“CLASS OF ’61” (1993) Review

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“CLASS OF ’61” (1993) Review

Twenty-six years, ABC Television aired the pilot episode for an American war drama about the U.S. Civil War. Written by Jonas McCord, “CLASS OF ’61” told the story about three West Point graduates from the class of 1861, who found themselves on opposites sides following the outbreak of war.

I have a few corrections to make. “CLASS OF ’61” told the story about one West Point graduate, an Irish immigrant named Devlin O’Neil of Baltimore, and one cadet who had dropped out of the Academy following the outbreak of war, Shelby Peyton of Virginia. And the third man turned out to be a young George Armstrong Custer, who did graduate with the Class of ’61, but only served as a supporting character in this production. Actually, the third major character in “CLASS OF ’61” is a young man named Lucius, who happened to be a slave owned by Shelby’s father, a doctor and plantation owner. The movie followed Devlin, Shelby, Lucius and yes, even young Custer from that last day of peace before the bombardment of Fort Sumter to the waning moment of the Battle of Bull Run (or Manassas).

After Shelby dropped out of West Point, following the Fort Sumter bombardment and surrender, Shelby Peyton visits Devlin O’Neil’s home in Baltimore and discovers that the latter’s father has withdrawn his permission for Shelby to marry Devlin’s sister, Shannon, due to Shelby’s decision to follow his state into the Confederacy. Shelby also discovers that Devlin and Shannon’s younger brother, Terry, has joined a local street mob that happened to be pro-Confederate. After participating in the Pratt Street Riot on April 19, 1861; Terry ends up temporarily imprisoned at Fort McHenry before heading south to join the Confederate Army. Following his graduation from West Point, Devlin experiences difficulty in receiving an Army assignment, due to Terry’s actions. Devlin meets a Virginia belle from nearby Alexandria named Lily Magraw at a soirée hosted by long-time Washington socialite named Rose O’Neal Greenhow. Unbeknownst to Devil, both Lily and Mrs. Greenhow are Confederate spies. Shelby’s friendship with his father’s slave Lucius is tested due to the latter’s brief attempt to escape slavery with his pregnant wife, Lavinia. After killing one (or two) of the slave catchers who had spotted him, Lucius is forced to leave the Shelby plantation without his wife and head north via the Underground Railroad.

One would immediately notice that “CLASS OF ’61” has no main narrative other than a handful of major characters experiencing the first three months of the U.S. Civil War. That is because this 93-minute movie was supposed to serve as a pilot for a new series . . . which never materialized. But this loose narrative structure featuring a handful of plot lines did not deter me from enjoying the production. When I first saw “CLASS OF ’61”, I was in the throes of an obsession for the U.S. Civil War. An obsession that has not abated with time, I might add. There is a possibility that due to this obsession, I may have viewed “CLASS OF ’61” through rose-colored glasses when I first saw it. Do not get me wrong. I still managed to enjoy it. But due to the “sands of time”, I have finally noticed the flaws.

“CLASS OF ’61” has a great deal of virtues. Its biggest virtue seemed to be the cast. The television pilot featured many young players who would eventually become well known or major stars. Dan Futterman, an excellent character actor in his own right and a two-time Academy Award nominated screenwriter, gave a complex performance as Shelby Peyton. Clive Owen, who became a bigger star, gave an emotional performance as Devlin O’Neil, the Irish immigrant torn between his friendship with Peyton and his family’s patriotism toward their new country. Andre Braugher was already somewhat known for his performance in the 1989 movie, “GLORY”, when he shot this pilot. He eventually became a major television star and has received numerous nominations and won two Emmys for his work. Frankly, I thought he gave the best performance in the production as the embittered Virginia slave whose initial attempt to escape slavery would lead to him being apart from his wife and mother for several years.

