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.

Top Ten Favorite Movies Set in the 1930s

Below is my current list of favorite movies set in the 1930s:

TOP TEN FAVORITE MOVIES SET IN THE 1930s

1. “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” (1984) – In this exciting second installment of the Indiana Jones franchise, the intrepid archaeologist is asked by desperate villagers in Northern India to find a mystical stolen stone and rescue their children from a Thuggee cult practicing child slavery. Directed by Steven Spielberg, the movie starred Harrison Ford as Dr. Henry “Indiana” Jones.

2. “The Sting” (1973) – Paul Newman and Robert Redford starred in this excellent Oscar winning movie about a young drifter who teams up with a master of the big con to get revenge against the gangster who had his partner murdered. George Roy Hill directed.

3. “Death on the Nile” (1978) – Peter Ustinov made his first appearance as Hercule Poirot in this superb adaptation of Agatha Christie’s 1937 novel about the murder of an Anglo-American heiress during a cruise on the Nile. John Guillermin directed.

4. “Chinatown” (1974) – Roman Polanski directed this outstanding Oscar nominated film about a Los Angeles private detective hired to expose an adulterer, who finds himself caught up in a web of deceit, corruption and murder. Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway starred.

5. “Gosford Park” (2001) – Robert Altman directed this Oscar nominated film about a murder that occurs at shooting party in 1932 England. The all-star cast includes Helen Mirren, Kelly MacDonald, Clive Owen and Maggie Smith.

6. “Evil Under the Sun” (1982) – Once again, Peter Ustinov portrayed Hercule Poirot in this entertaining adaptation of Agatha Christie’s 1941 novel about the murder of a stage actress at an exclusive island resort. Guy Hamilton directed.

7. “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” (2000) – Ethan and Joel Coen directed this very entertaining tale about three escaped convicts who search for a hidden treasure, while evading the law in Depression era Mississippi. George Clooney, John Tuturro and Tim Blake Nelson starred.

8. “Murder on the Orient Express” (1974) – Albert Finney starred as Hercule Poirot in this stylish adaptation of Agatha Christie’s 1934 novel about the Belgian detective’s investigation into the death of a mysterious American aboard the famed Orient Express. Sidney Lumet directed.

9. “Indiana Jones and Raiders of the Lost Ark” (1981) – Harrison Ford made his first appearance as Dr. “Indiana” Jones in this classic movie, as he races against time to find the iconic Ark of the Covenant that contains the Ten Commandments before the Nazis do in 1936 Egypt. Steven Spielberg directed.

“Seabiscuit” (2003) – Gary Ross directed this excellent adaptation of Laura Hillenbrand’s 2001 book about the famed race horse from the late 1930s. Tobey Maguire, Jeff Bridges, Chris Cooper and Elizabeth Banks starred.

Honorable Mention: “Road to Perdition” (2002) – Tom Hanks, Tyler Hoechlin and Paul Newman starred in this first-rate adaptation of Max Collins’ 1998 graphic comic about a Depression era hitman who is forced to hit the road with his older son after the latter witnesses a murder. Sam Mendes directed.

“LINCOLN” (1974-76) Review

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“LINCOLN” (1974-76) Review

During the first half of the Twentieth Century, poet and historian Carl Sandburg wrote a six-volume biography on the life of the 16th president of the United States, Abraham Lincoln. Years passed before David Wolper (“ROOTS”, “THE THORN BIRDS”, and the “NORTH AND SOUTH” TRILOGY) produced a six-part miniseries on Lincoln’s life and career, based upon Sandburg’s work.

“LINCOLN” is not what I would your usual biography with a straight narrative. With the exception of one episode that centered on Lincoln acting as a defense attorney in the 1830s and another that focused on the period between his first election and inauguration, the majority of the episodes centered on his administration during the U.S. Civil War. And not in any particular order. Below is a list for those who prefer to watch the entire miniseries in chronological order:

(1.03) “Prairie Lawyer” – Lincoln goes against future political adversary Stephen A. Douglas when he defends physician Dr. Henry B. Truett against murder charges in 1838.

(2.02) “Crossing Fox River” – This episode covers Lincoln’s life between winning his first presidential election in November 1860 and attending his first inauguration in March 1861.

(1.01) “Mrs. Lincoln’s Husband” – In the wake of the death of the Lincolns’ second son William “Willie”, First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln‘s erratic behavior embarrasses and endangers her husband politically when a cabal of Republican senators question her loyalty to the Union.

(1.02) “Sad Figure, Laughing” – Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase and his daughter Kate attempt to undermine President Lincoln’s bid for re-election during the 1864 presidential campaign, when they become aware of how Lincoln’s jokes and stories seem to erode their fellow Republicans’ confidence in him.

