Favorite Films Set in the 1800s

Below is a list of my favorite movies set during the decade between 1800 and 1809: 

FAVORITE FILMS SET IN THE 1800s

1. “Emma” (1996) – Gwyneth Paltrow starred in this very entertaining adaptation of Jane Austen’s 1815 novel about an upper-class Englishwoman’s attempts to play matchmaker for her friends and neighbors. Co-starring Jeremy Northam, the movie was adapted and directed by Douglas McGrath.

2. “Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World” (2003) – Russell Crowe and Paul Bettany starred in this Oscar-nominated adaptation of several of Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey–Maturin series. The movie was co-written and directed by Peter Weir.

3. ‘Buccaneer’s Girl” (1950) – Yvonne De Carlo starred in this entertaining romantic adventure about the relationship between a Boston singer and an elite sea trader/pirate in old New Orleans. Directed by Frederick de Cordova, the movie co-starred Philip Friend and Robert Douglas.

4. “Captain Horatio Hornblower” (1951) – Gregory Peck and Virginia Mayo starred in this adaptation of three of C. S. Forester’s Horatio Hornblower novels. The movie was directed by Raoul Walsh.

5. “Mansfield Park” (1999) – Patricia Rozema adapted and directed this adaptation of Jane Austen’s 1814 novel about an impoverished young woman living with her wealthy relations. Frances O’Connor and Jonny Lee Miller starred.

6. “The Duellists” (1977) – Ridley Scott directed this adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s 1908 short story, “The Duel” about a small feud between two Napoleonic officers that evolves into a decades-long series of duels. Keith Carradine and Harvey Keitel starred.

7. “Lloyd’s of London” (1936) – Tyrone Power was featured in his first starring role as a young man who worked for the famous insurance corporation, Lloyd’s of London, during the Napoleonic Wars. Directed by Henry King, Madeleine Carroll and George Sanders co-starred.

8. “Carry On Jack” (1963) – Bernard Cribbins, Kenneth Williams and Juliet Mills starred in this eighth entry in the “Carry On” comedy series, which is a spoof of the high-seas adventure genre. Gerald Thomas directed.

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“THE FLAME TREES OF THIKA” (1981) Review

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“THE FLAME TREES OF THIKA” (1981) Review

Some might find this hard to believe, but I used to be an avid viewer of PBS’s “MASTERPIECE THEATER” years ago. Even when I was a child. That is right. Even as a child, I was hooked on period dramas set in Great Britain’s past. One of the productions that I never forgot happened to be one that is rarely, if ever, discussed by period drama fans today – namely the 1981 miniseries, “THE FLAME TREES OF THIKA”.

“THE FLAME TREES OF THIKA” is really a biopic – an adaptation of author Elspeth Huxley’s 1959 memoirs of her childhood in Kenya during the last year of the Edwardian Age . . . that last year before the outbreak of World War I. The story begins in 1913 when young Elspeth Grant and her mother Tilly arrive in British East Africa (now known as Kenya) to meet her father, Robin. The latter, who is a British Army veteran, has plans to establish a coffee plantation. The Grants encounter many problems in setting up their new home. With the help of a Boer big game hunter named Piet Roos, they hire a Kikuyu local named Njombo to serve as translator for any new workers. Two of those workers are another local of Masai/Kikuyu descent named Sammy, who serves as the Grants’ headman; and a Swahili cook named Juma. As life begins to improve for the Grants, they acquire new neighbors, who include a recently arrived couple named Hereward and Lettice Palmer, a Scottish-born former nurse named Mrs. Nimmo, a young and inexperienced farmer named Alec Wilson and a very dashing big game hunter named Ian Crawford. However, just as the Grants were learning to adjust to life in British East Africa, World War I begins and they are forced to adjust to a new future all over again.

Overall, “THE FLAME TREES OF THIKA” struck me as a pretty decent production. It is a beautiful series to look at, thanks to Ian Wilson’s cinematography. He did a marvelous job in recapturing the space and scope of Kenya. Yes, the miniseries was filmed on location. My only qualm is that Wilson may have used slightly inferior film stock. The production’s color seemed to have somewhat faded over the past twenty to thirty years. Roy Stannard’s art direction greatly contributed to the miniseries’ look. I can also say the same about Maggie Quigley’s costume designs. They looked attractive when the scene or moment called for borderline glamour. But Quigley remained mindful of her characters’ social standing, age and personalities. I feel that Stannard and Quigley, along with production managers Clifton Brandon and Johnny Goodman did a very good job in recapturing the look and feel of colonial pre-World War I East Africa. Let me clarify . . . colonial East Africa for middle-class Britons.

