Sunday, October 30, 2011

"MILDRED PIERCE" (2011) Review





"MILDRED PIERCE" (2011) Review

When HBO first revealed its plans to air an adaptation of James M. Cain's 1941 novel, "Mildred Pierce", many people had reacted in some very interesting ways. Some seemed thrilled by the idea of a new version of Cain's story. But there were many who were not thrilled by the idea. And I suspect that this negative response had a lot to do with the first adaptation.

Sixty-six years ago, Warner Brothers Studios had released its own adaptation of the novel. Directed by Michael Curtiz, the movie starred Joan Crawford in the title role and Ann Blyth as her older daughter, Veda. The movie received several Academy Award nominations and a Best Actress statuette for Crawford. Due to the film's success and lasting popularity, many fans and critics viewed it as a definitive adaptation of one of Cain's works. So, when they learned about HBO's plans for a new version, many regarded the news with scorn. After all, how could any remake be just as good or superior to the classic Hollywood film?

Was "MILDRED PIERCE" as a miniseries just as good or better than the 1945 movie? I will give my opinion on that topic later. I will say that I truly enjoyed both versions. The miniseries benefited from Todd Haynes serving as the director, one of the producers and one of the writers. Oscar winning actress, Kate Winslet portrayed the title role. The miniseries also possessed a talented supporting cast that included Guy Pearce, Melissa Leo, Brían F. O'Byrne, Mare Winningham, James Le Gros; along with Evan Rachel Wood ("TRUE BLOOD") and Morgan Turner. And I cannot deny that I found the miniseries' production designs first-rate, despite a few quibbles. But I have come across a good number of movies or television productions with everything in its favor that still failed to win me over in the end. Fortunately, "MILDRED PIERCE" did the opposite.

Todd Haynes had pointed out that his new miniseries would be more faithful to Cain's novel than the 1945 movie. And he was good on his word. The biggest differences between the Michael Curtiz movie and Haynes' new miniseries were the running times and the lack of a murder mystery in the miniseries. That is correct. Monty Beragon was never murdered in the novel and he certainly was not murdered in the new version. There were no flashbacks on Mildred's life, following her divorce from her first (and third) husband, Bert Pierce. And I am grateful to Todd Haynes for sparing the viewers that nonsense and sticking closer to Cain's plot. I believed that the murder plot unnecessarily dragged the Curtiz movie. And Haynes' miniseries was long enough. Due to the lack of a murder mystery, the miniseries retained Cain's slightly bleaker ending. Much to the dismay of many fans.

Since Haynes had decided to stick a little closer to the novel, the miniseries covered the story's entire time span of 1931 to 1940. Which meant that "MILDRED PIERCE" gave viewers a bird's eye view of the Depression's impact upon Southern Californians like the Pierce family. Part One began in 1931 with Mildred preparing a pie to sell to one of her neighbors. Husband Bert has joined the ranks of the broke and unemployed, thanks to the 1929 Wall Street Crash and the economic hijinks of his former business partner and friend, Wally Burgan. Bert seemed to spend most of his days engaged with chores like mowing the lawn or in an affair with a neighbor named Maggie Biderhof. Bert's announcement that he might spend another afternoon and evening with Mrs. Biderhof proves to be the last straw for Mildred. The couple have a heated quarrel that ends with Bert's departure from the family and eventually, a divorce.

Mildred realizes that she needs a steady income to support their two daughters, Veda and Ray. Unfortunately, Veda lacks any experience for a position outside of customer service. And being enamored of her upper-middle-class status, the idea of being a waitress, maid or housekeeper is abhorrent to Mildred. She also knows that such professions are abhorrent to her pretentious and class-conscious daughter, Veda. After rejecting jobs as housemaid to the future wife of a Hollywood director and waitress at a tea parlor, the realities of the Depression finally leads a desperate Mildred to take a job as waitress at a Hollywood diner. Unfortunately, Veda learns about the new job, which leads mother and daughter to their first major quarrel and Mildred's decision to make plans to open a restaurant. The quarrel also marked the real beginning of what proved to be the story's backbone - namely Mildred and Veda's tumultuous relationship.

As much as I admire "MILDRED PIERCE", it does have its flaws. I would view some of them as minor. But I consider at least one or two of them as major. One of the small problems proved to be Haynes' decision to shoot the miniseries in New York, instead of Southern California. Aside from Mildred's Glendale neighborhood, most of the locations in the miniseries do not scream "Southern California" - including the beach locations. The director claimed that he had chosen the area around New York City, because it was more cost-efficient than shooting around Los Angeles. He also claimed that it would be difficult to find "Old L.A." within the city today. Speaking as an Angeleno who has spent many weekends driving around the city, I found these excuses hard to swallow. Los Angeles and many other Southern California neighborhoods have plenty of locations that could have been used for the production. And could someone explain how filming around New York was cheaper than Los Angeles?

