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.

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“THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E.” (2015) Review

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“THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E.” (2015) Review

The year 2015 seemed to be a big year for cinematic spies. At least three movies have been released about the world of espionage. And one is scheduled to be released some three months from now. One of the movies that was already released was Guy Ritchie’s big screen adaptation of the NBC 1964-1968 television series called “THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E.”.

The television series from the 1960s began with its two main characters – Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuryakin – already working for the international intelligence agency called U.N.C.L.E. (United Network Command for Law and Enforcement). Ritchie’s film is basically an origin story and tells how Napoleon and Illya first became partners in the espionage business. Set in 1963, “THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E.” begins in East Berlin, where professional thief-turned-C.I.A. Agent Napoleon Solo is tasked with retrieving a young woman named Gaby Teller and escorting her to West Berlin. Gaby is the daughter of an alleged Nazi scientist-turned-U.S. collaborator, who has disappeared a year or two ago from the United States. Tasked with stopping Napoleon from achieving his goal is a highly skilled K.G.B. agent named Illya Kuryakin.

Although Napoleon’s mission is a success, he is ordered by his C.I.A. handler Saunders to work with Illya and Gaby to investigate a shipping company owned by Alexander and Victoria Vinciguerra, a wealthy couple of Nazi sympathizers. Due to the couple’s intent to create their own private nuclear weapon, the C.I.A. and K.G.B. have decided to make this operation a joint effort. Gaby becomes essential to the mission, since her uncle Rudi works for the Vinciguerras.

Mixed reviews greeted “THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E.” when it first hit the theaters. Well, according to Wikipedia, the movie achieved mixed reviews. Judging from box office results, the movie barely made a profit. It seemed a pity that not many moviegoers were willing to take a chance on this film. Then again, I am not that surprised. Warner Brothers Studios barely made any effort to publicize this movie. And this was a mistake in my eyes. Today’s generation of young moviegoers are not familiar with the 1960s television series. In fact, the series had not been seen on the television screen since TNT Channel aired a handful of episodes back in 1996. The studio could have stepped up its game in publicizing the film. They could have also used re-released box sets of the old series at a reasonable price as tie-ins. And some moviegoers old enough to remember Norman Felton’s series, complained that the movie was not an exact replica. I have nothing to say about that. Well, I do. But that will come later.

“THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E.” is not perfect. Actually, what movie is? And I do have one or two minor complaints and a major one. Okay, minor complaints. I was not that impressed by Daniel Pemberton’s score for the movie’s second half. I found it overbearing to the point that it nearly distracted me from the plot. My second complaint revolved around James Herbert’s editing. Well, I was impressed with his editing in most of the film . . . especially the car chase in East Berlin and the sequence featuring Napoleon and Illya’s break-in of the Vinciguerras’s shipyard. But I was not impressed by Herbert’s editing in the final action sequence featuring Napoleon and Illya’s attempt to rescue Gaby from a fleeing Alexander Vinciguerra. I found it slightly confusing and thought it had too many close ups. In fact, the sequence reminded me – in a negative way – of Paul Greengrass’ direction of the second and third “BOURNE” movies.

However, my main beef with “THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E.” proved to be Joanna Johnston’s costume designs. The movie is supposed to be set in 1963. The costumes DID NOT reflect the fashions of that year. I kid you not. The following image is an example of women’s fashion in 1963:

Look at the images of Alicia Vikander and Elizabeth Debecki:

I cannot deny that Joanna Johnston’s designs are both original and gorgeous to look at. But . . . they are not a reflection of the movie’s 1963 setting. Judging from Vikander and Debecki’s costumes, I would say that the movie was actually set some time between 1968 and 1970 or 1971. And in the end, the movie’s costumes only reminded me of the costume mistakes featured in the 2011 movie, “X-MEN: FIRST-CLASS”.

