“AMAZING GRACE” (2006-07) Review

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“AMAZING GRACE” (2006-07) Review

Ever since the release of the 2012 Oscar winning film, “12 YEARS A SLAVE”, there seemed to be this idea – especially with the British media – that Hollywood has remained silent regarding the topic of American slavery. I find this opinion ironic, considering my failure to find many U.K. films on British slavery.

When I first read McQueen’s criticism of Hollywood’s failure to produce a good number of films about American slavery, I decided to check the Internet to see how many slavery movies that the British film industry had produced. So far, I have only come across three – and one of them is “AMAZING GRACE”, the 2006 movie about abolitionist William Wilberforce‘s efforts to end Britain’s participation in the Atlantic Slave Trade.

Looking back upon “AMAZING GRACE”, I could not help but feel that it would have made an appropriate companion piece to Steven Spielberg’s 2012 movie, “LINCOLN”. Although one focused upon the slave trade throughout Britain’s Empire around the Georgian Era and the other focused upon the United States’ efforts to officially end slavery during the last year of the Civil War, both explored the political impacts on the institution of slavery in their respective countries. But there were differences. “AMAZING GRACE” focused upon the end of Britain’s official participation in the Atlantic slave trade and received only a few accolades. “LINCOLN”, on the other hand, focused upon the end of slavery altogether (the country’s participation in the slave trade ended around the same time as Great Britain) and received a great deal of accolades.

“AMAZING GRACE” begins in the middle of its story with a very ill William Wilberforce traveling to Bath with his cousin Henry Thornton and cousin-in-law Marianne to Bath for a recuperative holiday in 1797. The Thorntons decide to play matchmaker and introduce him to their friend, Barbara Spooner. Although the pair initially goes out of their way to resist any romantic overtures, Barbara ends up convincing Wilberforce to relate the story of his career.

The movie flashes back some fifteen years into the past, when Wilberforce was a young and ambitious Member of Parliament (MP). After he experiences a religious enlightenment and aligns himself with the evangelical wing of the Church of England, Wilberforce contemplates leaving politics to study theology. But friends such as William Pitt, Thomas Clarkson, Hannah More, and Olaudah Equiano convinces him that he could be more effective doing God’s work by fighting for the issue of Britain’s slave trade. Wilberforce’s convictions are deepened by a meeting with his former mentor, John Newton, a former slave ship captain turned Christian, whose regrets of his past participation in the slave trade led him to become an evangelist minister and writer of the poem that led to the song, “Amazing Grace”. Despite great effort and assistance from his fellow abolitionists, Wilberforce’s efforts fail, thanks to the pro-slavery cabal in Parliament after fifteen years. Following his marriage to Barbara Spooner, Wilberforce takes up the cause again with different results.

I am going to be brutally frank. “AMAZING GRACE” did not strike me as superior or at the same level of quality as “LINCOLN”. I am not stating that the 2006 movie was terrible or even mediocre. I simply feel that it is not as good as the 2012 Oscar winning film. There is something about the style of “AMAZING GRACE” that lacked the more complex nature and characterizations of“LINCOLN”. I found it . . . well, ideal and very preachy at times. I realize this movie is about the institution of slavery throughout the British Empire. But I believe that just because a story ( in any form) centers around an unpleasant topic like slavery does not have to be told with such a lack of moral complexity. I suspect that screenwriter Steven Knight tried to inject some kind of complexity in Wilberforce’s original reluctance to take up the cause of the abolition of the slave trade and in his despair over the failure of the abolition cause by 1797. But the movie simply lacked that murky ambiguity that made movies like “LINCOLN” and “DJANGO UNCHAINED” more complex to me. Even worse, there were times when the movie fell into the danger of transforming Wilberforce into some idealized character – what is known by those familiar with fan fiction as a Mary Sue. The movie seemed to hint that the success of Britain’s abolitionist movement centered around Wilberforce. And I found that annoying.

I have one last problem with “AMAZING GRACE”. The use of flashbacks struck me as a bit . . . well, confusing. This especially seemed to be the case in the first two-thirds of the movie, which alternated between the present setting (1797) and the past (between 1782 and 1797). I hate to say this, but director Michael Apted and editor Rick Shaine did not handle these shifts in time with any real clarity. After my third viewing of the film, I finally got a handling on the shifts between the narrative’s past and present. Many film critics have pointed out the movie’s historical inaccuracies, which include the time period in which Wilberforce became interested in animal rights and the Duke of Clarence’s erroneous service in the House of Commons. Honestly? They are simply bloopers and nothing for me to get excited over.

Despite its flaws, I must admit that “AMAZING GRACE” is a first-rate and stirring film. It touched upon a subject that I knew very little of . . . namely Britain’s abolition movement. In fact, when I first saw the film, it reminded me that countries like the United States, Cuba, and Brazil were not the only ones with strong ties to slavery and the Atlantic slave trade. These ties were especially made apparent in scenes which Wilberforce and his allies battled with the pro-slavery forces like Banastre Tarleton and the Duke of Clarence and St. Andrews (the future King William IV). Although “AMAZING GRACE” mainly focused on the political aspect of abolition in Great Britain, there are two memorable scenes that reflect the horrors of slavery – Wilberforce and Olaudah_Equiano’s tour of a slave ship and Newton’s verbal recollections of his time as a slave ship captain. However, “AMAZING GRACE” also touches upon Wilberforce’s personal life – especially his courtship of and marriage to fellow abolitionist Barbara Spooner. And it is to Ioan Gruffudd and Romola Garai’s credit that they had created a strong and very believable screen chemistry.

