“IRONCLADS” (1991) Review

“IRONCLADS” (1991) Review

Between the late 1980s and the first few years of the 21st century, communications mogul Ted Turner had produced or oversaw a series of period dramas in the forms of movies and miniseries. Aside from two or three productions, most of them were aired as television movies on the cable network TNT, which is owned by the Turner Broadcasting System. One of those productions was the 1991 movie, “IRONCLADS”

Set during the first year of the U.S. Civil War, “IRONCLADS” is a fictional account of the creations of the first two American ironclads, C.S.S. Virginia (also known as the U.S.S. Merrimack) and the U.S.S. Monitor, and their clash during the Battle of Hampton Roads in March 1862. The movie began in April 1861 with the U.S. Navy personnel being forced to evacuate the Gosport Navy Yard at Norfolk, Virginia, following the state of Virginia’s secession from the United States. During the evacuation, Quartermaster’s Mate Leslie Harmon deliberately interfered with the militarily necessary demolition of the Navy Yard’s dry dock at Hampton Roads Naval Base in order to prevent collateral damage and civilian casualties in the city, as Confederates overran the base. While stationed in Norfolk, Leslie had made friends. Unfortunately, his actions were noticed and he found himself facing court-martial. It seemed the newly formed Confederate Navy used the undamaged naval yard to raise the sunken U.S.S. Merrimack and refit it into an ironclad ship.

Union officer Commodore Joseph Smith gave him the choice between facing court-martial or serving as a Union spy. Leslie was assigned to work with a Virginia belle from Norfolk named Betty Stuart, who had become an abolitionist and Unionist during her years at a boarding school in Baltimore. Betty had also recruited her mother’s maid named Opal and the latter’s husband, Cletus, as part of her spy ring. Using Leslie’s past actions during the Union evacuation as an excuse to label him a Confederate sympathizer, Betty introduced him to Norfolk society. This allowed the pair to spy upon the activities surrounding the development of the Confederate Navy’s new ironclad ship. At the same time, the Union Navy recruited John Ericsson to design their own ironclad ship.

Many years – and I do mean many of them – had passed since I last saw “IRONCLADS”. It is a miracle that I was able to watch it, considering that it has yet to be released on DVD. When I first saw “IRONCLADS” over twenty years ago, I had been impressed, despite it being a low-budget television movie that aired on a Basic cable station. But seeing it again after twenty-five years or so . . . I am still impressed. I honestly did not think this movie would hold up after a quarter of a century. Mind you, “IRONCLADS” had its flaws. I think this movie could have been longer . . . at least thirty (30) to forty-five (45) minutes longer. After all, it is about the first two ironclads in both U.S. and world history and I believe that Leslie and Betty’s activities as spies in Norfolk could have been expanded a bit.

But my one real problem with the movie is the romance between Betty Stuart and Lieutenant Catesby ap Roger Jones of the Confederate Navy. It was bad enough that Lieutenant Jones, who was roughly 39 to 40 years old during the movie’s setting was portrayed by actor Alex Hyde-White, who must have been at least roughly 31 years old during the movie’s production. Worse, Betty Stuart was a fictional character. Lieutenant Jones . . . was not. The movie did an excellent job in portraying historical characters such as John Ericsson, Commodore Joseph Smith, Captain Franklin Buchanan of the C.S.S. Virginia, Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles and yes, President Abraham Lincoln. But the movie made a major misstep in creating a romance between the fictional Betty and the historical Lieutenant Jones. I hate it when writers do that. I still have bad memories of George MacDonald Fraser allowing a historical character to be the illegitimate son of his fictional character, Harry Flashman. And the real Catesby ap Jones was already a married man with children during that first year of the Civil War. For the likes of me, I could not understand why screenwriter Harold Gast could not allow Betty to have a romance with another fictional character, who happened to serve aboard the C.S.S. Virginia under Buchanan and Jones.

Despite the above problems, I can honestly say that I still managed to enjoy “IRONCLADS”. Thanks to Delmar Mann’s direction and Harold Gast’s screenplay, the movie proved to be a heady mixture of espionage, military conflict and history. Step-by-step, the movie took television viewers on a road mixed with fiction and fact to that famous sea battle that stunned the rest of the world. What I found even more interesting – and I am sure that many might find this a reason to criticize – is that in an odd way, the production provided well-rounded characters from both the North and the South.