I might as well be frank. Many years had passed between the first and last times I saw “THE FLAME TREES OF THIKA”. It took this recent viewing for me to realize that the production’s narrative was not as consistent as I had originally assumed it was. Let me put it another way . . . I found the narrative for “THE FLAME TREES OF THIKA” a bit episodic. I tried to think of a continuous story arc featured in the miniseries, but I could only think of one – namely the love affair between Lettice Palmer, the wife of the Grants’ boorish neighbor; and big game hunter Ian Crawford. And this story arc only lasted between Episodes Three and Seven. Otherwise, the viewers experienced vignettes of the Grants’ one year in East Africa. And each vignette only seemed to last one episode. I must admit that I found this slightly disappointing.

There were some vignettes that enjoyed. I certainly enjoyed Episode One, which featured the Grants’ arrival in East Africa and their efforts to recruit help from the locals to establish their farm. I also enjoyed those episodes that featured the Grants and the Palmers’ efforts to kill a leopard; a major safari in which Tilly Grant, the Palmers and Ian Crawford participated in Episode Six; and the impact of World War I upon their lives in the miniseries’ final episode. However, I had some problems with other episodes. I found Episode Two, which featured young Elspeth’s rather strange New Year’s experiences nearly boring. Nearly. I must admit that some of the characters featured in that particular episode struck me as rather interesting. The episode that featured a personal quarrel between the Grants’ translator Njombo and their headman Sammy ended up pissing me off. It pissed me off because its resolution, namely an “Act of God” in the form Tilly, struck me as a typical example of European condescension . . . even in the early 1980s.

The performances for “THE FLAME TREES OF THIKA” struck me as pretty first-rate. I rather enjoyed Hayley Mills and David Robb’s performances as young Elspeth’s parents, Tilly and Robin Grant. Although both actors came off as likable, they also did an excellent job in portraying Tilly and Robin’s less than admirable qualities . . . including an insidious form of bigotry. What I am trying to say is . . . neither Tilly or Robin came off as overt bigots. But there were moments when their prejudices managed to creep out of the woodwork, thanks to Mills and Robb’s subtle performances. Sharon Maughan and Nicholas Jones were also excellent as the Grants’ neighbors, Lettice and Hereward Palmer. It was easier for me to like the delicate and ladylike Lettice, even though there were times when she came of as self-absorbed. Jones’ Hereward struck me as somewhat friendly at first. But as the series progressed, the actor did a great job in exposing Hereward’s more unpleasant nature, which culminated in the safari featured in Episode Six. Ben Cross gave a charming and slightly virile performance as big game hunter Ian Crawford. But if I must be honest, the character was not exactly one of his more complex and interesting roles. But the one performance that shined above the others came from the then twelve year-old Holly Aird, who portrayed Elspeth Grant, the miniseries’ main character. Not only did Aird give a delightful performance, she also held her own with her much older cast mates. Quite an achievement for someone who was either eleven or twelve at the time.

There were other performances in “THE FLAME TREES OF THIKA” that I found impressive. Carol MacReady was entertaining as the somewhat narrow-minded Mrs. Nimmo. Mick Chege gave a charming performance as the always cheerful and popular . David Bradley’s portrayal of young neighbor Alec struck me as equally charming. Paul Onsongo gave a solid performance as the Grants’ major domo/cook Juma. However, Onsongo’s last scene proved to be very complex and interesting when Juma discovered that he could not accompany the Grants back to Britain. One of the series’ most interesting performances came from William Morgan Sheppard, who portrayed Boer big game hunter, Piet Roos. The interesting aspect of Sheppard’s performance is that although he conveyed Roos’ more unpleasant and racist side in Episode One, he did an excellent in winning the audience’s sympathy as his character dealt with the more unpleasant Hereward Palmer during the leopard hunt in Episode Five. Another interesting performance came from Steve Mwenesi as the Grants’ headsman, Sammy. Mwenesi did an excellent job in portraying the very complex Sammy. The latter seemed so cool and subtle. Yet, Mwenesi also made audiences aware of Sammy’s emotions by utilizing facial expressions and his eyes.

Overall, “THE FLAME TREES OF THIKA” was an entertaining production that gave audiences a peek into the lives of colonial Britons during the last year of peace before the outbreak of World War I. Realizing that the story deal with members of the British middle-class and the Kikuyu and Swahili locals, the production team ensured that the miniseries was rich in atmospheric details without over-glamorizing the setting and costumes. And although the miniseries’ narrative came off as somewhat episodic, I also managed to enjoy the performances of a first-rate cast led by Hayley Mills, David Robb and an enchanting Holly Aird.