The television movie also featured solid performances from the like of Josh Lucas (as George C. Custer) Dana Ivey, Penny Johnson, Sue-Ann Leeds, Barry Cullison, Peter Murnik, Timothy Scott, Stephen Root, Christien Anholt and Andrew Stahl. However, I believe there were better supporting performances. One came from Sophie Ward, who gave a poignant performance as Devlin’s sister Shannon. Beverly Todd was excellent as Lucius’ pragmatic mother. Mark Pelligrino gave a very interesting performance as a fellow cadet from South Carolina named Skinner, especially in a scene in which the character provided off-putting instructions on how to breed healthy slaves to the discomfort of the Peytons. Robert Newman gave an intelligent performance as one of the main characters’ West Point instructors who become a Union artillery officer, Captain Wykoff. Len Cariou was effective as Shelby’s warm and intelligent father, Dr. Leland Peyton. Lorraine Toussaint shone brilliantly in her brief role as a slave woman named Sarah, who was accompanying her mistress on a southbound train also conveying Shelby had encountered on a southbound train from New York City. Niall O’Brien gave a very complex performance as Devlin and Shannon’s emotionally patriotic father, James O’Neil.

The production values for “CLASS OF ’61” struck me as solid, but not particularly top-notch. Although the movie’s setting stretched from West Point, New York to the Peyton plantation outside of Richmond, Virginia; it was easy for me to see that the television movie was set in South Carolina and Georgia . . . in the Deep South. I have noticed that many of these productions with an Antebellum or Civil War setting are shot in the Deep South states, even the narratives are set in the Upper South. Has the Upper South been developed too extensively to serve as locations for such movies? I found Michael T. Boyd’s costumes for the women characters very attractive and nearly accurate. However, I thought the men’s costumes looked as if they had came straight from a costume warehouse in Hollywood.

Recently, I had come across an old review of “CLASS OF ’61”. The New York Times reviewer seemed to dismiss the production as a nostalgic television movie with a failed plot. He seemed unaware that the movie was basically a pilot for a potential television series. When I first saw the movie, I knew that this was basically a pilot. Which is why I was not that surprised that it ended with the Battle of Bull Run without any of the plot lines being resolved. As for “CLASS OF ’61” being nostalgic . . . I am not sure about that criticism. Jonas McCord’s narrative seemed to be a mixture of a straight forward look at how Americans behaved and spoke during this tumultuous period in 19th century American history and a slightly critical look at their society. And I found its portrayal of the Bull Run battle rather interesting and detailed. However, the television movie featured a good deal more criticism of Northern racism and the Abraham Lincoln Administration. Shelby’s encounter with an abolitionist, a Maryland woman and her enslaved maid led to the latter’s soliloquy about the racism she had encountered in New York City. And another scene featured Devlin revealing his family troubles to Lily Magraw and Rose Greenhow – namely brother Terry’s incarceration inside Baltimore’s Fort McHenry and how this led to his failure to being assigned to an Army regiment.

I must admit that I found it odd that McCord seemed to focus so much on the flaws of Northern society and the Lincoln’s Administration . . . and not on the flaws of Confederate President Jefferson Davis’ own administration. After all, the state of Virginia had lost its northwestern counties during the three-month period between Fort Sumter and Bull Run, due to its citizens breaking away from the state. Considering that Shelby’s family lived in Virginia, I found it rather odd that western Virginia’s break from the state was never mentioned. On the other hand, the series did focus a great deal on slavery. Although the Peyton family were portrayed as kind slave owners who almost treated their slaves as family, the movie still managed to portray their role in slavery as something to condemn – especially through Lucius’ bitterness over being a slave, the patronizing manner of Dr. Peyton’s kindness and Shelby’s inability to understand Lucius’ desire for freedom or lack of faith in the latter’s ability to survive as a free man. I have noticed in many other productions about slavery during the Antebellum period or the Civil War, slave owners are either portrayed as kind or cruel . . . with no ambiguity in between. I must applaud McCord for his more ambiguous portrayal of Shelby and his family in regard to the slavery topic.