"MILDRED PIERCE" has received charges of slow pacing and an unnecessarily long running time. I have nothing against "MILDRED PIERCE" being shown in a miniseries format. But I have two quibbles regarding the pacing. One, the sequence featuring Mildred's job hunt dragged unnecessarily long. Haynes filled this segment with many long and silent shots of a pensive Mildred staring into the distant or dragging her body along the streets of Glendale and Los Angeles. I am aware that Haynes was trying to convey some kind of message with these shots. Unfortunately, I am not intellectually inclined and the sequence merely ignited my impatience. On the other hand, the speed in which Haynes continued Mildred's story in Episode Three left my head spinning. Aside from the sequence featuring the opening of Mildred's first restaurant, I felt that the episode moved a bit too fast . . . especially since so much happened to Mildred during the two to three year time span. I would have preferred if Episode Three had a running time of slightly over an hour - like Episodes Four and Five.

Complaints aside, this "MILDRED PIERCE" struck me as truly first-rate. As much as I had enjoyed the 1945 movie, I thank God that Todd Haynes did not add that ludicrous murder mystery into the plot. Cain's novel was not about Veda getting her comeuppance for being an ungrateful daughter to a hard-working mother. The story was about a resilient woman, who was also plagued by her personal flaws - which she refused to overcome, let alone acknowledge. Some viewers and critics have expressed confusion over Mildred's continuing obsession over her older daughter. Others have deliberately blinded themselves from Mildred's flaws and dumped all of the blame for her downfall entirely upon the heads of others - especially Veda. But there have been viewers and critics who managed to understand and appreciate the miniseries' portrayal of Mildred. I certainly did.

I have never understood the complaints that "MILDRED PIERCE" had failed to explain Mildred's unwavering obsession over Veda. I thought that Haynes perfectly revealed the reasons behind her obsession. First of all, he revealed those traits that both mother and daughter shared in numerous scenes - aspirations for entry into the upper-class, desire for wealth, snobbery, and a talent for manipulating others. Mildred's refusal to consider those jobs at a tea parlor and as the pretentious Mrs. Forrester's maid struck me as signs of her ego blinding her from the precarious state of her family's financial situation. And when she finally caved in to becoming a waitress at a Hollywood diner, Mildred considered quitting, because her sensibilities (or ego) could not fathom working in such a profession. Her contempt toward others suffering from the Depression after the successful opening of her Glendale restaurant was expressed in a scene with upper-class playboy Monty Beragon. Episode Five revealed her manipulation of Monty into marrying her . . . in order to lure Veda back to her seemed pretty obvious. But one scene not only revealed the core of Mildred's character, but also the miniseries' theme. While despairing over her decision to become a waitress at the end of Episode One, Mildred said this to neighbor Lucy Gessler:

"She (Veda) has something in her that I thought I had and now I find I don't. Pride or nobility or whatever it is. For both my girls, I want them to have all the cake in the world."

Judging from Mildred's comments, it was not difficult for me to see that she viewed Veda as an extension of herself and in some degrees, better. I believe that the quote also hinted Mildred's personal insecurities about living among the upper-class. This insecurity was revealed in a scene from Episode Three in which Mildred appeared at a polo field in Pasadena to pick up Veda, who was bidding her "babysitter" Monty good-bye. So, this argument that Haynes had failed to explain Mildred's enabling behavior toward Veda simply does not ring true with me.

Despite my complaint about Haynes' decision to shoot "MILDRED PIERCE" in New York, I must admit that I found myself impressed by Mark Friedberg's production designs. The miniseries' setting did not have a Southern California feel to me, but Friedberg certainly did an excellent job of re-creating the 1930s. He was ably supported by Peter Rogness' art designs and Ellen Christiansen's set decorations. But aside from Friedberg's work, the biggest contribution to the miniseries' Thirties look came from Ann Roth's costume designs. Not only did she provide the right costumes for the years between 1931 and 1940, she also ensured that the costumes would adhere to the characters' social positions and personalities. For example, both Roth and Haynes wisely insisted that Kate Winslet wear the same dowdy, brown print dress during Mildred's job hunt in Episode One. One last person whom I believe contributed to the miniseries' look and style was cinematographer Edward Lachman. If I must be honest, I was more impressed by Lachman's photography of various intimate scenes reflecting the characters' emotions or situations than any panoramic shot he had made. I was especially impressed by Lachman's work in Episode One's last scene and the Episode Five sequence featuring Veda's betrayal of Mildred.

Along with Todd Haynes' direction, it was the cast led by the uber-talented Kate Winslet that truly made "MILDRED PIERCE" memorable. First of all, the miniseries featured brief appearances from the likes of Richard Easton and Ronald Guttman, who each gave a colorful performance as Veda's music teachers during different periods in the story. Hope Davis was deliciously haughty as the Los Angeles socialite-turned-movie producer's wife with whom Mildred has two unpleasant encounters. In the 1945 movie, Eve Arden portrayed the character of Ida Corwin, which was a blend of two characters from Cain's novel - Mildred's neighbor Lucy Gessler and her diner co-worker Ida Corwin. The recent miniseries included both characters into the production. Fresh on the heels of her Oscar win, Melissa Leo gave an engaging performance as Mildred's cheerful and wise friend/neighbor, Lucy Gessler, who provided plenty of advice on the former's personal life. Aside from a two-episode appearance in the last season of "24", I have not seen Mare Winningham in quite a while. It was good to see her portray Mildred's blunt and business-savy friend and colleague, Ida Corwin.

