“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.

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“BROKEN LANCE” (1954) Review

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“BROKEN LANCE” (1954) Review

Six years had passed since I last saw a movie based upon a William Shakespeare play. Needless to say, I was not that impressed by it. In fact, I went out of my way to avoid another cinematic adaptation of one of the playwright’s works for years. Image my surprise when I discovered that the 1954 movie movie, “BROKEN LANCE” proved to be another.

Although set in the Old West of the 1880s, “BROKEN LANCE” is based upon elements from Shakespeare’s 1606 play,“King Lear”. It is also a remake of the 1949 movie, “HOUSE OF STRANGERS”, but critics have found connections to the play a lot stronger in the 1954 Western. The latter told the story of an Arizona cattle baron named Matt Devereaux, who has tried to raise his four sons – Ben, Mike, Denny and Joe – with the same hard-working spirit that has made him a successful rancher. However, Devereaux had never learned to express affection to his three older sons, as a consequence. His marriage to a Native American woman resulted in a fourth son – the mixed-blood Joe, to whom he was affectionate. Matt’s “tough love” attitude and affection toward Joe led the other three sons to harbor resentment toward their father and racial prejudice toward their half-brother. After disrupting a cattle rustling attempt by his sons, Mike and Denny, Devereaux discovers that 40 of his cattle had died from a polluted stream. He and his sons also discover that a copper mine, located 20 miles away, is responsible for the pollution. Devereaux’s violent reaction to his discovery will not only lead to legal ramifications, but also further disruptions and tragedy.

I have never read “King Lear” or seen any of the screen adaptations of the actual play. Nor have I ever seen “HOUSE OF STRANGERS”. So, I have nothing to compare “BROKEN LANCE” with. All I can say that I enjoyed most of the film and was especially impressed by the film’s strong characterizations. Despite its Old West setting, “BROKEN LANCE” is not your typical Western. In fact, it is easy to see that it is basically a character drama. One might add there are plenty of Westerns that feature strong character drama. True. But aside from a minor gunfight and a brawl in one of the movie’s final scenes, this is no real action in “BROKEN LANCE”. This is a drama set in the Old West. I had no problem with this. Why? Because “BROKEN LANCE” is basically a damn good story about the disintegration of a family. What makes“BROKEN LANCE” a tragedy is that Matt Devereaux is responsible. That “hard-working” spirit that led him to become a wealthy cattle baron and dominate his family, also led his three older sons to dislike and resent him. Devereaux’s “spirit” also affected his business operation, took away three years of his youngest son’s life and in the end, even affected his oldest son.

I was also impressed by how the movie handled the topic of racism in this film. Granted, all of the non-white characters in the film seemed ideally likable – something that human beings of all ethnic and racial groups are incapable of being on a 24/7 basis. But at least they were not portrayed as simple-minded or childlike. Joe Devereaux came the closest to being naive, but that was due to his age. And even he developed into a more hardened personality. One of the best scenes that conveyed the racism that permeated in 1880s Arizona Territory featured Matt Devereaux being asked by the Territorial Governor to keep Joe from furthering any romance with the latter’s daughter, Barbara. It struck me as subtle, insidious, ugly and very effective.

The production values for “BROKEN LANCE” struck me as very admirable. Twentieth-Century Fox, the studio that produced and released the film, developed the CinemaScope camera to achieve wide lens shots – especially for their more prominent films between the early 1950s and late 1960s. Joseph MacDonald’s photography of Arizona and use of the CinemaScope camera struck me as very colorful and beautiful. Also adding to the movie’s late 19th Arizona setting were Lyle Wheeler (who won an Oscar for his work on 1939’s “GONE WITH THE WIND”) and Maurice Ransford’s art direction, the set decorations by Stuart A. Reiss and Walter M. Scott, and the scenic designs by an uncredited Jack Poplin. I also thought that Travilla’s costume designs for the film greatly added to the movie’s setting . . . especially those designs for the costumes worn by Jean Peters and Katy Jurado.