Were there aspects of “CLASS OF ’61” that troubled me? Well . . . yes. There were a few things. When Devlin was first introduced to Rose Greenhow at her soirée, the latter revealed that she knew a great deal about him – including where his family lived and his ranking among the West Point Class of ’61. I am sorry, but I found this hard to swallow. Was this McCord’s idea of conveying Mrs. Greenhow’s greatness as a spy? Why on earth would she have bothered to collect so much information on a recent West Point graduate who had ranked in the middle of his class? Seriously? Also in the movie, Mr. O’Neil had accused a visiting Shelby of joining a volunteer regiment called the Palmetto Guards. Earlier in the production, a cadet named Upton had accused the South Carolinian Skinner of doing the same right after the news of Sumter was announced. So I checked the Internet and discovered that “Palmetto Guards” was one of the nicknames for the 2nd South Carolina Infantry. I could understand Skinner being considered for this regiment. But why on earth would Mr. O’Neil accuse Shelby, a Virginian, of joining it? Unsurprisingly, “CLASS OF ’61” had failed to be picked up as a series. But imagine my surprise to discover that McCord had added a brief epilogue to reveal the characters’ fates. He must have been very bitter over the pilot’s fate, because he had committed some kind of “Scorch Earth” policy on the characters. Only three or four of them had survived the war . . . and one of them was George Armstrong Custer. Worse, two of his characters died in a way that was historically impossible.

Ironically, my biggest problem with “CLASS OF ’61” proved to be Shelby and Lucius’ friendship. Now I realize that human beings are ambiguous creatures. And I am also aware that some complex friendships or relationships may have formed between slaves and the owners – especially relationships that began in childhood, like Shelby and Lucius. But there were aspects of the pair’s friendship that struck me as unrealistic. I found it unrealistic that Lucius would honestly express his bitterness over being a slave to Shelby, of all people. I also found it unrealistic that Lucius would tell Shelby about his lethal encounter with those slave catchers. The movie never portrayed Shelby as someone with pro-abolitionist leanings. And although he was friendly and familiar with his father’s slaves, he also shared Dr. Peyton’s patronizing attitude. It just seemed unnatural that Shelby would react with nothing more than mere surprise after Lucius had confessed to killing two slave catchers. I do not care how friendly he was with Lucius or any of the other Peyton slaves. He still harbored a good deal of his society’s casual racism and I could not see him allowing Lucius to leave the plantation after that confession.

Even after twenty-six years, I still managed to enjoy “CLASS OF ’61” Despite its flaws, the television movie managed to be an interesting and enjoying look into American society during the first three months of the U.S. Civil War. I thought Jonas McCord provided an interesting, yet inconclusive plot that showcased a first-rate cast starring Dan Futterman and Clive Owen. It is a pity that this pilot never became a series.

 

Top Ten Favorite Movies Set in the 1840s

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Below is my current list of favorite movies set in the 1840s: 

TOP TEN FAVORITE MOVIES SET IN THE 1840s

1 - The Heiress

1. “The Heiress” (1949) – William Wyler directed this superb adaptation of Ruth and Augustus Goetz’s 1947 play, which was an adaptation of Henry James’ 1880 novel, “Washington Square”. The movie starred Oscar winner Olivia De Havilland, Montgomery Clift, Ralph Richardson and Miriam Hopkins.

2 - All This and Heaven Too

2. “All This and Heaven Too” (1940) – Anatole Litvak co-produced and directed this excellent adaptation of Rachel Fields’ 1938 novel. The movie starred Bette Davis and Charles Boyer.

3 - Half-Slave Half-Free Solomon Northup Odyssey

3. “Half-Slave, Half-Free: The Solomon Northup Odyssey” (1984) – Avery Brooks starred in this emotional television adaptation of Solomon Northups’ 1853 memoirs, “12 Years a Slave”. Directed by Gordon Parks, the movie co-starred Rhetta Greene, John Saxon, Lee Bryant, Art Evans and Mason Adams.

5 - The Mark of Zorro

4. “The Mark of Zorro” (1940) – Rouben Mamoulian directed this superb adaptation of Johnston McCulley’s 1919 story called “The Curse of Capistrano”. The movie starred Tyrone Power, Linda Darnell and Basil Rathbone.

4 - The Liberators

5. “The Liberators” (1987) – Robert Carradine and Larry B. Scott starred in this Disney adventure film about Underground Railroad conductor John Fairfield and his fugitive slave friend, Bill; who escort Kentucky slaves north of the Mason-Dixon Line to freedom. Kenneth Johnson starred.

6 - The Adventures of Bullwhip Griffin

6. “The Adventures of Bullwhip Griffin” (1967) – Roddy McDowall and Suzanne Pleshette starred in this Disney adaptation of Sid Fleischman’s 1963 children’s novel called “By the Great Horn Spoon!”. James Neilson directed.