“AMAZING GRACE” is also a very beautiful movie to look at. And that is an odd thing to say about a movie about slavery. As always, I tend to look at the production designer as the one responsible for the movie’s overall visual style. In the case of“AMAZING GRACE”, the man responsible was Charles Wood, who did an amazing job in recapturing Great Britain during the late 18th century. His work was ably assisted by the art direction team led by David Allday and Eliza Solesbury’s set decorations. And since “AMAZING GRACE” is a period drama, I cannot ignore the costumes designed by film icon Jenny Beavan. Needless to say, her costumes were beautiful and perfectly adhered to the movie’s time period and the characters. I especially enjoyed her costumes for actresses Romola Garai and Sylvestra Le Touzel.

All of the beautiful costumes, magnificent photography and impressive production designs in the world cannot save a movie. Aside from a first-rate narrative, a movie needs a talented cast. Thankfully for “AMAZING GRACE”, it had one. Ioan Gruffudd, whom I tend to associate more with television, gave an excellent and passionate performance as the dedicated William Wilberforce. Also, Gruffudd more than held his own with the array of more experienced performers that were cast in this film. I do not know when Benedict Cumberbatch first made a name for himself. But I cannot deny that he gave a superb performance as William Pitt, the politician who eventually became the country’s youngest Prime Minister. Cumberbatch did a first-rate job in portraying how Pitt’s idealism, political savy and professional ambiguity sometimes clashed. Romola Garai gave a beautiful performance as Barbara Spooner Wilberforce, the politician’s wife of thirty-odd years. By expressing her character’s own passionate beliefs in the abolitionist movement, Garai portrayed her more than just Wilberforce’s love interest.

Albert Finney made several appearances in the film as former slave ship captain-turned-evangelist John Newton, who became Wilberforce’s mentor. Despite his limited appearances, Finney brilliantly portrayed Newton’s pragmatic nature about his past and the guilt he continued to feel for his role in Britain’s slave trade. I also have to comment on Rufus Sewell’s very entertaining performance as abolitionist Thomas Clarkson. I do not think I have ever come across a performance so colorful, and at the same time, very subtle. The movie also benefited excellent support from the likes of Michael Gambon, Ciarán Hinds, Toby Jones, Jeremy Swift, Stephen Campbell Moore, and Bill Paterson. Senegalese singer-activist Youssou N’Dour gave a solid performance in his acting debut as former slave-turned-abolitionist Olaudah Equiano. And Nicholas Farrell and Sylvestra Le Touzel, who co-starred in 1983’s “MANSFIELD PARK” together, reunited to give entertaining performances as the Wilberforces’ close friends, Henry and Marianne Thornton.

Without a doubt, I regard “AMAZING GRACE” as an entertaining, yet very interesting look into the life of William Wilberforce and his role in Britain’s abolition of the slave trade. Granted, the movie came off a touch pretentious and there were times when the Wilberforce character came off as too idealized. But the movie’s visual style, intelligent script, excellent performances from a cast led by Ioan Gruffudd, and solid direction from Michael Apted made this film worthwhile for me.

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List of Favorite Movies and Television Miniseries About SLAVERY

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With the recent release of Steven Spielberg’s new movie, “LINCOLN” and Quentin Tarrantino’s latest film, “DJANGO UNCHAINED”, I found myself thinking about movies I have seen about slavery – especially slavery practiced in the United States. Below is a list of my favorite movies on the subject in chronological order:

 

LIST OF FAVORITE MOVIES AND TELEVISION MINISERIES ABOUT SLAVERY

13-Skin Game

“Skin Game” (1971) – James Garner and Lou Gossett Jr. co-starred in this unusual comedy about two antebellum drifter who pull the “skin game” – a con that involves one of them selling the other as a slave for money before the pair can escape and pull the same con in another town. Paul Bogart directed.

 

 

9-Mandingo

“Mandingo” (1975) – Reviled by many critics as melodramatic sleaze, this 1975 adaptation of Kyle Onstott’s 1957 novel revealed one of the most uncompromising peeks into slave breeding in the American South, two decades before the Civil War. Directed by Richard Fleischer, the movie starred James Mason, Perry King, Brenda Sykes, Susan George and Ken Norton.

 

 

2-Roots

“Roots” (1977) – David Wolper produced this television miniseries adaptation of Alex Haley’s 1976 about his mother’s family history as American slaves during a century long period between the mid-18th century and the end of the Civil War. LeVar Burton, Leslie Uggams, Ben Vereen, Georg Sanford Brown and Lou Gossett Jr. starred.

 

 

3-Half Slave Half Free Solomon Northup Odyssey

“Half-Slave, Half-Free: Solomon Northup’s Odyssey” (1984) – Avery Brooks starred in this television adaptation of free born Solomon Northup’s 1853 autobiography about his twelve years as a slave in antebellum Louisiana. Gordon Parks directed.

 

 

4-North and South

“North and South” (1985) – David Wolper produced this television adaptation of John Jakes’ 1982 novel about the experiences of two American families and the growing discord over slavery during the twenty years before the American Civil War. Patrick Swayze and James Read starred.

