Top Favorite U.S. CIVIL WAR Novels

Below is a current list of my top favorite novels set during the U.S. Civil War: 

TOP FAVORITE U.S. CIVIL WAR NOVELS

1. “Love and War” (1984) by John Jakes – This is the second of a trilogy about two wealthy American families – the Hazards of Pennsylvania and the Mains of South Carolina – during the mid-19th century. This superb novel is about the two families’ experiences during the U.S. Civil War.

2. “The Beguiled” (1966) by Thomas Cullinan – A wounded Union soldier ends up in the care of the occupants of an all girls’ school in Virginia, during the Civil War; and ends up having an emotional impact on both students and teachers.

3. “The Killer Angels” (1974) by Michael Shaara – This historical novel about the Gettysburg Campaign during the summer of 1863 won the Pulitzer Prize For Fiction in 1975.

4. “The Titans” (1976) by John Jakes – This fifth novel in Jakes’ “Kent Family Chronicles” told the story of various members of the Kent family and their experiences during the first few months of the U.S. Civil War.

5. “Lincoln: A Novel” (1984) by Gore Vidal – Part of Vidal’s “Narratives of Empire” series, this novel told the story of President Abraham Lincoln’s presidency via the eyes of various historical figures.

6. “Freedom” (1987) by William Safire – This novel focused on the first two years of the U.S. Civil War via the eyes of historical figures as they grapple with the dilemmas of political morality raised by secession and war.

7. “Cold Mountain” (1997) by Charles Frazier – The author won the U.S. National Book Award for Fiction for this tale about a Confederate Army deserter during the last year of the Civil War who walks for months to return to the love of his life in North Carolina.

8. “Unto This Hour” (1984) by Tom Wicker – This novel recounted five long during the Second Battle of Bull Run campaign via several characters.

9. “The Last Full Measure” (2000) by Jeff Shaara – The author wrote this sequel to his father’s novel, “The Killer Angels”, about the last two years of the Civil War.

10. “Grant’s War” (1992) by Ted Jones – This novel proved to be an interesting take on the “mock documentary” in which an early 20th historian interviews several Civil War veterans on how General Ulysses Grant conducted the war.

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“JUDITH KRANTZ’S TILL WE MEET AGAIN” (1989) Review

“JUDITH KRANTZ’S TILL WE MEET AGAIN” (1989) Review

One of the most popular romance novelists to emerge during the 1970s and 1980s was Judith Krantz, whose series of novels seemed to be part romance/part family saga. At least six (or seven) of her novels were adapted as television miniseries. One of them was the 1988 novel, “Till We Meet Again”, which became the 1989 CBS miniseries, “JUDITH KRANTZ’S TILL WE MEET AGAIN”

Set between 1913 and 1952, the early 1950s, “JUDITH KRANTZ’S TILL WE MEET AGAIN” (aka “TILL WE MEET AGAIN”) focused on the lives of Eve, the daughter of a French provincial middle-class doctor and her two daughters, Delphine and Marie-Frederique ‘Freddy’ de Lancel. The story began in 1913 when Eve met a traveling music hall performer named Alain Marais. When she learned that her parents planned to agree to an arranged marriage for her, Eve joined Alain on a train to Paris and the pair became lovers and roommates. Within a year, Alain became seriously ill and Eve was forced to find work to maintain their finances. With the help of a neighbor and new friend, Vivianne de Biron, Eve became a music hall performer herself and Paris’ newest sensation. Out of jealousy, anger and embarrassment, Alain ended their romance.

During World War I, Eve met Paul de Lancel, the heir to an upper-class family that produces champagne who had been recently widowed by a suicidal wife. Following Eve’s marriage to Paul, the couple conceived Delphine and Freddy and Paul became a diplomat. The latter also became estranged from his son Bruno, who was eventually raised by his maternal aristocratic grandparents, who blamed Paul for their daughter’s suicide. By 1930, Eve and Paul found themselves in Los Angeles, where he served as that city’s French consul. And over the next two decades, the de Lancel family dealt with new careers, love, the rise of fascism, the movie industries, World War II, post-war economics, romantic betrayals and Bruno’s villainous and malicious antics.

“JUDITH KRANZ’S TILL WE MEET AGAIN” is not what I would call a television masterpiece. Or even among the best television productions I have ever seen. Considering its source, a period piece romance novel – something most literary critics would dismiss as melodramatic trash – it is not surprising that I would regard the 1989 this way. Then again, the 1972 Academy Award Best Picture winner, “THE GODFATHER”, was based on what many (including myself) believe was pulp fiction trash. However, “TILL WE MEET AGAIN” did not have Francis Ford Coppola to transform trash into Hollywood gold. I am not dismissing the 1989 miniseries as trash. But I would never regard it as a fine work of art.