If there is one aspect of “BROKEN LANCE” that bothered me, it was the film’s last scene. I wish I could explain what happened, but I do not want to reveal any spoilers. Needless to say, I found it vague, unsatisfying and a bit unrealistic. I realize that writers Philip Yordan and Richard Murphy, along with director Edward Dmytryk, were more or less trying to follow the ending for “HOUSE OF STRANGERS”. But in doing so, I think they had failed to consider the film’s Western setting, along with the racial and ethnic makeup of the Joe Devereaux character. Otherwise, I had no real problems with the movie.

I certainly had no problems with the movie’s performances. Spencer Tracy was larger than life as the domineering Matt Deveareaux. He has always been one of those performers who can either give a subtle performance, or be very theatrical without chewing the scenery. He managed to be both in “BROKEN LANCE”. I have read a few review of the movie in which some were not that impressed by Robert Wagner’s performance as Deveareaux’s youngest son, Joe. Yes, I could have done with the slight make-up job to indicate Joe’s racial status. But I was impressed by Wagner’s performance. He did a very good job in conveying different aspects of Joe’s personality – from the enthusiastic young man, who is desperate to maintain peace within his family to the embittered man, who finally realizes how much his older half-brothers disliked him. Another excellent performance came Richard Widmark, who portrayed Deveareaux’s oldest son, Ben. There were times when Widmark almost seemed as larger than life as Tracy. Yet, he reigned in his performance a little tighter. But what I really found interesting about Widmark’s performance is that despite his character’s resentment of Deveareaux and racist dislike of Joe, he seemed to have a clear head on his shoulders and an awareness of how business had changed in the later years of the Old West. The only acting Oscar nomination went to Katy Jurado, who portrayed Deveareaux’s second wife, “Señora” Devereaux. I am a little perplexed by this nomination. Granted, she gave a very good performance as a Native American woman trying to maintain peace between her husband and three stepsons. But there was nothing about her performance that I thought deserved an Oscar nod. Frankly, I found her performance in 1952’s “HIGH NOON” a lot more impressive.

Jean Peters portrayed the Governor’s daughter and Joe’s love interest, Barbara. I thought she gave a spirited, yet charming performance. I was also impressed by how Peters conveyed Barbara’s strong-will and open-minded nature in regard to Joe’s Native American ancestry. Remember my comments about that scene between Deveareaux and the Governor? I believe what made this scene particularly effective were the performances of both Tracy and E.G. Marshall as the Governor. In fact, I would say that Marshall’s skillful conveyance of the Governor’s insidious racism in regard to Joe really sold this scene. Although their roles seemed lesser as Deveareaux’s second and third sons Mike and Denny, I thought both Hugh O’Brian and Earl Holliman gave effective performances. O’Brian’s Mike struck me as an insidious personality, who seemed to hover in the background, watching older brother Ben and their father battle over the family’s fortunes. And Holliman was equally effective as the gutless pushover Denny, who seemed more interested in clinging to whomever could make his life more easy than any resentful feelings toward his father and younger brother. The movie also featured solid performances from Eduard Franz, Carl Benton Reid and Philip Ober.

In the end, I rather liked “BROKEN LANCE” . . . a lot. I knew from my past viewing of the film that it was not a traditional Western, but more of a character-driven drama. And I thought director Edward Dmytryk, along with writers Philip Yordan and Richard Murphy did a first-rate job of translating William Shakespeare’s “King Lear” to this family drama set in the Old West. The movie also boasted first-rate performances from a cast led by Spencer Tracy and Robert Wagner. My only problem with the movie proved to be its last five minutes or so. I found the ending rather vague and lacking any consideration of the Old West setting and the racial background of the Joe Deveareaux character. Otherwise, I no further problems with the film.

