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
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
As if the one thousand plus women’s costumes weren’t value enough, North and South used Civil War re-enactors from across the
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.