The Betty Stuart character proved to be rather ambiguous. She was a product of the Virginia upper-class, who became an abolitionist and pro-Union . . . without informing her friends and family about her change of allegiance. And yet, her love for Lieutenant Jones led her to betray her allegiance and beliefs. Her situation proved to be so complicated that the only advice I can give is to watch the film, if you can find it. Another complicated character proved to be the Northern-born navy quartermaster-turned-spy, Leslie Harmon. He got into trouble in the first place, because he thought more of the Norfolk civilians than destroying that dry dock. And while one can admire him for his humanity, I found it interesting that he never really considered the slaves who served the upper-and-middle-class citizens of that city. Until he became a spy and witnessed a Confederate Naval intelligence officer named Lieutenant Gilford harshly ordered Cletus to provide another glass of champagne for him. Leslie eventually confessed that he had never paid attention to Norfolk’s slaves before the war.

As anyone can see, the topic of slavery managed to play a strong role in this production. After all, Betty’s embrace of the abolitionist movement led her to become a pro-Union spy against her fellow Virginians. And she had recruited two of her mother’s slaves as part of her slave ring. What I found interesting about this movie is that it presented two incidents in which Opal and Cletus had individually faced the price of being slaves. I have already mentioned Leslie witnessing Lieutenant Gilford’s harsh and racist attitude toward Cletus. But for me, I was really put off by Mrs. Stuart’s decision to limit Opal’s “visit” to her sister to once a year. It was the manner in which she made this order. I found it cool, subtle, indifferent and self-involved. Naturally, Opal serving Mrs. Stuart’s needs was more important than the latter having the opportunity to see a relative.

However, this story is about the Monitor and the Merrimack. As I had earlier stated, the movie did a pretty damn good job in leading up to the events of the Battle of Hampton Roads. But let us be honest . . . the actual battle proved to be the movie’s pièce de résistance – from that first day when the Merrimack nearly made the Union blockade near Norfolk and Newport News obsolete; to the second in which the two ironclads faced each other. In fact, the battle took up the entire second half. Here, I think Mann, along with film editor Millie Moore, visual effects artist Doug Ferris and the special effects team led by Joel P. Blanchard did an exceptional job of re-creating the Battle of Hampton Roads.

However, the Battle of Hampton Roads sequence was not the only aspect of “IRONCLADS” that I enjoyed. Moore, Ferris and the visual and special effects teams did an admirable job in recreating Washington D.C. and Northern Virginia circa 1861-62. Their work was ably supported by Joseph R. Jennings’ production designs; the sound effects created by the sound editing team led by Burton Weinstein; the sound mixing team led by Kenneth B. Ross; Joseph R. Jennings’ production designs. By the way, the two sound teams both earned Emmy nominations for their work. I was surprised to discover that another Emmy nomination was given to Noel Taylor for his costume designs. Do not get me wrong. I enjoyed looking at them, especially those costumes worn by Virginia Masden, as shown below:

I found Taylor’s costumes colorful and yes . . . beautiful to look at. But if I must be honest, his costumes seemed to have a touch of late 20th century glamour – namely those worn by the Virginian elite – that I found unrealistic.

Looking back at “IRONCLADS”, I can honestly say that there was not a performance that blew my mind. The television movie did not feature a performance I would consider worthy of an Emmy nomination. Solid performances came from the likes of E.G. Marshall, Kevin O’Rourke, Leon B. Stevens, Carl Jackson, Andy Park, Burt Edwards and Marty Terry. I thought James Getty was pretty serviceable as President Abraham Lincoln. However, I think he managed to really evoke the memory of “Old Abe” with one particular line – “All I can say is what the girl said when she put her foot in the stocking. It (the U.S.S. Monitor) strikes me there’s something in it.”

But there were performances that I found very noticeable and effective. One would think that Philip Casnoff’s portrayal of naval intelligence officer, Lieutenant Guilford, to be a remake of the villainous character he had portrayed in the television adaptations of John Jakes’ “North and South” novels. However, Casnoff’s Guilford was no copycat of Elkhannah Bent. The actor effectively portrayed a cool and ruthless spymaster willing to do what it took to protect his new nation. Joanne Dorian gave a very interesting and varied performance as Betty Stuart’s shallow and self-involved mother, Blossom Stuart. At times, I found her portrayal of Mrs. Stuart hilarious or amusing. And yet . . . there was that scene in which the actress conveyed the ugliness of her character’s selfishness and racism.