Movie and Television Productions Featuring U.S. Marines During World War II

Today is the U.S. Marines’ birthday. To celebrate, I thought it would be nice to recommend ten movie and television productions (in chronological order) that feature U.S. Marines during World War II:

 

MOVIE AND TELEVISION PRODUCTIONS FEATURING U.S. MARINES DURING WORLD WAR II

1. “Pride of the Marines” (1945) – John Garfield portrayed real life Marnie, Al Schmid, a decorated hero who was blinded during the Battle of Guadalcanal. Eleanor Parker and Dane Cook co-starred. Delmer Daves directed.

2. “Sands of Iwo Jima” (1949) – John Wayne earned an Oscar nomination in this dramatization of the Battle of Iwo Jima. Directed by Allan Dwan, John Agar and Forrest Tucker co-starred.

3. “Battle Cry” (1955) – Raoul Walsh directed this adaptation of Leon Uris’ novel about U.S. Marines in love and war during World War II. Van Heflin, Aldo Ray, James Whitmore, and Tab Hunter co-starred.

4. “Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison” (1957) – John Huston directed both Robert Mitchum and Deborah Kerr in this character study about a shipwrecked Marine and a nun, who wait out the war on an island in the Pacific.

5. “In Love and War” (1958) – Philip Dunne directed this adaptation of Anton Meyer’s novel about three Marines on leave in San Francisco. Robert Wagner, Dana Wynter, Jeffrey Hunter, Hope Lange and Bradford Dillman co-starred.

6. “Hell to Eternity” (1960) – Jeffrey Hunter portrayed real-life Marine hero Guy Gabaldon in this biopic about a homeless Latino in Los Angeles, who is adopted by a Japanese-American family and later becomes a hero at the Battle of Saipan. Phil Karlson directed.

7. “The Outsider” (1961) – Tony Curtis starred in this biopic about Marine Ira Hayes, one of the flag raisers on Iwo Jima. Directed by Delbert Mann, the movie co-starred James Franciscus and Gregory Walcott.

8. “Windtalkers” (2002) – John Woo directed this account of the Navaho code talkers in the U.S. Marines and the men assigned to protect them. Nicholas Cage, Adam Beach, Frances O’Connor and Christian Slater starred.

9. “Flags of Our Fathers” (2006) – Clint Eastwood directed this account on three of the six men who raised the flag at The Battle of Iwo Jima. Ryan Phillipe, Adam Beach and Jesse Bradford co-starred.

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10. “The Pacific” (2010) – Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg produced this 10-part award-winning miniseries for HBO about the experiences of three U.S. Marines – Robert Leckie, Eugene Sledge and John Basilone – during World War II. James Badge Dale, Joseph Mazzello and Jon Seda starred.

“HEAVEN AND HELL: NORTH AND SOUTH BOOK III” (1994) – EPISODE THREE Commentary

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“HEAVEN AND HELL: NORTH AND SOUTH BOOK III” (1994) – EPISODE THREE Commentary

Thanks to Episode Three, “HEAVEN AND HELL: NORTH AND SOUTH BOOK III” ended on a solid note, thanks to John Jakes and Suzanne Clauser’s screenplay. A good number of “NORTH AND SOUTH” fans have complained that the 1994 miniseries could have stretched into one or two more episodes. I have to disagree with that assessment. The 1987 novel was not as long as 1982’s “North and South” or 1984’s “Love and War”.

Episode Three began Charles Main’s confrontation with Scar and his discovery that the Cheyenne warrior was in no condition for any kind of duel. After mending Scar, Charles began to drink heavily in order to escape the failure of both his quest and his efforts to save the Cheyenne village from Captain Harry Venable and his troopers. George Hazard and Madeline Main’s story blossomed into a romance that proved to be a lot more satisfying than what was depicted in Jakes’ 1987 novel. After becoming sober, Charles learned about Gus’ kidnapping from George and his friend, cavalry trooper Magic Magee. The trio set out into the Indian Territory to hunt for Bent and the kidnapped Gus. With George gone, Madeline was forced to contend with a double threat – a recently wealthy Ashton Main Fenway determined to take Mont Royal from her; and the local KKK and brother-in-law Cooper Main, determined to kill her and destroy her school for former slaves.

