“FLAME OVER INDIA” (1959) Review

“FLAME OVER INDIA” (1959) Review

I have seen my share of movie and television productions set during the heyday of the British Empire over the years. They have featured narratives that range from being rabidly pro-Imperial to being highly critical of British Imperial policies and society. Recently, I re-discovered an old movie that seemed to straddle between the two styles of this genre, the 1959 adventure film, “FLAME OVER INDIA aka NORTH WEST FRONTIER”.

Directed by J. Lee Thompson, “FLAME OVER INDIA” began in the North West Frontier of 1905 British India, when a Hindu Maharajah asks British Army Captain William Scott to take his young son and heir, Prince Kishan, to the safety of the British Governor’s residence in Haserabad, due to a Muslim uprising in his province. Accompanying them is the prince’s nanny/governess, an American widow named Mrs. Catherine Wyatt. They leave shortly before the rebels storm the palace and kill the Maharajah. Upon their arrival in Haserabad, Captain Scott and Mrs. Wyatt learn that Muslim rebels threaten to overrun the Residency, due to knowledge of the young prince’s arrival. The Residency’s Governor, Sir John Wyndham, informs Captain Scott that he must take Prince Kishan to the safety of Kalapur. Scott discovers an old train, the Empress of India, and decides to use it to get Kishan and Mrs. Wyatt to safety. Because of the danger of developing siege in Haserabad, other passengers join Scott, Mrs. Wyatt and Kishan on the journey:

*Gupta – the Empress of India’s driver
*Lady Wyndham – Sir John’s wife
*Peter van Leyden – a Dutch biracial anti-Imperialist journalist
*Mr. Bridie – one of Sir John’s government aides
*Mr. Peters – an arms dealer who does business with all sides
*Two Indian sergeants acting as Captain Scott’s aides

There are some aspects of “FLAME OVER INDIA” that did not particularly impress me. Actually, I can only think of two. In one scene, the Empress of India’s passengers had come across a train that had departed Haserabad earlier in the film. Apparently, the rebels had massacred all of the train’s passengers, leaving behind one infant still alive. Now, I realize that this scene is supposed to be some kind of allegory of the religious strife that marred Britain’s partition from India in 1947 and its role in that strife. The problem is that this scene would have been more suited for a story set during that period, instead of a movie set in 1905. I also had a problem with the film’s final action sequence. It is not terrible, but it struck me as a bit anti-climatic. Especially since it ended with the Empress of India’s passengers evading capture by the train’s entrance into a two-mile long hillside tunnel that led to the safety of Kalapur.

Overall, I thought “FLAME OVER INDIA” was a first-rate movie that seamlessly combined the elements of two genres – action and drama. At first glance, it seemed Captain Scott using a train to convey young Kishan to the safety of Kalapur offered no real challenges – especially against pursuers on horseback. Scott and Gupta had initially planned to sneak the passengers out of Haserabad by freewheeling the Empress of India down a gradient and out of the rail yard, but the train’s whistle unexpectedly blows, alerting the rebels to their departure. The screenwriters ensure that the Empress and its passengers encounter other obstacles to make it difficult to evade their pursuers – including torn up tracks, the train’s nearly empty water tank, the train full of massacred passengers, a bomb-damaged viaduct/bridge and a spy in their midst. If I had a choice for my favorite action sequence, it would be the one in which the Empress of India passengers attempt to fix the sabotaged tracks in the middle of a gun battle. It is a pity that this incident occurred midway in the film.

More importantly, “FLAME OVER INDIA” is an excellent drama in which the political situation – the rebellion within Kishan’s province – served as a reflection of the divisions in British India around the turn of the 20th century and the Britons’ role in its origin. In fact, this topic manifested in a tense scene featuring an argument between Captain Scott and Peter van Leyden following the passengers’ discovery of the train massacre. Earlier, I had commented that “FLAME OVER INDIA” seemed to straddle between those rabidly pro-Imperial movies to those highly critical of British Empire. The quarrel between Captain Scott and van Leyden over the train massacre and British Imperial policy seemed to personify this “no Man’s Land” between the genre’s two styles. But the movie also featured other characters who seemed to represent not only these two positions on Imperial policies, but also that middle ground. Even Captain Scott’s characters seemed to be on the verge of that middle ground by the film’s end.