At least three actors portrayed the men in Mildred's life - James LeGros, Brían F. O'Byrne and Guy Pearce. Although his sense of humor was not as sharp as Jack Carson's in 1945, I must admit that LeGros managed to provide some memorably humrous moments as Wally Burgan, Mildred's business adviser and temporary lover. Two of my favorite Wally moments turned out to be his reaction to the news of Mildred's breakup from her husband and to the revelation of her romance with Monty Beragon. Brían F. O'Byrne earned an Emmy nomination as Mildred's ex-husband, Bert Pierce. What I admired by O'Byrne's performance was the gradual ease in which he transformed Bert's character from a self-involved philanderer to a supportive mate by the end of the series. But the most remarkable performance came from Guy Pearce, who won a well-deserved Emmy for his performance as Monty Beragon, Mildred's Pasadena playboy lover and later, second husband. Thankfully, Pearce managed to avoid portraying Monty as some one-note villain and instead, captured both the good and the bad of his character's nuance - Monty's friendly nature, his condescension toward Mildred's class status, his seductive skills that kept her satisfied for nearly two years, his occasional bouts of rudeness and the hurt-filled realization that Mildred had used him to win back Veda.

Two remarkable young actresses portrayed Veda Pierce, the heroine's monstrous and talented older daughter. Morgan Turner portrayed Veda from age eleven to thirteen and I must say that she did a first-rate job. In the first three episodes, Turner convincingly developed Veda from a pretentious, yet still bearable eleven year-old to an ambitious girl in her early teens who has developed a deep contempt toward her mother. My only problem with Turner's performance were the few moments when her Veda seemed too much like an adult in a child's body. Evan Rachel Wood benefited from portraying Veda between the ages of 17 and 20. Therefore, her performance never struck me as slightly odd. However, she miss the opportunity to portray the development of Veda's monstrous personality. But that lost opportunity did not take away Wood's superb performance. Despite the awfulness of Veda's character, I must hand it to the young actress for injecting some semblance of ambiguity. Aside from portraying Veda's monstrous personality, Wood did an excellent job of conveying Veda's frustration with Mildred's overbearing love and the end of her own ambitions as a concert pianist.

I have been a fan of Kate Winslet since I first saw her in 1995's "SENSE AND SENSIBILITY". There have been and still are many talented actors and actresses with the ability to portray multifaceted characters. But I believe that Winselt is one of the few who are able to achieve this with great subtlety. Her portrayal of Glendale housewife-turned-entrepreneur Mildred Pierce is a prize example of her talent for acting in complex and ambiguous roles. Superficially, her Mildred Pierce was a long-suffering and hard-working woman, who overcame a failed marriage to become a successful entrepreneur . . . all for the love of her two daughters. Winslet not only portrayed these aspects of Mildred's character with great skill, but also conveyed the character's darker aspects, which I had already listed in this article. She more than earned that Emmy award for Best Actress in a Miniseries.

Although many have expressed admiration for "MILDRED PIERCE", these same fans and critics seemed to have done so with a good deal of reluctance or complaints. I will be the first to admit that the miniseries has its flaws. But I do not find them excessive. This reluctance to express full admiration for "MILDRED PIERCE" culminated in its loss for the Best Miniseries Emmy to the British import, "DOWNTON ABBEY". I had objected to this loss on the grounds that the British drama - a television series - was nominated in the wrong category; and that I believe "MILDRED PIERCE" was slightly superior.

Flawed or not, I believe that Todd Haynes did a superb job in adapting James M. Cain's novel. He wisely adhered to the literary source as close as possible, allowing viewers a more complex and ambiguous look into the Mildred Pierce character. Also, Haynes had a first-rate cast led by the incomparable Kate Winslet. As much as I love the 1945 movie, I must admit that this recent miniseries turned out to be a superior production. My admiration for Todd Haynes as a filmmaker has been solidified.

Friday, October 28, 2011

"FLASH FOR FREEDOM" (1971) Book Review



Below is my review of George MacDonald Fraser's 1971 novel, "FLASH FOR FREEDOM", which featured the character of British Army officer Harry Flashman:


”FLASH FOR FREEDOM!” (1971) Book Review

In my review of ”FLASHMAN IN THE GREAT GAME” (1975), I had stated that there are at least six novels from George MacDonald Fraser’s series about the adult adventures of Harry Flashman, the cowardly bully from ”Tom Brown’s School Days”, that I consider among the best that the author has written. One of these six novels happens to be ”FLASH FOR FREEDOM!”.

Published in 1971, the novel featured Harry Flashman’s experiences with the Atlantic trade of African slaves and the American slave system in the antebellum South. The novel took that great English symbol of cowardice, lechery and bigotry from the coast of Dahomey in West Africa, to the Caribbean, Washington D.C., New Orleans, the Mississippi River Valley, the Ohio River Valley and finally back to New Orleans.