7 - Camille

7. “Camille” (1936) – George Cukor directed this lavish adaptation of Alexandre Dumas fils’ 1848 novel and 1852 play called “La Dame aux Camélias”. The movie starred Greta Garbo and Robert Taylor.

8 - Cousin Bette

8. “Cousin Bette” (1998) – Jessica Lange starred in this loose adaptation of Honoré de Balzac’s 1846 novel. Although unpopular with critics and moviegoers, it is a favorite of mine. Directed by Des McAnuff, the movie co-starred Hugh Laurie, Elisabeth Shue and Kelly MacDonald.

9 - Jane Eyre

9. “Jane Eyre” (2011) – Mia Wasikowska and Michael Fassbender starred in the 2011 movie adaptation of Charlotte Brontë’s 1847 novel. The movie was directed by Cary Fukunaga.

10 - 12 Years a Slave

10. “12 Years a Slave” (2013) – British director Steve McQueen helmed this Oscar winning second adaptation of Solomon Northup’s 1853 memoirs about the latter’s experiences as a slave in the Deep South. The movie starred Chiwetel Ejiofor, Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o and Michael Fassbender.

“EMILY BRONTE’S WUTHERING HEIGHTS” (1992) Review

 

“EMILY BRONTE’S WUTHERING HEIGHTS” (1992) Review

I honestly do not know what to say about “EMILY BRONTE’S WUTHERING HEIGHTS”. I had heard so much about this adaptation of Emily Brontë’s 1847 novel. Yet, I have never seen it in the movie theaters. In fact, it took me a long time to finally come around viewing it. When I finally saw it, the movie produced a reaction I did not expect to experience. 

Unlike the more famous 1939 William Wyler film, “EMILY BRONTE’S WUTHERING HEIGHTS” proved to be an adaptation of Brontë’s entire novel. Unlike the famous Wyler film or the 1847 novel, this movie was set during the second half of the eighteenth century. Directed by Peter Kosminsky, the movie began with the arrival of a gentleman named Lockwood, who seeks to rent a Yorkshire estate called Thrushcross Grange from its owner – a middle-aged man named Heathcliff. The latter lives at another local estate called Wuthering Heights. While visiting Wuthering Heights, Lockwood has an encounter with what he believes is a ghost . . . the ghost of a woman named Cathy. This drives Heathcliff racing out of the manor house and housekeeper Nelly Dean to recount to Lockwood on what drove Heathcliff to behave in that manner.

The story jumps back to some twenty to thirty years later in which an earlier owner of Wuthering Heights, Thomas Earnshaw, returns from a trip to Liverpool with a young boy who or who might not be a gypsy in tow named Heathcliff. The latter manages to befriend Earnshaw’s daughter Catherine “Cathy”. However, Earnshaw’s son Hindley develops a deep dislike of the newcomer. He fears that Heathcliff has replaced him in his father’s affections. Several years later, Earnshaw dies. Hindley marries a woman named Frances and becomes the new owner of Wuthering Heights. He allows Heathcliff to remain at Wuthering Heights . . . but only as a servant. The one bright spot in Heathcliff’s life is his friendship with Cathy, which has developed into a romance between the pair. When Cathy and Heathcliff discover the Earnshaws’ neighbors, the Lintons, giving a party at Thrushcross Grange, Cathy is attacked by a dog when she and Heathcliff climb the garden wall. The Lintons take Cathy in to care for her and order Heathcliff to leave the Grange. Cathy becomes entranced by Edgar Linton, along his wealth and glamour; while Edgar falls in love with her. Edgar’s marriage proposal to Cathy and her acceptance leads to a major fallout between her and Heathcliff. The latter disappears without a trace for several years. And his return leads to jealousy, obsession and in the end, tragedy for him, the Earnshaws and the Lintons.