I certainly had no problem with the movie’s plot written by Guy Ritchie and Lionel Wigram. In fact, I rather enjoyed it. I have always wondered how Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuryakin first met and started working for U.N.C.L.E. The television series never revealed this history, considering it began with the pair already working for the agency. And Rictchie and Wigram’s plot more than satisfied my curiosity. They made some changes from the television series. One, Napoleon became a former thief whom the C.I.A. blackmailed into working for them in exchange for avoiding prison. In some ways, this newly imagined Napoleon Solo reminded me of the Alexander Mundy character from the 1968-1970 television series, “IT TAKES A THIEF”. The Illya Kuryakin character underwent a few changes as well. He remained a somewhat stoic anduber professional agent, with a penchant for the occasional sardonic humor. But Ritchie and Wigram gave him a fearsome temper that was usually triggered by anything relating to his father, who had been dishonored by a scandal during World War II.

Ritchie and Wigram’s script not only utilized a bit of “IT TAKES A THIEF”, but also some characters from the TV version of “THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E.” It seemed obvious to me that the Victoria and Alexander Vinciguerra were based on the Gervaise Ravel and Harold Bufferton characters that were portrayed by Anne Francis and John Van Dreelan in two Season One episodes. And fighting neo-Nazis is a theme that has permeated many spy movies and television shows throughout the years. Especially neo-Nazis with nuclear weapons. In fact, I just saw a Season One episode of the 60s’ series called (1.05) “The Deadly Games Affair” in which a former Nazi who tried to kick start a crazy plot to bring back the former glory of Hitler’s party. For “THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E.”, I thought Ritchie and Wigram created an interesting twist on theme, by incorporating the Swinging Sixties scene in Europe . . . especially through characters like Victoria Vinciguerra and Gaby’s Uncle Rudi. As for the movie’s dialogue . . . well, I just adored it. I especially adored the interaction between Napoleon and Illya – especially in one scene in which they argued over the right wardrobe for Gaby to wear during their mission.

Speaking of performances, I tried to recall a performance that seemed . . . well, off kilter or just plain bad. Perhaps other critics came across such performances. I did not. Armie Hammer had an interesting task in his portrayal of K.G.B. agent Illya Kuryakin. He had the difficult task of conveying many aspects of Illya’s personality – his no-nonsense attitude, ruthlessness, emotional streak and barely controllable temper. And he did it . . . with great skill. I cannot recall if David McCallum ever had to deal with such an array of personality traits and blend them so seamlessly. Henry Cavill made an extremely charming Napoleon Solo. More importantly, he did an excellent job in conveying the character’s talent for manipulation and judge of character. I realize that his Napoleon Solo seemed more like an adaptation of the Alexander Mundy character. But watching his performance made me realize how much he reminded me of Robert Vaughn’s performance in the NBC series. Alicia Vikander, who portrayed Gaby Teller, proved to be such a surprise for me. One must understand that I have never seen “A ROYAL AFFAIR”. And I honestly do not recall her performance in “THE FIFTH ESTATE”. But I was very impressed by her performance as East German defector Gaby Teller, who turned out to be vital to Napoleon and Illya’s mission. Vikander connected very well with both of her leading men, especially Hammer. And she did a great job in conveying Gaby’s intelligence, toughness and strong will.

Hugh Grant pretty much took me by surprise with his performance as Alexander Waverly, the head of U.N.C.L.E. He was charming and witty, as usual. Of course, as usual. He is Hugh Grant. But he was also effective and projected a strong presence as U.N.C.L.E.’s pragmatic leader, who is ruthless enough to make some tough choices. When I first saw Elizabeth Debicki in “THE GREAT GATSBY”, I was very impressed by her performance. I was even more impressed by her portrayal of the villainous Victoria Vinciguerra. She conveyed a great deal of charm, style and wit in her performance. I also thought Debicki made a scary villain. Hell, she was one of the scariest villains of the Summer 2015 season. I was surprised to see Sylvester Groth, who played Gaby’s Fascist uncle. The last time I saw him, he portrayed Nazi Joseph Goebbels in 2009’s “INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS”. And he was funnier. He was a bit more scary as Gaby’s snobbish, yet sadistic Uncle Rudi. But he was also very funny . . . especially in his last scene in the movie. The movie also featured Jared Harris, whose take on a C.I.A. station chief seemed more like a spoof on American authority figures, along with solid performances from Luca Calvani, Simona Caparrini and Christian Berkel (who also appeared in “INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS”.

“THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E.” had a few flaws. This is to be expected for just about any movie. And yes, I realize that it is not an exact replica of the NBC 1964-1968 series. Mind you, I could care less, for I believe originality is more important than repetition. And that is what I liked about “THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E.” Director Guy Ritchie and co-writer Lionel Wigram took an old television series and put their own original spin on it. And they were ably supported by a first-rate cast led by Armie Hammer and Henry Cavill.

“THE BLUE AND THE GRAY” (1982) Review

“THE BLUE AND THE GRAY” (1982) Review

In 1982, CBS television aired a three-part miniseries about the experiences of two families during the Civil War. Sounds familiar? It should, for John Jakes had wrote something similar in three novels between 1982 and 1987 – namely the ”NORTH AND SOUTH” Trilogy. Jakes’ novels were adapted for television in 1985, 1986 and 1994. However this miniseries was produced by Larry White and Lou Reda. And despite the mildly similar theme to the ”NORTH AND SOUTH” saga, there are some vast differences. 

”THE BLUE AND THE GRAY” had not been based upon any particular novel or series of novels. Instead, it was based upon a story concept by Bruce Catton, a famous historian who had written a book on the Civil War with the same title. As I had stated before, the miniseries told the story of two families and their experiences between 1859 and 1865. The two families in question are the Geysers and the Hales. The Geyers and the Hales are linked by two sisters portrayed by Colleen Dewhurst and Diane Baker. Although the miniseries revealed the families’ experiences via many characters, the two main characters in the story are John Geyser (John Hammond), who is the third son of the Virginia Geysers and Jonas Steele (Stacy Keach), a former Pinkerton agent and abolitionist who befriends John and marries the latter’s Pennsylvania cousin, Mary Hale (Julia Duffy).

Many sagas about the Civil War – especially those on television – tend to focus upon wealthy families or those from exclusive families. Prime examples of this would be ”GONE WITH THE WIND”, the ”NORTH AND SOUTH” Trilogy, ”BEULAH LAND” and ”LOUISIANA””THE BLUE AND THE GRAY” took another route in which its main characters hailed from a middle-class background. The patriarchs of the two families seemed to reek of the middle class. As I had earlier pointed out, John Geyer’s father was a middling farmer named Ben Geyser (Lloyd Bridges). And his uncle by marriage – Jacob Hale Sr. (Robin Gammell) – happens to be the owner and editor-in-chief of a small newspaper in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.

Even after twenty-six years, I still enjoy ”THE BLUE AND THE GRAY”. It has not lost its allure one bit. It rarely played footloose with history. And aside from the miniseries’ last fifteen to twenty minutes, it managed to maintain a brisk pace despite being at least eight (8) hours. The two leads – John Hammond and Stacy Keach managed to create an excellent chemistry and it was easy to view the pair as close friends. And both men were ably supported by a first-class cast. But amongst them, I was especially impressed by the performances of Julia Duffy as Mary Hale – John’s cousin and Jonas’ wife; Brian Kerwin as Malachy Hale, Mary’s oldest brother; Cooper Huckabee as Matthew Geyser, John’s oldest brother; Dan Shor as Luke Geyser, John’s irrepressible younger brother; and Gerald S. O’Loughlin as the Hale brothers’ sergeant, O’Toole. I also have to commend upon Gregory Peck’s steady, yet humorous take on Abraham Lincoln and Sterling Hayden for refraining from an over-the-top performance, while portraying abolitionist John Brown.