And I did have a few problems with the production. I found the pacing, thanks to director Charles Jarrott, along with screenwriters Andrew Peter Marin and (yes) Judith Krantz; rather uneven. I think the use of montages could have helped because there were times when the miniseries rushed through some of its sequences . . . to the point that I found myself wondering what had earlier occurred in the story. This seemed to be the case with Eve’s backstory. Her rise from the daughter of a provincial doctor to Parisian music hall sensation to a diplomat’s wife struck as a bit too fast. It seemed as if Jarrott, Marin and Krantz were in a hurry to commence on Freddy and Delphine’s story arcs. Another problem I had was the heavy emphasis on Freddy’s post war story arc. Both Delphine and Eve were nearly pushed to the background, following the end of World War II. It is fortunate that the miniseries’ focus on the post-war years played out in its last 20 to 30 minutes.

I also had a problem with how Marin and Krantz ended Delphine’s relationship with her older half-brother Bruno. In the novel, Delphine ended her friendship with Bruno after his attempt to pimp her out to some German Army official during the Nazi’s occupation of France. This also happened in the miniseries, but Marin and Krantz took it too far by taking a page from Krantz’s 1980 novel, “Princess Daisy” . . . by having Bruno rape Delphine after her refusal to sleep with the German officer. I found this unnecessary, considering that the two screenwriters never really followed up on the consequences of the rape. If this was an attempt to portray Bruno a monster, it was unnecessary. His collaboration of the Nazis, his attempt to pimp out Delphine, his sale of the de Lancels’ precious stock of champagne and his participation in the murders of three locals who knew about the sale struck me as enough to regard him as a monster.

My remaining problems with “TILL WE MEET AGAIN” proved to minor. Many of Krantz’s novels tend to begin as period dramas and end in the present time. I cannot say the same about her 1988 novel. The entire story is set entirely in the past – a forty-year period between pre-World War I and the early 1950s. Yet, I managed to spot several anachronisms in the production. Minor ones, perhaps, but anachronisms nevertheless. One of the most obvious anachronisms proved to be the hairstyles for many of the female characters – especially the de Lancel sisters, Delphine and Freddy. This anachronism was especially apparent in the hairstyles they wore in the 1930s sequences – long and straight. Most young girls and women wore soft shoulder bobs that were slightly above the shoulders during that decade. Speaking of anachronism, the actor who portrayed Armand Sadowski, a Polish-born director in the French film industry, wore a mullet. A 1980s-style mullet during those same 1930s sequences. Sigh! The make-up worn by many of the female characters struck me as oddly modern. Another anachronistic popped up in the production’s music. I am not claiming that late 1980s songs were featured in the miniseries. The songs selected were appropriate to the period. However, I noticed that those songs were performed and arranged in a more modern style. It was like watching television characters performing old songs at a retro music show. It simply felt . . . no, it sound wrong to me.

Despite my complaints, I did enjoy “TILL WE MEET AGAIN”. In fact, I believe that its virtues were strong enough to overshadow its flaws. One, Judith Krantz had created a first-rate family saga . . . one that both she and screenwriter Andrew Peter Marin did justice to in this adaptation. Two, this is the only Krantz family saga that I can remember that is set completely in the past. Most of her family sagas start in the past and spend at least two-thirds of the narrative in the present. Not “TILL WE MEET AGAIN”. More importantly, this family saga is more or less told through the eyes of three women. I have noticed how rare it is for family sagas in which the narratives are dominated by women, unless it only featured one woman as the main protagonist. And neither Eve, Delphine or Freddy are portrayed as instantaneous ideal women. Yes, they are beautiful and talented in different ways. But all three women were forced to grow or develop in the story.

Being the oldest and the mother of the other two, Eve was forced to grow up during the first third of the saga. However, she spent a great deal of emotional angst over her daughters’ lives and the fear that her past as a music hall entertainer may have had a negative impact on her husband’s diplomatic career. Eve and Freddy had to deal with a disappointing love (or two) before finding the right man in their lives. Delphine managed to find the right man at a young age after becoming an actress with the film industry in France. But World War II, and the Nazi regime’s anti-Semitic policies managed to endanger and interrupt her romance. Freddy’s love life involved a bittersweet romance with an older man – the very man who taught her to become a pilot; a quick romance and failed marriage to a British aristocrat; and the latter’s closest friend, an American pilot who had harbored years of unrequited love for Freddy until she finally managed to to notice him.