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”FLASH FOR FREEDOM!” began with Flashman’s arrival from the European continent, where a series of revolutions had appeared during the early spring of 1848 (see ”ROYAL FLASH”). Fearful of a class uprising that seemed to be brewing within a British radical group called the Chartists, Flashy’s father-in-law, John Morrison, arranged for Flashman to meet political figures like Benjamin Disraeli and Lord George Bentinck at a country house party in order to seek help in jumpstarting his own political career. But an encounter with an old nemesis from ”FLASHMAN” (1969) framed Flashman with card cheating . . . and the surprisingly innocent Flashy assaulted him. Morrison has Flashman shipped out of the country to ride out the scandal . . . on a slave ship bound for the western coast of Africa.

I had not been kidding when I claimed that ”FLASH FOR FREEDOM” was one of Fraser’s best novels. His passages featuring Flashman’s experiences aboard the Balliol College are masterful. Not only did the author give a detailed description of life aboard a 19th century slave ship, he provided readers with probably his best fictional creation - master of the S.S. Balliol College, Captain John Charity Spring. Not long after Flashman becomes a member of the Balliol College's crew, he realize that his father-in-law has put him under the thumb of a Latin-quoting psychotic. In one sequence, Spring discoveres that another crewman, a mentally challenged young man named Looney, has pissed on the food prepared for the slaves:

"They gave Spring a hastily made cat, and he buttoned his jacket tight and pulled down his hat down.

'Now, you b----r, I'll make you dance!' cries he, and laid in for all he was worth. Looney screamed and struggled; each time the lashes hit him he shrieked, and between each stroke Spring cursed him for all he was worth.

'Foul my ship, will you?' Whack! 'Ruin the food for my cargo, by G-d!' Whack! 'Spread your pestilence with your filth, will you?' Whack! 'Yes, pray, yes you wharfside son-of-a-b---h, I'm listening!' Whack! 'I'll cut your b----y soul out, if you have one!' Whack! If it had been a regulation Army cat, I think he'd have killed him; as it was, the hastily spliced yarn cut the idiot's back to bits and the blood ran over his ragged trousers. His screams became moans, and then silence, and then Spring flung the cat overboard.

'Souse him and let him hang there to dry!' says he, and then he addressed the unconscious victim. 'And let me catch you at your filthy tricks again, you scum, so help me G-d I'll hang you - d'ye hear!'

He glared at us with his madmen's eyes, and my heart was in my mouth for a moment. Then his scar faded, and he said in his normal bark:

'Dismiss the hands, Mr. Comber. Mr. Sullivan, and you, supercargo, come aft. Mrs. Springs is serving tea.'"


Needless to say, Spring's enraged whipping of poor Looney would turn out to be an event that Flashman would later attempt to exploit for his own means.

Upon the Balliol College's arrival upon the coast of West Africa, Fraser gave readers a bird’s eye view of how African slaves were purchased from African rulers like King Ghezo of Dahomey and European traders along the West Africa coastline. Fraser also provided readers with a peek into the kingdom of Dahomey (which eventually became Benin), its ruler and the latter’s famous female warriors - Dahomey Amazons - some of whom the Balliol College’s psychotic captain longed own for scholarly reasons.

When King Ghezo hands over six of his “Amazon” warriors to Captain Spring, the remaining women attack the Balliol College’s landing party during its trek back to the ship. One of the women (who had taken a slight fancy to Flashy) wounds one of the crewmen, an Englishman named Beauchamp Comber. Just before his death aboard the Balliol College, Comber confessed to Flashman that he was a Royal Navy agent charged with gathering evidence against Captain Spring and the other owners of the ship. One of the ship’s investors turned out to be Flashman’s pernicious father-in-law. The Balliol College eventually reach the Honduras coast, where the crew deliver the new slaves and pick up a half-dozen mulatto slave prostitutes to be delivered in New Orleans. But a U.S. Navy sloop under the command of the young and ambitious Captain Fairbrother spots the Balliol College and a brief sea battle ensues in which the slave ship is damaged and Springs is shot by a mentally challenged mate named Looney, at Flashman’s instigation. To avoid facing arrest for illegal slave trading, Flashy assumes the late Lieutenant Comber’s identity.

Once more, Fraser used his journalistic skills to good use in his description of what is known by historians as the Middle Passage. He went into great detail about how slavers dealt with captured slaves being held below deck. Fraser also described the practice of some sailors to mate with female slaves in order to impregnate them. This sexual practice was used to ensure a higher value among these female slave and any racially mixed children they might produce. Flashman is assigned to have sex with a Dahomey female slave he has named Lady Caroline Lamb.

Another interesting aspect about this passage in the novel was how Fraser revealed the racism and herd mentality of white Westerners like Flashman, Captain Spring and the Balliol College’s first mate, Mr. Sullivan. Following Comber’s death, Spring refused to immediately bury the Royal Navy officer at sea, after one of the slaves had died on the same day and was tossed into the sea. Apparently, the slave captain found the idea of a white man and a black man being “buried” in the same area within hours of each other racially repellent. And in the following passage, Mr. Sullivan seems to have a ready answer for Flashman’s ponderings about the slaves’ docile behavior:

”If they’d had a spark of spirit the niggers could have torn them limb from limb, but they just sat, helpless and mumbling. I thought of the Amazons, and wondered what changed people from brave, reckless savages into dumb resigned animals; apparently it’s always the way on the Coast. Sullivan told me he reckoned it was the knowledge that they were going to be slaves, but that being brainless brutes they never thought of doing anything about it.”