“GODS AND GENERALS” (2003) Review

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“GODS AND GENERALS” (2003) Review

In 1993, producer Ted Turner and director Ronald Maxwell released “GETTYSBURG”, a film adaptation of Michael Shaara’s 1974 novel, “The Killer Angels”. Shaara’s son, Jeffrey, wrote a prequel to his novel called “Gods and Generals” in 1996. Both Turner and Maxwell teamed up again 2002-2003 to make a film adaptation of the latter novel. 

Set between April 1861 and May 1863, “GODS AND GENERALS” related the American Civil War events leading up to the Battle of Gettysburg. Although the movie began with Virginia-born Robert E. Lee’s resignation from the U.S. Army, following his home state’s secession from the Union; the meat of the film focused on on the personal and professional life of Confederate general Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson during those two years. It also touched on how Bowdoin College professor Joshua L. Chamberlain became second-in-command of the 20th Maine Volunteer Infantry Regiment, his military training and his experiences during the Battle of Fredricksburg. But trust me . . . most of the movie is about Jackson. It covered his departure from the Virginia Military Institute; his experiences with the famous “Stonewall Brigade”; his experiences at the Battle of Bull Run; his relationships with both his wife Mary Anna, his servant Jim Lewis and a five year-old girl from an old Virginia family; and his experiences at the Battle Chancelorville.

“GODS AND GENERALS” had its virtues. One of them turned out to be Michael Z. Hanan’s production designs. Hanan and his team did a superb job in re-creating Virginia of the early 1860s. I was especially impressed by their recreation of mid-19th century Fredricksburg during that famous battle in December 1862. I wonder who had the bright idea of using Harper’s Ferry, West Virgina for that particular setting. Hanan’s work was ably supported by Kees Van Oostrum’s photography and Gregory Bolton’s art direction. Oostrum’s photography and Corky Ehlers’ editing was also put to good use during the Fredricksburg battle sequence. And I really enjoyed the costumes designed by Richard La Motte, Maurice Whitlock and Gamila Smith. All three did their homework in re-creating the fashions and uniforms of the period. Unlike “GETTYSBURG”“GODS AND GENERALS” featured major female characters. I suspect this gave the trio the opportunity to indulge their romantic streak with crinolines and hoop skirts galore.

There were some admirable performances in “GODS AND GENERALS”. Frankie Faison gave a warm performance as Thomas Jackson’s free cook, Jim Lewis. I was also impressed by Brian Mallon’s subtle portrayal of the concerned Major General Winfield Hancock, a role he had first portrayed in the 1993 film. It is a pity that Bruce Boxleitner did not receive more screen time for his role as Lieutenant General James Longstreet. He had taken over the role from Tom Berenger and gave a pretty solid performance. But alas, he did not receive enough time to do anything with the role. Alex Hyde-White gave an interesting portrayal of Major General Ambrose Burnside, whose decisions led the Union Army to disaster at Fredricksburg. Matt Letscher, whom I last remembered from 1998’s “THE MASK OF ZORRO” was very memorable as the 20th Maine’s founder and first regimental commander, Colonel Adelbert Ames. I could also say the same for Mira Sorvino’s portrayal of Frances “Fanny” Chamberlain, Colonel Chamberlain’s passionate and pessimistic wife. In fact, I believe she had the good luck to portray the most interesting female character in the movie.

So . . . what about the other performances? What about the stars Stephen Lang, Jeff Daniels and Robert Duvall? I am not claiming that they gave bad performances. Honestly, they did the best they could. Unfortunately, all three and most of the other cast members had the bad luck to be saddled with very uninteresting characters, stuck with either bad dialogue or self-righteous speeches. In other words, I found them BORING!!! I am sorry, but I truly did.

First of all, Lang’s Thomas Jackson dominated the film just a little too much. Why bother calling this movie “GODS AND GENERALS”? Why not call it “THE LIFE AND TIMES OF STONEWALL JACKSON”? Even worse, Jackson is portrayed in such an unrelenting positive light that by the time the movie came around to his fate after the Battle of Chancelorville, I practically sighed with relief. Jeff Daniels’ Joshua Chamberlain did nothing to rouse my interest in his story. In fact, he disappeared for a long period of time before he made his reappearance during the Battle of Fredricksburg sequence. And his appearance in that particular sequence was completely marred by him and other members of the 20th Maine Volunteer Regiment quoting William Shakespeare’s “JULIUS CAESAR”, while marching toward Marye’s Heights. Oh God, I hate that scene so much! As for Robert Duvall’s Robert Lee . . . what a waste of his time. Ronald Maxwell’s script did not allow the actor any opportunity to explore Lee’s character during those two years leading to Gettysburg. I realize this is not Duvall’s fault, but I found myself longing for Martin Sheen’s portrayal of the Confederate general in “GETTYSBURG”.