Despite the saga being dominated by Eve, Delphine and Freddy; the two male members of the de Lancel family also had strong roles in this saga. I thought both Krantz and Marin did an excellent job in their portrayal of the complex relationship between Paul de Lancel and his only son and oldest child, Bruno de Lancel, who also happened to be Delphine and Freddy’s half-brother. I also found it interesting how Bruno’s unforgiving maternal grand-parents’ over-privileged upbringing of him and their snobbish regard for Eve had tainted and in the end, torn apart the relationship between father and son. Mind you, Bruno’s own ugly personality did not help. But he was, after all, a creation of the Marquis and Marquise de Saint-Fraycourt. Ironically, Paul also had his troubles with both Delphine and Freddy – especially during their late adolescence. Between Delphine’s forays into Hollywood’s nighttime society behind her parents’ backs and Freddy’s decision to skip college and become a stunt pilot, Paul’s relationships with his daughters endured troubled waters. And I thought the screenwriters did an excellent job in conveying the diplomat’s complex relationships with both of them.

And despite my low opinion of the hairstyles featured in “TILL WE MEET AGAIN”, I cannot deny that the production values featured in the miniseries struck me as quite impressive. Roger Hall did an excellent job in his production designs that more or less re-created various locations on two continents between the years of 1913 and 1952. His work was ably supported by Rhiley Fuller and Mike Long’s art direction, Donald Elmblad and Peter Walpole’s set decorations, and Alan Hume’s cinematography, which did such an exceptional job of capturing the beauty and color of its various locations. However, I must admit that I really enjoyed Jerry R. Allen and Robin Fraser-Paye’s costume designs. I thought they did an excellent job of recapturing the fashions of the early-to-mid 20th century.

If I must be honest, I cannot think of any performance that blew my mind. I am not claiming that the acting featured in “TILL WE MEET AGAIN” were terrible, let alone mediocre. Frankly, I believe that all of the major actors and actresses did a great job. Courtney Cox gave a very energetic performance as the ambitious and aggressive Freddy de Lancel. Bruce Boxleitner also gave an energetic performance as Jock Hampton, the best friend of Freddy’s husband . . . but with a touch of pathos, as he conveyed his character’s decade long unrequited love for the red-headed Mademoiselle de Lancel. Mia Sara gave a spot-on portrayal of Delphine de Lancel from an ambitious, yet insecure adolescent to a sophisticated and more mature woman. And again, I can the same about Lucy Gutteridge’s portrayal of Eve de Lancel, who developed the character from an impulsive adolescent to a mature woman who proved to be her family’s backbone. Hugh Grant was sufficiently sophisticated and hissable as the villainous Bruno de Lancel without turning his performance into a cliche. Charles Shaughnessy skillfully managed to convey to portray the worthy man behind director Armand Sadowski’s womanizing charm. John Vickery gave a interested and complex portrayal of Freddy’s British aristocrat husband, Anthony “Tony” Longbridge. And Maxwell Caufield was excellent as the charming, yet ego-driven singer Alain Marais. I believe one of the best performances came from Michael York, who was excellent as the emotionally besieged Paul de Lancel, struggling to deal with a stalled diplomatic career, two strong-willed daughters and a treacherous son. I believe the other best performance came from Barry Bostwick, who was excellent as Freddy’s first love Terrence ‘Mac’ McGuire. I thought he did a great job of portraying a man torn between his love for Freddy and his guilt over being in love with someone who was young enough to be his daughter.

Look, I realize that “JUDITH KRANTZ’S TILL WE MEET AGAIN” is basically a glorified period piece melodrama disguised as a family saga. I realize that. And I realize that it is not perfect. Nor would I regard it as an example of the best American television can offer. But at its heart, I thought it was basically a well written family saga that centered around three remarkable women. Thanks to Judith Krantz and Andrew Peter Marin’s screenplay; Charles Jarrott’s direction and a first-rate cast, the 1989 miniseries proved to be first-rate piece of television drama.

 

“Unnecessary Time Periods”

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“UNNECESSARY TIME PERIODS”

I am a big fan of the DCEU or at least the franchise’s first phase. I am also a fan of the 2017 hit film, “WONDER WOMAN”. I was also pleased to discover that the film has managed to convince Hollywood studios – especially Warner Brothers and Disney – to create more comic book movies with a female protagonist. 

But my pleasure in both has somewhat been muted by what seemed to be a growing trend in Hollywood – to have these upcoming movies set in the past. Why? Because the successful “WONDER WOMAN” film was set in the past – during the last week or two of World War I? I had no problems with this, considering that “BATMAN V. SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE” had established Diana Prince aka Wonder Woman’s presence during that conflict with a single photograph. Hell, the television series from the 1970s had established Wonder Woman’s origin story during World War II during its Season One and brought her character into the present (late 1970s to early 1980s) in the seasons that followed.