(2.01) “The Unwilling Warrior” – Lincoln finds himself forced to learn the art of war, as he searches for the right general to lead the Union Army to victory between 1861 and 1865.

(2.03) “The Last Days” – Following the Army of Northern Virginia’s surrender at the Appomattox Court House, President Lincoln plans Reconstruction with his cabinet and discusses a post-presidential future with the First Lady.

“LINCOLN” managed to garner a great deal of critical acclaim back in the mid-1970s. Did it deserve it? Perhaps. I found myself somewhat impressed by the production. The miniseries, from a visual point-of-view, has managed to hold up rather well in the past forty years. Aside from the exterior shots, the photography struck me as somewhat sharp and colorful, thanks to cinematographer Howard Schwartz . More importantly, director George Schaefer managed to avoid that “filmed play” aspect that had tainted many British television productions and a few American productions. Somewhat. There were a few scenes that seemed to stretch a tad too long in “LINCOLN”, but not fortunately long enough to stretch my patience too thin.

A part of me wishes that “LINCOLN” had included more scenes of Lincoln’s life before the Civil War. The 1974-76 miniseries must be the first of three productions titled “LINCOLN” – the other two being the 1988 miniseries and the 2012 Steven Spielberg movie – that seemed to be about Lincoln’s years in the White House. Another aspect of this miniseries that I found a bit odd is that it did not feature any African-American characters, other than the occasional extra portraying a White House servant. I think. There is a chance that my memory might be playing tricks with me. I simply find it odd that a production about a U.S. president who had such a strong impact on the history of African-Americans . . . did not feature any black supporting characters. No Elizabeth Keckley, the Washington D.C. seamstress who became Mrs. Lincoln’s personal modiste and close companion, or Frederick Douglass, who had met Lincoln in 1863. Considering Lincoln’s overly cautious approach on the subjects of abolition and civil rights, there is a chance that producer David Wolper feared that Lincoln’s reputation as an emancipator would have slightly eroded. It was okay to discuss slavery, which the production did . . . but not with any real depth.

The miniseries certainly did not hesitate to display Lincoln’s ruthlessness and talent for political manipulation. Even when those traits were occasionally clouded by compassion, humor and verbosity, it was on display. This was especially apparent in two episodes – namely “Sad Figure, Laughing”, in which Lincoln had to deal with the political machinations of Salmon Chase for the Republican nomination for President in 1864; and in “The Unwilling Warrior”, in which he dealt with one general after another in his search for the one military leader who could deal with the Army of Northern Virginia and Robert E. Lee.

The best aspect of “LINCOLN” were the performances. Well . . . some of the performances. I hate to say this, but some of the minor performances struck me as a bit theatrical or amateurish. There were some performances that struck me as solid – including Norman Burton as General Ulysses S. Grant, Robert Foxworth as John T. Stuart, Lloyd Nolan asSecretary of State William H. Seward, Ed Flanders as General George B. McClellan, and Catherine Burns as Mary Owens. But there were those performances that I found impressive. This especially seemed to be the case for Roy Poole as Secretary of Treasury Salmon P. Chase, Elizabeth Ashley as the latter’s older daughter Kate Chase Sprague, Beulah Bondi as Lincoln’s stepmother Sarah Bush Lincoln, John Randolph as the first Secretary of War Simon Cameron and James Carroll Jordan as the Lincolns’ oldest son Robert Todd Lincoln.

But the two performances that outshone the others came from Hal Holbrook and Sada Thompson as the presidential couple, Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln. This is not really surprising. Of the three productions I have seen about Lincoln, the actors and actresses who have portrayed this couple have all given superb performances. This was the case for both Holbrook and Thompson. Holbrook seemed to have some special connection to the 16th president. The 1974-76 miniseries marked the first time he portrayed the role. He also portrayed Lincoln in the 1985 miniseries, “NORTH AND SOUTH: BOOK II” and he appeared in the 2012 Steven Spielberg movie as an old political crony of the President’s,Francis P. Blair. Holbrook’s portrayal of Lincoln could have easily strayed into the realm of folksy idealism. The actor did not completely reveal the more negative aspects of Lincoln’s character, but he did a superb job in conveying not only the President’s style of humor, but also his political savvy and a temper that can be fearsome. In an odd way, Sada Thompson had the easier job portraying First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln. Hollywood productions are more inclined to explore the more negative aspects of her personality than Lincoln’s. What I enjoyed about Thompson’s performance is that she still managed to make Mrs. Lincoln a likable person, despite the character flaws. It is not surprising that Holbrook won an Emmy for his performance and Thompson earned a nomination. Both of them deserved the accolades.