Another performance that caught my eye came from Beatrice Bush, who portrayed Mrs. Stuart’s enslaved maid, Opal and Betty’s fellow spy. During the teleplay’s first half, Bush gave a solid performance. But I was truly impressed by how the actress had expressed Opal’s shock and suppressed anger over Betty’s decision to inform Catesby about their findings regarding the C.S.S. Virginia’s plating. I wsa impressed by how Bush effortlessly expressed Opal’s anger without allowing the character to lose control. I also enjoyed Fritz Weaver’s portrayal of John Ericsson, the Swedish-born immigrant, who became one of the best naval engineers of the 19th century and designer of the U.S.S. Monitor. Weaver gave a very entertaining performance as the tart-tongued engineer who was constantly irritated by U.S. Navy and the Lincoln Administration’s doubts over his work or the use of iron clad ships.

Alex Hyde-White gave a charismatic portrayal of Confederate Naval officer, Lieutenant Catsby ap Jones. The actor did a good job in conveying his character charm, professionalism. He also effectively conveyed Jones’ anger and confusion upon discovering his love’s role as a Union spy. I really enjoyed Reed Diamond’s engaging portrayal of the earnest Union Navy quartermaster, Leslie Harmon. I enjoyed how his character had learned a lesson about himself and what this war was about. He also gave, what I believe to be one of the best lines in the movies. Both Hyde-White and Reed managed to create solid chemistry with leading actress, Virginia Madsen.

Speaking of Madsen, and managed to create a solid screen chemistry with lead Virginia Madsen. Superficially, Madsen’s Betty Stuart seemed like the typical lead in a period drama – a beautiful and noble woman of high birth who has become dedicated to a cause. What made Betty interesting is that she was a Southern-born woman from a slave-owning family who became a dedicated abolitionist. And this led her to become an effective and yes, manipulative spy. But what I found interesting about Madsen’s skillful portrayal is that her character proved to be surprisingly a bit complicated . . . especially when her role as a spy and her feelings for Catsby Jones produced a conflict within her.

I am not going to push the idea that TNT’s “IRONCLADS” was a television hallmark or masterpiece. It was a solid 94-minute account of the circumstances that led to the creations of the world’s first two ironclads – the C.S.S. Virginia (Merrimack) and the U.S.S. Monitor – and their historic clash in Virginia waters. A part of me wished that this movie – especially the details leading to the Battle of Hampton Roads – had been a bit longer. And I am not that thrilled over screenwriter Harold Gast using a historical figure like Catesby ap Jones as the love interest of the fictional Betty Stuart. But I believe that both Gast and director Delmar Mann had created an interesting, complex and exciting narrative that was enhanced by excellent performances from a cast led by Virginia Madsen.

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Peggy Carter’s Post-World War II Career

PEGGY CARTER’S POST-WORLD WAR II CAREER

Recently, I did a re-watch of Season One of “AGENT CARTER”. While watching Scientific Strategic Reserve (SSR) Agent Peggy Carter endure the patronizing slights from her boss and fellow agents, I found myself wondering how she ended up as a mere agent, reduced to acting as the office’s secretary/coffee girl after two years as a code breaker at Bletchley Park and four years in the SSR during World War II. 

I am certain that many of you would answer . . . duh, sexism! Like many women after World War II, Peggy had found her wartime activities dismissed by men, who were more concerned with regulating her and other women to traditional roles. This became doubly so for the likes of her post-war supervisors – Captain John Flynn and Chief Roger Dooley; and the latter’s Lead Investigator/Agent, Jack Thompson. It was easier for them to treat Peggy as someone who should have held a secretarial or clerical position at the SSR, instead of an agent.

This was the conclusion I had come to after viewing both the 2013 short film, “MARVEL ONE-SHOT: AGENT CARTER” and Season One of the 2015-2016 series for the first time. It took a recent viewing of Season One for me to harbor some doubts about this story arc for Peggy. Between the creation of the SSR in 1940 and its absorption into the Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division (S.H.I.E.L.D.) as one of the latter’s subdivision near the end of the 1940s; Colonel Chester Phillips served as Director. If Colonel Phillips had served as Director of the SSR during the 2013 short film, along with Seasons One and Two of “AGENT CARTER”, how did Peggy end up being reduced as some lowly field agent whom most of her colleagues dismissed, due to her gender? How did she get into this situation?