More so than the previous two episodes, Episode Three seemed to be pack with action. It featured Charles’ ill-fated duel with Scar, the hunt for the Hazard and Main familes’ nemesis, Elkhannah Bent and Charles’ kidnapped son Gus, and the Klan’s attack upon Mont Royal. And I thought that Larry Peerce handled these scenes rather well. Not only was I impressed by Peerce’s direction of the Klan’s attack, but also by Don E. FauntLeRoy’s night time photography of the swamp where George chased a captured Madeline, Cooper and Klansman Gettys LaMotte. This episode also featured some effective dramatic scenes – especially George and Madeline’s romance, Cooper’s hostile confrontation with his wife Judith, and Charles’ reconciliation with actress Willa Parker. But my favorite dramatic moment was Magic Magee’s attempt to distract Bent at a whiskey ranch, while Charles and George tried to rescue Gus. That particular scene seemed like an excellent mixture of drama, humor and tension.

The only bad performance that turned me off in this episode came from Terri Garber’s return to an exaggerated portrayal of a Southern belle. I found this ironic, considering that Lesley Anne Down managed to avoid this travesty, for once. However, Garber more than made up her acting faux pas in a scene in which she very convincingly portrayed Ashton’s devastation upon her discovery of Mont Royal’s wartime fate. James Read and Lesley-Anne Down were very effective in conveying George and Madeline’s romance. Both Philip Casnoff and Steve Harris gave first-rate performances in the battle of wits between Bent and Magee. I could say the same about Robert Wagner and Cathy Lee Crosby in the scene featuring Cooper and Judith’s quarrel. Kyle Chandler really shone in this episode, as he portrayed the gamut of Charles’ emotional experiences from the drunken failed man to a determined father and finally, a man at peace with the woman he loved and with himself. Everyone else – including Rya Kihlstedt, Tom Noonan, Sharon Washington, Cliff De Young, Gary Grubbs, Gregory Zaragoza, Jonathan Frakes, Deborah Rush and Julius Tennon did some pretty solid work.

“HEAVEN AND HELL” is not perfect. Its production values were not as top notch as the first two miniseries from the 1980s. The miniseries included literary characters like Cooper Main without explaining their lack of appearances in “BOOK I” and “BOOK II”. And it featured moments of hammy acting – especially by Lesley Anne Down, Terri Garber and Keith Szarabajka. On the other hand, this miniseries was more faithful to Jakes’ third novel than “BOOK II” was to the second novel. Not only did “HEAVEN AND HELL” managed to feature excellent performances and outstanding action sequences, it featured what I consider are the two best scenes in the entire trilogy. And I still believe it was a lot better than most of the saga’s fans viewed it.

Top Favorite WORLD WAR II Movie and Television Productions

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September 1-3 marked the 75th anniversary of the beginning of World War II.

On September 1, 1939; the German Army invaded Poland on the orders of its leader, Chancellor Adolf Hitler, a week following the signing of the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact. While the Polish military struggled to keep the invading Germans at bay, its government awaited awaited expected support and relief from France and the United Kingdom, with whom they had a pact. Two days later on September 3, Poland’s two allies declared war on Germany and World War II; which ended up engulfing both Europe, Asia, North Africa and the South Pacific; began.

Below is a list of my favorite movie and television productions about the war.