I have seen “FLAME OVER INDIA” on many occasions, but it finally occurred to me that it reminded me of another film. I noticed that one of the screenwriters was Frank Nugent, who had written the screenplays for several of John Ford’s movies between 1948 and 1963. Although Nugent never worked on one of Ford’s best films, “STAGECOACH”, I realized that “FLAME OVER INDIA” bore a strong resemblance to the Oscar winning 1939 film. Like “STAGECOACH”, this film is about a group of people who undertake a long-distance journey through dangerous territory. And like the 1939 movie, it is also a strong character study of people from different backgrounds, personalities and philosophies. Whereas “STAGECOACH” seemed more like an exploration of class (and regional) differences between late 19th century Americans, “FLAME OVER INDIA” is more of an exploration of the impact of the British Empire upon the movie’s main characters – the Europeans, one American, one Eurasian and two Asians. The ironic aspect of the film’s theme is that even young Kishan, who served mainly as the movie’s catalyst, had the last word about the British presence in India, near the end.

“FLAME OVER INDIA” struck me as a colorful looking film, thanks to its technical crew. The movie was shot at Pinewood Studios, and also on location in India and Spain. And I must say that cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth did a beautiful job with his photography for both locations. And I must admit that I really admired how he balanced his close-up, far-shots and zooming . . . especially during the film’s opening sequence that depicted the Muslim rebels overrunning the palace of Kishan’s father. I was also impressed by Frederick Wilson’s editing of J. Lee Thompson’s direction of the action sequences – especially the opening sequence and that featuring the repair of the damaged tracks. Between Thompson and Wilson, they managed to fill the movie with a great deal of action, suspense and drama. I also enjoyed Yvonne Caffin’s Edwardian costumes for the film. But like her work for the 1958 movie, “A NIGHT TO REMEMBER”, they did not strike me as particularly mind-blowing, but they certainly did not look cheap or straight out of a costume warehouse.

The 1959 movie did not exactly have a large cast . . . unless one would consider the number of extras. But I have to say that I did not have anything negative to say about the performances in “FLAME OVER INDIA”. The movie featured solid performances from the likes of Ian Hunter, Jack Gwillim, and Basil Hoskins. Both S.M. Asgaralli and Sam Chowdhary, who portrayed the two sepoys under Scott’s command, had spoken at least two or three lines between them and still managed to effectively convey the idea of competent soldiers. And Govind Raja Ross gave a very charming performance as the young Prince Kishan. He was not the best child actor I have ever seen, but I found him charming.

However, the film’s best performances came the major supporting cast members and the two leads. I cannot say that Ursula Jeans gave a complex performance. After all, I could never regard her character, Lady Windham, as flexible. But Jeans did an excellent job in conveying the conservative, yet ladylike “memsahib” of the British Empire. Eugene Deckers gave a very entertaining performance as the witty and cynical arms dealer, Mr. Peters. In fact, I would say that Deckers gave the most entertaining performance in the film. Wilfrid Hyde-White gave a charming, yet poignant performance as the mild-mannered, yet very open-minded government aide, Mr. Bridie. Hyde-White did such a good job in conveying his character’s likability that even a hostile character like Peter van Leyden recognized him for the tolerant person he was. While checking I.S. Johar’s filmography on the IMDB site, I noticed that he made very few English-speaking films, one of them being the 1978 Agatha Christie movie, “DEATH ON THE NILE”. Personally, I believe his role as the effervescent, yet skilled train engineer/driver, Gupta, to be a breath of fresh air, in compare to his role in the 1978 murder mystery. Johar not only gave a first-rate performance, he managed to create a crackling screen chemistry with leading man Kenneth More.