“EMILY BRONTE’S WUTHERING HEIGHTS” proved to be rather popular with moviegoers. Ralph Fiennes’ portrayal of the brooding Heathcliff and the film’s adaptation of the entire novel left this film highly regarded by fans of period dramas. On the other hand, the majority of films critics were not impressed with this movie. Why they felt this way about the movie? I have no idea. I have yet to read a single review written by a professional film critics. I am simply aware that “EMILY BRONTE’S WUTHERING HEIGHTS” was not that popular with them. While many movie fans are inclined to quickly accept the views of film critics, I decided to see the movie for myself and form my own judgement.

When I first saw this film, I was surprised that it was set during the late 1700s and around the beginning of the 1800s. James Acheson, who had designed the Oscar winning costume designs for 1988’s “DANGEROUS LIAISONS”, created the costumes for “WUTHERING HEIGHTS”. And frankly, I believe he did a marvelous job in re-creating the fashions for the movie’s setting as shown in the images below:

 

Another aspect of “WUTHERING HEIGHTS” that impressed me proved to be the performances. I do not know what led Peter Kominsky and the Casting Department to choose Ralph Fiennes for the role of Heathcliff, but I believe that fate or something divine led them to select the right actor for this role. Honestly, he did a fantastic job in portraying such an emotionally and morally chaotic character like Heathcliff. Some people were a bit put off by Juliette Binoche as both Cathy Henshaw and Catherine Linton. They had a trouble with her slight French accent. I have to be honest . . . I could barely notice her accent. But I thought she did an excellent job in portraying Cathy’s vain and capricious personality, along with daughter Catherine’s no-nonsense, yet compassionate nature. The movie also featured some excellent performances from Sophie Ward as Isabella Linton, Simon Shepherd as Edgar Linton, Janet McTeer as Nelly Dean, Jeremy Northam as Hindley Earnshaw, Jason Riddington as Hareton Earnshaw, and Jonathan Firth as Linton Heathcliff. Overall, I thought the cast was pretty solid.

And yet . . . I must confess that I am not a fan of this adaptation of Brontë’s 1847 novel. I honestly do not care that the movie was a faithful adaptation that covered not only Heathcliff and Cathy’s generation, but that of the younger generation. I am not a fan. One of my problems with this film was Kominsky’s direction. He did a fine job in directing the actors. But I found his overall direction of the film rather problematic. Quite frankly, I thought the entire movie seemed like a rush job. Perhaps he was hampered by Anne Devlin’s screenplay. The latter tried to shove Brontë’s entire narrative into a movie with a running time of one hour and forty-five minutes. I am sorry, but that did not work. Watching this film, I finally understood why William Wyler only shot the novel’s first half back in 1939.

Another major problem I had with the film is Brontë’s novel . . . or the second half. I am not a major fan of the 1847 novel. But if it had ended liked Wyler’s movie, I would have been satisfied. Personally, I have always found the second half of the novel rather boring; especially with Heathcliff running around like some damn mustache-twirling villain. And the taint of borderline incest certainly did not help, considering that Catherine Linton spent most of her screen time being torn between two men that happened to be her first cousins.

My final problems with “EMILY BRONTE’S WUTHERING HEIGHTS” are rather aesthetic. As much as I enjoyed James Acheson’s costumes, I cannot say the same about the hairstyles worn by the cast. Exactly who was in charge of the film’s hairstyles? Because that person seemed unable to surmise that the film was set in the late 18th century and the beginning of the 19th century. Some of the cast had modern hairstyles. And a good deal of the women cast members looked as if they were wearing rather bouffant wigs. One last problem I had with “WUTHERING HEIGHTS” was Mike Southon’s cinematography. I suppose the 1990s ushered in the age of naturalistic lighting for period dramas. The problem is that I could barely see a damn thing! Especially in the movie’s interior shots. I find it rather difficult to enjoy a movie or television production in which the lighting is so dark that I found myself depending more on the dialogue than the images on the screen. Worse, even some of the exterior shots seemed a little darker than usual. Was this a case of Southon adding to the film’s Gothic setting? I have no idea. And honestly, I do not care, considering that . . . again, I could barely see a damn thing.

I wish I could say that I enjoyed “EMILY BRONTE’S WUTHERING HEIGHTS”. I really do. There were some aspects of the film that I liked – namely James Acheson’s costumes and some first-rate performances from a cast led by Juliette Binoche and Ralph Fiennes. But I found the movie’s running time too short for an effective adaptation of Emily Brontë’s novel. Either the film should have been longer . . . or it should have followed the example of the 1939 film and only adapt the novel’s first half. Overall, I found this movie rather disappointing.