There are aspects of “LINCOLN” that I found questionable. Well . . . my main problem is that the production did not focus enough on the question of slavery, which I found rather odd, considering the subject matter. I also wish that the miniseries had included more scenes of Abraham Lincoln’s life before the Civil War. Now some television viewers might find the scattered narrative somewhat disconcerting. I simply figured out the chronological order of the episodes and watched them in that manner. But overall, “LINCOLN” is a first-rate miniseries about the 16th President that holds up rather well, thanks to George Schaefer’s direction and a skillful cast led by the talented Hal Holbrook and Sada Thompson.

“BRIDGE OF SPIES” (2015) Review

“BRIDGE OF SPIES” (2015) Review

Several years ago, I read an article in which Steven Spielberg had expressed a desire to direct a James Bond movie. It has been over a decade since the director had made this comment. And as far as I know, he has only directed two movies that had anything to do with spies – the 2005 movie “MUNICH”, which co-starred the current Bond actor, and his latest film, “BRIDGE OF SPIES”.

Like “MUNICH”, “BRIDGE OF SPIES” is a spy tale with a strong historical background. Based upon Giles Whittell’s 2010 book, “Bridge of Spies: A True Story of the Cold War”, the movie centered around the 1960 U-2 Incident and the efforts of attorney James B. Donovan to negotiate the exchange of U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers for the captured Soviet spyRudolf Abel – whom Donovan had unsuccessfully defended from charges of espionage against the United States. Although Whittell’s book focused upon a larger cast of characters involved in the U-2 incident and the famous spy exchange, the screenwriters – Matt Charman, along with Joel and Ethan Coen – and Spielberg tightened their focus upon Donovan’s role in the incident.

It occurred to me that in the past fifteen years, I can only think of five Steven Spielberg-directed movies that I have truly liked. Five out of eleven movies. Hmmmm . . . I do not know if that is good or bad. Fortunately, one of those movies that I managed to embrace was this latest effort, “BRIDGE OF SPIES”. I enjoyed it very much. I would not rank it at the same level as “MUNICH” or “LINCOLN”. But I thought it was a pretty solid movie for a director of Spielberg’s caliber. The latter and the movie’s screenwriters made the intelligent choice to focus on one particular person involved in the entire incident – James B. Donovan. If they had attempted to cover every aspect of Whittell’s book, Spielberg would have been forced to release this production as a television miniseries.

Yet, “BRIDGE OF SPIES” still managed to cover a great deal of the events surrounding the shooting of Powers’ U-2 spy plane and the exchange that followed. This is due to the screenwriters’ decision to start the movie with the arrest of Rudolf Abel in 1957. More importantly, the narrative went into details over the arrest, the U.S. decision to put Abel on trial, their choice of Donovan as his attorney and the trial itself. In fact, the movie covered all of this before Powers was even shot down over the Soviet Union. The screenwriters and Spielberg also went out of their way to cover the circumstances of the arrest and incarceration of American graduate student Frederic Pryor, who was vising his East Berlin girlfriend, when he was arrested. And that is because the writers had the good sense to realize – like Whittell before them – that the incidents surrounding the arrests of both Abel and Pryor were just as important as Powers being shot down by the Soviets.

What I best liked about “BRIDGE OF SPIES” was its ambiguous portrayal of the nations involved in the entire matter – the United States, the Soviet Union and the German Democratic Republic (East Germany). No country was spared. Both the United States and the Soviet Union seemed bent upon not only projecting some image of a wounded nation to the world. Both engaged in sham trials for Abel and Powers that left a bad taste in my mouth. And the movie portrayed East Germany as some petulant child pouting over the fact that neither of the other two countries were taking it seriously. Which would account for that country’s vindictive treatment toward Pryor. And neither the U.S. or the Soviets seemed that concerned over Pryor’s fate – especially the U.S. Watching the movie finally made me realize how the Cold War now strikes me as irrelevant and a waste of time.

As much as I enjoyed “BRIDGE OF SPIES”, the movie seemed to lack a sense of urgency that struck me as odd for this kind of movie. And I have to blame Spielberg. His direction seemed a bit . . . well, a bit too relaxed for a topic about the Cold War at its most dangerous. Many might point out that “BRIDGE OF SPIES” is basically a historic drama in which anyone familiar with the U-2 incident would know how it ends. Yet Both “MUNICH” and “LINCOLN”, along with Ron Howard’s “APOLLO 13” and Roger Donaldson’s 2000 film, “THIRTEEN DAYS”, seemed to possess that particular sharp urgency, despite being historic dramas. But for “BRIDGE OF SPIES”, Spielberg’s direction seemed just a tad too relaxed – with the exception of a few scenes. One last problem I had with “BRIDGE OF SPIES” was the ending. Remember . . . this is Steven Spielberg, a director notorious for dumping a surprising layer of saccharine on an otherwise complex tale. This saccharine was on full display in the movie’s finale sequence that featured Donovan’s return to the United States . . . especially the scene in which he is riding an El train to his home in the Bronx and his family’s discovery of his activities in Eastern Europe. It was enough saccharine to make me heave an exasperated sigh.