If I had my choice for the best performance in “FLAME OVER INDIA”, I would choose Herbert Lom’s portrayal of the biracial journalist, Peter van Leyden. Lom did an excellent job in conveying his character’s intelligence, penchant for confrontations and complex anger toward the British presence in India and European colonialism in general. Lom’s Peter van Leyden may have been an unpleasant character, but what he had to say about colonialism and the British attitude toward the subcontinent’s natives resonated with a great deal of truth. The producers of “FLAME OVER INDIA” had originally considered Olivia de Havilland for the role of Prince Kishan’s widowed governess, Mrs. Catherine Wyatt. However, the former was unavailable and they turned to American actress Lauren Bacall to portray the role. One would not expect an American character in a film set in British India. And yet . . . Bacall gave such a first-rate performance as the forthright, yet slightly cynical Mrs. Wyatt that I never gave it another thought. More importantly, she also managed to create a strong, yet natural screen chemistry with More, which took me by surprise. Speaking of Kenneth More, he gave a strong and intelligent performance as the movie’s leading character, Captain William Scott. In a way, More’s portrayal of Scott struck me as rather odd. Superficially, his Scott seemed like the typical British Army officer who believed in the righteousness of the British Empire and regarded its Indian subjects as children. And yet, Scott seemed to be a bit more complicated. He preached like a typically bigoted colonial and behaved like a more tolerant man who had a tight friendship with the likes of Gupta and treated the two sepoys (soldiers) under him as competent fighting men, instead of children who needed to be constantly supervised. Like I had said, More’s Scott proved to be something different from the usual military character in a British Imperial film. Then again, the movie had been made over a decade after India’s independence.

I may have a few quibbles about “FLAME OVER INDIA”, but overall I really enjoyed the film. It might be one of the few British Empire movies that I truly enjoyed before the more ambiguous Imperial films of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. The film’s screenwriters also created a first-rate adventure film that also proved to be a complex drama and character study. “FLAME OVER INDIA” also benefited from first-rate cinematography from the legendary Geoffrey Unsworth, excellent acting from a cast led by Kenneth More and Lauren Bacall, and superb direction from J. Lee Thompson. I believe there is nothing further for me to say.

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Favorite Episodes of “STAR TREK DEEP SPACE NINE” Season Three (1994-1995)

Below is a list of my favorite episodes from Season Three of “STAR TREK DEEP SPACE NINE”. Created by Rick Berman and Michael Piller; the series starred Avery Brooks as Commander Benjamin Siesko:

FAVORITE EPISODES OF “STAR TREK DEEP SPACE NINE” SEASON THREE (1994-1995)

1. (3.26) “The Adversary” – The Federation’s Ambassador Krajensky informs newly promoted Captain Benjamin Sisko that there has been a coup on Tzenketh. During the journey to Tzenketh, Sisko and the crew discover that a Changeling from the Dominion may be hiding aboard and sabotaging Deep Space Nine’s only ship, the U.S.S. Defiant. Lawrence Pressman guest-starred.

2. (3.09) “The Defiant” – Commander William Riker of the U.S.S. Enterprise shows up unannounced and the station’s second-in-command, Major Kira Nerys shows him the Defiant, where he reveals his true motives for coming to Deep Space Nine. Jonathan Frakes and Tricia O’Neil guest-starred.

3. (3.21) “The Die is Cast” – Former Cardassian spy-turned-tailor Elim Garak reluctantly tortures Odo for information to prove his loyalty to his former mentor, Enabran Tain, as a joint Tal Shiar/Obsidian Order attack on the Founders in the Omarian Nebula is underway, without Starfleet’s involvement. Paul Dooley and Leland Orser guest-starred.

4. (3.11-3.12) “Past Tense” – A transporter accident sends Sisko, Dr. Julian Bashir, and Lieutenant Jadzia Dax back to Earth’s dark past in the 21st century, a time just before the Bell riots, a violent civil disturbance in opposition to Sanctuaries which are controlled ghettos for the dispossessed. Bill Smitrovitch, Jim Metzler and Clint Howard guest-starred.

5. (3.19) “Through the Looking Glass” – Sisko is kidnapped and forced to impersonate his deceased mirror universe counterpart in order to convince Jennifer Sisko to defect to the Terran Rebellion. Felecia M. Bell and Tim Russ guest-starred.