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.

Top Ten Favorite Movies Set in the 1860s

Below is my current list of favorite movies set in the 1860s: 

TOP TEN FAVORITE MOVIES SET IN THE 1860s

1. “Lincoln” (2012) – Steven Spielberg directed this highly acclaimed film about President Abraham Lincoln’s last four months in office and his efforts to pass the 13th Amendment to end slavery. Oscar winner Daniel Day-Lewis, Oscar nominee Sally Field and Oscar nominee Tommy Lee Jones starred.

2. “Shenandoah”(1965) – James Stewart starred in this bittersweet tale about how a Virginia farmer’s efforts to keep his family out of the Civil War failed when his youngest son is mistaken as a Confederate soldier by Union troops and taken prisoner. Andrew V. McLaglen directed.

3. “Angels & Insects” (1995) – Philip Haas directed this adaptation of A.S. Byatt’s 1992 novella, “Morpho Eugenia” about a Victorian naturalist who marries into the English landed gentry. Mark Rylance, Kristin Scott-Thomas and Patsy Kensit starred.

4. “Class of ’61” (1993) – Dan Futterman and Clive Owen co-starred in this television movie about recent West Point graduates and their experiences during the first months of the Civil War. Produced by Steven Spielberg, the movie was directed by Gregory Hoblit.

5. “The Tall Target” (1951) – Anthony Mann directed this suspenseful tale about a New York City Police sergeant who stumbles across a plot to kill President-elect Lincoln and travels aboard the train carrying the latter to stop the assassination attempt. Dick Powell starred.

6. “Far From the Madding Crowd” (1967) – John Schlesinger directed this adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s 1874 novel about a young Victorian woman torn between three men. The movie starred Julie Christie, Alan Bates, Terence Stamp and Peter Finch.

7. “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” (1966) – Sergio Leone directed this epic Spaghetti Western about three gunslingers in search of a cache of Confederate gold in New Mexico, during the Civil War. Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef and Eli Wallach starred.

8. “Cold Mountain” (2003) – Anthony Minghella directed this poignant adaptation of Charles Fraizer’s 1997 novel about a Confederate Army deserter, who embarks upon a long journey to return home to his sweetheart, who is struggling to maintain her farm, following the death of her father. The movie starred Oscar nominees Jude Law and Nicole Kidman, along with Oscar winner Renee Zellweger.

9. “Little Women” (1994) – Gillian Armstrong directed this adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s 1868 novel about four sisters from an impoverished, yet genteel New England family. The movie starred Winona Ryder, Trini Alvarado, Christian Bale and Susan Sarandon.

10. “The Beguiled” (1971) – Clint Eastwood starred in this atmospheric adaptation of Thomas Cullinan’s 1966 novel about a wounded Union soldier who finds refuge at an all-girl boarding school in 1863 Mississippi. Directed by Don Siegel, the movie co-starred Geraldine Page and Elizabeth Hartman.

“A CARIBBEAN MYSTERY” (1989) Review

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“A CARIBBEAN MYSTERY” (1989) Review

I have a confession to make. I am not a big fan of Agatha Christie novels written after 1960. In fact, I can only think of one . . . perhaps two of them that I consider big favorites of mine. One of those favorites happened to be her 1964 novel, “A Caribbean Mystery”.

There have been three television adaptations of Christie’s novel. I just recently viewed the second adaptation, a BBC-TV production that starred Joan Hickson as Miss Jane Marple. This version began with Miss Marple’s doctor revealing to one of her St. Mary Mead’s neighbors that following a recovery from pneumonia, she had been treated to a vacation to a beach resort in Barbados managed by a young couple named Tim and Molly Kendal, thanks to her nephew Raymond West. Miss Marple becomes acquainted with another resort guest named Major Palgrave, a retired Army officer who tends to bore not her but others with long-winded stories about his military past. But while Miss Marple struggled between shutting out the verbose major and pretending to pay attention to him, the latter shifts his repertoire to tales of murder. When Major Palgrave announces his intention to show her a photo of a murderer, he suddenly breaks off his conversation before he can retrieve his wallet. The following morning, Major Palgrave is found dead inside his bungalow. And Miss Marple begins to suspect that he has been murdered. Two more deaths occurred before she is proven right.