I found it interesting that both Flashman and Sullivan used race as an excuse to the newly captured slaves’ ”docile” behavior. Neither man bothered to consider the possibility that a series of traumatic experiences – being captured as prisoners of war, enduring a trek from the interior to the coast; and being tossed into a barracoon or holding place, before being loaded aboard the Balliol College. Instead, they indulged in some kind of herd mentality and dismissed the slaves’ behavior as typical of their race.

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Forced to continue his disguise as Comber, Flashman becomes acquainted with various American politicians that happened to be sympathetic to the abolitionist cause. One of them turned out to be one-term Congressman Abraham Lincoln. I must admit that I enjoyed Fraser’s portrayal of the future president as a shrewd, manipulative and humorous man. Lincoln not only spotted Flashman as a rogue, but suggested that he might also be one. The novel also featured a dinner conversation in which Lincoln expressed his exasperation with the abolitionist movement and especially the presence of blacks in the United States. If ”FLASH FOR FREEDOM” had been published for the first time in the past twenty years, Lincoln’s opinion of blacks would not have seem surprising. But in 1971 (when the novel was first published), his opinion probably did. Ironically, many 19th century abolitionists – black and white – had harbored ambiguous or even contemptuous feelings toward Lincoln’s moderate views.

Congressman Lincoln manages to blackmail Flashman into traveling to New Orleans in order to testify against Captain Spring. It seemed the sea captain had survived Looney’s attack. Having no desire to be exposed as a charlatan, Flashman manages to escape from his U.S. Navy escort in New Orleans and seek refuge at a brothel owned by an English Cockney madam named Susie Wilnick. Fraser must have visited New Orleans, while researching for this novel . . . and fallen in love. Not only did he describe the Crescent City circa 1848 in great detail, but also allowed Flashman to fall in love with the city. This segment also introduced the character of Susie Wilnick, the red-haired madam who will end up having a major impact upon Flashy’s life in the novel, ”FLASHMAN AND THE REDSKINS”. Before Flashman can board a ship bound for Europe, local agents of the Underground Railroad, an organization that aids escaped slaves, snatches him. They deliver him to their leader, a Mr. Crixus. He “recruits” Flashman into escorting a wanted escaped slave named George Randolph to Canada, via a steamboat journey up the Mississippi River.

Flashman’s meeting with Mr. Crixus of the Underground Railroad is where Fraser committed a major mistake. The mistake centered around Crixus’ description of the Underground Railroad as an organization that sent agents into the Southern states to help slaves escape to the North and Canada. And according to Mr. Crixus, many or most of these agents happened to be white. This might be one of those rare times in which Fraser’s research may have failed him. The Underground Railroad was not as organized as the author had indicated. It simply consisted of anti-slavery sympathizers who assisted any runaway slave that managed to reach their homes in the Free States. Granted, there were a few like the wanted runaway Harriet Tubman and the white Virginian John Fairfield, who made excursions into the South to free slaves. But their numbers were few and usually operated in the Upper South. Either Fraser had known this and made the Underground Railroad more organized for the sake of the story, or he simply embraced the myth of it being highly organized and mainly operated by white abolitionists.

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This segment also introduced the character of George Randolph, an infamous runaway slave whom Flashman was recruited to escort up the Mississippi Valley. Randolph’s self-righteousness and conceit proved to be a thorn in Flashy’s side. Yet, his presence in the story allowed Fraser to sharpen his writing skills and describe the society that existed in the Lower Mississippi Valley with his usual penchant for detail. Flashman’s journey up the Mississippi River not only revealed steamboat travel in the antebellum South, but also the colorful characters that populated that particular region - including slave traders and planters that acquired new money from the slave trade and the cotton plantations. Fraser also contrasted these slave and cotton magnates to the more haughty and refined planters from older regions of the South like Virginia, Kentucky and the Carolinas:

”All very fine, in a vulgar way, and the passengers matched it; you may have heard a great deal about Southern charm and grace, and there’s something in it where Virginia and Kentucky are concerned – Robert Lee, for instance, was as genteel an old prig as you’d meet on Pall Mall – but it don’t hold for the Mississipi Valley. There they were rotten with cotton money in those days, with gold watch-chains and walking-sticks, loud raucious laughter, and manners that would have disgraced a sty.”

The dialogue spoken by these Mississippi Valley citizens seem a lot more cruder than what one would have heard coming from Robert E. Lee’s mouth. Which makes me wonder if Fraser had read Kyle Onscott’s 1957 novel about slavery, ”MANDINGO”:

”Don’ you give me none o’your shines, ye black rascal! Beds, by thunder! You’ll lay right down where you’re told, or by cracky you’ll be knocked down! Who’re you, that you gotta have straw to keep your tender carcase offen the floor? ‘Tother hands is layin’ on it, ain’t they? Now, you git right down there, d’ye hear?”