However, I learned that the second Wonder Woman movie starring Gal Gadot will be set in 1984. To drive home that point, it is called “WONDER WOMAN 1984”. Personally, I do not understand this decision. Was this Warner Brothers and Patty Jenkins’ attempt to cash in on the first movie’s success? Was it to undermine the back story for Wonder Woman that was established by Zack Snyder in both “BATMAN V. SUPERMAN” and “JUSTICE LEAGUE” in order to make her seem like a more ideal character? Who knows. But this movie will definitely establish a plot hole in the franchise’s overall narrative.

Warner Brothers also plans to create and release “SUPERGIRL”, who happened to be Kara Zor-El, the first cousin of Clark Kent aka Superman. And they plan to set this movie in the 1970s. Why? Apparently, Supergirl is the older cousin and to the movie’s screenwriters, it made sense that she would reach Earth before him. But . . . “MAN OF STEEL” and “BATMAN V. SUPERMAN”had already established that Superman was the first powerful alien to become known to Humans. In fact, there have been others before the arrival of General Zod and his followers who were aware of Clark’s powers. You know . . . like Jonathan and Martha Kent, some of Smallville’s citizens and Lois Lane. By setting “SUPERGIRL” in the 1970s, Warner Brothers would again . . . undermining a narrative point established in previous films. Why not follow the example of the television shows like “SUPERGIRL” and “SMALLVILLE” on the CW by having Kara aka Supergirl’s spacecraft knocked off course and forced into the Phantom Zone for a decade or two? So, by the time Kara finally reached Earth, her cousin Kal-El would have grown up and become Superman. Why not use this scenario?

“WONDER WOMAN”, Marvel’s Kevin Feige had finally decided that the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) will feature a comic book movie with a woman in the starring role . . . namely “CAPTAIN MARVEL”. Mind you, I still find it cowardly that Feige had decided to wait until the success of another studio to produce a movie featuring a comic book heroine in the lead. Especially since the character Natasha Romanoff aka Black Widow has been part of the franchise since the 2010 movie, “IRON MAN 2”. However . . . I discovered that “CAPTAIN MARVEL” will be set in the 1990s. And I ask myself . . . why?

The official word is that the movie’s time period is being used to set up Nick Fury’s trajectory toward forming The Avengers years later. After all, both Samuel L. Jackson and Clark Gregg as future S.H.I.E.L.D. Directors Nick Fury and Phil Coulson will be in the film. But this is so unnecessary. I realize that Tony Stark aka Iron Man was not the first enhanced being or metahuman (so to speak) to attract the attention of S.H.I.E.L.D. Fury must have known about Steve Rogers aka Captain America’s war service in “CAPTAIN AMERICA: FIRST AVENGER”. He must have known about Hank Pym and Janet Van Dyne’s S.H.I.E.L.D. activities in the 1980s as Ant-Man and the Wasp. And her certainly knew about Dr. Bruce Banner’s experiments in gamma radiation and eventual transformation into the Hulk before the events of “THE INCREDIBLE HULK”. After all, 2008’s “THE INCREDIBLE HULK”was not an actual origin movie. So, I find myself wondering why Feige found it necessary to set up Fury’s trajectory with enhanced beings with Carol Danvers aka Captain Marvel . . . in the 1990s. Unless “CAPTAIN MARVEL” is simply another attempt by a studio or producer – in this case, Kevin Feige and the MCU – to cash in on the success of “WONDER WOMAN”. Why not just admit it? Especially since it seems so obvious.

And by the way, why are all of these films led by a comic book heroine? Just because “WONDER WOMAN” was set in the past, there is no reason why every single comic book movie with a woman in the lead have to be set in the past? What is the point in all of this? Yes, “CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER” was set in the past. However, the following two movies featuring Captain America were set in the present. So, why did Marvel feel it was necessary to set “CAPTAIN MARVEL” in the past? Why is it that none of the other MCU movies led by men set in the past? Why did Warner Brothers believe it was necessary to set its second Wonder Woman and Supergirl films in the past? Has this been the case for any of their movies with a male lead or ensemble-oriented movies like “SUICIDE SQUAD”?

I found myself wondering if there is another reason why these three upcoming comic book heroine movies are being set in the past. But I could not find any. The time periods for these films are so unnecessary and an obvious attempts to copy the success of “WONDER WOMAN”. The thing is . . . Wonder Woman’s past during World War I and the photograph discovered by both Bruce Wayne aka Batman and Lex Luthor allowed them to recognize her as a possible metahuman or enhanced being. For me, there is no good reason for “WONDER WOMAN 1984”“SUPERGIRL” or “CAPTAIN MARVEL” to be set in the past.