 

TOP FAVORITE WORLD WAR II MOVIE AND TELEVISION PRODUCTIONS

1a - Band of Brothers

1a. “Band of Brothers” (2001) – Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks produced this outstanding television miniseries about the history of a U.S. Army paratrooper company – “Easy Company” – during the war. Damian Lewis and Ron Livingston starred. (tie)

1b - The Pacific

1b. “The Pacific” (2010) – Spielberg and Hanks struck gold again in this equally superb television miniseries about the experiences of three U.S. Marines – John Basilone, Robert Leckie and Eugene Sledge – in the war’s Pacific Theater. James Badge Dale, Joseph Mazzello and Jon Seda starred. (tie)

2 - Kellys Heroes

2. “Kelly’s Heroes” (1970) – Clint Eastwood, Telly Savalas and Don Rickles starred in this memorable war comedy about a group of Army soldiers who go AWOL to rob a bank behind enemy lines. Brian G. Hutton directed.

3 - Inglorious Basterds

3. “Inglorious Basterds” (2009) – Quentin Tarantino wrote and directed this excellent alternate history adventure about two plots to assassinate Adolf Hitler in 1944. Brad Pitt, Christoph Waltz and Mélanie Laurent starred.

4 - Casablanca

4. “Casablanca” (1942) – Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman starred in this Oscar winning adaptation of Murray Burnett and Joan Alison’s un-produced stage play, “Everybody Comes to Rick’s”. Directed by Michael Curtiz, the movie also starred Paul Henreid and Claude Rains.

5 - The Winds of War

5. “The Winds of War” (1983) – Dan Curtis produced and directed this excellent 1983 television adaptation of Herman Wouk’s 1971 novel. The miniseries starred Robert Mitchum, Jan-Michael Vincent and Ali McGraw.

6 - Hope and Glory

6. “Hope and Glory” (1987) – John Boorman wrote, produced and directed this 1987 excellent comedy-drama about his own childhood experiences during World War II. Sarah Miles, David Hayman and Sebastian Rice-Edwards starred.

7 - A Bridge Too Far

7. “A Bridge Too Far” (1977) – Sir Richard Attenborough produced and directed this darkly fascinating adaptation of Cornelius Ryan’s book about the Operation Market Garden campaign. The all-star cast included Dirk Bogarde, Sean Connery, Ryan O’Neal and Gene Hackman.

8 - Valkyrie

8. “Valkyrie” (2008) – Bryan Singer directed this detailed and first-rate account of Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg’s plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler in July 1944. The movie starred Tom Cruise, Tom Wilkinson and Bill Nighy.

9 - The Longest Day

9. “The Longest Day” (1962) – Darryl Zanuck produced this all-star adaptation of Cornelius Ryan’s book about the Normandy invasion. The cast included Robert Mitchum, Richard Beymer, Robert Wagner and John Wayne.

10 - The Bridge on the River Kwai

10. “The Bridge on the River Kwai” (1957) – David Lean directed this Oscar winning adaptation of Pierre Boulle’s 1952 World War II novel. The movie starred William Holden, Oscar winner Alec Guinness and Oscar nominee Sessue Hayakawa.

HM - Empire of the Sun

Honorable Mention: “Empire of the Sun” (1987) – Steven Spielberg produced and directed this excellent adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s semi-autobiographical novel about a British boy’s experiences in World War II China. The movie starred Christian Bale, John Malkovich, Miranda Richardson and Nigel Havers.

“HEAVEN AND HELL: NORTH AND SOUTH BOOK III” (1994) – EPISODE TWO Commentary

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“HEAVEN AND HELL: NORTH AND SOUTH BOOK III” (1994) – EPISODE TWO Commentary

Despite the tragic ending of the last episode, Episode Two of “HEAVEN AND HELL: NORTH AND SOUTH BOOK III” proved to be even darker. Bent continued his crime spree by assaulting an Illinois farm girl and kidnapping Charles’ son, Gus in St. Louis. Charles’ decision to become an Army scout in order to hunt down Scar led to his breakup with Willa Parker. Worse, he witnessed the massacre of a peaceful Cheyenne village by U.S. troopers led by Captain Venable. Madeline’s conflict with Cooper, Gettys LaMotte and the local Ku Klux Klan resulted in tragedy for one of the Mont Royal workers.

