeline’s secret to the Mains’ neighbors. More importantly, Jakes never bothered to reveal how the news reached the South Caroline low country.

“NORTH AND SOUTH: BOOK II” told a slightly different tale. A year after Bent had exposed Madeline’s secret to Ashton, she used the knowledge to blackmail her sister-in-law into leaving Mont Royal for good. However, neither Ashton or Bent ever told another soul. The only other people who knew about Madeline’s mother were her former maid, Maum Sally, who was killed by Justin LaMotte back in 1856, during the debacle regarding Ashton’s unwanted pregnancy; Orry; and his mother, Clarissa Main. And none of these people told a soul. Not even Ashton or Bent, which I find surprising. Like Jakes, the screenwriters for the second and third miniseries never made the effort to set up, let alone reveal how the Mains’ neighbors learned about Madeline’s secret.

It is a pity that the storyline regarding Madeline and her mother was marred by sloppy writing. It had the potential to be one of the most interesting arcs in the entire saga, especially since it focused upon attitudes regarding miscegenation in the United States . . . attitudes that lasted for another century following the saga’s setting and still linger to this day. Oh well. There is nothing I can do about it. I suppose I can only regard it as a blooper and move on.

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.

“NORTH AND SOUTH: BOOK II” (1986) – Episode Four “April-November 1864” Commentary

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“NORTH AND SOUTH: BOOK II” (1986) – EPISODE FOUR “April-November 1864” Commentary

Episode Four of the 1986 miniseries, “NORTH AND SOUTH: BOOK 2” picked up at least seven to eight months after Episode Three left off. The miniseries arrived at a point in which the Civil War began to embark upon its last year. And yet, the miniseries itself had reached its mid point. I found it odd that producer David Wolper, director Kevin Reynolds and the production’s screenwriters would portray the war’s last year (in reality, eleven months) within three episodes. Oh well.

The episode began with a strong sequence that featured George Hazard’s capture by John Mosby’s Rangers, while he and his men were transporting artillery guns and units to the front. The episode would return to George’s travails as a prisoner of war at Libby Prison in two more sequences. This first half hour also featured the beginning of Charles Main’s affair with Augusta, Billy Hazard’s return to the Sharpshooters’ regiment and the Battle of the Wilderness. Episode Four also portrayed the marriage woes of Ashton and James Huntoon, along with Elkhannah Bent’s attempt to woo Huntoon into his conspiracy against Confederate President Jefferson Davis; Madeline Main’s first meeting with former army officer Rafe Beaudine and her efforts to raise food and money for war refugees in Charleston; and Virgilia Hazard’s feud with her nursing supervisor, Mrs. Neal.

I have mixed feelings about Episode Four. I did not harbor a low opinion of it, as I did Episode Two and Episode Five. But I did not love it. I thought it began on a strong note with George’s capture and the Battle of the Wilderness. It also ended on a strong note with George’s experiences at Libby Prison and Virgilia’s troubles with Mrs. Neal. I must admit that I had a problem with the episode’s second act. Aside from the interesting scene that featured George’s arrival at Libby Prison and the revelation of the state of the Huntoon marriage, I had a bit of a struggle staying awake. One again, the 1986 miniseries managed to provide a battle sequence interesting enough to maintain my interest and impress me at the same time. Director Kevin Connor did an excellent job with this sequence by shooting it in a documentary style that gave it a stark and realistic look. And he was aptly supported by Jacques R. Marquette’s photography. For once, Marquette’s hazy photography served the narrative very well. The episode also benefited from Robert Fletcher’s lovely costumes, as shown in the images below:

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I found General Ulysses Grant’s angry response to his staff’s fears over Robert E. Lee, following the Wilderness battle particularly enjoyable. What is interesting about this moment is that it actually happened. And I noticed that actor Anthony Zerbe not only used Grant’s actual words, but also improvised a few words into the speech. Actually, I felt it was the episode’s highlight, thanks to Zerbe’s performance. Another positive aspect of Episode Four turned out to be Ashton and James Huntoon’s marriage woes. Terri Garber and Jim Metzler did an excellent job of conveying how Ashton’s infidelity, Huntoon’s political failures and the war had put a toll on a marriage that had been loveless from the start. The venomous conflict between Virgilia Hazard and her supervisor, Mrs. Neal proved to be very interesting, thanks to Kirstie Alley and Olivia De Havilland’s excellent performances. I found both ladies unsympathetic, until Mrs. Neal decided to harass Virgilia, while the other was having trouble staying awake after long hours of work. I found the older woman’s attitude simply bitchy. I also noticed that despite Mrs. Neal’s accusations of Virgilia’s poor ministrations to Confederate patients, the miniseries failed to substantiate her claims. And I found myself wondering if Mrs. Neal simply disliked Virgilia for the latter’s abolitionist leanings and marriage to a former slave.