Honorable Mention: (3.24) “Shakaar” – Vedek Kai Winn, who has become a political leader on Bajor, needs Kira to convince the former resistance leader Shakaar, now a farmer, to return soil reclamators needed elsewhere in Rakantha, which used to be Bajor’s most productive agricultural region. Duncan Regehr and William Lucking guest-starred.

Favorite Episodes of “INDIAN SUMMERS” (2015-2016)

Below is a list of my favorite episodes from the British television series, “INDIAN SUMMERS”. Created by Paul Rutman, the series starred Henry Lloyd-Hughes, Nikesh Patel, Jemima West and Julie Waters: 

FAVORITE EPISODES OF “INDIAN SUMMERS” (2015-2016)

1. (1.10) “Episode Ten” – In this Season One finale, the fate of convicted Indian businessman Ramu Sood is left in the hands of Civil Service official in Simla, Ralph Whelan, after it is discovered that the latter’s servant had killed the woman named Jaya, who was Ralph’s former lover.

1 - 2.09 Winner Takes All

2. (2.09) “Winner Takes All” – In the Season Two penultimate episode, Civil Service employee Aafrin Dalal sets up his plans to elope with Alice Whelan Havistock, his employer and Ralph’s sister, and rescue her from her abusive husband, Charlie Havistock. Meanwhile, Ralph fails to become India’s next viceroy.

3. (1.01) “Episode One” – The series premiere opened with the arrival of many British citizens, their servants and officials of the Indian Civil Service to Simla. The train to Simla is delayed when a boy is found collapsed on the railway tracks, while a mysterious assassin makes his way to the city.

4. (1.08) “Episode Eight” – Simla’s British community turn out in force for Ramu’s murder trial. The latter’s British employee, Ian McCleod, is wracked with guilt about his part in Ramu’s arrest and an employee of the local orphanage, Leena Prasad, is torn apart in the witness box.

2 - 2.04 The Empty Chair

5. (2.04) “The Empty Chair” – While Aafrin and Alice conduct their affair, the former’s sister, Sooni Dalal forces him to reveal his involvement in the Independence Party and the murder of a fellow activist named Kaira. Meanwhile, Ralph’s wife, Madeleine Whelan organizes a fashion show for the Royal Simla Club. And Lord Hawthorne becomes the target of a violent act and suspicion falls upon a local woman named Leena Prasad, whom he had hired as his children’s nanny and toward whom he has lustful designs.

Favorite Television Productions Set in the 1930s

Below is a list of my favorite television productions (so far) that are set in the 1930s: 

FAVORITE TELEVISION PRODUCTIONS SET IN THE 1930s

1. “Agatha Christie’s Poirot” (1989-2013) – David Suchet starred as Agatha Chrsitie’s most famous sleuth, Hercule Poirot, in this long-running series that adapted her Poirot novels and short stories.

2. “Moviola: The Scarlett O’Hara War” (1980) – Tony Curtis starred as David O. Selznick in the second episode of the miniseries, “Moviola”. The television movie featured Selznick’s search for the right actress to portray the leading character in his movie adaptation of “Gone With the Wind”.

3. “Edward & Mrs. Simpson” (1978) – Edward Fox and Cynthia Harris starred the 1978 adaptation of the events leading to the 1936 abdication of King Edward VIII of Great Britain. The seven-part miniseries was based upon Frances Donaldson’s 1974 biography.

4. “Mildred Pierce” – Todd Haynes directed and co-wrote this television adaptation of James M. Cain’s 1940 novel about a middle-class divorcee, who struggles to maintain her family’s position during the Great Depression and earn her narcissist older daughter’s respect. Emmy winners Kate Winslet, Guy Pearce and Emmy nominee Evan Rachel Wood starred.

5. “Upstairs, Downstairs” (2010-2012) – Heidi Thomas created this continuation of the 1971-1975 series about the Hollands and their servants, the new inhabitants at old Bellamy residence at 105 Eaton Place. Jean Marsh, Keely Hawes, Ed Stoppard and Claire Foy starred.

6. “And Then There Were None” (2015) – Sarah Phelps produced and wrote this television adaptation of Agatha Christie’s 1939 novel. Craig Viveiros directed.