As I had earlier stated, the 1964 novel is one of my favorites written by Christie. And thankfully, this 1989 television movie proved to be a decent adaptation of the novel. Somewhat. Screenwriter T.R. Bowen made a few changes from the novel. Characters like the Prescotts and Señora de Caspearo were removed. I did not miss them. The story’s setting was shifted from the fictional island of St Honoré to Barbados . . . which did not bother me. The television movie also featured the creation of a new character – a Barbados woman named Aunty Johnson, who happened to be the aunt of one of the resort’s maids, Victoria Johnson. The latter made arrangements for Miss Marple to visit her aunt in a black neighborhood. Aunty Johnson replaced Miss Prescott as a source of information on Molly Kendal’s background. More importantly, the Aunty Johnson character allowed Bowen to effectively reveal Imperial British racism to television viewers by including a scene in which the Kendals quietly reprimanded Victoria for setting up Miss Marple’s visit to her aunt.

More importantly, I have always found “A CARIBBEAN MYSTERY” to be an entertaining and well-paced story – whether in print or on the television screen. Bowen did a excellent job in adapting Christie’s tale by revealing clues to the murderer’s identity . . . in a subtle manner. That is the important aspect of Bowen’s work . . . at least for me. The screenwriter and director Christopher Petit presented the clues to the television audience without prematurely giving away the killer. And considering that such a thing has occurred in other Christie adaptations – I am so grateful that it did not occurred in this production.

However, “A CARIBBEAN MYSTERY” does have its flaws. Fortunately, I was only able to spot a few. First of all, I had a problem with Ken Howard’s score. I realize that this production is one of many from the “AGATHA CHRISTIE’S MISS MARPLE” series. But “A CARIBBEAN MYSTERY” is set at a beach resort in the Caribbean. One of those problems proved to be Ken Howard’s score. Considering the movie’s setting at a Caribbean beach resort, I figured Howard would use the appropriate music of the region and the period (1950s) to emphasize the setting. He only did so in a few scenes. Most of the score proved to be the recycled music used in other “AGATHA CHRISTIE’S MISS MARPLE” television movies – you know, music appropriate for scenes at a quaint English village or estate. Frankly, the score and the music’s setting failed to mesh.

I also had a problem with a brief scene near the movie’s ending. This scene featured a brief moment in which an evil (and in my opinion) cartoonish expression appeared on the killer’s face before attempting to commit a third murder. I found this moment obvious, unnecessary and rather infantile. But the movie’s score and this . . . “evil” moment was nothing in compare to the performances of two cast members. I have never seen Sue Lloyd in anything other than this movie. But I am familiar with Robert Swann, who had a major role in the 1981 miniseries, “SENSE AND SENSIBILITY”. Both Lloyd and Swann portrayed a wealthy American couple from the South named Lucky and Greg Dyson. Overall, their performances were not bad. In fact, Lucky and Greg seemed more like complex human beings, instead of American caricatures in the movie’s second half. But their Southern accents sucked. Big time. It was horrible to hear. And quite frankly, their bad accents nearly marred their performances.

But I did not have a problem with the production’s other performances. Joan Hickson gave a marvelous performance as the elderly sleuth, Miss Jane Marple. I especially enjoyed her scenes when her character struggled to stay alert during Major Palgrave’s endless collection of stories. She also had great chemistry with Donald Pleasence, who gave the most entertaining performance as the wealthy and irascible Jason Rafiel. What made the relationship between the pair most interesting is that Rafiel seemed the least likely to believe that Miss Marple is the right person to solve the resort’s murders. Both Michael Feast and Sheila Ruskin gave the two most interesting performances as the very complex Evelyn and Edward Hillingdon, the English couple who found themselves dragged into the messy history of the Dysons, thanks to Edward’s affair with Lucky. I found both Sophie Ward and Adrian Lukis charming as the resort’s owners, Molly and Tim Kendal. I was surprised that the pair had a rather strong screen chemistry and I found Ward particularly effective in conveying Molly Kendal’s emotional breakdown as the situation at the resort began to go wrong. “A CARIBBEAN MYSTERY” also benefited from strong performances given by Frank Middlemass, Barbara Barnes, Isabelle Lucas, Joseph Mydell, Stephen Bent and Valerie Buchanan.