Kirstie Alley had another chance to shine in a sequence that involved Virgilia’s reconciliation with none other than Orry Main, who had been injured and captured by Union troops. No only did Alley give an excellent performance in this poignant sequence, but so did Patrick Swayze. I also have to give kudos to both James Read and Wayne Newton for the crackling hostility they managed to produce between George Hazard and his Libby Prison tormentor, Captain Thomas Turner. In fact, I never thought I would say this, but Newton made a damn fine villain. He nearly put Philip Casnoff, David Carradine and Terri Garber to shame. His performance certainly gave the Libby Prison sequence a creep factor that I found very effective. And if you look carefully, you might find actor Billy Drago (of “THE UNTOUCHABLES” fame) as one of the Union prisoners.

I do have several problems about this episode. One, I wish that Charles and Augusta’s affair had begun a lot sooner than three years after they first met. In other words, I wish the screenwriters had followed Jakes’ original portrayal of their relationship. I believe this could have given Charles and Augusta’s affair more depth and paced a lot better. The portrayal of their affair developed into a major problem in Episode Six. Their affair began in the aftermath of one of the battles during the Wilderness Campaign. And for the likes of me, I could never understand what Charles was doing there, while wearing a heavy overcoat in the middle of May. The screenplay never explained why he was there.

Then we come to the problem of Billy’s return to his regiment after deserting for nearly ten months (he departed right after the Gettysburg battle in July 1863 and returned to his regiment either in late April 1864). The consequences he paid for deserting were ridiculous. Billy received a lecture from Colonel Hiram Burdan, passed over for a promotion to captain and threatened with court martial if he ever deserted again. What on earth were the writers thinking? Billy should have faced a court-martial or forced to resign his commission for being absent without leave for nearly ten months. Whoever had written this episode must have been completely ignorant of military protocol . . . or smoking something. And what was Berdan’s excuse for his leniency toward Billy? He needed all available men. Hogwash! This was the spring of 1864, when the Union Army’s ranks were literally swollen for the remainder of the war, despite desertion. No other TV show, novel, play or etc., would have featured such a major writing gaffe. Then again, you never know. And why was Berdan still in command of the Sharpshooters in this episode? By keeping Berdan as Billy’s commanding officer in this episode, the writers committed a historical gaffe. Berdan had decided to leave the Union Army by the late winter/early spring of 1864.

On the other hand, I found Madeline Main’s efforts to help the poor – refugee slaves, free black and poor whites – in Charleston rather noble and dull as hell. Madeline’s first husband, Justin LaMotte, had contemptuously given her the nickname – “Madeline the Merciful” in the first miniseries. I hate to say this, but after viewing the beginning of this story line in Episode Four, I found myself sharing his contempt. Her actions were admirable, but I feel the writers went too far in portraying her in a noble light. Quite simply, one could easily accuse Madeline of harboring a savior complex – one that struck me as incredibly pretentious. This sequence also introduced a young former slave named Michael and his mother, who came from Tennessee. I really had a problem with this. Why on earth would Tennessee slave refugees head deep into Confederate territory, when they could have easily ended up in Union held cities like Nashville, Memphis and Vicksburg? However, this sequence featured a young Bumper Robinson as Michael, who managed to act circles around Lesley Anne Down (as if that were possible). And it also introduced the delicious Lee Horsley as a disgraced army officer-turned-wastrel named Rafe Beaudine, who came to Madeline’s aid against a band of scavengers. Horsley and Lesley Anne Down managed to create a sparkling screen chemistry that nearly put all of the other on-screen romantic pairings to shame.

In the end, Episode Four proved to be a mixed bag. It featured some excellent dramatic scenes and a well-shot battle sequence that helped me maintained my interest. On the other hand, it also featured some questionable writing that left me shaking my head with disappointment. It was not one of my favorite episodes, but was certainly not a disappointment either.