7. “The Last Tycoon” (2016-2017) – Billy Ray created this television adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s unfinished novel about a Hollywood producer during the mid-1930s. Matt Bomer starred.

8. “Indian Summers” (2015-2016) – Paul Rutman created this series about the British community’s summer residence at Simla during the British Raj of the 1930s. The series starred Henry Lloyd-Hughes, Nikesh Patel, Jemima West and Julie Walters.

9. “Damnation” (2017-2018) Tony Tost created this series about the labor conflicts in the Midwest, during the Great Depression. Killian Scott and Logan Marshall-Green starred.

10. “The Lot” (1999-2001) – This series centered around a fictional movie studio called Sylver Screen Pictures during the late 1930s. The series was created by Rick Mitz.

“The Moral Landscape of the STAR WARS Saga” – Jar-Jar Binks

Here is the seventh article on moral ambiguity found in the STAR WARS saga: 

 

 

“The Moral Landscape of the STAR WARS Saga”

Jar-Jar Binks

I have encountered many articles on the Internet about why many fans consider the “STAR WARS” Prequel movies a failure. A number of these articles tend to be dominated by opinions on what was wrong with the Gungan character known as Jar-Jar Binks and why he is so hated.

First of all, what was really wrong with Jar-Jar Binks? Well . . . I have several opinions. And they are not pretty. One, Jar-Jar clumsy and naive. Jar-Jar’s clumsiness had irked Boss Nass and the other Gungans for years. And when the young Gungan wrecked the Boss’ personal heyblibber submarine, the latter had him banished from Otoh Gunga, the city underneath Naboo’s waters. In “STAR WARS: EPISODE I – THE PHANTOM MENACE”, Jar-Jar’s meeting with Jedi Master Qui-Gon Jinn and Jedi padawan Obi-Wan Kenobi, the adventures he shared with them and his participation in the Battle of Naboo, allowed Jar-Jar to resume his position within Gungan society.

Many fans still solely blame Jar-Jar for Chancellor Sheev Palpatine’s growing political power, when he, as the Junior Representative for Naboo in the Galactic Senate, had proposed that the Sith Lord receive emergency executive powers during the political crisis leading up to the Clone Wars in “STAR WARS: EPISODE II – ATTACK OF THE CLONES”. But other Star Wars characters had committed their own share of mistakes – including those Original Trilogy characters worshiped by the franchise’s fans. Naboo’s Queen Padmé Amidala (later Senator) had declared a no-confidence vote against Chancellor Finis Valorum in “STAR WARS: EPISODE I – THE PHANTOM MENACE”, unintentionally paving the way for Palpatine’s election as the Galactic Republic’s chancellor. The Original Trilogy leads had committed their own mistakes – especially in “STAR WARS: EPISODE V – THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK”. Padmé was never crucified by the fans for her mistake in “THE PHANTOM MENACE”. As far as many are concerned, her only mistake was marrying then Jedi padawan Anakin Skywalker (the future Darth Vader) in “ATTACK OF THE CLONES”. Many fans have been willing to criticize Padmé, Anakin and many other Prequel Trilogy characters. But I do not ever recall any of them being crucified for their flaws and mistakes like Jar-Jar. I could almost say the same about the Original Trilogy leads. However, very few STAR WARS have been willing to even acknowledge their mistakes.

So, why had so many fans had dumped so much hatred upon Jar-Jar’s head? Why do they still crucify him in such an excessive manner? Many claimed that due to Jar-Jar’s naivety and clumsiness and especially his dialect that seemed to resemble a Caribbean patois, Jar-Jar was a racist fictional trope. The ironic thing is that actor Ahmed Best, who is African-American, was responsible for the creation of the Gungan dialect, not George Lucas. Best, who had initially been hired to provide Jar-Jar’s motion capture performance, was the one who had created Jar-Jar’s speech pattern. He was also the one who had convinced Lucas to allow him to also provide the character’s voice. Because of this, I have a great difficulty in agreeing with those criticisms that Jar-Jar was a racist trope. Unless this accusation stemmed from the fact that an African-American actor had provided the character’s voice. For me, that says a lot about many moviegoers and film critics and not the character or Lucas.