While working as a MI-5 agent in 1940, Peggy was loaned out to the SSR. Later that year, she managed to infiltrate HYDRA’s German headquarters at Castle Kaufmann and rescue Dr. Abraham Erskine, creator of the Super Soldier Serum. She also engaged in missions in Brooklyn, New York and the Soviet Union. In June 1943, she was assigned by Phillips to train the potential candidates – one of them, a physically undeveloped Steve Rogers – for Erskine’s serum. By the end of the war, she had more or less become Phillips’ top aide. And following the death (or disappearance) of Steve Rogers, who had been transformed into Captain America by Erskine’s serum, she took command of the Howling Commandos and led the operation to mop up the last remnants of HYDRA in Europe. They managed to capture one of the last HYDRA commanders, General Werner Reinhardt, and an artifact in his possession called the obelisk. Within a year of this operation, Peggy found herself first assigned to the SSR’s Brooklyn, New York office under Captain John Flynn; and later assigned to the SSR’s Manhattan office, which was supervised by Roger Dooley.

So, how did Peggy get into this situation? How did she become the butt of contempt, bigotry and many jokes by her fellow agents? Dismissed as a woman who had no business in what they regarded as a “man’s world”? Both Flynn and Dooley must have seen her personnel file and learned about her exemplary wartime activities. Yet, both continued to dismiss her . . . until she managed to discover a deadly liquid called “the Zodiac”, while working at the SSR’s Brooklyn office. Later, she managed to decrypt an encoded message for the Manhattan office, which was received from a Soviet intelligence group called the Leviathan through its agent, Sascha Demidov’s typewriter. Roger Dooley’s regard for Peggy increased following Thompson’s glowing report of her actions during a mission in the Soviet Union. By the end of Season One’s penultimate episode, Dooley, Thompson and the rest of the agents had learned to accept Peggy for the competent intelligence agent that she was.

After a good deal of thinking, it finally occurred to me what problems I had with this scenario regarding Season One of “AGENT CARTER”. One of them happened to be Colonel Chester Phillips, Director of the SSR. The other problems proved to be the series’ creators, Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely; and Eric Pearson, who wrote the 2013 one-shot film. According to the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) Wiki website, Colonel Phillips was the sole director of the SSR throughout the 1940s. If so, why did he assign Peggy to serve under a pair of sexists like John Flynn and Roger Dooley? Peggy was one of Phillips’ best operatives during the war and his top aide. Hell, she was by his side when he and Steve Rogers led the assault on the last base of operations commanded by HYDRA leader Johann Schmidt during the last year of World War II. It made no sense to me that Phillips would assign Peggy to serve under men who obviously had no true professional regard for her. I found this especially hard to believe, considering that by the end of the decade, Phillips had no problems regarding Peggy as a co-founder of S.H.I.E.L.D. And her service under Flynn and Dooley seemed like a step down from her activities during the war.

When Eric Pearson wrote the one-shot film, did he not consider that Chester Phillips had continued to serve as the SSR’s director after the war? Did Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, when they created “AGENT CARTER”? Could any of them consider a different scenario that did not call for Peggy serve the SSR in such a lowly fashion following the war? Peggy could have ended up leading her own field unit . . . and still face the sexism of her colleagues.

But this never happened. And knowing that Chester Phillips continued to serve as Director of the SSR throughout the 1940s, I found the troubles – especially the kind of sexism that Peggy Carter had faced as an agent working in New York City during the immediate post-war years somewhat difficult to swallow. I would have found Peggy facing sexism, while serving in a slightly higher position within the SSR’s hierarchy easier to believe. Or . . . I would have found Peggy’s experiences in New York City easier to swallow if Chester Phillips had been replaced as the SSR’s Director following the end of World War II.

Peggy Carter’s Post-World War II Career

PEGGY CARTER’S POST-WORLD WAR II CAREER

Recently, I did a re-watch of Season One of “AGENT CARTER”. While watching Scientific Strategic Reserve (SSR) Agent Peggy Carter endure the patronizing slights from her boss and fellow agents, I found myself wondering how she ended up as a mere agent, reduced to acting as the office’s secretary/coffee girl after two years as a code breaker at Bletchley Park and four years in the SSR during World War II. 

I am certain that many of you would answer . . . duh, sexism! Like many women after World War II, Peggy had found her wartime activities dismissed by men, who were more concerned with regulating her and other women to traditional roles. This became doubly so for the likes of her post-war supervisors – Captain John Flynn and Chief Roger Dooley; and the latter’s Lead Investigator/Agent, Jack Thompson. It was easier for them to treat Peggy as someone who should have held a secretarial or clerical position at the SSR, instead of an agent.