Speaking of Donovan’s El Train ride back to his neighborhood, there was one aspect of it that I found impressive. I must admit how cinematographer Janusz Kamiński, a longtime collaborator of Spielberg’s since the early 1990s, allowed the camera to slowly sweep over Donovan’s Bronx neighborhood from an elevated position. I found the view rather rich and detailed. In fact, Kamiński provided a similar sweeping bird eye’s view of the Berlin Wall and the two “enclaves” that bordered it. Another aspect of the movie’s production values that impressed me were Adam Stockhausen’s production designs. I thought he did an outstanding job in re-creating both New York City and Berlin of the late 1950s and early 1960s. And his work was ably assisted by Rena DeAngelo and Bernhard Henrich’s set decorations; along with the art direction team of Marco Bittner Rosser, Scott Dougan, Kim Jennings and Anja Müller.

The performances featured in “BRIDGE OF SPIES” struck me as pretty solid. I thought Amy Ryan, Alan Alda, Jesse Plemmons, Michael Gaston, Will Rogers and Austin Stowell did great work. But for my money, the best performances came from lead Tom Hanks, Mark Rylance, Dakin Matthews and Sebastian Koch. Dakin Matthews has always been a favorite character actor of mine. I have always found his performances rather colorful. However, I would have to say that his portrayal of Federal Judge Byers, who seemed exasperated by Donovan’s attempt to give Abel a fair trial, struck me as a lot more subtle and effective than many of his past roles. Sebastian Koch gave a very interesting performance as East German attorney Wolfgang Vogel, who seemed intensely determined that his country play a major role in the spy swap and not be cast aside. Superficially, Tom Hanks’ role as James Donovan seemed like the typical “boy scout” role he had especially became known for back in the 1990s. And in some ways, it is. But I really enjoyed how the actor conveyed Donovan’s increasing disbelief over his country’s questionable handling of Abel’s trial and his sense that he is a fish-out-of-water in a divided Berlin. However, I feel that the best performance came from Mark Rylance, who gave a deliciously subtle, yet entertaining portrayal of Soviet spy Rudolf Abel. What I liked about Rylance’s performance is that he did not portray Abel as some kind of stock KGB agent, but a subtle and intelligent man, who seemed clearly aware of the more unpleasant side of both American and Soviet justice. Rylance’s performance paid off with an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor.

I might as well be frank. I do not think I would ever regard “BRIDGE OF SPIES” as one of Steven Spielberg’s best movies. I thought the movie lacked a sense of urgency and sharpness that nearly robbed the film of any suspension . . . despite it being a historical drama. But, I still believe it was a first-rate film. I also thought that Spielberg and the movie’s screenwriters did a great job in conveying as many details as possible regarding the U-2 incident and what led to it. The movie also featured a first-rate cast led by the always incomparable Tom Hanks. Overall, “BRIDGE OF SPIES” proved that Spielberg has yet to lose his touch.

Favorite Films Set in the 1830s

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Below is a list of my favorite movies (so far) that are set in the 1830s:

FAVORITE FILMS SET IN THE 1830s

1. “The Adventures of Huck Finn” (1993) – Elijah Wood and Courtney B. Vance starred in this excellent Disney adaptaion of Mark Twain’s 1885 novel about a young Missouri boy who joines a runaway slave on a journey along the Mississippi River toward the free states in antebellum America. Stephen Sommers directed.

1- The Count of Monte Cristo 2002

2. “The Count of Monte Cristo” (2002) – James Caviezel starred as the vengeful Edmond Dantès in Disney’s 2002 adaptation of Alexandre Dumas, père’s 1844 novel. Directed by Kevin Reynolds, the movie co-starred Guy Pearce and Dagmara Dominczyk.

2 - Pride and Prejudice 1940

3. “Pride and Prejudice” (1940) – Greer Garson and Laurence Olivier starred in this entertaining adaptation of Jane Austen’s 1813 novel. Robert Z. Leonard directed.

3 - The Count of Monte Cristo 1975

4. “The Count of Monte Cristo” (1975) – Richard Chamberlain gave an intense performance in the 1975 television adaptation of Dumas’ novel. Tony Curtis and Kate Nelligan co-starred.