Had Jar-Jar’s lack of social graces created so much hatred from certain fans?After all, he was clumsy and naive. Considering that the franchise’s biggest fans tend to be “geeks”, did many of these fans (who tend to be the loudest on the Internet) view Jar-Jar of their own personal flaws? Or lack of social graces? Was that another reason why they hated him so much? He reminded them too much of themselves? I can understand why many of these fans would rather associate themselves with characters that are regarded as “cool” or “ideal”, instead of a character who may have possibly been a reflection of themselves.

There is also the consideration that Jar-Jar was a part of the Prequel Trilogy. And in the eyes of the Darth Media and rabid fanboys, anything or any character that originated with the Prequel Trilogy was bad. It is still bad, as far as they are concerned. Why? Even more so than the Original Trilogy or the Sequel Trilogy, the Prequel Trilogy seemed to come closer to being a TRUE reflection of mankind and its societies’ ambiguous nature. For me, watching a Prequel Trilogy movie seemed to be the equivalent of a human being looking into a mirror and seeing his or her true self. And for some reason, this seemed to bother many fans. Most of their complaints about the Prequel Trilogy seemed to stem from this ambiguity. The only STAR WARS movies that seemed to have come close to the Prequel movies’s ambiguity are “THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK” and “ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY”. These films did not allow moviegoers allowed their characters to make some ambiguous decisions without being painted as “heroic” or “cool”. Nor did these movies have their characters triumph in the end.

In a way, both Jar-Jar Binks and the STAR WARS Prequel Trilogy seemed like a true reflection of humanity. Jar-Jar’s clumsiness and naivety could easily be a reflection of the same level of social graces as many of the franchise’s fans. And the Prequel Trilogy definitely struck me as a reflection of our societies throughout history. As I finish this article, I find myself wondering if this is more of a exploration of the STAR WARS fandom’s ambiguity than of Jar-Jar’s character. Because I find these fans’ hatred of Jar-Jar rather disturbing . . . and odd.

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“DRAGONWYCK” (1946) Review




“DRAGONWYCK” (1946) Review

Being an aficionado of old Hollywood period dramas, I noticed that it was rare to find movies set in the antebellum North. Very rare. I have tried to think of how many of these films I have come across. And to be honest, I can only think of four or five so far, in compare to the numerous films set in the antebellum South. One of those Northern antebellum tales proved to be the 1946 movie, “DRAGONWYCK”

Based upon Anya Seton’s 1944 novel, adapted by Joseph L. Mankiewicz and directed by him; “DRAGONWYCK” began in 1844 Greenwich, Connecticut; when Miranda Wells, the daughter of a religious farm couple, receives a letter from distant cousin Nicholas Van Ryn. Nicholas, the autocratic and charming owner (Patroon) of a Hudson River Valley estate called Dragonwyck, asks if one of Ephraim and Abigail’s daughters could act as governess for his eight year-old daughter, Katrine. Miranda, who daydreams about a more romantic and luxurious lifestyle, manages to convince her doubting parents to let her go.

Upon her arrival at Dragonwyck, Miranda meets the young Katrine and Nicholas’ wife, a gluttonous, yet slightly high-strong woman named Johanna. She also meets the handsome local doctor, Dr. Jeff Turner, at the “kermess” – a ceremony where landowner Nicholas receives the rents of his tenants. Not only does Miranda become aware of the strange atmosphere at Dragonwyck and the tense relationship between Nicholas and his tenants; she also finds herself falling in love with her cousin and employer . . . and he with her. This budding relationship between the pair proves to be quite disastrous for all concerned.