This was the conclusion I had come to after viewing both the 2013 short film, “MARVEL ONE-SHOT: AGENT CARTER” and Season One of the 2015-2016 series for the first time. It took a recent viewing of Season One for me to harbor some doubts about this story arc for Peggy. Between the creation of the SSR in 1940 and its absorption into the Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division (S.H.I.E.L.D.) as one of the latter’s subdivision near the end of the 1940s; Colonel Chester Phillips served as Director. If Colonel Phillips had served as Director of the SSR during the 2013 short film, along with Seasons One and Two of “AGENT CARTER”, how did Peggy end up being reduced as some lowly field agent whom most of her colleagues dismissed, due to her gender? How did she get into this situation?

While working as a MI-5 agent in 1940, Peggy was loaned out to the SSR. Later that year, she managed to infiltrate HYDRA’s German headquarters at Castle Kaufmann and rescue Dr. Abraham Erskine, creator of the Super Soldier Serum. She also engaged in missions in Brooklyn, New York and the Soviet Union. In June 1943, she was assigned by Phillips to train the potential candidates – one of them, a physically undeveloped Steve Rogers – for Erskine’s serum. By the end of the war, she had more or less become Phillips’ top aide. And following the death (or disappearance) of Steve Rogers, who had been transformed into Captain America by Erskine’s serum, she took command of the Howling Commandos and led the operation to mop up the last remnants of HYDRA in Europe. They managed to capture one of the last HYDRA commanders, General Werner Reinhardt, and an artifact in his possession called the obelisk. Within a year of this operation, Peggy found herself first assigned to the SSR’s Brooklyn, New York office under Captain John Flynn; and later assigned to the SSR’s Manhattan office, which was supervised by Roger Dooley.

So, how did Peggy get into this situation? How did she become the butt of contempt, bigotry and many jokes by her fellow agents? Dismissed as a woman who had no business in what they regarded as a “man’s world”? Both Flynn and Dooley must have seen her personnel file and learned about her exemplary wartime activities. Yet, both continued to dismiss her . . . until she managed to discover a deadly liquid called “the Zodiac”, while working at the SSR’s Brooklyn office. Later, she managed to decrypt an encoded message for the Manhattan office, which was received from a Soviet intelligence group called the Leviathan through its agent, Sascha Demidov’s typewriter. Roger Dooley’s regard for Peggy increased following Thompson’s glowing report of her actions during a mission in the Soviet Union. By the end of Season One’s penultimate episode, Dooley, Thompson and the rest of the agents had learned to accept Peggy for the competent intelligence agent that she was.

After a good deal of thinking, it finally occurred to me what problems I had with this scenario regarding Season One of “AGENT CARTER”. One of them happened to be Colonel Chester Phillips, Director of the SSR. The other problems proved to be the series’ creators, Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely; and Eric Pearson, who wrote the 2013 one-shot film. According to the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) Wiki website, Colonel Phillips was the sole director of the SSR throughout the 1940s. If so, why did he assign Peggy to serve under a pair of sexists like John Flynn and Roger Dooley? Peggy was one of Phillips’ best operatives during the war and his top aide. Hell, she was by his side when he and Steve Rogers led the assault on the last base of operations commanded by HYDRA leader Johann Schmidt during the last year of World War II. It made no sense to me that Phillips would assign Peggy to serve under men who obviously had no true professional regard for her. I found this especially hard to believe, considering that by the end of the decade, Phillips had no problems regarding Peggy as a co-founder of S.H.I.E.L.D. And her service under Flynn and Dooley seemed like a step down from her activities during the war.

When Eric Pearson wrote the one-shot film, did he not consider that Chester Phillips had continued to serve as the SSR’s director after the war? Did Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, when they created “AGENT CARTER”? Could any of them consider a different scenario that did not call for Peggy serve the SSR in such a lowly fashion following the war? Peggy could have ended up leading her own field unit . . . and still face the sexism of her colleagues.

But this never happened. And knowing that Chester Phillips continued to serve as Director of the SSR throughout the 1940s, I found the troubles – especially the kind of sexism that Peggy Carter had faced as an agent working in New York City during the immediate post-war years somewhat difficult to swallow. I would have found Peggy facing sexism, while serving in a slightly higher position within the SSR’s hierarchy easier to believe. Or . . . I would have found Peggy’s experiences in New York City easier to swallow if Chester Phillips had been replaced as the SSR’s Director following the end of World War II.

“UNDERGROUND”: Things That Make Me Go . . . Hmmm?

Ever since its premiere back in March 2016, I have been a major fan of “UNDERGROUND”, the WGN cable series about a group of Georgia slaves who attempt the journey to freedom in antebellum America. But I am also a big history buff. And since “UNDERGROUND” has a strong historical background, it was inevitable that I would notice how much the series adhered to history. Although the series’ historical background held up rather well, there were some aspects of the series that I found questionable, as listed below:

 

“UNDERGROUND”: THINGS THAT MAKE ME GO . . . HMMM?