Top Favorite HISTORICAL NOVELS

Below is a current list of my top favorite historical novels: 

 

TOP FAVORITE HISTORICAL NOVELS

1. “North and South” (1982) by John Jakes – This is the first of a trilogy about two wealthy American families – the Hazards of Pennsylvania and the Mains of South Carolina – during the mid-19th century. This superb novel is set during the two decades before the U.S. Civil War.

 

2. “Flashman and the Redskins” (1982) by George MacDonald Fraser – This excellent novel from the Flashman series picks up where the 1971 novel, “Flash For Freedom” left off . . . with British Army officer Harry Flashman stuck in New Orleans in 1849. He eventually joins a wagon train bound for the California gold fields. The story concludes 27 years later, on the Little Bighorn battlefield.

 

3. “The Wheel of Fortune” (1984) by Susan Howatch – This excellent saga tells the story of a wealthy Anglo-Welsh family named the Goodwins between 1913 and the early 1970s.  Filled with family feuds, traumas, insanity, murder and romance; I regard this as the best of Howatch’s family sagas.

 

4. “Love and War” (1984) by John Jakes – The saga of the Hazards and the Mains continues in this story about their experiences during the U.S. Civil War. I regard this as one of the best Civil War novels I have ever read, despite being underappreciated by some critics.

 

5. “Shadow of the Moon” (1956; 1979) by M.M. Kaye – Set against the backdrop of mid-19th century India and the Sepoy Rebellion, this novel tells the story of a young Anglo-Spanish woman named Winter de Ballesteros and her love for British Army officer, Alex Randall.

 

6. “Voodoo Dreams” (1993) by Jewell Parker-Rhodes – The novel is a fictional account of the famous Voodoo priestess, Marie Laveau, in early 19th century New Orleans. Despite a slow start, the novel unveiled a very engrossing tale.

 

7. “Flashman and the Dragon” (1985) by George MacDonald Fraser – This entry in the Flashman series is an account of Harry Flashman’s experiences during the Taiping Rebellion and the March to Pekin in 1860 China. A personal favorite of mine.

 

8. “Centennial” (1974) by James Michner – A superb, multi-generational saga about the history of a small northern Colorado town, between the 1790s and the 1970s. I regard this superb novel as one of Michner’s best.

 

9. “The Bastard” (1974) by John Jakes – The first novel in Jakes’ Kent Family Chronicles series, this story is about Philip “Charbanneau” Kent, the illegitimate offspring of a French actress and a British nobleman during the years leading to the American Revolution. A personal favorite of mine.

 

10. “Flashman in the Great Game” (1975) by George MacDonald – This fifth entry in the Flashman series follows Harry Flashman’s harrowing adventures during the Sepoy Rebellion of 1857-58. Another one of Fraser’s best, which features plenty of drama, action and some pretty funny moments. A must read.

 

11. “The Killer Angels” (1974) by Michael Shaara – This Pulitzer Prize winning novel about the Gettysburg Campaign is considered one of the finest Civil War novels ever written. And I heartily agree.

 

12. “Lonesome Dove” (1985) by Larry McMurty – This Pulitzer Prize winning novel tells the story about two former Texas Ranges who lead a cattle drive on a perilous journey from South Texas to Montana in the late 1870s.

“THE MURDER AT THE VICARAGE” (2004) Review

“THE MURDER AT THE VICARAGE” (2004) Review

I have another of my many confessions to make . . . I have never been a big fan of Agatha Christie’s 1930 novel, “The Murder at the Vicarage”. Never mind that it featured the first appearance of elderly sleuth, Miss Jane Marple, in a feature-length novel. I am just not a big fan. 

One could assume that the novel’s setting – in the small village of St. Mary Mead – could be the reason why this particular tale has never rocked my boat. Not particularly. I can think of numerous Christie tales set in a small village – including St. Mary Mead – that really impressed me. The problem with “The Murder in the Vicarage” is that I never found it to be a particularly thought provoking tale. Nor did it include any special circumstances that made it unique. And my borderline apathy toward the 1930 novel even extended to the television movie adaptation that aired in 1986. Some eighteen years later, another adaptation of the novel aired on television. This particular version starred Geraldine McEwan as Miss Marple. And its running time was at least eight minutes shorter.

