26 November 2007

North and South

North and South Still Essential Civil War Viewing

By Kristin Battestella

Ah, hoop skirts mixed with big eighties hair and flair, over the top Southern accents and zealous romances! These staples of television miniseries can make North and South a tough pill for new audiences, but Books 1 and 2 of this 1985-86 series are still the major staple in Civil War dramatizations.

Adapted from the John Jakes novels North and South and Love and War, ABC premiered the star studded North and South to record ratings in 1985. Audiences joined The Hazzard family from Pennsylvania and The slave owning Mains from South Carolina and stayed with them from Orry Main (Patrick Swayze) and George Hazzard’s (James Read) meeting at West Point, through The Mexican American War and up to the firing upon Fort Sumter. While Orry’s lover Madeline (Leslie Ann Down) is forced into an abusive marriage to Justin Lamonte (David Carradine), George marries Constance (Wendy Kilbourne) and continues his friendship with Orry through the grumbles of secession talk. Unfortunately George’s abolitionist sister Virgilia (Kirstie Alley) makes life difficult for the Mains.

It’s tough to pack everything about North and South’s first mini series into a few sentences. Each player has a lush storyline and there is no weak performer in the series. As much as we root for Orry and George, the devilish military man Bent (Phillip Casanoff) and Orry’s scheming sister Ashton (Teri Garber) give the series a touch of ruthlessness. It’s easy to wax nostalgia about these romantic times-incredible costumes, even good old fashioned duels-but North and South does not gloss away from slavery and other risqué issues of both the 1850s and the 1980s-including domestic violence, abortion, and interracial marriage.

In 1986 North and South Book II followed to equal ratings and continued the entwined Hazzard and Main saga into the Civil War. After Book 1 ends with the superbly done parting of George and Orry at the break of the war, this sequel series holds its own with impressive battle recreations and issues of the war from both the Union and Confederate sides. George’s sharp shooting brother Billy (Parker Stevenson) has married Orry’s youngest sister Brett (Genie Francis). The Main plantation struggles with Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, but cousin Charles Main (Lewis Smith) find its difficult to fight against best friend Billy on the battlefield.

As if the one thousand plus women’s costumes weren’t value enough, North and South used Civil War re-enactors from across the United States to accurately portray its battlefield action. Naturally, most of the action skirts the big events, but no other television or movie production has handled so much of the Civil War and done so properly. The TNT original Gettysburg is an exceptional testament to that particular battle, but North and South gives us Bull Run, snips of Gettysburg, and western theater action not normally seen. By remaining faithful to the Civil War way of life, North and South has grown beyond its eighties making. There’s a reason no one else has filmed such an ambitious Civil War production. North and South is the best Civil War dramatization. Period.

Scored with all the epic music one could ask for from television composer Bill Conti, North and South’s main cast was tough to beat in the eighties heyday of network miniseries. Only minor cast switches were made between Books 1 and 2, most notably Mary Crosby and Parker Stevenson joining the series midway through. Those who weren’t famous became so- like Jonathan Frakes, later of Star Trek The Next Generation and Oscar winner Forrest Whitaker. Couples also sprung from the series, including Genie Francis and Frakes, and James Read later married his onscreen wife Wendy Kilbourne.

It would be no understatement to claim that the supporting and guest cast of North and South is perhaps the greatest ever assembled. Only bringing back John Wayne and Vivien Leigh from the dead could have made this cast greater. Everyone from Elizabeth Taylor to James Stewart, Hal Holbrook, Robert Mitchum, Jean Simmons, Linda Evans, Lloyd Bridges, Morgan Fairchild, Johnny Cash-the list of talent past and present outdoes itself. North and South smartly weaves its fiction around and about major events and players. Part of the series’ joy is wondering how they approach a historical event and then seeing which heavy weight star comes to play. Most of the guest stars only have one or two significant scenes, but the notion that the price tag of North and South was high enough to afford these stars-or perhaps that they worked for such a discount-either way, it would be nearly impossible to assemble such a cast in today’s industry. VH1’s I Love The 80s even jokes about this stellar ‘everyone and their grandmother’ feat.

Available at most video retailers, North and South contains Book 1 on 6 double sided discs and Book 2 the same. Special features are light for the set, but its understandable that there isn’t a lot of behind the scenes material available. Only a retrospective with some of the cast provides insight on the scope of North and South and its impact on television audiences.

John Jakes fans in the know will wonder what happened to the third book of his North and South trilogy. Heaven and Hell was adapted for television in 1991 as Heaven and Hell: North and South Book III. Most of the cast and crew returned for the third installment, but the absence of Patrick Swayze and liberties taken from the first two novels hinder the presentation of Heaven and Hell. Lesley Anne Down and James Read look well, but Teri Garber and Phillip Casanoff look too old to play their parts-especially since Heaven and Hell is meant to take place several months after North and South Book II. Perhaps seeing Heaven and Hell alone in obscurity could make it tolerable, but after a lengthy marathon of the first two series in all their DVD glory, Heaven and Hell is at best embarrassing for those involved. I applaud the powers that be for including the final installment with the DVD set, but Heaven and Hell’s Galatica 1980 turnaround is best dismissed.

Take Books 1 and 2 of North and South for its story, historical touches, and family saga trials and tribulations. No doubt, older audiences and Civil War fans already own North and South. Once available for rent or purchase on VHS, collectors should upgrade today. Even if you only recall enjoying North and South on television, the DVD is affordable for any fan of quality historical film. Younger audiences may chuckle at the lingering eighties production values, but if given the chance, North and South provides the utmost in history and entertainment.


a.s said...

loved it too! all my chilhood!!!!!!!!!!!

Kristin Battestella said...

Hi AS!

I miss the big miniseries of my youth, too!