 

 

6-Race to Freedom - The Underground Railroad

“Race to Freedom: The Story of the Underground Railroad” (1994) – This made-for-television movie told the story about four North Carolina slaves’ escape to Canada, following the passage of the Compromise of 1850.  Janet Bailey and Courtney B. Vance starred.

 

 

10-The Journey of August King

“The Journey of August King” (1996) – Jason Patric and Thandie Newton starred in this adaptation of John Ehle’s 1971 novel about an early 19th century North Carolina farmer who finds himself helping a female slave escape from her master and slave catchers. John Duigan directed.

 

 

8-A Respectable Trade

“A Respectable Trade” (1998) – Emma Fielding, Ariyon Bakare and Warren Clarke starred in this television adaptation of Philippa Gregory’s 1992 novel about the forbidden love affair between an African born slave and the wife of his English master in 18th century Bristol. Suri Krishnamma directed.

 

 

11-Mansfield Park 1999

“Mansfield Park” (1999) – Slavery is heavily emphasized in Patricia Rozema’s adaptation of Jane Austen’s 1814 novel about a young English woman’s stay with her rich relatives during the first decade of the 19th century. Frances O’Connor and Jonny Lee Miller starred.

 

 

7-Human Trafficking

“Human Trafficking” (2005) – Mira Sorvino starred in this miniseries about the experiences of an Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent investigating the modern day sex slave trafficking business. Donald Sutherland and Robert Caryle co-starred.

 

 

5-Amazing Grace

“Amazing Grace” (2007) – Michael Apted directed this account of William Wilberforce’s campaign against the slave trade throughout the British Empire in Parliament. Ioan Gruffudd, Benedict Cumberbatch, Romola Garai Rufus Sewell and Albert Finney starred.

 

 

12-Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter

“Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” (2012) – History and the supernatural merged in this interesting adaptation of Seth Grahame-Smith’s 2010 novel about the 16th president’s activities as a vampire hunter. Benjamin Walker, Dominic Cooper, Anthony Mackie and Mary Elizabeth Winstead starred.

 

 

1-Lincoln

“Lincoln” (2012) – Daniel Day-Lewis portrayed the 16th president in Steven Spielberg’s fascinating account of Lincoln’s efforts to end U.S. slavery, by having Congress pass the 13th Amendment of the Constitution. Sally Field, David Strathairn and Tommy Lee Jones co-starred.

 

 

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“Django Unchained” (2012) – Quentin Tarantino directed this take on Spaghetti Westerns about a slave-turned-bounty hunter and his mentor, who sets out to rescue his wife from a brutal Mississippi plantation owner. Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo Di Caprio, Kerry Washington and Samuel L. Jackson starred.

“ABRAHAM LINCOLN: VAMPIRE HUNTER” (2012) Review

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“ABRAHAM LINCOLN: VAMPIRE HUNTER” (2012) Review

If someone had told me about three to four years ago about a fictional story featuring a historical leader and his encounters with the supernatural . . . I would have laughed in that person’s face. Hell, I would have done that about a year later. Then Seth Grahame-Smith wrote a novel about Abraham Lincoln battling vampires. And you know what? I did not laugh. But I sure as hell did not take it seriously. 

Last spring, I saw the trailer for the movie adaptation of Grahame-Smith’s novel and found myself surprisingly intrigued by it. Well . . . I was intrigued by the movie’s visual style. And the fact that movie featured actors that I have become a fan of did not hurt. But the idea of Abraham Lincoln being a vampire hunter remained a block in my mind. In fact, I struggled over whether or not to see “ABRAHAM LINCOLN: VAMPIRE HUNTER”, until the day before the movie’s wide release. And to my surprise, I am glad that I finally saw it.

“ABRAHAM LINCOLN: VAMPIRE SLAYER” begins on April 14, 1865 . . . with President Abraham Lincoln recounting his experiences with vampires in a journal. The movie flashbacks to the year 1818 in Southern Indiana, where the young Abraham and his parents – Thomas and Nancy – work out the family’s debt to a local landowner and slave owner named Jack Barts. Abraham befriends an African-American young slave named William Johnson. When the latter is attacked by one of Barts’ employees with a whip, Abraham intervenes before his father comes to his rescue. Barts demands that the Lincoln family compensate for the interaction over William in cash. Thomas cannot afford to pay back the landowner and refuses to work out his debt even further. Barts later attacks Nancy at the Lincolns’ cabin and poisons her. She later dies the following morning.

Nine years later in 1827, an eighteen year-old Abraham seeks revenge against Barts by attacking him. But the latter, who proves to be a vampire, overpowers Abraham. Abraham is rescued by a mysterious man named Henry Sturgess, who informs the young man of Barts’ true state. Henry offers to teach Abraham to be a vampire hunter. During training, Sturgess informs Abraham that Jack Barts and other vampires in America are descended from a vampire named Adam, who owns and lives on a plantation outside of New Orleans, with his sister Vadoma. Sturgess also tells Abraham of the vampires’ weakness – namely silver – and presents the latter with a silver pocket watch. After several years of training, Abraham travels to Springfield, Illinois. There, he makes plans to read for the law, befriends a shopkeeper named Joshua Speed, renews his friendship with William; and falls in love with Mary Todd, a socialite from a wealthy Kentucky family. Abraham also begins his activities as a vampire hunter.