After my second viewing of “DRAGONWYCK”, I realized that I could never regard it as a personal favorite. The writing for some of the film’s supporting characters struck me as theatrical and one-dimensional. Unfortunately, I have to include the Ephraim Wells character, who came off as a clichéd version of the 19th century religious American male and Peggy, the young maid loyal to Miranda. During the film’s third act, the narrative revealed that Nicholas Van Ryn’s lack of religious belief. Was this supposed to cap his position as an immoral and villainous man? Because honestly . . . I realized that I could not care less about his lack of belief. And I found it ridiculous that his status as a non-believer was supposed to be a sign of his villainy. I understand. Perhaps the majority of moviegoers felt differently in 1946. Needless to say, this aspect of Nicholas’ character did not age well over the past 72 to 73 years. I was not that impressed by the film’s finale in which Nicholas had a showdown with his discontented tenants. Although it featured an excellent performance by Vincent Price, I found the actual sequence a bit anti-climatic. I noticed that the film’s ending was different from the one written by Anya Seton. However, I found Seton’s ending in the novel more dramatic, but somewhat ludicrous. I could see why Mankiewicz had changed the ending.

Although I could never regard “DRAGONWYCK” as a personal favorite of mine, I must admit that I found it to be a rather first-rate film. The movie – the story itself – struck me as a prime example of American Gothic literature. In fact, I would go as far to claim that the narrative almost reminds me of Charlotte Brontë’s 1847 novel, “Jane Eyre”, but with a darker twist. Unlike Brontë’s tale, “DRAGONWYCK” included the specter of murder and class conflict. The latter included the historical conflict known as the Anti-Rent War, in which tenants in upstate New York revolted and declared their independence from the manor system operated by patroons, by resisting tax collectors and successfully demanding land reform between 1839 and 1845.

One would think that the Miranda Wells character would be the narrative’s center or force. A part of me feels sad that I cannot make that claim. For the most interesting aspect of “DRAGONWYCK” proved to be the Nicholas Van Ryn character. Was he supposed to be a mere villain? If a person viewed him from how he had ended his marriage to the voracious Johanna, he or she could regard him as such. On the other hand, I found it difficult to regard his refusal to embrace his wife’s new-founded religious fervor as monstrous. Which meant that in the end, Nicholas became something of a repellent, yet fascinating character to me. A true force of nature. I wish I could have said the same about Miranda. I found her charming and extroverted, but after her marriage to Nicholas turned sour, she became something of an annoyance. Being the offspring of religious parents, I was not surprised that she eventually turned to religion. But I found it annoying that religious fervor was the only literary device used to develop her character and nothing else. Nicholas, on the other hand, proved to be a lot more complex.

A part of me wishes that “DRAGONWYCK” had been filmed in Technicolor. It would have been interesting to view Twentieth Century-Fox’s version of antebellum New York State in color. Especially the Hudson River Valley. I am not begrudging Arthur C. Miller’s cinematography. His work for the film’s interior shots, especially those for the Dragonwyck manor had provided a great deal of atmosphere, adding to the film’s Gothic narrative. But I was not that impressed by the exterior shots. I must admit that I have no memories of the film’s score by Alfred Newman. I thought Lyle R. Wheeler and J. Russell Spencer’s art direction, along with Thomas Little’s set decorations were excellent . . . especially for the Dragonwyck manor and New York City hotel’s interiors. However, I truly enjoyed René Hubert’s beautiful costume designs for the movie. Were they accurate examples of mid-1840s fashion? I have my doubts. But as the images below reveal, they were gorgeous:

 

I might as well focus on the movie’s actual performances. Were there any bad performances? No. “DRAGONWYCK” can honestly boast some solid or excellent performances. The supporting cast featured some solid performances from the likes of Harry Morgan as one of Nicholas’ angry tenants, Connie Marshall as Nicholas’ daughter Katrine, and Trudy Marshall as neighbor Elizabeth Van Borden. Future Oscar winner Jessica Tandy’s portrayal of Miranda’s Irish-born maid Peggy O’Malley struck me as a bit theatrical. I could also say the same about another future Oscar winner Walter Huston, who portrayed Miranda’s religious father Ephraim Wells. Anne Revere’s portrayal of Miranda’s mother Abigail Wells seemed a lot more subtle . . . and skillful. Spring Byington portrayed the Van Ryns’ manipulative and slightly creepy maid Magda. A part of me wondered if it was Mankiewicz or Seton’s intention to create a more benign version of the Mrs. Danvers character from “REBECCA”. Vivienne Osborne, on the other hand, gave a very skillful performance as Nicholas’ first wife, the gluttonous and insecure Johanna Van Ryn. I did not know whether to share Nicholas’ disgust for her or feel any sympathy toward her for being married to a creep.