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George Randolph’s refusal to play the docile slave ends up endangering his life and Flashman’s chances to leave the South. The runaway slave’s conceit ends up attracting the attention of a slave trader named Peter Omohondro (my God, what a name!). Flashman makes his escape over the rails and into the Mississippi River and swims toward the state of Mississippi. He eventually ends up at a cotton plantation called Greystokes, where he is hired as an observer. There, Flashman’s use of slave women as concubines attracts the attention of Greystokes’ mistress, Annette Mandeville.

I must say that was a little disappointed that Fraser never bothered to delve into any detail about life on a Mississippi cotton plantation. Instead, he focused upon Flashman’s misery at being stuck in the U.S. and far from home. He also touched upon the English officer’s frustration at his dalliances with women he viewed beneath contempt – namely Greystokes’ female slave population. This segment also dealt with Flashman’s observations of the Mandevilles’ pathetic marriage. Mr. Mandeville, who was a noveau riche cotton planter, had married the daughter of a Creole aristocrat. Mandeville had married for love and his wife, for money. And yet, it is the haughty Annette who regards her husband with contempt. And Flashman ends up sharing her feelings whenever Mandeville brags about Annette’s non-existent sexual desire for him.

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Not surprisingly, Flash realizes that the haughty Mrs. Mandeville has a yen for him and the two embark upon a sexual affair for a few months. The affair becomes easy to conduct, due to Mr. Mandeville’s frequent business trips. Flashman tries to incite expressions of emotion or passion from his mistress, but she seems to regard him as nothing more than her own personal bed warmer. The affair eventually ends when Mandeville returns home earlier than expected:

”We had just finished a bout; Annette was lying face down on the bed, silent and sullen as usual, and I was trying to win some warmth out of her with my gay chat, and also by biting her on the buttocks. Suddenly, she stiffened under me, and in the same instant feet were striding up the corridor towards the room, Mandeville’s voice was shouting:

“Annie! Hullo, Annie honey, I’m home! I’ve brought –“ and then the door was flung open and there he stood, the big grin on his red face changing to a stare of horror. My mouth was open as I gazed across her rump, terror-stricken.”


I must admit that I found the above passage a little evocative. How often does Fraser allow Flashman to be caught in a compromising position, while nipping his bed partner’s ass? On the other hand, I found Harry’s attempts to provoke some kind of passionate response from Annette Mandeville rather irritating – and a little out of character. It was quite obvious that she saw him as nothing more than a mere stud. And she was not the first female character to use him in such a manner. So, why was it important to Flashman for Annette to express some kind of affection toward him? Ego? These scenes between Flashman and Mrs. Mandeville seemed a bit off to me.

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Upon discovering his wife in bed with Flashman, Mandeville goes ballistic and threatens the former’s life. However, one of the planter’s slave trading friends offer to sell Harry as a mixed-blood slave to his cousin, an Alabama cotton planter with a plantation near the Tombigee River. Harry finds himself tossed into a slave cart bound for Alabama. Also in the cart is a beautiful light-skinned slave named Casseopeia “Cassy”.

Mandeville’s discovery of Flashman and Annette’s affair was a well-written segment that featured one of the Englishman’s most terrifying moments in the novel. I found it terrifying not because of the possibility of Flashman facing death, as he had done fleeing the Dahomey Amazons, facing gunfire from the U.S. Navy or fleeing from Peter Omohundro’s suspicions. What made this sequence terrifying was that Mandeville’s friends, Luke Johnson and Tom Little, were sending him into the constant hell of black slavery. I think that Mandeville had put it best:

”One of my friends here, he got a prime idea. His cousin a planter over to Alabama – quite a ways from here. Now my friend goin’ over that way, takin’ a runaway back to another place, and he ready to ‘blige me by takin’ you a stage farther, to his cousin’s plantation. Nobody see you leave here, nobody see you git there. An’ when you do, you know what goin’ to happen to you? You goin’ to be stripped an’ put in the cane-fields, ‘long with the niggers! You pretty dark now – I see mustees as light as you – an’ by the time you labored in the sun a spell, you brown up pretty good I reckon. An’ there you’ll be, Slave Arnold, see? You won’t be dead, but you’ll wish you were! Ain’t nobody ever goin’ to see you, on account it a lonely place, an’ no one ever go there – ifn they do, why you just a crazy mustee! Nobody know you here, nobody ever ask for you. An’ you never escape – on account no nigger ever run from that plantation – swamps an’ dogs always git ‘em. So you safe there for life, see? You think you’ll enjoy that life, Slave Arnold?”

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During their first hours together inside the slave cart, Cassy tries to comfort Flashman. But when she realizes that he is a white man being punished by Mandeville, Cassy’s own racism towards whites – generated from years of enslavement - kicks in:

”’Well, now one of you knows what it feels like.’ She went back to her corner. ‘Now you know what a filthy race you belong to.’”

Cassy ignores him for several more hours, while Flashman tries to convince Johnson and Little to release him. Eventually, she overcomes her disgust toward Flashman’s race and conspires to free them both from the slave cart. She attracts the two slave traders’ attention by faking sex with Flashy (must have been a great temptation for the poor devil), before killing the pair. Cassy and Flashman dump the bodies and head for Memphis.