There is so much about this movie that I dislike. One, Maxwell’s portrayal of the movie’s two main African-American characters – Jim Lewis and a Fredricksburg slave named Martha, as portrayed by actress/historian Donzaleigh Abernathy – struck me as completely lightweight. Now, I realized that there were black slaves and paid employees who managed to maintain a friendly or close relationship with their owner or employer. But in “GODS AND GENERALS”, Lewis seemed quite friendly with his employer Jackson and Martha seemed obviously close to the family that owned her, the Beales. I could have tolerated if Lewis or Martha had been friendly toward those for whom they worked. But both of them? I get the feeling that Maxwell was determined to avoid any of the racial and class tensions between the slave/owner relationship . . . or in Lewis’ case, the employee/employer relationship. How cowardly.

In fact, this lack of tension seemed to permeate all of the relationships featured in “GODS AND GENERALS”. Aside from one Union commander who berated his men for looting in Fredricksburg, I can barely recall any scenes featuring some form of anger or tension between the major characters. Everyone either seemed to be on his or her best behavior. And could someone please explain why every other sentence that came out of the mouths of most characters seemed to be a damn speech? I realize that Maxwell was trying to re-create the semi-formality of 19th century American dialogue. Well . . . he failed. Miserably. The overindulgence of speeches reminded me of the dialogue from the second NORTH AND SOUTH miniseries, 1986’s “NORTH AND SOUTH: BOOK II”. But the biggest problem of “GODS AND GENERALS” is that it lacked a central theme. The majority of the movie seemed to be about the Civil War history of Thomas Jackson. But the title and Shaara’s novel told a different story. However, I do not believe a detailed adaptation of the novel would have done the trick. Like the movie, it lacked a central theme or topic.

Perhaps I am being too arrogant in believing I know what would have made the story worked. After all, it is not my story. Jeff Shaara was entitled to write it the way he wanted. And Ronald Maxwell was entitled to adapt Shaara’s story the way he wanted. But I do know that if I had written “GODS AND GENERALS”, it would have been about the Battle of Fredricksburg. It turned out to be the only part of the movie that I found interesting.

“GETTYSBURG” (1993) Review

 

 

“GETTYSBURG” (1993) Review

In 1974, author Michael Shaara’s novel about the famous three-day battle at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania was published. Titled ”The Killer Angels”, it told the story of the Gettysburg battle from the viewpoint of certain military leaders – Confederates James Longstreet, Robert E. Lee and Lewis Armistead and Union leaders John Buford and Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain. The novel went on to win the Pulitzer Prize in fiction. But despite this accolade, Shaara never really made any money from the novel. Nor did he live long enough to reap the benefits of his creation in the years to come – including the movie adaptation called ”GETTYSBURG”

Released in the fall of 1993, ”GETTYSBURG” starred Tom Berenger as Longstreet, Jeff Daniels as Chamberlain, Sam Elliot as Buford Richard Jordan as Armistead, and Martin Sheen as Robert E. Lee. The movie was directed by Ron Maxwell and produced by Ted Turner. And despite being over four hours long (the running time is officially four hours and fourteen minutes), managed to surprisingly maintain my interest without me falling asleep. And that is something that the 1939 Oscar winner, ”GONE WITH THE WIND” cannot boast. True, one could say that ”GETTYSBURG” is a movie filled with a great deal of combat in compare to Margaret Mitchell’s story, which featured no combat at all. But despite being a story about a famous battle, ”GETTYSBURG” featured a lot more narrative drama than it did combat action sequences. And yet, director Maxwell managed to keep the movie at a good pace – with the exception of one period in the story.

Ronald Maxwell had not only directed ”GETTYSBURG”, but also wrote the screen adaptation of Shaara’s novel. I must admit that Maxwell did a pretty good job in closely following the novel. Although there were times when I wish he had taken a few short cuts. Actually that time occurred in the series of conversations leading up to the final action sequence – namely Pickett’s Charge up Cemetery Ridge on the third day. It simply lasted too damn long. I had found Chamberlain’s discovery of his first sergeant’s death, Longstreet’s instructions to Pickett and the latter’s brigade commanders, and Longstreet’s gloomy prediction about the Charge dramatically satisfying. But honestly . . . I could have done without Armistead’s speech about Virginians to the English observer – Lieutenant Colonel Fremantle (James Lancaster), Armistead’s last conversation with Richard Garnett, Chamberlain’s conversation with Hancock and the sequence featuring the Confederate troops cheering Lee. It was only during this last act that the movie threatened to bore me.