4 - Impromptu

5. “Impromptu” (1991) – Judy Davis and Hugh Grant starred in this comedic tale about author George Sand’s pursuit of composer Frédéric Chopin in 1830s France. James Lapine directed.

5 - Amistad

6. “Armistad” (1997) – Steven Spielberg directed this account of the 1839 mutiny aboard the slave ship La Amistad and the trials of the Mendes tribesmen/mutineers, led by Sengbe Pieh. The movie starred Djimon Hounsou, Matthew McConnaughey, Morgan Freeman and Anthony Hopkins.

6 - Wide Sargasso Sea 2006

7. “Wide Sargasso Sea” (2006) – Rebecca Hall and Rafe Spall starred in this 2006 television adaptation of Jean Rhys’s 1966 novel, which is a prequel to Charlotte Brontë’s 1847 novel, “Jane Eyre”. It focused upon the early marriage of Antoinette Cosway (Bertha Mason) and Edward Rochester.

7 - My Cousin Rachel

8. “My Cousin Rachel” (1952) – Olivia de Havilland and Richard Burton starred in this adaptation of Daphne Du Maurier’s 1951 novel about a young Englishman’s obsession with his late cousin’s widow. Henry Koster directed.

8 - The Alamo 2004

9. “The Alamo” (2004) – John Lee Hancock directed this account of the Battle of the Alamo, the only production about the Texas Revolution that I actually managed to enjoy. The movie starred Billy Bob Thornton, Patrick Wilson and Jason Patric.

9 - The Big Sky

10. “The Big Sky” (1952) – Howard Hawks directed this adaptation of A.B. Guthrie’s 1947 novel about a fur trader’s expedition up the Missouri River. Kirk Douglas and Dewey Martin starred.

“INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE” (1989) Review

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“INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE” (1989) Review

After a mixed reaction to the darker tones of 1984’s “INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM”, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg decided to compensate by ending what was then planned their Indiana Jones trilogy with a movie lighter in tone. The result of this decision is the 1989 movie, “INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE”.

The movie began with a prologue set in 1912 with a 13 year-old Indiana Jones riding with his Boy Scout troop in Utah. He stumbles across some robbers in a cave finding an ornamental cross that once belonged to Spanish explorer Coronado. Indy manages to steal the cross from the robbers and make it back to town to report the crime. His father, Henry Jones Sr. is oblivious to what his happening, due to his obsessive research on the Holy Grail. And Indy is forced to give up the cross to a mysterious man for whom the robbers worked for. Twenty-six years later, Indy finally gets his hands on the cross from the mysterious man, off the coast of Portugal.

“INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE” proved to be the only film in the franchise in which its prologue had little to do with the movie’s main narrative, aside from a brief peek into Henry Sr.’s obsession with the Holy Grail. Still in 1938, Indiana is contacted by an American businessman named Walter Donovan, who also happens to be a collector of antiquities. He informs Indy that Henry Sr. had vanished in Venice, Italy while searching for the Holy Grail on his behalf. Indy also receives a package in the mail that contains his father’s “Grail Diary” – a notebook featuring the latter’s research on the artifact. Realizing that Henry Sr. is in trouble, Indy and his mentor, Marcus Brody, travel to Venice and with the assistance of Dr. Elsa Schneider, Henry’s Austrian-born assistance, search for the missing archaeologist. During their adventures, the trio discover that Henry’s disappearance is either tied to a Christian secret society called the Brotherhood of the Cruciform Sword or the Nazis.

From the time I first saw “INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE”, I enjoyed it very much. Actually, I can say the same for just about every INDIANA JONES movie I have seen, save one. It really is a fun movie and I suspect this is a result of Lucas and Spielberg’s decision to make its tone lighter than either “TEMPLE OF DOOM” and 1981’s “RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK”. Just like in the previous movies, “THE LAST CRUSADE” saw Indiana Jones on a globe-trekking adventure to acquire a famous artifact on behalf of someone. In this case, he seemed to be working on behalf of both Walter Donovan and especially his father, Henry Jones Sr. But there was one aspect of this movie that made this movie particularly enjoyable was the casting. Lucas and Spielberg, along with screenwriters Jeffrey Boam and Tom Stoppard (uncredited), decided to make this movie a family affair by including Indy’s dad into the story. They also broadened the role of Indy’s mentor (and Henry Sr.’s college chum), Marcus Brody, who was featured in probably the movie’s funniest scene. And this is the only INDIANA JONES film and the second one for Lucas that featured a villainous leading lady. In fact, I suspect that Lucas was inspired by the Princess Sorsha character in 1988’s “WILLOW”, who started out as a villain and ended up as a sympathetic character. With Dr. Elsa Schneider, Lucas and Spielberg had a leading lady who started out as a heroine, slipped into villainess mode and ended up as a very ambiguous anti-heroine. I am not claiming that Elsa was the best of the movie franchise’s leading ladies, but she was certainly interesting.