The above sequence brought back memories of Flashman’s conversation with the Balliol College’s first mate about the Africans’ disposition to be docile about becoming slaves. Yet, in a near ironic twist, the very same thing nearly happened to Flashman inside the slave cart. Especially after Luke Johnson and Tom Johnson refused to heed his pleas to release him. Just before Cassy could laid out her plans for escape, Flashman seemed on the verge of surrendering to years of slavery for himself. And I found it interesting that Cassy turned out to be the one instrumental to their escape. Then again, I should not have been surprised, considering the Englishman’s cowardly and obsequious nature.

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The pair arrives in Memphis, Tennessee; where Flashman puts Cassy on the market to be sold. Again, Fraser’s journalistic eye comes to the fore. Flashman’s description of the Tennessee metropolis seemed to center around two words – rain and mud. But his account of a slave auction struck me as another example of Fraser’s ability to send his readers back into the past:

If you’ve never seen a slave auction, I can tell you it’s no different from an ordinary cattle sale. The market was a great low shed, with sawdust on the floor, a block at one end for the slaves and auctioneer, and the rest of the space taken up with the buyers and spectators – wealthy traders on seats at the front, very much at ease, casual buyers behind, and more than half the whole crew just spectators, loafers, bumarees and sightseers, spitting and gossiping and haw-hawing. The place was noisy and stank like the deuce, with clouds of baccy smoke and esprit de corps hanging under the beams.”

Very colorful indeed. Yet, there was something about the slave auction segment that disturbed me. Through Flashman’s eyes, Fraser focused on the entertaining and colorful auctioneer, the auction’s location and the male attendants’ reaction to Cassy’s attempts to raise her price (via a strip tease, apparently). Not once did Fraser give the readers a glimpse – however brief – into the other slaves’ reaction to being sold like stock on parade. Granted, Flashman is not the type who would care about their feelings. But being an observant man, surely he would have noticed the reaction of those slaves who were sold before Cassy? Like I had said, I had found this particular aspect of the sequence slightly disappointing.

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In the end, someone buys Cassy for $3,400 dollars. After Flashman purchases steamboat tickets and clothes for them both, Cassy escapes from the Memphis slave pen and board a northbound steamboat with Flashman. During the trip up the Mississippi River, Flashman and Cassy become lovers. And the Englishman discovers that his companion has great ambitions and an exceedingly strong will. He also discovers that her trust of him is not as strong as he had assumed:

”And yet I know that you are not by nature a kind man; that there is little love in you. I know there is lust and selfishness and cruelty, because I feel it when you take me; you are just like the others. Oh, I don’t mind – I prefer that. I tell myself that it levels the score I owe you.”

Unfortunately, the pair discovers that Flashman had purchased tickets for a steamboat bound for St. Louis, Missouri, instead of their intended location, Louisville, Kentucky near the Ohio River. They are forced to travel all of the way to St. Louis. There, Flashman discovers that he is wanted for slave stealing and the murders of Luke Johnson and Tom Little. Flashman and Cassy board another steamboat to take them from St. Louis on the Mississippi Rover to Pittsburg, Pennsylvania at the end of the Ohio. However, the Ohio River freezes near Owensboro, Kentucky and the pair is forced to leave the safety of the steamboat. At a Kentucky tavern near the river, Flashman and Cassy have an unpleasant encounter with a slave catcher named Buck Robinson. Flashy ditches Cassy and flees across the frozen Ohio, with the escaped slave, along with Robinson and his friends close at his heels. Cassy proves to be more dependable when she saves Flashman after he had been shot in the ass in this well written passage:

”It was so bitter that I screamed, and she turned back and came slithering on all fours to the edge. I grabbed her hand, and somehow I managed to scramble out. The yelping of the dogs was sounding closer, a gun banged, a frightful pain tore through my buttock, and I pitched forward on to the ice. Cassy screamed, a man’s voice sounded in a distant roar of triumph, and I felt blood coursing warm down my leg.

‘My God, are you hurt?” she cried, and for some idiot reason I had a vision of a tombstone bearing the legend: “Here lies Harry Flashman, late 11th Hussars, shot in the arse while crossing the Ohio River”. The pain was sickening, but I managed to lurch to my feet, clutching my backside, and Cassy seized my hand, dragging me on.”


I strongly suspect that Fraser may have been inspired by Harriet Beecher Stowe’s famous 1851 novel, ”UNCLE TOM’S CABIN”; when writing Flashman and Cassy’s flight across the Ohio River. The pair eventually seek refuge at an abolitionist’s home in Portsmouth, Ohio. There, Flashman is reunited with Abraham Lincoln. Buck Robinson catches up with them and Lincoln defends Flashy and Cassy in a scene that has become legendary with fans of the FLASHMAN novels:

”Buck was mouthing at him, red-faced and furious, but Lincoln went on in the same hard voice.

‘So am I, Buck. And more – for the benefit of any shirt-tail chawbacon with a big mouth, I’m a who’s-yar boy from Indiana myself, and I’ve put down better men than you just by spitting teeth at them. If you doubt it, come ahead! You want these people – you’re going to take them?’ He gestured toward Cassy. ‘All right, Buck – you try it. Just – try it.’