In “THE MURDER AT THE VICARAGE”, the citizens of St. Mary Mead are rocked by the murder of Colonel Protheroe, the local churchwarden and magistrate, whose body was found inside the study of the vicar, Reverend Len Clement. The man was disliked by many; including the vicar, the vicarage’s curate, Protheroe’s second wife Anne, her lover Lawrence Redding, Protheroe’s daughter from his first marriage Lettice, the vicar’s wife Grieselda Clement, and a mysterious new resident named Mrs. Lester who seemed to have produced a strange reaction from Protheroe. Not long after the vicar discovers the body, Lawrence Redding, who is a painter, confesses to the murder. Although he has been clashing with Colonel Protheroe over his painting of Lettice, it turns out that he has been Anne Protheroe’s lover for quite some time. Upon learning about his confession, Anne confesses as well. Miss Marple eventually points out to Inspector Slack that it was impossible for either to commit the murder and suggests that the latter search for the killer among other St. Mary’s Mead citizens.

As I had pointed earlier, I am not a big fan of Christie’s novel or its 1986 adaptation. But for some reason, I enjoyed this adaptation. For example, it is a bit more colorful than the previous version. I am aware that all of the Miss Marple television adaptations of the 1980s and early 1990s tend to look rather faded. But there are more reasons why I find this 2004 version more colorful. I realize that many tend to demand that a movie or television adaptation is faithful to its source novel. But I thought the changes made by Stephen Churchett made the production somewhat more lively for me. One, Churchett changed two characters (one of them an archeologist) by giving them a World War II connection to Protheroe and a reason to want him dead. And two, Churchett included World War I flashbacks of a brief love affair between Miss Marple and a married Army officer. At first glance, these flashback seemed irrelevant to the main story. In the end, they served as a tool in which Miss Marple managed to ascertain the murderer’s identity. But the best thing I can say about “THE MURDER IN THE VICARAGE” is its pacing. This is a well-paced film, thanks to Charlie Palmer’s direction. For me, this is an important element for a low-key mystery like “THE MURDER IN THE VICARAGE”.

But there are other aspects of the movie that I enjoyed. I was really impressed by Nigel Walters’ cinematography. It was sharp, colorful and perfect for the movie’s setting. The photography also enhanced Jeff Tessler’s production designs, which struck me as a perfect reflection of an English village in 1951. He also had the task of re-creating a London railway station circa 1915-1917. And he did a pretty good job. But I really enjoyed Phoebe De Gaye’s costume designs. I found them colorful and very spot-on for each particular character, based upon age, class, personality, etc. By the way, Ms. De Gaye had also served one of the two costume designers for the BBC’s “THE MUSKETEERS” and the 2002-2003 miniseries, “THE FORSYTE SAGA”.

The performances were first-class. I tried to think of one that seemed somewhat off. But . . . I thought they were all well-done. “THE MURDER AT THE VICARAGE” marked Geraldine McEwan’s second time at the bat as Miss Jane Marple. I feel this particular performance might be one of her better ones. I found her performance intelligent, sharp and particularly poignant. Other performances that impressed me came from Janet McTeer and Jason Flemyng, the adulterous couple, who found themselves at the center of village gossip and police inquiries following Protheroe’s murder. On paper, television viewers should have been outraged at their infidelity. But both McTeer and Flemyng gave such poignant and passionate performances that they managed to allow viewers to care about their fate.

Rachael Stirling gave an exuberant performance as the vicar’s outgoing wife, Grisielda Clements. At first glance, it seemed as if Derek Jacobi’s portrayal of the victim, Colonel Protheroe, would come off as a one-note blustering idiot. Thankfully, there were moments when Jacobi infused a good deal of humanity into his performance – especially in scenes involving the mysterious Mrs. Lester. Mark Gatiss’ portrayal of the vicarage’s curate Ronald Hawes, who seemed torn over his past actions involving the embezzling of funds at his previous assignment struck me as rather emotional and a bit sad. I also have to commend Stephen Tompkinson for his complex performance as the irascible Detective Inspector Slack. I enjoyed how he slowly allowed Slack’s character to develop an admiration for Miss Marple’s detective skills. The television movie also featured solid performances from Tim McInnerny, Herbert Lom, Christina Cole, Jane Asher, Robert Powell, Angela Pleasance, Miriam Margolyes and especially, Julie Cox and Marc Warren, who gave affecting performances as the younger Jane Marple and her World War I lover.

I may not be a fan of Agatha Christie’s 1930 novel. But I cannot deny that I rather enjoyed its 2004 television adaptation. Thanks to director Charlie Palmer and screenwriter Stephen Churchett, “THE MURDER AT THE VICARAGE” proved to be a colorful, yet emotional tale about love, passion and ghosts from the past. The production was also enhanced by some eye-catching behind-the-scenes artistry and excellent performances from a cast led by the incomparable Geraldine McEwan.