Women’s Hairstyles – I had no problems with the hairstyles worn by the African-American female characters. However, I cannot say the same white female characters – especially the two sisters-in-law, Northern socialite Elizabeth Hawkes and Southern plantation mistress Suzanna Macon. The latter’s hairstyle seemed to be some vague take on mid-19th century hairstyles for women. However, the hairstyle worn by the Elizabeth Hawkes character seemed to be straight out of the late 19th century or the first decade of the 20th century.

 

Patty Canon – A group of professional slave catchers/traders were featured in the episodes between (1.06) “Troubled Waters” and (1.09) “Black & Blue”. These men were led by a notorious illegal slave trader named Patty Cannon. The lady herself finally appeared in the flesh in the tenth and final episode of Season One, (1.10) “White Whale”. However, the presence of Miss Cannon in a story set in 1857 proved to be anachronistic, for she lived between the 1760s and 1829. Hmmm.

 

Location, Location and . . . Location – One aspect of the series that annoyed me was that viewers were more or less left in the dark of the fleeing fugitives in two episodes – “Troubled Waters” and (1.07) “Cradle”. Their journey in Season One was spread throughout four states – Georgia, Tennessee, Kentucky and Ohio. I really wish that showrunners Misha Green and Joe Pokaski could have kept track on the fugitives’ location – especially in that particular episode. Also in “Troubled Waters”, they traveled north (I think) aboard a keelboat that previously served as a floating whorehouse. I am aware that a few rivers in the United States flow northward. But I could have sworn that the two nearest ones in the series’ setting would be the New River in southeastern North Carolina and the Monongahela River that flows from West Virginia to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Neither river is that close.

 

James as a Field Slave – In the second episode, (1.02) “War Chest”, viewers learned that the Masons’ housekeeper, Ernestine, is willing to have sex with planter Tom Macon in order to secure the safety of her children, which includes preventing their seven year-old son James from becoming a field slave. Ernestine’s efforts come to nothing for the episode “Cradle” opened with Ernestine and her older son, Sam, preparing young James for the harshness of the cotton fields. While the scene was heartbreaking, I also found it slightly unrealistic. Slave children on large-scale plantations would not be sent to the fields (cotton, sugar, tobacco, etc.) until they were at least nine or ten years old. The sight of James in the cotton field would have been more realistic if he had been a few years older.

 

Harriet Tubman – The series’ Season One finale ended with successful fugitive Rosalee meeting the famed Underground Railroad conductor Harriet Tubman at the Philadelphia home of abolitionist William Still. This is not a blooper, considering that Miss Tubman’s base of operation stretched between Maryland (her home state) and the New York-Canada border. However, since news of actress Aisha Hinds being cast to portray the famous abolitionist in the series’ second season, I cannot help but wonder if the setting will shift toward the East Coast.

 

Sam’s Role on the Macon Plantation – The series’ premiere, (1.01) “The Macon 7” first introduced Sam – Rosalee’s older half-brother and Ernestine’s oldest child – as the Macon plantation’s carpenter. Audiences saw Sam serve in this role until the fifth episode, (1.05) “Run & Gun”, when he and the other remaining slaves on the plantation worked out in the cotton field to put out the fire caused by one of the main fugitives, Cato. Sam worked in the cotton field until his escape attempt at the end of “Cradle” and his death in (1.08) “Grave”. Yet, I have no idea why owner Tom Macon kept him in the cotton fields. Considering that the latter never suspected him for helping the Macon 7 escape, why would he have Sam working in the field, instead of the carpenter’s wood shop?

 

Boo’s Fate – The Season One finale saw the youngest of the Macon 7, Boo, playing in the garden of William Still’s Philadelphia home. Before that, the young girl lost her mother Pearly Mae first to slave catcher August Pullman and later to Ernestine’s act of murder on the Macon plantation. She then lost her father to members from Patty Cannon’s gang on the banks of the Ohio River. After spending time at the home of Elizabeth and John Hawkes, she was reunited with Rosalee and Noah, before joining the former at Still’s home. But Noah got captured and Rosalee decided to return south to find him. So what will happen to Boo, now that she is literally orphaned? She certainly cannot remain in the United States. Her time with the Hawkes proved that.