There were a few aspects of “A CARIBBEAN MYSTERY” that rubbed me the wrong way. I felt that most of Ken Howard’s score did not mesh well with the movie’s setting. I also had a problem with a scene in the movie’s last half hour and the accents utilized by two members of the cast. Otherwise, I enjoyed the movie very much and thought that screenwriter T.R. Bowen, director Christopher Petit and a fine cast led by Joan Hickson did a more than solid job in adapting Agatha Christie’s 1964 novel.

Ten Favorite SHERLOCK HOLMES Movies

Below is a list of my favorite movies featuring Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous fictional detective, Sherlock Holmes: 

TEN FAVORITE SHERLOCK HOLMES MOVIES

1. “Without a Clue” (1988) – I still love this spoof of the Sherlock Holmes stories in which the real detective is Dr. John Watson, who has hired an unemployed alcoholic actor named Reginal Kincaid to satisfy the public’s demand for a real Sherlock Holmes. In this film, the pair investigate the disappearance of Bank of England banknote plates and a printing supervisor. Michael Caine and Ben Kingsley are magic under Thom Eberhardt’s direction.

 

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2. “Sherlock Holmes: Game of Shadows” (2011) – Guy Richie made this second film about the Sherlock Holmes character and the latter’s conflict with his worst nemesis, Professor James Moriraty and his attempt to stop a major assassination. I loved it even more than Ritchie’s 2009 film. Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law starred as Holmes and Watson.

 

3. “Sherlock Holmes” (2009) – Guy Ritchie’s adaptation of Doyle’s character about Holmes’ conflict against a nefarious aristocratic with plans to assume political control of the British Empire has become a major favorite of mine. Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law, along with Rachel McAdams and Mark Strong star.

 

4. “The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes” (1939) – I am a big fan of this adaptation of William Gillette’s play about Sherlock Holmes’ investigation of a series of death threats against a well-to-do London family. This is the second film to feature Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce as Holmes and Dr. Watson. Directed by Alfred L. Werker, the movie co-starred Ida Lupino and George Zucco.

 

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5. The Seven-Per-Cent Solution” (1976) – I have always enjoyed Herbert Ross’ adaptation of Nicholas Meyer’s 1974 novel about Holmes and Watson recruiting Dr. Sigmund Freud to guide the detective in overcoming his cocaine habit and investigate a nefarious kidnapping plot. Nicol Williamson, Robert Duvall, Alan Arkin, Vanessa Redgrave and Laurence Olivier starred.

 

6. “The Hound of the Baskervilles” (1939) – This is my favorite adaptation of Doyle’s novel about Holmes’ investigation of an English family’s connection to a “demon” hound and a Candandian heir to the family’s fortunes. This is the first film to feature Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce as Holmes and Dr. Watson. Sidney Lanfield directed.

 

7. “Young Sherlock Holmes” (1985) – Steven Spielberg produced and Barry Levinson directed this fanciful imagining of Holmes and Watson’s first meeting as adolescents at a prestigious boys school, as they investigate a series of suspicious suicide deaths. Nicholas Rowe, Alan Cox, Anthony Higgins and Sophie Ward starred.

 

8. “The Hound of the Baskervilles” (1988) – This is my favorite adaptation of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes novels featuring Jeremy Brett as the detective. Edward Hardwicke co-starred as Dr. Watson. The movie was directed by Brian Mills.

 

9. “Murder By Decree” (1979) – Directed by Bob Clark, Holmes and Watson investigate the Jack the Ripper murders. Excellent, although a bit bloody for my tastes. Christopher Plummer and James Mason co-starred as Holmes and Watson.

 

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10. “The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes” (1970) – Billy Wilder directed this tale about a bored Sherlock Holmes, who eagerly decides to investigate the attempt on the life of a woman with a missing identity. Robert Stephens and Colin Blakely starred in this entertaining, yet flawed movie.