The movie also featured some first-rate action sequences. My favorite included Indiana and Elsa’s conflict with the Brotherhood of the Cruciform Sword in Venice, Indy and Henry Sr.’s hasty departure from a Zeppelin that was returning to Germany and especially their escape from the German Army controlled Brunwald Castle on the Austrian-German border. The extended action sequence featuring Indiana’s clash with Colonel Ernst Vogel aboard a tank in the fictional Hatay desert ended with one of the movie’s best scenes – namely the tank falling over a cliff along with Indy and Vogel. This particular sequence must have been so successful that I suspect producer-director Peter Jackson more or less used it in one important scene in 2003’s “LORD OF THE RINGS: RETURN OF THE KING”. But the movie was not sustained by interesting characterizations and action sequences alone. The main narrative for “INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE” – the search for the Holy Grail and belief in its existence and power – not only set in motion a series of adventures for the main characters, but also served as a backdrop for Indiana’s complicated relationships with both Elsa Schneider and especially, Henry Sr. In fact, one of my favorite scenes in the entire movie featured a brief conversation between Indy and Henry Sr. aboard the Zeppelin in which the former pointed out that the latter’s obsession with the Holy Grail and inability to communicate led to a twenty-two year estrangement between father and son.

But as much as I enjoyed “INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE”, it is probably my least favorite in the franchise. Aside from the leading lady’s characterization, the movie strikes me as the least original of the four movies. The other three movies offered something truly original to the franhcise – especially in regard to narratives. I cannot say the same about “THE LAST CRUSADE”. Despite its unusual addition of the Elsa Schneider and Henry Jones Sr. characters, it was more or less a rehash of “RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK”, which included a search for a Judeo-Christian artifact, Nazis, a Middle Eastern setting, the return of both Marcus Brody and Sallah Mohammed Faisel el-Kahir (Sallah), and a non-German collaborator of the Nazis who seemed more interested in the artifact than ideology.

Also, I was not that impressed by the 1912 Utah prologue for the movie. I did not find it particularly interesting, even though I am thankful that it served as a forerunner to “THE YOUNG INDIANA JONES CHRONICLES” television series from the early 1990s. And as much as I enjoyed the relationship between Indy and Elsa, there was one scene between them that I found unappealing. It concerned Indy’s efforts to retrieve his father’s “Grail Diary” from the Austrian art historian in Berlin. The retrieval led to an angst-filled quarrel that struck me as rather false. I got the impression that Lucas and Spielberg were trying to capitalize on the emotional relationship between the James Bond and Kara Milovy characters in the 1987 Bond movie “THE LIVING DAYLIGHTS”. The problems were that I never got the feeling that Indy and Elsa were that emotionally involved for such angsty fight, and Harrison Ford and Alison Doody never really sold it for me . . . at least in that particular scene. Like the other three movies in the franchise, “THE LAST CRUSADE” suffered from some heavy-handed action sequences. This was especially apparent in the Hatay desert sequence featuring the Nazi tank. And could someone please explain how that Zeppelin traveled from Berlin to Southeastern Europe so fast? It was in the latter region where Indy and Henry Sr. encountered the German fighter planes sent to kill them. Also, “THE LAST CRUSADE” suffered from a fault that also marred both “RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK” and 2008’s “INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULLS”. In the film’s final confrontation scenes, Indy played no role in the main villain’s downfall. Like in the 1981 and 2008 films, he mainly stood around with this thumb up his ass while someone else . . . or a supernatural entity dealt with the main villain. And like in the other two movies, I found this anti-climatic and rather disappointing.

But I was certainly not disappointed with the cast. They proved to be first-rate . . . not surprisingly. Harrison Ford returned as the intrepid archaeologist Indiana Jones and was superb and more relaxed in the role. Okay, I did criticize his acting in that Berlin scene with Alison Doody, but it was only one blot in an otherwise excellent performance. Dr. Henry Jones Sr. has to be my favorite Sean Connery role of all time. I adored him as Indy’s priggish and high-minded father who finds working in the field a new experience. And he also got to speak one of my favorite lines in the entire film, while repelling a German fighter plane in Eastern Europe. In fact, it is my favorite Connery quote of all time. Alison Doody was at least 21 or 22 years old when “THE LAST CRUSADE” went into production. She only had at least 2 to 3 years of acting experience. And yet, I was more than impressed by her portrayal of the amoral Austrian art historian Dr. Elsa Schneider. Doody had once complained that dealing with the Austrian accent was difficult for her. I would think dealing with Elsa’s complex nature would be more difficult. And I believe that despite her limited experience at the time, she did a pretty damn good job in portraying the very ambiguous Elsa – aside from that Berlin scene with Ford.