 

End of the Journey – Northern States or Canada – Ever since the series began, many characters – especially the Macon 7 – discussed about taking the arduous 600 miles or so journey from Georgia to the Ohio River and freedom. Yet, no one even brought up the idea of continuing the journey to Canada. After all, Season One is set in 1857, seven years following the passage of the Compromise of 1850 and the Fugitive Slave Act. The fugitive law was mentioned by Elizabeth Hawkes’ former beau, Kyle Risdin, who used it to force her husband John Hawkes to assist in the search and capture of a fugitive slave. So why did the Hawkes, Still, and the Underground Railroad conductors in Kentucky (I believe) failed to inform members of the Macon 7 that reaching the North would not be enough . . . that they would have to travel all the way to Canada in order to be safe?

 

Ernestine’s Position on the Macon Plantation – Sam was not the only member of Rosalee’s family that left me confused about the chores assigned on the Macon plantation. I also found myself confused about the chores of Rosalee’s mother, Ernestine. “The Macon 7” made it clear that Ernestine was the Macon family’s housekeeper. In fact, the series featured scenes of her acting as supervisor of the house slaves. And yet . . . other episodes featured Ernestine supervising the work inside the plantation’s kitchen. I found this odd. Surely the plantation had its own cook preparing and supervising the meals? Plantations and the households of wealthy families would have a cook. Why did this series have Ernestine, a housekeeper, supervising the kitchen? As housekeeper, Ernestine would not be serving drinks or food to the Macon family and their guests. She would order a maid for this function. Yet, the series has shown Ernestine not only ordering maids to serve food, but also herself performing the same chore. Huh? But the biggest mind bender occurred in the fourth episode, (1.04) “Firefly”, which featured Ernestine butchering a hog. I really found this difficult to accept. The housekeeper of a wealthy family acting as a butcher? C’mon! Really?

Despite the above quibbles, I really enjoyed “UNDERGROUND” and look forward to watching Season Two. I only hope that this second season will feature less anachronisms.

Five Favorite Episodes of “UNDERGROUND” Season One (2016)

noahrosalee

Below is a list of my five favorite episodes from the WGN series, “UNDERGROUND”. Created by Misha Green and Joe Pokaski, the series stars Jurnee Smollett-Bell and Aldis Hodge:

FIVE FAVORITE EPISODES OF “UNDERGROUND” SEASON ONE (2016)

1 - 1.05 Run and Guns

1. (1.05) “Run & Gun” – The attempt by the escapees from the Macon plantation to catch a northbound train out of the state is complicated at every turn; while Tom and Susanna Macon have the remaining slaves – especially Pearly Mae, who was captured while trying to run – questioned about their plans.

 

2 - 1.09 Black and Blue

2. (1.09) “Black & Blue” – One of the escapees, former house slave Rosalee, is captured in a small Kentucky town and held at a slaughter house, while fellow escapees Noah and Cato plot to rescue her. Underground Railroad agent John Hawkes (who is also Tom Mason’s brother) learns of his wife Elizabeth’s reckless action to save the orphaned escapee Boo from her ex-fiancé and U.S. Federal Marshal Kyle Risdin.

 

3 - 1.04 Firefly

3. (1.04) “Firefly” – A notorious slave hunter named August Pullman and his son Ben track Noah and Rosalee, following their escape from the Macon plantation at the end of the previous episode. The other slaves involved in Noah’s plot contemplate running, as well. Meanwhile, John and Elizabeth face a lethal predicament, when one of the runaways they are sheltering turns hostile.

 

5 - 1.01 Macon Seven

4. (1.01) “The Macon 7” – In the series premiere, Noah begins to plot an escape from the Macon plantation to the Ohio River and free states. He contemplates on choosing which slaves to be included in his plan, while dealing with a hostile Cato, who also happens to be one of the plantation’s field drivers.

 

4 - 1.07 Cradle

5. (1.07) “Cradle” – This episode featured a collection of vignettes about the younger characters – all children – facing the harsh realities of the world in antebellum America.

 

 

The 19th Century in Television

Recently, I noticed there have been a good number of television productions in both North America and Great Britain, set during the 19th century. Below is a list of those productions I have seen during this past decade in alphabetical order:

THE 19TH CENTURY IN TELEVISION

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

2. “The Crimson Petal and the White” (BBC) – Romola Garai starred in this 2011 miniseries, which was an adaptation of Michel Faber’s 2002 novel about a Victorian prostitute, who becomes the mistress of a powerful businessman.

3. “Death Comes to Pemberley” (BBC) – Matthew Rhys and Anna Maxwell-Martin starred in this adaptation of P.D. James’ 2011 novel, which is a murder mystery and continuation of Jane Austen’s 1813 novel, “Pride and Prejudice”.