“ABRAHAM LINCOLN: VAMPIRE HUNTER” is not perfect. It is a flawed movie. There were one or two aspects of the plot that I found questionable. After Abraham’s reunion with William, the pair was arrested for fighting off slave catchers that were after the latter. Following their arrest, there was a scene that featured the incarcerated pair being visited by Mary Todd. The next scene featured a freed William being kidnapped by Adam’s thugs off the streets of Springfield, in order to lure Abraham into a trap set in Louisiana. How on earth did William avoid being sent back down South as a fugitive slave? When he first reunited with Abraham inside Joshua’s store, he told the latter that he was an escaped slave. So, how did William end up freely walking the streets of Springfield . . . without being sent back South as a fugitive slave?

My second problem with “ABRAHAM LINCOLN: VAMPIRE HUNTER” deals with a brief scene during the Civil War. This scene features Confederate president Jefferson Davis convincing Adam to deploy his vampires on the front lines. Look . . . I am the last person who could be accused of being a neo-Confederate. Trust me . . . I am. But I found this scene between Davis and Adam to be very unbelievable, even for fiction. I simply cannot see Jefferson Davis allying himself with a vampire in order to win the Civil War. One, like Abraham, Davis would have been leery of the idea of associating with a vampire. And two, chances are he probably would have become aware of Adam’s plan of transforming the United States in a land of the undead . . . and automatically oppose it. The only way this scene would have worked is if Davis had been unaware of Adam’s state as a vampire.

My last problem with “ABRAHAM LINCOLN: VAMPIRE HUNTER” turned out to be a costume worn by actor Benjamin Walker, who portrayed Abraham Lincoln. I am, of course, referring to the outfit he wore in the Abraham/Mary wedding scene. Take a look:

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Dear God! What were Varvara Avdyushko and Carlo Poggioli thinking? Abe’s wedding outfit looks like a nineteenth-century version of a high school prom suit, circa 1975. In other words, two periods in time clash in the creation of this God awful suit. It is a good thing that I found their other costumes very impressive.

Despite the above flaws, I still managed to enjoy “ABRAHAM LINCOLN: VAMPIRE HUNTER” very much. After watching the movie, I now regret my reluctance over its premise. The idea of historical figure being utilized as an action character in a supernatural story turned out to be very . . . very original. More conservative minds would probably find such an idea sacrilegious. I recall a co-worker expressing disgust at the idea of someone using Abraham Lincoln as an action figure in a movie. But think about it. In some ways, he was a good choice on Seth Grahame-Smith’s part. Lincoln was a physically impressive man, being tall and strong as a bull. He knew how to wield an ax with the same level as a Musketeer with a sword. More importantly, he was an intelligent man who could be ruthless when the occasion called for it.

I found Grahame-Smith’s use of Nancy Hanks Lincoln’s death and the issue of slavery to create his story of Lincoln and vampires very effective. The screenwriter used the death of Lincoln’s mother to jump start the future president’s alternate profession as a vampire hunter. And I was very impressed by his use of the slavery issue to intensify Lincoln’s interest in the destruction of vampires. In “ABRAHAM LINCOLN: VAMPIRE HUNTER”, the institution of slavery and especially the slave trade is used to provide vampires with easily available humans (namely slaves) to feed upon. The Jack Barts character apparently gathered slaves around the Ohio River (which bordered the upper South) and shipped them to the vampire-owned plantations in the Deep South. This strikes me as a fictional reflection of the large-scale shipments of many upper South slaves to the cotton plantations of the Deep South during the first half of the 19th century in real life. According to Abraham’s mentor, Henry Sturgess, the U.S. slave trade not only gave vampires easy access to “food”, but kept their penchant of seeking victims all over the country under control. This use of slaves as easy victims for vampires led to their support of the Confederate cause during the Civil War.

The transportation of slaves from the Upper South to the Deep South proved to be one of the movie’s historically accurate contributions to the plot. I have to be frank. “ABRAHAM LINCOLN: VAMPIRE HUNTER” is not exactly historically accurate. In reality, William Johnson was a free-born African-American who became Lincoln’s personal valet. The movie overlooked the fact that Lincoln had a much beloved stepmother, and four sons – not one. Also, Harriet Tubman never operated in the Deep South, let alone in Louisiana. And African slave traders did not sell “their own kind” to Europeans, as the vampire Adam claimed in the movie. They sold people they considered to be strangers and especially, foreigners. But . . . this is a movie about a former U.S. president that became a vampire hunter. Would anyone really expect a tale of this sort to be historically accurate? I certainly would not.

But one of the major highlights of “ABRAHAM LINCOLN: VAMPIRE HUNTER” proved to be the mind-boggling visuals created by the special effects team led by Matt Kutcher. These visuals were especially effective in exciting actions sequences that featured Abraham’s final confrontation with Jack Barts on the Illinois prairie, the rescue of William Johnson in Louisiana, the first day of the Battle of Gettysburg and especially the fiery confrontation aboard the train heading for Gettysburg. William Hoy’s editing, Caleb Deschanel’s photography and especially Timur Bekmambetov’s direction really made it happened. Aside from the stomach churning wedding suit, I must admit that I really enjoyed Varvara Avdyushko and Carlo Poggioli’s costume designs – especially for the costumes worn by Mary Elizabeth Winstead. Their costumes, along with François Audouy’s production designs, Beat Frutiger’s art direction and Cheryl Carasik’s set decorations really contributed to the film’s overall look of early to mid-19th century America.