Julian Glover gave a smooth performance as Walter Donovan, the American businessman for whom the Jones family sought out the Holy Grail. His Donovan also proved to be just as complex, thanks to his skillful performance. Both John Rhys-Davies and Denholm Elliot reprised their roles as Sallah and Dr. Marcus Brody. And both were not only entertaining, but also gave first-rate performances. I especially enjoyed Elliot’s display of humor in a scene featuring Marcus’ arrival in Turkey. Michael Byrne’s portrayal of S.S. Colonel Ernst Vogel struck me as both subtle and intimidating. Back in 1980, Kevork Malikyan first tried out for the role of Sallah for “RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK”, but the role went to Rhys-Davies. But Spielberg remembered him and hired the actor to portray Kazim, a member of the Brotherhood of the Cruciform Sword, whom Indy and Elsa encountered in Venice. Malikyan’s skllful portrayal of Kazim proved to be a complex mixture of intensity, religious fevor and a deep-seated calm. And River Phoenix did a marvelous job in portraying the 13 year-old Indiana. He proved to be quite adept in capturing Ford’s mannerisms and speech pattern, while maintaining the persona of a boy in his early teens.

As I had stated earlier, I found “INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE” to be the least original of the four movies in the franchise. Because of this, it is also my least favorite. But despite being my least favorite “INDIANA JONES” film, it is still very entertaining and I never get tired of watching it, thanks to a solid story penned by Jeffrey Boam and Tom Stoppard, first-rate direction by Steven Spielberg and an outstanding cast led by Harrison Ford and Sean Connery.

“WESTWARD HO!”: Part Five – “INTO THE WEST” (2005)

intothewest06

Below is Part Five to my article about Hollywood’s depiction about the westward migration via wagon trains in 19th century United States. It focuses upon “Manifest Destiny”, the second episode of the 2005 television miniseries, “INTO THE WEST”:

 

“WESTWARD HO!”: Part Five – “INTO THE WEST” (2005)

I. Introduction

Steven Spielberg had served as executive producer for a miniseries about the history of the Old West, during a period that spanned from the mid-1820s to 1890-91. If this premise sounds familiar, it should. It bears a strong resemblance to the main plot for “HOW THE WEST WAS WON”. Only the story for “INTO THE WEST” centered on two families – a family of wheelwrights from western Virginia and a family from the Lakota nation.

“INTO THE WEST” aired as a six-part miniseries during the summer of 2005. The second episode, “Manifest Destiny”, focused on wagon journey from Independence, Missouri to California in 1841. The first episode, “Wheel to the Stars”, introduced some of the saga’s main characters – such as Jacob Wheeler, the son and grandson of Virginia wheelwrights; Thunder Heart Woman, the Lakota woman with whom he will fall in love and marry; his younger brother Jethro Wheeler, who was too frightened to follow Jacob on the latter’s first journey to the West; and Thunder Heart Woman’s three brothers, Loved By the Buffalo, Dog Star and Running Fox. This episode ended with Jacob and Thunder Heart Woman’s marriage at her family’s village.

“Manifest Destiny” picked up seven to eight years later with Jacob’s return to Wheelerton, Virginia, with a pregnant Thunder Heart Woman and their four year-old daughter, Margaret Light Shines in two. With the exception of Jethro, the rest of the Wheeler family – including Jacob’s three cousins, Naomi, Rachel and Leah – greet Thunder Heart Woman and Margaret with a chilly intolerance. After the birth of Jacob and Thunder Heart Woman’s new son, Abraham High Wolf, Jacob learns of the death of the famous explorer and trapper Jedediah Smith.

Jacob realizes that Wheelerton is no longer home to him and decides to return to the West. This time, Jethro, Naomi, Rachel and Leah decide to accompany him and Thunder Heart Woman. The Wheelers spend at least three years traveling west, until they reach Independence, Missouri in the fall of 1840. The family decides to travel to California and is forced to wait until the following spring of 1841 to start their journey. The Wheelers join a wagon party led by one Stephen Moxie. The Wheelers, along with their fellow emigrants experience bad weather, accidents, Native Americans, romance and tragedy during their journey to California.