4. “Hell on Wheels” (AMC) – This 2012-2016 series is about a former Confederate Army officer who becomes involved with the construction of the First Transcontinental Railroad during the years after the Civil War. Anson Mount, Colm Meaney, Common, and Dominique McElligott starred.

5. “Mercy Street” (PBS) – This series follows two volunteer nurses from opposing sides who work at the Mansion House Hospital in Alexandria, Virginia during the Civil War. Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Josh Radnor and Hannah James.

6. “The Paradise” (BBC-PBS) – This 2012-2013 series is an adaptation of Émile Zola’s 1883 novel, “Au Bonheur des Dames”, about the innovative creation of the department story – only with the story relocated to North East England. The series starred Joanna Vanderham and Peter Wight.

7. “Penny Dreadful” (Showtime/Sky) – Eva Green, Timothy Dalton and Josh Harnett star in this horror-drama series about a group of people who battle the forces of supernatural evil in Victorian England.

8. “Ripper Street” (BBC) – Matthew Macfadyen stars in this crime drama about a team of police officers that patrol London’s Whitechapel neighborhood in the aftermath of Jack the Ripper’s serial murders.

9. “Underground” (WGN) – Misha Green and Joe Pokaski created this series about runaway slaves who endure a long journey from Georgia to the Northern states in a bid for freedom in the late Antebellum period. Jurnee Smollett-Bell and Aldis Hodge star.

10. “War and Peace” (BBC) – Andrew Davies adapted this six-part miniseries, which is an adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s 1865–1867 novel about the impact of the Napoleonic Era during Tsarist Russia. Paul Dano, Lily James and James Norton starred.

The UNDERGROUND RAILROAD in Television

Recently, the WGN Network began airing a new series about a group of Georgia slaves who plan and conduct a daring 600 miles escape to freedom in the Northern states called “UNDERGROUND”. However, it is not the first television production about American slaves making a bid for freedom. Below is a list of previous productions that I have seen over the years:

 

THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD IN TELEVISION

“A WOMAN CALLED MOSES” (1978) – Cicely Tyson starred in this two-part miniseries adaptation of Marcy Heidish’s 1974 novel about the life of escaped slave-turned Underground Railroad conductor/activist Harriet Tubman during the years before the Civil War. The miniseries’ first half focused on Tubman’s years as a Maryland slave and her escape to freedom in December 1849. The second half focused on her years as a conductor with the Underground Railroad. Paul Wendkos directed.

“THE LIBERATORS” (1987) – Robert Carradine and Larry B. Scott portrayed Virginia-born abolitionist John Fairfield and Bill, the escaped slave of the former’s uncle; who become conductors for the Underground Railroad. After the former helps the latter escape from Virginia, the pair reunite nearly a year later to rescue the relatives of African-American freedmen living in the North. Kenneth Johnson directed.

“RACE TO FREEDOM: THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD” (1994) – Janet Bailey and Courtney B. Vance starred in this cable television movie about a group of slaves who risk their lives to escape from their master’s North Carolina plantation to Canada, following the passage of the Compromise of 1850. Look for the surprise twist at the end. The movie co-starred Glynn Turman, Dawnn Lewis, Michael Riley, Falconer Abraham, and Ron White. Don McBrearty directed.

august and annalees

“THE JOURNEY OF AUGUST KING” (1995) – Jason Patric and Thandie Newton starred in this adaptation of John Ehle’s 1971 novel about an early 19th century farmer in North Carolina, who finds himself helping a runaway slave, while on his way home from the market. Co-starring Larry Drake and Sam Waterston, the movie was directed by John Duigan.

“CAPTIVE HEART: THE JAMES MINK STORY” (1996) – Lou Gossett Jr. and Kate Nelligan portrayed a Canadian mixed race couple who sought a husband for their only daughter, Mary. The latter ends up marrying a Northern American. Upon their arrival in the United States, he sells her to a Virginian slave dealer and she ends up as a slave in that slave. After Mary manages to send word to her parents, Mr. and Mrs. Mink set out for Virginia to organize a rescue of their daughter with the help of the Underground Railroad. Bruce Pittman directed.

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Four of the productions on this list – “A WOMAN CALLED MOSES”, “RACE TO FREEDOM: THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD”, “THE JOURNEY OF AUGUST KING”, and “CAPTIVE HEART: THE JAMES MINK STORY” can be found on DVD. Only “THE LIBERATORS” has not been released on DVD. In fact, I do not know if it has ever been released on VHS.