I was prepared to dismiss Glenn Langan’s performance as the handsome local physician, Dr. Jeff Turner, who befriends Miranda. I had assumed that he would be another one of those bland leading men that the Hollywood system tried to transform into a movie star. After my recent viewing of “DRAGONWYCK”, I realized that Langan gave an interesting performance by skillfully conveying Jeff’s barely concealed anger toward Nicholas’ arrogance. However, my vote for the best performance would go to Vincent Price’s portrayal of Nicholas Van Ryn. I thought he gave a brilliant and dynamic performance as the arrogant, yet charismatic Nicholas, whose villainy proved to be rather enigmatic. Gene Tierney did an excellent job in carrying the film as the lead Miranda Wells. I was very impressed by her portrayal of the more ebullient and naive Miranda during the first two-thirds of the film. But once Miranda’s marriage to Nicholas began to fail, Tierney’s portrayal of the character fell flat. I do not blame her. I blame the manner in which the character had become one-dimensional, thanks to Anya Seton’s novel and Joseph Mankiewicz’s screenplay.

Overall, I rather enjoyed “DRAGONWYCK”. It was not perfect. No film is. But I was a little put off by some theatrical acting in the film, the decline of the Miranda Wells character and the writing overall during the movie’s final fifteen to twenty minutes. But I must admit I enjoyed most of the film’s narrative. Many would dismiss it as costume melodrama. Personally, I see no reason to dismiss melodrama. It can be appreciated, if written well like other forms of fiction. Thanks to Joseph Mankiewicz’s screenplay and direction, along with a competent cast led by Gene Tierney and Vincent Price; “DRAGONWYCK” proved to be more entertaining than I had previously surmised.

Top Favorite U.S. CIVIL WAR Novels

Below is a current list of my top favorite novels set during the U.S. Civil War: 

TOP FAVORITE U.S. CIVIL WAR NOVELS

1. “Love and War” (1984) by John Jakes – This is the second of a trilogy about two wealthy American families – the Hazards of Pennsylvania and the Mains of South Carolina – during the mid-19th century. This superb novel is about the two families’ experiences during the U.S. Civil War.

2. “The Beguiled” (1966) by Thomas Cullinan – A wounded Union soldier ends up in the care of the occupants of an all girls’ school in Virginia, during the Civil War; and ends up having an emotional impact on both students and teachers.

3. “The Killer Angels” (1974) by Michael Shaara – This historical novel about the Gettysburg Campaign during the summer of 1863 won the Pulitzer Prize For Fiction in 1975.

4. “The Titans” (1976) by John Jakes – This fifth novel in Jakes’ “Kent Family Chronicles” told the story of various members of the Kent family and their experiences during the first few months of the U.S. Civil War.

5. “Lincoln: A Novel” (1984) by Gore Vidal – Part of Vidal’s “Narratives of Empire” series, this novel told the story of President Abraham Lincoln’s presidency via the eyes of various historical figures.

6. “Freedom” (1987) by William Safire – This novel focused on the first two years of the U.S. Civil War via the eyes of historical figures as they grapple with the dilemmas of political morality raised by secession and war.

7. “Cold Mountain” (1997) by Charles Frazier – The author won the U.S. National Book Award for Fiction for this tale about a Confederate Army deserter during the last year of the Civil War who walks for months to return to the love of his life in North Carolina.

8. “Unto This Hour” (1984) by Tom Wicker – This novel recounted five long during the Second Battle of Bull Run campaign via several characters.

9. “The Last Full Measure” (2000) by Jeff Shaara – The author wrote this sequel to his father’s novel, “The Killer Angels”, about the last two years of the Civil War.

10. “Grant’s War” (1992) by Ted Jones – This novel proved to be an interesting take on the “mock documentary” in which an early 20th historian interviews several Civil War veterans on how General Ulysses Grant conducted the war.