“THE LEGEND OF BAGGER VANCE” (2000) Review

“THE LEGEND OF BAGGER VANCE” (2000) Review

I never saw “THE LEGEND OF BAGGER VANCE” in the movie theaters when it was first released years ago. I have a low tolerance of sports movies and there are only a few that I consider favorites of mine. Another reason why I never saw this film in the theaters is that my family simply had no desire to see it. 

Based upon Steven Pressfield’s 1995 novel and directed by Robert Redford, “THE LEGEND OF BAGGER VANCE” was a box office flop. Worse, it had received mixed to negative reviews. Among the criticisms directed at the film was the accusation that the Bagger Vance character was basically a “Magical Negro” trope. I have to be honest. I was never aware of these criticisms or the film’s status as a flop. I barely noticed the film when it was first released. And I did not see it for the first time until a few years later on cable television.

Near the end of the 20th century, an old man from Savannah, Georgia named Hardy Greaves began experiencing his sixth heart attack, while playing golf. This led him to reminisce about his love of the game and how it connected to his childhood idol, one Rannulph Junuh. The latter turned out to be one of Savannah’s Junuh is the favorite son of early 20th century Savannah, Georgia and a highly regarded golfer. He became engaged to Adele Invergordon, a young socialite from a wealthy family before he went off to war. While serving as an Army captain during World War I, Junuh became tramatized when his entire company was wiped out during a battle. Although he earned the Medal of Honor, Junuh disappeared after the war for several years, before returning to Georgia to live a life of a drunk.

During this time, Adele’s father attempted to create a local golf resort. Mr. Invergordon finally opened the resort, but the Wall Street crash of 1929 and the Great Depression bankrupted him. In an effort to recover her family’s fortune before the banks could claim her land, Adele decided to hold a four-round, two-day golf match between At the start of the Great Depression (circa 1930-31), Adele is trying to recover her family’s lost fortune by holding a four-round, two-day exhibition match between two golf legends of the era – Bobby Jones and Walter Hagen with a grand prize of $10,000.

However, she needs a local participant to generate the city’s interest. The young Hardy Greaves (J. Michael Moncrief) speaks up for his golf hero, Junuh, prompting Adele to ask her estranged love to play. Junuh is approached by a mysterious traveler carrying a suitcase, who appears while Junuh is trying to hit golf balls into the dark void of night. The man identifies himself as Bagger Vance (Will Smith) and says he will be Junuh’s caddie. With Greaves as the young assistant caddie, Bagger helps Junuh come to grips with his personal demons and play golf again.

It was not that surprising that “THE LEGEND OF BAGGER VANCE” was based upon Steven Pressfield’s 1995 novel. However, I was very surprised to learn that Pressfield had loosely based his novel on the Hindu sacred text, the Bhagavad Gita. In this text, Warrior/Hero Arjuna (R. Junuh . . . get it?) refuses to fight. And the god Krishna appears as Bhagavan (Bagger Vance) to help Arjuna (R. Junuh) follow the path of the warrior and hero (sports hero) that he was meant to take.

Considering that this movie was not that popular with moviegoers or critics, one would be hard pressed to even like it. I have my complaints about “THE LEGEND OF BAGGER VANCE”. There were moments when the movie threatened to become a little saccharin, especially midway into the golf tournament when Junuh finally began displaying those exceptional golf skills that made him such a legend before the war. Savannah’s reaction to Junah’s golf game and yes . . . even the ending struck me as a tad syrupy. I realize that this movie is one of those feel-good movies wrapped up in sports, but I think Redford could have tone down the saccharin a bit. I also feel that he could have tone down some of the performances of the supporting cast. Overall, all of them gave solid performances. But there were times when the supporting cast – namely those portraying Savannah’s citizens – seemed to be chewing the scenery.

Despite the flashes of saccharin and hamminess, I have to admit that I enjoyed “THE LEGEND OF BAGGER VANCE” as much as I did when I first saw it. There is so much to enjoy about this film. One of them is the movie’s production values. I wish I could say something about Rachel Portman’s score. Mind you, I thought it blended well with the movie’s narrative. But I did not find the particularly memorable. However, I thought hers and Redford’s use of early 20th century songs and music well done. As for the movie’s re-creation of early 20th century Savannah, I found it more than memorable. Frankly, I found it mind-blowing. Stuart Craig had managed to acquire a good number of awards and nominations for his work, but he never received any acclaim for his production designs for “THE LEGEND OF BAGGER VANCE”. Personally, I find this rather criminal. His production designs were exquisite. And they were enhanced even further by Michael Ballhaus’ cinematography, which was nominated for Satellite Award. Yes, I realize that a Satellite Award is not the same as an Academy Award, a BAFTA or a Golden Globe Award. But at least someone acknowledged his work on this movie. Judianna Makovsky has done her share of costume designing for Marvel Films and other movies. And she has also received at least three Academy Award nominations. But she did not receive any for “THE LEGEND OF BAGGER VANCE”. Again . . . criminal. Her costumes struck me as an exquisite recreation of the period between 1917 and 1931 – especially the latter. If you think I am exaggerating, take a look:

Hollywood always seemed to have difficulty in re-creating the 1930s in costumes and hairstyles. Thanks to Ms. Makovsky, “THE LEGEND OF BAGGER VANCE” proved to be one of those movies that got that period – especially the early 1930s – right.