 

II. History vs. Hollywood

With television miniseries like “CENTENNIAL” and “THE CHISHOLMS” as examples, one would think that Hollywood had finally learned to inject as much historical accuracy in its period dramas as possible. But “INTO THE WEST” – at least as far as “Manifest Destiny” is concerned – seemed to be an exception to the rule. Screenwriters William Mastrosimone and Cyrus Nowrasteh managed to toss historical facts to the wind, when they wrote this episode.

Mind you, Mastrosimone and Nowrasteh managed to begin the journey on the right note. The first known wagon party to attempt the journey to California (the Bartleson-Bidwell Party) did leave Westport, Missouri in 1841, the same year as the Wheelers’ departure. “Manifest Destiny” did an excellent job in conveying the day-to-day chores performed by the emigrants. The wagons used by the Wheelers and other members of the Moxie wagon party were, thankfully, not the lumbering Conestogas seen in old Hollywood films. The episode also included the use of buffalo meat, dangers of cholera on the trail, river crossings and an accident caused by difficult terrain like the Windlass Hill around Ash Hollow. Unfortunately, the rest of the episode’s portrayal of wagon train migration proved to have very little historical accuracy.

“Manifest Destiny” marked a return of an inaccurate portrayal of emigrant life that had not been seen for a while. Although none of the wagons featured in the episode are not Conestogas, all of them are being pulled by horses, instead of mules or oxen. I found it a miracle that none of the horses had dropped dead by the end of the episode. I also noticed that the emigrants in Moxie’s party had to pay at least $80.00 or provide some valuable service (in Jacob and Jethro’s case, provide wheelwright service) in order to join. However, I cannot say whether this is accurate or not. I have never come across such a thing during my studies of overland wagon travel. On the other hand, such transactions may have occurred.

One glance of the terrain featured in “Manifest Destiny” immediately alerted me to the fact that the episode had not been filmed anywhere near the locations from the actual Oregon and California trails. In fact, no famous landmarks from the two trails were shown in this episode. Not even a single fort. I discovered that the miniseries was either filmed in the Alberta Province of Canada and around Santa Fe, New Mexico. This does not surprised me. The actors in this episode spent a good deal of time wearing coats or cloaks. Since the wagon journey from Missouri to California usually spanned between mid-spring and early fall, I found the presence of outer wear unrealistic.

The Lakota characters featured in the six-part miniseries proved to be just as complex as the white characters. This is not surprising. After all, some of Jacob Wheeler’s in-laws were among the main characters – especially his three brothers-in-law. However, when it came to the Hoxie wagon party’s encounter with members of the Cheyenne nation, historical accuracy was once again tossed into the wind.

Among the travelers that joined the Moxie wagon party was a family of free blacks from Illinois named Jones. When Mrs. Jones died from cholera, they were forced to remain behind, until they could be certain that no one else in their party had contracted the disease. The Wheelers – with the exception of Naomi, who was traveling with her new husband – were forced to remain with the Jones, due to being the closest with the family. Soon, Jethro came down with cholera. But he managed to overcome his illness. After his recovery, Jacob rode ahead to find the wagon party. He discovered that the entire wagon train – except for Naomi, who was taken – had been killed by Native Americans. Jacob returned to the Wheeler and Jones wagons, which found themselves under attack by Cheyenne dog soldiers, the very party that wiped out the Moxie wagon train. In other words, the viewers were expected to believe that a band of Cheyenne dog soldiers were able to wipe out a fairly-sized and well-armed wagon party. Yet, the only damage they were able to inflict upon the Wheeler and Jones families was a lance through Jacob Wheeler’s shoulder. Ri-i-ii-i-ight! This was one the most ludicrous piece of historical inaccuracy I had ever encountered in a period drama.

There were other minor historical inaccuracies, which had nothing to do with the Moxie wagon party that I found in “Manifest Destiny”. One, Jedediah Smith did not die around 1836-37. He was killed in 1831. And according to Jacob, there were no battles or any real violence in California during the Mexican-American War. Wrong! A few months after the Americans had taken over the province, the Californios took up arms against their new rulers, resulting in a few battles mainly fought in Southern California.

It seems ironic that “Manifest Destiny” turned out to be the least historically accurate episode of “INTO THE WEST”. I say that it is ironic, because this episode happens to be my favorite from the entire miniseries. “Manifest Destiny” gave a fairly accurate picture of the daily activities of emigrants on the overland trails. But it turned out to be like many films from the past – more Hollywood than history.

 

III. Conclusion

This marks the end of my look at Hollywood’s depiction of emigrant wagon trains. The two movies and three miniseries were not the only productions to feature this setting. And if these articles have increased your interest in this subject, you might want to consider other movie and television productions about it.