Overall, Episode Two was pretty first-rate. I only had a few quibbles. Stanley and Isobel Hazard (Jonathan Frakes and Deborah Rush) made a re-appearance in the saga without any explanation of how they avoided conviction for war profiteering. I guess anyone can assume that they were exonerated. Keith Szarabajka continued his over-the-top portrayal of Harry Venable. Even Gary Grubbs, usually a very dependable performer, indulged in some hammy acting during a scene that featured the KKK’s ambush of two Mont Royal workers. And aside from a few scenes of solid acting, Lesley Anne Down continued her exaggerated take on the Southern belle.

Fortunately, the good outweighed the bad. Ashton discovered that manipulating her second husband, Will Fenway, might proved to be difficult in a well-acted scene between Terri Garber and Tom Noonan. Genie Francis appeared like a breath of fresh air, when her character, Brett Main Hazard attended Constance’s funeral. This episode also featured an outstanding performance by Stan Shaw, in a scene about Isaac’s attendance of a political conference for freed slaves in Charleston. By the way, this particular conference actually happened and was hosted by activist Francis Cardoza, portrayed by Billy Dee Williams. Both Kyle Chandler and Rya Kihlstedt continued their strong screen chemistry, as they played out Charles and Willa’s stormy relationship. And James Read did an exceptional job in portraying George Hazard’s grief over the murdered Constance.

But the episode’s three showcases featured the KKK’s attack upon the two Mont Royal workers – Isaac and Titus, the U.S. Calvary’s massacre of a peaceful Cheyenne village and a kidnapping. Thanks to Peerce’s direction, I found all three scenes very chilling. Grubbs’ hammy acting was unable to spoil the scene featuring the KKK attack. And I could say the same about Szarabajka in the cavalry massacre scene. One last chilling moment featured Bent’s latest attack upon the Hazards and the Mains – namely his kidnapping of young Gus. The entire sequence was swiftly shot, but Peerce’s direction and Casnoff’s performance left chills down my spine.

By the end of Episode Two, I found myself wondering about the fandom’s hostile attitude toward this third miniseries. Granted, the production values of “HEAVEN AND HELL” did not exactly matched the same level as the first two miniseries. But the miniseries’ writing seemed to match and sometimes improve the quality of the writing found in the 1986 series. So far, so good.

“HEAVEN AND HELL: NORTH AND SOUTH BOOK III” (1994) – EPISODE ONE Commentary

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“HEAVEN AND HELL: NORTH AND SOUTH BOOK III” (1994) – EPISODE ONE Commentary.

If there is one chapter in John Jakes’ NORTH AND SOUTH saga that is reviled by the fans, it the television adaptation of the third one, set after the American Civil War. First of all, the theme of post-war Reconstruction has never been that popular with tales about the four-year war. More importantly, fans of Jakes’ saga seemed to have a low opinion of “HEAVEN AND HELL: NORTH AND SOUTH BOOK III”, the 1994 adaptation of Jakes’ third North and South novel, published back in 1987. 

My opinion of the 1994 miniseries slightly differs from the opinions formed by the majority of the saga’s fans. The three-part miniseries failed to achieve the same level of production quality that its two predecessors had enjoyed. But unlike the second miniseries, 1986’s “NORTH AND SOUTH: BOOK II”, this third miniseries was more faithful to Jakes’ original novel – as I had pointed out in a previous article. And to my surprise, I discovered that some aspects of the miniseries were an improvement from the novel.