There had been complaints that ”GETTYSBURG” had failed to make any allusions to the slavery issue. Well, whoever made those complaints had obviously failed to see the movie. Not only did Longstreet commented about the slavery issue to Fremantle – before the latter immediately changed the subject – but an encounter with a runaway slave led to an interesting conversation about race, slavery and bigotry between Chamberlain and the 20th Maine’s First Sergeant Kilrain (Kevin Conway). There were other aspects of the movie that I had also enjoyed – Buford’s commentary about the importance of the Gettysburg location, the aforementioned Longstreet’s prediction about Pickett’s Charge and Lee’s ironic comments about being a military commander. And I also enjoyed some of the movie’s more comic moments – Chamberlain’s efforts to prevent his brother Tom (C. Thomas Howell) from being too informal in the presence of the 20th Maine men and the conversation between Pickett and his commanders about Darwinism.

But ”GETTYSBURG” is, first and foremost, a war movie about a specific battle. And like many other war movies, it is filled with battle sequences. On the whole, I found them pretty satisfactory. One must remember that this movie had been released at least five years before Spielberg’s World War II drama, ”SAVING PRIVATE RYAN”. Which meant one should not expect the battle scenes to be particularly detailed in its violence in the same manner as the 1998 movie. In other words, most of the battles seemed to feature a great deal of musket fire, explosions, and bodies either falling to the ground or being blown sky high – something one would see in television miniseries like ”NORTH AND SOUTH: BOOK II”or ”THE BLUE AND GRAY”. The most graphic scene I can recall occurred during a non-combatant scene that featured the field hospital filled with both bodies and body parts, where Longstreet visited one of his division commanders, John Bell Hood. However, I must commend at least two battle sequences. The actual charge up Cemetery Ridge had a great sweep, enhanced by Kees Van Oostrum’s photography from a helicopter. That effectiveness of that sweep was nearly ruined when the Confederate troops finally reached the Union position. There, the scene became nothing more than a confusing mess of both Union and Confederate troops merely shoving each other around. Too bad. Another memorable battle sequence featured Chamberlain and the 20th Maine’s conflict with the 15th Alabama regiment on Little Round Top. The battle started in a generic manner as the two regiments exchanged musket fire. But once the 15th Alabama came across the 20th Maine’s position, the violence became rather detailed and spilled into hand-to-hand combat and short-range firing. I can even recall one Union soldier slamming the butt of his musket into the crotch of a Confederate. And the 20th Maine’s charge down Little Round Top turned out to be as exciting as the charge made by Pickett’s division up Cemetery Ridge.

But it was the cast that really impressed me – especially the performances of Tom Berenger, Martin Sheen, Richard Jordan, Kevin Conway, Stephen Lang and especially Jeff Daniels. Berenger did an excellent job of portraying the very human James “Pete” Longstreet, Lee’s ”Old Warhorse”. But his most poignant moment occurred when his Longstreet regretfully ordered Pickett to commence his charge without uttering a word. I was amazed at how the actor allowed Longstreet to age within seconds during this sequence. Martin Sheen portrayed Robert Lee beyond the historic icon as a brilliant, yet obviously flawed man. Both Conway and Lang gave vibrant performances as the Irish-born Buster Kilrain and George Pickett. Lewis Armistead turned out to be Richard Jordan’s last role and many have claimed that it was one of his best. I heartily agree. In fact, one of his finest moments on screen occurred when his Armistead rallied his troops up Cemetery Ridge by sticking his hat on his sword (which actually happened, by the way). Unfortunately, Jordan died of a brain tumor nearly three months before the movie’s theatrical release. For me, the heart and soul of ”GETTYSBURG”turned out to be Jeff Daniel’s masterful portrayal of the talented Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain. Not only did he managed to portray the Union leader as a flesh-and-blood human being, he also gave one of the best speeches – in which he attempted to convince the remnants of the mutinous 2nd Maine to join his regiment – on the silver screen. It seemed a shame that Daniels had never received an acting nomination or award for his performance.

I would not go as far to say that ”GETTYSBURG” is one of the best war movies ever made. Quite frankly, it is not. But it is one of the better Civil War movies I have ever seen. Not only did director/screenwriter Ronald Maxwell managed to adhere closely to Michael Shaara’s novel, but maintain a steady pace for a movie that turned out to be over four hours long. It presented its historical characters as human beings and not waxwork dummies that seemed prevalent in a good deal number of other Civil War movies. And more importantly, it provided a history lesson on one of the most famous battles during that particular period. I heartily recommend it.