And what about the cast? Benjamin Walker, in my opinion, was a find. A genuine find. I do not know how to put this. The man was perfectly cast as Abraham Lincoln. He possessed the height, the looks (thanks to the make-up department). He had great screen chemistry with his co-stars – especially Dominic Cooper, Anthony Mackie, Jimmi Simpson and Mary Elizabeth Winstead. Walker did not simply walk or stand around, looking like Lincoln. Thanks to a superb performance, he made Lincoln a human being, instead of a walking historical figure. Dominic Cooper added another fascinating performance to his résumé as the enigmatic Henry Sturgess, the individual that taught Abraham Lincoln to be a first-rate vampire hunter. His performance reeked with mystery, wit and wisdom. Cooper’s Sturgess was also a curious mixture ambiguity and moral fortitude that I found very fascinating.

From what I can gathered, the William Johnson character was not featured in Grahame-Smith’s novel. I could be wrong. I never read the book. But I am glad that the author included the character in the movie, giving me a chance to see Anthony Mackie on the screen again. But this is the first time I truly saw him as a character in an action figure and he was superb. I could also say the same for Jimmi Simpson, whom I have grown used to seeing in comedies. He was great as Abraham’s Springfield crony, Joshua Speed, whose interest in Abraham and William’s old friendship led him to become involved in their vampire hunting activities. Mary Elizabeth Winstead was given the opportunity to portray a different Mary Todd Lincoln from the usual portrayals marred by either insanity or cold-blooded ambition. And in the end, she gave a great performance that conveyed the famous First Lady’s intelligence, vivacity and wit. And Rufus Sewell was first-rate as the movie’s main villain, a long-living vampire named Adam, who harbored plans to make the United States a country fit to be dominated by vampires. Sewell also used a Southern accent that I found surprisingly impressive.

As I had stated earlier, “ABRAHAM LINCOLN: VAMPIRE HUNTER” was not a perfect movie. It had a plot hole or two that screenwriter Seth Grahame-Smith had failed to address. The movie’s story also featured an implausible scene featuring a historical figure. But the movie boasted some excellent performances from a cast led by Benjamin Walker and some superb visuals that not only transported moviegoers back to the world of early and mid 19th century America, but also to the supernatural world of vampires. And thanks to Grahame-Smith’s story and Timur Bekmambetov’s stylish direction, the movie began with what many would consider an implausible plot – a historical icon battling supernatural beings – and transformed it into a fascinating tale filled with both fantasy and history. To my surprise, I ended up enjoying “ABRAHAM LINCOLN: VAMPIRE HUNTER” very much.

Favorite Movies and Television Set During the EARLY AMERICA Period

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Below is a list of my favorite movie and television productions set during the Early America Period (1783-1828):

 

FAVORITE MOVIES AND TELEVISION SET DURING THE EARLY AMERICA PERIOD

1

“John Adams” (2008) – Paul Giamatti and Laura Linney deservedly won both Emmys and Golden Globes for their excellent portrayals of John and Abagail Adams in this excellent seven-part miniseries about the 2nd U.S. president.

2

“The Journey of August King” (1995) – Jason Patric and Thandie Newton starred in this adaptation of John Ehle’s 1971 novel about a North Carolina farmer on his way home from market, who helps a runaway slave evade her master.

3

“Davy Crockett and the River Pirates” (1956) – This adventure conveyed the experiences of Davy Crockett and George Russel with keelboat riverman Mike Fink and river pirates along the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers. Picturesque and a lot of fun. Fess Parker, Buddy Ebsen and Jeff York starred.

4

“Buccaneer’s Girl” (1950) – Yvonne DeCarlo starred in this entertaining costume romp about a Boston-born entertainer who falls for a pirate with a secret identity as a respectable New Orleans aristocrat. Directed by Fredrick De Cordova, the movie co-starred Philip Friend, Robert Douglas, Andrea King and Elsa Lancaster.

5

“Interview With a Vampire” (1994) – Neil Jordan directed this fascinating adaptation of Anne Rice’s 1976 novel about a pair of vampires during a period of 200 years. Tom Cruise, Brad Pitt, Kirsten Dunst, Antonio Banderas and Christian Slater co-starred.

6

“Brother Future” (1991) – Phil Lewis starred in the PBS movie about a Detroit teen who is transported back in time to 1822 South Carolina, where he finds himself about to participate in a slave revolt instigated by one Denmark Vessey.

7

“Sleepy Hollow” (1999) – Tim Burton directed Johnny Depp and Christina Ricci in this adaptation of Washington Irving’s 1820 short story, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”

8

“The Seekers” (1979) – This adaptation of John Jakes’ 1975 novel about the Kent family’s experiences from 1794 to 1814. Randolph Mantooth, Timothy Patrick Murphy and George Hamilton starred.

9

“Many Rivers to Cross” (1955) – Robert Taylor and Eleanor Parker starred in this western-comedy about a footloose frontiersman in early Kentucky, who is targeted by a spirited spinster for marriage. Directed by Roy Rowland.