Someone once complained that the battle sequences in ”THE BLUE AND THE GRAY” came off as rather bloodless. I found this complaint a little ridiculous, considering that this story was presented as an eight-hour television miniseries, rather than a theatrical movie. Besides, I saw plenty of blood in the miniseries. But two of the most chilling scenes in ”THE BLUE AND THE GRAY” barely featured any blood:

*John Geyser’s brother Mark (Michael Horton) found himself badly wounded during the Battle of the Wilderness, while the woods surrounding him burn from shellfire.

*John’s close friend, a free black named Jonathan Henry (Paul Winfield), is lynched for helping two runaway slaves by a local slave patrol led by a fanatical pro-slavery preacher (Warren Oates). What is amazing about this scene is that it happened partially off screen.

As much as I like ”THE BLUE AND THE GRAY”, it does have its flaws. My main complaint about the miniseries has a lot to do with the vast number of extras and minor characters in the story. Granted, there are some minor characters portrayed by veteran character actors like Rory Calhoun, Christopher Stone, Julius W. Harris and Geraldine Page. Unfortunately, their presence could not hide the number of amateur . . . or should I say very untalented actors and actresses in minor roles. A prime example would be a nameless actor who portrayed a patriotic Union officer that John Geyser met at the Willard’s Hotel. And there was the actor who portrayed Confederate general Barnard Bee, whose declaration of a famous line was at best hammy. I have no idea why producers White and Reda had hired these people in the first place. Perhaps they were desperate to fill as many roles as possible.

Another problem I had was the romance between John Geyser and the daughter of a Massachusetts senator named Kathy Reynolds, portrayed by Kathleen Beller. Quite frankly, they made quite a boring pair. There is nothing more boring than a couple consisted by two people inclined to be reserved. Superficially, they looked cute. Individually, both John Hammond and Beller gave very solid performances. But as an on-screen romantic pair . . . they bored the pants off me.

One last problem with the miniseries centered on its last half hour. Its coverage of the war’s last months dragged incessantly. This period stretched from John, Emma and Jonah’s efforts to free John and Emma’s younger brother Luke from prison in Fort Elmira, New York; to the aftermath of President Lincoln’s asassination. The pacing during this sequence was incredibly slow and it took a great deal of effort on my part just to stay awake. The only segment that struck me as interesting during this sequence was Jonah and John’s failed efforts to prevent the president’s asassination.

But ”THE BLUE AND THE GRAY” had some memorable scenes. Two of them featured actor Cooper Huckabee. Portraying the oldest Geyser sibling Matthew, I believe that he gave the best performance. And Huckabee had the opportunity to shine in the following scenes:

*A brief, yet emotional reunion between Matthew and John Geyser (Hammond) in the lines right outside Vicksburg, Mississippi.

*Matthew’s death, following a minor battle at the Geyser Farm (beautifully acted by Huckabee).

And there were other memorable scenes, as well. There was what I consider to be the two funniest in the entire miniseries – namely Malachai Hale’s hilarious encounter with a Confederate soldier, while both were trying to hide from a battle; and the barn dance behind enemy lines that the Hale brothers and John Geyser had attended at the invitation of John’s younger brother Luke (Dan Shor), a mischievous Confederate soldier. The latter scene also featured Canadian actor Duncan Regehr (”Zorro”) as a Confederate officer, affronted at the idea of two Union soldiers and a correspondent behind enemy lines at a barn dance. I also enjoyed the scene featuring the Hale family witnessing a speech by President-elect Lincoln at a whistle stop in Southern Pennsylvania. And both the lynching of Jonathan Henry and the entire Battle of the Wilderness sequence seemed both poignant, yet too harrowing to believe.

It seems a shame that ”THE BLUE AND THE GRAY” is barely mentioned by film critics or fans in regard to Civil War movies in the theaters or television. Quite frankly, it is one of the better ones I have ever seen. It gave a view of the late antebellum period and the Civil War through the eyes of the masses rarely seen in movies like ”GONE WITH THE WIND”or the ”NORTH AND SOUTH” trilogy. I heartily recommend it.