But I was really impressed by how director Robert Redford and screenwriter used the game of golf to portray Rannulph Junuh’s post-war struggles. Unlike many other sports films, Junuh had already achieved a reputation as a superb golfer in the opening scenes. This meant that the conflict was not about Junuh trying to prove to the world that he was a talented golfer. In fact, this movie was not even about Junuh trying to prove that despite the passage of fourteen years, he was still a top-notch golfer. That was proven by the tournament’s second day. World War I had left Rannulph Junuh traumatized and broken to the point that he returned home as an alcoholic – estranged from Adele Invergordon and many of Savannah’s citizens. It was the golf tournament that led Junuh to Bagger Vance, the story’s embodiment of a deity or spirit that not helped the former get back his groove as a top notch golfer. Bagger also helped Junuh, through the game of golf, regain that human spirit everyone thought he had lost during the war.

As I had earlier pointed out, “THE LEGEND OF BAGGER VANCE” was not a box office hit. One of the main complaints charged by film critics and others was the Bagger Vance character portrayed by Will Smith. Many had accused the character of being a “Magical Negro” stereotype. Considering Bagger’s role in the film as spiritual guide for Rannulph Junuh and the fact that the character was portrayed by African-American actor Will Smith, it is not difficult to agree that Bagger Vance was a “Magical Negro”. I do find it ironic that a fictional character labeled as a “Magical Negro” was based upon a Hindu religious figure. Did that affect my viewing of the film? Honestly? No. I enjoyed Smith’s performance too much to really care. Was his Bagger Vance very saintly? Perhaps. Perhaps not. Smith did portray Vance as a friendly and soft-spoken man with a well of good advice on the game of golf. However, Smith also did a superb job in conveying Vance’s controlling and occasional sardonic nature underneath the soft-spoken manner.

Ironically, Matt Damon had the easier job portraying the damaged World War I veteran/golfer, Rannulph Junuh. His job was easier, due to the fact that he was never criticized for portraying a stereotype. Otherwise, Damon did an excellent job in conveying Junuh’s emotional journey from a happy-go-lucky sports figure to shell shocked war veteran, later an alcoholic community pariah and finally to a battered yet satisfied survivor who managed to regain his life after so many years. If I have to be perfectly honest, the Adele Invergordon has to be one of my favorite characters portrayed by Charlize Theron. Thanks to actress’ energetic performance, Adele proved to be a passionate and outgoing woman who had to resort to charm, guile, brains and God knows what else to overcome the traumas of losing her father to suicide and Junuh to his personal demons in order to save her family’s fortunes and plans for a golf resort. Theron practically lit up the screen whenever she appeared.

“THE LEGEND OF BAGGER VANCE” also featured excellent performances from Bruce McGill, who did such a wonderful job in portraying the theatrical golfer, Walter Hagen; Joel Gretsch, who skillfully portrayed Bobby Jones as a man who hid a raging ambition behind a gracious persona; and Peter Gerety as the hard-nosed city councilman/businessman, Neskaloosa. I do not know if I could regard J. Michael Moncrief (who was 12 years old at the time) as an excellent child actor. But I must admit that I admired the enthusiasm and energy he poured into his portrayal of young Hardy Greaves. As for Jack Lemmon, he did an excellent job as the elderly Hardy and the movie’s narrator.

Overall, “THE LEGEND OF BAGGER VANCE” had its few shares of flaws. And utilizing the “Magical Negro” probably hurt its chances to be a successful movie. But . . . “Magical Negro” or not, I really enjoyed this movie, thanks to director Robert Redford and the screenplay written by Jeremy Leven. The movie also benefited from a superb production design and a first-rate cast led by Will Smith, Matt Damon and Charlize Theron.

“DOWNTON ABBEY” Food Styles

Below are images of culinary dishes created by food stylist/chef, Lisa Heathcote, for the 2010-2015 ITV series, “DOWNTON ABBEY”

 

“DOWNTON ABBEY” FOOD STYLES