“MIDDLEMARCH” (1994) Review

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“MIDDLEMARCH” (1994) Review

Many years have passed since I first saw “MIDDLEMARCH”, the 1994 BBC adaptation of George Eliot’s 1871 novel. Many years. I recalled enjoying it . . . somewhat. But it had failed to leave any kind of impression upon me. Let me revise that. At least two performances left an impression upon me. But after watching the miniseries for the second time, after so many years, I now realize I should have paid closer attention to the production. 

Directed by Anthony Page and adapted for television by Andrew Davies, “MIDDLEMARCH” told the story about a fictitious Midlands town during the years 1830–32. Its multiple plots explored themes that included the status of women and class status, the nature of marriage, idealism and self-interest, religion and hypocrisy, political reform, and education. There seemed to be at least four major story arcs in the saga. Actually, I would say there are two major story arcs and two minor ones. The first of the minor story arcs focused on Fred Vincy, the only son of Middlemarch’s mayor, who has a tendency to be spendthrift and irresponsible. Fred is encouraged by his ambitious parents to find a secure life and advance his class standing by becoming a clergyman. But Fred knows that Mary Garth, the woman he loves, will not marry him if he does become one. And there is Mr. Nicholas Bulstrode, Middlemarch’s prosperous banker, who is married to Fred’s aunt. Mr. Bulstrode is a pious Methodist who is unpopular with Middlemarch’s citizens, due to his attempts to impose his beliefs in society. However, he also has a sordid past which he is desperate to hide.

However, two story arcs dominated “MIDDLEMARCH”. One of them centered around Dorothea Brooke, the older niece of a wealthy landowner with ambitions to run for political office, and her determination to find some kind of ideal meaning in her life. She becomes somewhat romantically involved with a scholarly clergyman and fellow landowner named the Reverend Edward Casaubon in the hopes of assisting him in his current research. Dorothea eventually finds disappointment in her marriage, as Reverend Casaubon proves to be a selfish and pedantic man who is more interested in his research than anyone else – including his wife. The second arc told the story about a proud, ambitious and talented medical doctor of high birth and a small income named Tertius Lydgate. He arrives at Middlemarch at the beginning of the story in the hopes of making great advancements in medicine through his research and the charity hospital in Middlemarch. Like Dorothea, he ends up in an unhappy marriage with a beautiful, young social climber named Rosamond Vincy, who is more concerned about their social position and the advantages of marrying a man from a higher class than her own. Dr. Lydgage’s proud nature and professional connections to Mr. Bulstrode, makes him very unpopular with the locals.

After watching “MIDDLEMARCH”, it occurred to me it is one of the best miniseries that came from British television in the past twenty to thirty years. I also believe that it might be one of Andrew Davies’ best works. Mind you, “MIDDLEMARCH”is not perfect. It has its flaws . . . perhaps one or two of them . . . but flaws, nonetheless. While watching“MIDDLEMARCH”, I got the feeling that screenwriter Andrew Davies could not balance the story arcs featuring Dorothea Brooke and Tertius Lydgate with any real equilibrium. It seemed that most of his interest was focused upon Lydgate as the saga’s main character, instead of dividing that honor between Lydgate and Dorothea. While the miniseries revealed Dorothea’s unhappy marriage to Casaubon, Davies’ screenplay in the first three episodes, Davies did a first rate job in balancing both hers and Lydgate’s stories. But Lydgate seemed to dominate the second half of the miniseries – the last three episodes – as his story shoved Dorothea’s to the status of a minor plot arc. Mind you, I found the Lydgates’ marriage fascinating. But Davies failed to deliver any real . . . punch to Dorothea’s story arc and especially her relationship with her cousin-in-law, Will Ladislaw. If I have to be honest, Dorothea and Will’s relationship following Casaubon’s death struck me as rushed and a bit disappointing.

Thankfully, the virtues outweighed the flaws. Because “MIDDLEMARCH” still managed to be an outstanding miniseries. Davies did a more or less excellent job in weaving the production’s many storylines without any confusion whatsoever. In fact, I have to congratulate Davies for accomplishing this feat. And I have to congratulate director Anthony Page for keeping the production and its story in order with allowing the latter to unravel into a complete mess. More importantly, both Page and Davies adhered to George Eliot’s ambiguous portrayal of her cast of characters. Even her two most ideal characters – Dorothea and Lydgate – are plagued by their own personal flaws. Some of the characters were able to overcome their flaws for a “happily ever after” and some were not. The period between the Regency Era and the Victorian Age has rarely been explored in television or in motion pictures. But thanks to “MIDDLEMARCH”, I have learned about the political movements that led to the Great Reform Act of 1832. A good number of people might find Eliot’s saga somewhat depressing and wish she had ended her story with a more romantic vein in the style of Jane Austen . . . or allow Dorothea and Lydgate to happily achieve their altruistic goals. However . . . “MIDDLEMARCH” is not an Austen novel.

I am trying to think of a performance that seemed less than impressive. But I cannot think of one. I was very impressed by everyone’s performances. And the ones that really impressed me came from Juliet Aubrey’s spot-on performance as the ideal and naive Dorothea Brooke; Jonathan Firth, whose portrayal of the spendthrift Fred Vincy turned out to be one of his best career performances; Rufus Sewell, who first made a name for himself in his passionate portrayal of Casaubon’s poor cousin, Will Ladislaw; Peter Jeffrey’s complex performance as the ambiguous Nicholas Bulstrode; Julian Wadham as the decent Sir James Chattam, whose unrequited love for Dorothea led him to marry her sister Cecila and develop a deep dislike toward Will; and Rachel Power, who gave a strong, yet solid performance as Fred Vincy’s love, the no-nonsense Mary Garth.