Juanita's Journal said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Juanita's Journal said...

John Jakes fans in the know will wonder what happened to the third book of his North and South trilogy. Heaven and Hell was adapted for television in 1991 as Heaven and Hell: North and South Book III. Most of the cast and crew returned for the third installment, but the absence of Patrick Swayze and liberties taken from the first two novels hinder the presentation of Heaven and Hell.

Okay, I'm going to have to defend HEAVEN AND HELL. One, Swayze's character was not in the third novel. And two, of the three miniseries, NORTH AND SOUTH: BOOK 2 was not as faithful to Jakes' novels as BOOK 1 and HEAVEN AND HELL. Worse, BOOK 2 had too many plot holes and contrived writing for my tastes. The worse I can say about HEAVEN AND HELL were Terri Garber and Lesley Anne Down's performances and the decline of its production values in compare to the first two miniseries.

Kristin Battestella said...

Hi Juanita. Thanks for stopping by!

I agree that as the series moved forward, it strayed too far from the novels. By time they tried adhering to the books again for Heaven and Hell, too much damage had been done. And the ladies really show the decade difference!

If they knew they were going to do Book 3 without Swayze, why did they not kill off his character like the books? Despite the interference and slow deterioration, I still think North and South is a great series, and I'm glad its all together on dvd.


Juanita's Journal said...

If they knew they were going to do Book 3 without Swayze, why did they not kill off his character like the books?

They did kill off Swayze . . . only they did it at the beginning of Book 3, instead of near the ending of Book 2. The real problems lie with Book 1 and especially Book 2. It's like I had stated before . . . the second miniseries differed more strongly from its literary source than either Book 1 or Book 3. These plot differences caused a great deal of problems.

1. They killed of Virgilia in Book 2, when she survived all three novels.

2. They started Charles' affair with Augusta Barclay later than it did in the second novel. Which created a major plot blooper by Book 2's last episode.

3. They didn't bother to show Charles' experiences with Bent in Texas in the Book 1 . . . which happened in the first novel.

4. They kept Cooper out of Book 1 and Book 2, which never made any sense to me; considering that all of the Hazard siblings were featured in the miniseries.

Look, none of the three miniseries were perfect. But of the three, Book 2's script proved to be a lot more problematic than the other two miniseries. Yet, it is Book 3 that receives the most criticism. Something that I just don't understand, story wise.

Kristin Battestella said...

All Very good points Juanita! They killed of Swayze with stock footage, how fulfilling is that?

As I said, I think there was too much of the miniseries moguls sacrificing the material at the expense of ratings. I don't think Heaven and Hell is a bad book at all. But the producers' mistakes with the first series ruined any Book 3 adaptation.

I like a lot of John Jakes books. As much as I dislike this current unorigial phase of remakes and sequels, I wish a network would dedicate some time to return to full realized and appreciated miniseries based on books. Maybe North and South would be served by a new film series that's able to adapt the trilogy as a whole.

Till then, there's a lot of good eighties glory to be had here. Maybe that's why they never bothered to mention the elder brother-they whipped out the long lost brother soap eighties reverse Chuck!

You're tempting me to watch this all over again. Where can I get the spare day and a half? ;0)

Juanita's Journal said...

There was no stock footage of Swayze's character being killed. They used a double to portray Orry and filmed the entire scene in shadows.

I get the feeling that you're making excuses for the mistakes made in Book 1 and especially in Book 2, while condemning Book 3. You know what? Forget it. I'm through with this argument. We're never going to agree, so I'm not going to waste my time anymore.

Kristin Battestella said...

Hey Juanita.

I thought we were having a good discussion.

I'm sorry you feel I've slighted Book 3. Overall I think it is unloved and actually I don't think many have even seen it. Unless you saw it then or have the DVDs I dare say there are folks who don't know Book 3 was even made into a miniseries. So that fact that I'm talking about it is a good thing, right?

The entire adaptation has its faults, but again I say it's still great television. The sappy romance of Book 1, the mishmash ending of Book 2, and the changes of Book 3 are still better than most programs on today.

We don't have to 100% agree. The point of my blog is for thoughtful discussion and critical analysis. Thanks for coming by with your insights!


Edward Azad said...

I've shot through the series twice (I bought it as a gift for a mom -- a Swayze fan -- after he died). For myself, I'm a Leslie Anne-Down fan all the way, baby! :D The most gorgeous lady of her generation.

One thing which sticks out to me is Terri Garber. She took a one-note dastardly whiplash character and made her funny. Out of all the bad guys, she was the one least likely to find a sort of redemption. But in the end, it kinds of works; she's the only villain who is halfway likeable (Kirstie Alley is something to behold, but her role is that of a mere suicide bomber), and Ashton's industry and cunning demands respect.

Kristin Battestella said...

Hi Edward! I had forgotten this review had so many comments! I'm actually re watching the series again myself now.

This time around, I've been looking at those costumes again. Some of the ones on Leslie Anne-Downe don't do her justice, too eighties. Likewise Terri Garber's are over the top but yes they fit her bad girl perfectly! I agree they make Kirstie Alley increasingly ugly- in looks and character, but that is more for the pro Swayze aspects I think.

Ah, the 80s mini series soaps! I miss them.

Mz Deda said...

I just rewatched North & South 1& 2 on Demand. Ah, the glorious days of mini-series. I wasn't aware there was a part 3 which I am watching right now. So far I am not impressed.

Kristin Battestella said...

Hi Donna!

Thanks for taking the time to stop by and comment!

Yes, all of North and South is on the Encore channels, too, along with lots of other classic series they've been showing each Sunday.

Isn't it delightful? You would think more channels would get back to mini adaptations, but I digress.

Thanks again for commenting! :)