Episode One of “BOOK THREE” struck me as a solid return to John Jakes’ saga. Not only did it re-introduce some of the old characters from the previous two miniseries, but also introduced new characters. Ironcially, one of the new characters turned out to be the oldest Main sibling – Cooper Main. As many fans know, his character was left out of the first two miniseries. Why? I do not know. But Cooper was introduced as a humorless man, embittered by the South’s defeat. And Robert Wagner gave one of the best performances in the miniseries in his portrayal of the deeply bitter Cooper. Another praiseworthy addition turned out to be Rya Kihlstedt, who portrayed Charles Main’s new love interest, actress Willa Parker. Not only did Kihlstedt did a great job in portraying the idealistic Willa, she had great chemistry with Kyle Chandler, who took over the role of Charles Main. Many fans had howled with outrage over Chandler assuming the role of Charles, following Lewis Smith’s portrayal in the previous miniseries. So did I. But after seeing Chandler do a superb job of conveying Charles’ post-war angst and desperation to find a living to support his son, my outrage quickly disappeared and I became a fan of the actor. James Read gave a solid performance as a grieving George Hazard, who seemed to be having difficulty in dealing with the death of his best friend, Orry Main, at the hands of their former enemy, Elkhannah Bent. Cliff De Young made a surprisingly effective villain as Gettys LaMotte, the manipulative and vindictive leader of the local Ku Klux Klan.

Unfortunately, there were performances that failed to impress me. I got the feeling that director Larry Peerce harbored an odd idea on how a 19th century upper-class Southern woman would behave. This was quite apparent in the performances of Lesley-Anne Down as Madeline Fabray Main and Terri Garber as Ashton Main Huntoon. The performances of both actresses struck me as unusually exaggerated and melodramatic – something which they had managed to avoid in “BOOK I” and “BOOK II”. Fortunately for Garber, she occasionally broke out of her caricature, when portraying Ashton’s more sardonic nature. Down only got worse, when her voice acquired a breathless tone in several scenes, which director Larry Peerce seemed to associate with Southern upper-class women. Fortunately, Down ignored the Southern belle cliche in one effective scene and gave a deliciously sardonic performance in which Madeline revealed the difficulties of maintaining a ravaged plantation in the post-war South to an outraged George. Being a fan of character actor Keith Szarabajka from his stint on “ANGEL” and other television and movie appearances, I was shocked by his hammy performance as a vengeful Kentucky-born Union officer named Captain Venable, whose family had been ravaged by Confederate troops. His performance was one of the most wince-inducing I have witnessed in years.

Episode One possessed some bloopers that left me scratching my head. Cooper’s sudden appearance in the miniseries was never explained by the screenwriters. Neither was the introduction of former slave Isaac, who was portrayed by Stan Shaw. And I am still curious about how Gettys LaMotte learned about Madeline’s African-American ancestry, let alone the other neighbors in the parish. I do not recall Ashton or Bent telling anyone.

Fortunately, Episode One was filled with excellent scenes and moments. One of the scenes that really seemed to stand out featured George and Madeline’s argument about the state of post-war Mont Royal. Charles’ hilarious introduction to a Cheyenne village involved marvelous acting by Chandler and Rip Torn, who portrayed mountain man Adolphus Jackson. One other scene that had me on the floor laughing featured Ashton, who became a prostitute in Santa Fe, kicking a smelly would-be customer out of her room. The episode featured very chilly moments. One of them featured Gettys LaMotte’s creepy rendition of the KKK theme song (I forgot that De Young was also a singer). Another was the murder of Adolphus Jackson and his nephew Jim by a Cheyenne warrior named Scar. But the best scene in the entire miniseries (and probably the entire trilogy) was Elkhannah Bent’s murder of Constance Hazard, George’s wife. I found it subtle, creepy and beautifully shot by Peerce. Also, Philip Casnoff and Wendy Kilbourne acted the hell out of that scene.

Despite some bloopers that either left me confused or wincing with discomfort – including some hammy performances by a few members of the cast – I can honestly say that “HEAVEN AND HELL: BOOK III” started off rather well. In fact, I believe it started a lot better than I had originally assumed it would.