However, four performances really impressed me. Both Douglas Hodge and Trevyn McDowell really dominated the miniseries as the ideal, yet slightly arrogant Tertius Lydgate and his shallow and social-climbing wife, Rosamond Vincy Lydgate. The pair superbly brought the Lydgates’ passionate, yet disastrous marriage to life . . . even more so than Davies’ writing or Page’s direction. And I have to give kudos to Patrick Malahide for portraying someone as complex and difficult Reverend Edward Casaubon. The latter could have easily been a one-note character lacking of any sympathy. But thanks to Malahide, audiences were allowed glimpses into an insecure personality filled with surprising sympathy. And Robert Hardy was a hilarious blast as Dorothea’s self-involved uncle, the politically ambitious Arthur Brooke. What I enjoyed about Hardy’s performance is that his Uncle Brooke seemed like such a friendly and sympathetic character. Yet, Hardy made it clear that this cheerful soul has a selfish streak a mile wide. And despite his willingness to use the current reform movement to seek political office, he is incapable of treating the tenants on his estate with any decency.

“MIDDLEMARCH” could not only boast a first-rate screenplay written by Andrew Davies, first rate direction by Anthony Page and a superb cast; it could also boast excellent production values. One of the crew members responsible for the miniseries’ production was Anushia Nieradzik, who created some beautiful costumes that clearly reflected the story’s period of the early 1830s. I was also impressed by Gerry Scott’s use of a Lincolnshire town called Stamford as a stand-in for 1830-32 Middlemarch. And Brian Tufano’s photography beautifully captured Scott’s work and the town itself.

Yes, “MIDDLEMARCH” has a few flaws. And the photography featured in the latest DVD copy seems a bit faded. But I believe that it is, without a doubt, one of the finest British television productions from the last twenty to twenty-five years. After all of these years, I have a much higher regard for it than when I first saw it.

“THE ILLUSIONIST” (2006) Review

“THE ILLUSIONIST” (2006) Review

Neil Burger wrote and directed this loose adaptation of Steven Millhauser’s story called “Eisenheim the Illusionist”. This story about a magician in turn-of-the-century Vienna starred Edward Norton, Jessica Biel, Paul Giamatti and Rufus Sewell.

The movie’s plot focused upon the romance that had first formed between the magician Eisenheim (Norton) and his childhood friend, the socially superior Sophie, Duchess von Teschen (Biel) – a romance that ends up threatening the political plans of Crown Prince Leopold of Austria-Hungary (Sewell) and Chief Inspector Uhl’s position with the Vienna police and his role as the Crown Prince’s henchman. ”THE ILLUSIONIST” began in the middle of the story – with Chief Inspector Uhl revealing Eisenheim ‘s background and childhood friendship with Sophie. The movie continued with the events that led to the Crown Prince’s interest in the magician – Eisenheim’s arrival in Vienna, his reunion with Sophie during a performance and a special performance by the magician for the Crown Prince and his entourage, in which Eisenheim embarrasses the prince for a brief moment. Sophie appears at Eisenheim’s quarters to warn him about his actions at the royal palace. The two end up declaring their feelings for one another by making love. After Sophie reveals Crown Prince’s Leopold’s reasons for proposing marriage – he needs her Hungarian family connections to build a power base strong enough to usurp his father from the Imperial throne – both come to the conclusion that Leopold would never let her go. Even if they decide to make a run for it, the prince would hunt them down and kill them. Realizing this, Eisenheim decides to unfold plans that would allow Sophie to escape from Leopold’s clutches and guarantee the couple’s future safety and happiness.

I have never read Millhauser’s story about Eisenheim. But I must admit that I became enamored of Burger’s cinematic adaptation since the first time I saw it. The story possessed many elements that made it entertaining and unique for me. One, it had plenty of romance, due to the romance between Eisenheim and Sophie; along with the love triangle between the two and Crown Prince Leopold. It had intrigue from the plot centered around the Crown Prince’s efforts to rid Eisenheim as a rival for not only Sophie’s affections, but those of the Austrian people. It had mystery thanks to Eisenheim’s mind-blowing magic, Chief Inspector Uhl’s attempts to expose it, and the tragic events that dominate the film’s latter half. And Crown Prince Leopold’s plans to dethrone his father, along with his competition with Eisenheim for the Viennese public’s affections gave the movie a political tone. It simply had everything and Burger managed to combine it all with a superb script.

The cast in ”THE ILLUSIONIST” contributed to the movie’s superior quality, as well. Edward Norton was superb as the magician Eisenheim. Despite being the movie’s main character, he did a great job in conveying the character’s many personality facets – including his love for Sophie (which makes this role one of Norton’s most romantic), and his contempt toward both Crown Prince Leopold and Chief Inspector Ulh Even more importantly, Norton managed to convey some of these emotional aspects of Eisenheim’s personality, while retaining the man’s enigmatic nature. Jessica Biel literally glowed as Sophie, Duchess von Teschen. Frankly, I believe the character might be one of her best roles. Biel had portrayed Sophie more than just an elegant and charming woman from the Austro-Hungarian ruling class. She revealed Sophie’s inner sadness from her earlier disrupted relationship with Eisenheim and fear of facing a lifetime with the odious Crown Prince. Speaking of which . . . kudos to Rufus Sewell for portraying one of the most complex screen villains in recent years. Sewell’s Leopold was not simply a one-note villain who sneered at everyone he deemed inferior to himself. The actor portrayed the prince as an ambitious and emotional man who desired respect and even love from the public and those close to him. Yet, despite this desire, he seemed incapable of returning such feelings to others, especially Sophie, due to his arrogance and vindictive nature. But if you had asked me which performance in ”THE ILLUSIONIST” really impressed me, I would have to say Paul Giamatti as Chief Inspector Walter Uhl. Giamatti either had the bad or good luck – it depends upon one’s point of view – to portray the most complex character in the movie. This is a man torn between his curiosity over Einheim’s talent as a magician, his ambition to be more than just a policeman, and his sense of justice and outrage toward the tragic event revealed in the second half. Giamatti’s Chief Inspector Ulh is a man literally torn apart over toward whom he should direct his loyalty. And the actor did a superb job in portraying every nuance in the character. In my opinion, he managed to dominate the film without being its main star.

I really do not have much to say about the film’s production values. Granted, production designer Ondrej Nekvasil; along with costume designer Ngila Dickson, and art directors Stefan Kovacik and Vlasta Svoboda, did an admirable job of re-creating turn-of-the-century Vienna on the screen. And yet . . . aside from Dickson’s elegant costumes, I found the movie’s Viennese setting to be slightly colorless. And empty. The setting lacked the color of that particular period shown in other movies like 1969’s ”THE ASSASSINATION BUREAU, LTD” and 1976’s ”THE SEVEN PERCENT SOLUTION”.

Despite my complaint against the film’s colorless production designs, I have to give kudos to Neil Burger for writing a rich adaptation of Millhauser’s story. He also did an excellent job of conveying his vision of the story through his direction of the crew and a cast of talented actors that included Norton, Biel, Sewell and Giamatti. ”THE ILLUSIONST” is a beautiful and mysterious love story filled with magic and political intrigue. After five years, I still find it enjoyable to watch.

Ten (10) Favorite AMERICAN REVOLUTIONARY WAR Movies

I realize that eighteen days have passed since the Fourth of July, but I decided to go ahead and post my favorite movies and miniseries set during the American Revolutionary War. Hey . . . better late than never. 

TEN (10) FAVORITE AMERICAN REVOLUTIONARY WAR MOVIES

1. “John Adams” (2008) – The first three episodes of this superb and award winning miniseries about the second U.S. president is set on the eve and during the American Revolution. The second episode is a classic. Paul Giamatti and Laura Linney starred.

2. “1776” (1972) – This adaptation of the Broadway musical about the signing of the Declaration of Independence was a box office bomb. But I love it. Both William Daniels and Howard DaSilva were brilliant as John Adams and Benjamin Franklin. And keep an eye out for John Cullum’s solo number.

3. “Sweet Liberty” (1986) – This comedy about a small North Carolina town hosting a Hollywood film crew shooting a film set during the American Revolution is a favorite of mine. Alan Alda, Michael Caine, Michelle Pfieffer and Bob Hoskins starred in this comedic gem.

4. “April Morning” (1988) – This television adaptation of the Howard Fast novel about the Battle of Lexington and Concord is excellent. Stars Tommy Lee Jones, Robert Urich and Chad Lowe gave superb performances.

5. “The Patriot” (2000) – It is very popular to heap scorn upon this movie about a South Carolina family during the later years of the American Revolution, but I feel that it is pretty damn good. I find the complaints about it being a historical inaccurate propaganda piece rather ludicrous, since most historical films tend to be, in the first place. Mel Gibson, Heath Ledger, Joely Richardson and Jason Issacs starred.

6. “The Devil’s Disciple” (1959) – This unknown comedic gem is an adaptation of George Bernard Shaw’s story about the impact of the Battle of Saratoga upon two American patriots and a British officer. Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas and Laurence Olivier co-starred.

7. “The Crossing” (2000) – This television movie about the events leading up to the Battle of Trenton won a Peabody Award. Although it is also another historically inaccurate propaganda piece, it is still a first-class movie. Jeff Daniels starred as George Washington.

8. “Revolution” (1985) – Hugh Hudson directed this tale about the impact of the American Revolution upon a New York trapper, his son, a British sergeant, and the daughter of a Tory Manhattan merchant. Although flawed, it provided a unique view on the darker aspects of the war. Al Pacino, Donald Sutherland and Natasha Kinski starred.

9. “Johnny Tremain” (1957) – Walt Disney produced this entertaining story about an apprentice silversmith in Boston and the impact of the American Revolution in his life. This is the first movie I have seen that hinted the practice of slavery in the Massachusetts colony in the 18th century. Adapted from Edna Forbes’ children story, the movie starred Hal Stalmaster and Luana Patten.

10. “Drums Along the Mohawk” (1939) – John Ford directed this Technicolor classic about a newlywed couple in upstate New York, during the American Revolution. Entertaining and action-filled, but the movie’s portrayal of Native Americans is a little off putting. The movie starred Henry Fonda, Claudette Colbert, John Carradine and Edna May Oliver who stole the movie.