The rest of the world decided that Abraham Lincoln was a great orator after his speech at Gettysburg. I realized it much earlier, when I heard him laying it over that gun-carrying bearded ruffian who was breathing brimstone at him.”


In the above passage, Fraser continued to tear down the prevailing view of Lincoln as some modest, gentle giant who found himself caught up in national politics. Fraser’s portrayal of Lincoln revealed a tough and intimidating man to the rough-neck Buck Robinson. And once more, he managed to blackmail Flashman into returning to New Orleans for John Charity Spring’s slave smuggling trial. Before Flashman could leave Ohio, a Canada-bound Cassy says good-bye to him in one of the funniest scenes in the novel:

”’There,’ says Mrs. Payne. ‘I think you may kiss your deliverer’s hand, child.’

I wouldn’t have been surprised if Cassy had burst out laughing, or in a fit of raage, but she did something that horrified Mrs. Payne more than either could have done. She bent down and gave me a long, fierce kiss on the mouth, while her chaperone squawked and squeaked, and eventually bustled her away.

‘Such liberties!’ cries she. ‘These simple creatures! My child, this will never-‘

‘Good-bye,’ says Cassy, and that was the last I ever saw of her – or of the two thousand dollars we had had between us.”


As noted the recent passage, Flashman discovers that Cassy had quietly taken the remaining money they had “earned” in Memphis. No wonder she remains one of my favorite female characters in the FLASHMAN novels.

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After a U.S. marshal escorts our hero back to New Orleans (thanks to Lincoln), Flashman appears in court to testify against Spring for smuggling slaves into the U.S. Due to the testimonies of two of Spring’s “cargo”, Flashman realizes that the insane captain had been conveying American-born slaves to New Orleans, when the U.S. sloop had captured the Balliol College. Which meant that Spring had not broken the law by conveying American slaves. This also meant that Flashman had the means to avoid testifying against Spring and avoid being exposed as a fraud.

I must admit that this latest sequence featured one of the funniest moments in the novel. I especially enjoyed the testimonies of two female slaves named Drusilla and Messalina. The novel ends with the charges against Captain Spring are dismissed and Flashman asking for passage back to Europe aboard the Balliol College. From the psychotic Spring, Flashy learns that his father-in-law had passed away; leaving his beloved Elspeth a rich woman. Unfortunately for Flashman, another year or two will pass before his return to England . . . as ”FLASHMAN AND THE REDSKINS” will reveal.

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As I had stated at the beginning of this article, I consider ”FLASH FOR FREEDOM” to be one of the best from the FLASHMAN series. Through Flashman’s jaundiced eyes, Fraser revealed a richly detailed account of the African slave trade during the mid 19th century. In fact, Fraser’s account of the trade is one of the most detailed I have ever read in any fictional story – from the Balliol College crew’s preparation of the slave deck, to the crew’s expedition to Dahomey and King Gezo’s court; from the Middle Passage across the Atlantic Ocean to the slave marts of Honduras and Cuba; and finally the Balliol College’s encounter with a U.S. Navy frigate in the Gulf of Mexico. I have to admit that Fraser’s writing was supreme in the novel’s first half.

Once Flashman reached the United States, the story became unevenly paced. From the moment Captain Fairbrother sent Flashman to Washington D.C. to the moment when the Englishman boarded the Sultana Queen with George Randolph and black Underground Railroad agents posing as slaves, the story raced at a fast pace. Perhaps too fast for my tastes. The story managed to slow down to a leisurely pace in order to describe Flashman’s trip up the Mississippi River aboard the Sultana Queen. But upon his arrival at Greystokes, the Mandevilles’ plantation; the story’s pace quickened again. And for the second time, it slowed down when Mandeville caught Flashman in bed with the missus. This meant that Fraser never bothered to give readers a detailed account of life on a Mississippi cotton plantation. Instead, he focused upon Flashman’s affair with Annette Mandeville.

I also found myself surprised by Fraser’s description of the Underground Railroad. For a writer who usually went through a great deal to incorporate historical accuracy into his novels as much as possible, he certainly failed to do so in regard to the abolitionist organization. The Underground Railroad had never been as organized as Fraser described it in the novel. Most of the agents lived above the Mason-Dixon line. And they simply assisted those slaves that managed to reach the Free States with food, clothing and temporary shelter. The Underground Railroad was never dominated by white agents that escorted runaways out of the South. Granted, personalities like Harriet Tubman, John Fairfield and John Brown may have engaged in such activities, but they were rare in numbers and usually operated in the Border or Upper South. Regardless of whether they were successful or not, the runaway slaves bore most or all of the responsibilities for their bids for freedom.

And I never understood how Captain Spring managed to avoid being convicted of slave smuggling in the end. Granted, the slaves he had picked up in Honduras and Cuba were all American-born . . . save for one. There was also the Dahomey slave, Lady Caroline Lamb. Captain Fairbrother of the U.S. Navy had certainly met her. I never understood how the Federal judge managed to overlook her presence aboard the Balliol College. Flashman claimed that she had not been shackled. And because of this particular testimony, she was not deemed a non-American slave aboard Spring’s ship. Frankly, I found this a bit too thin . . . but what can one say?

One last problem I had with ”FLASH FOR FREEDOM” centered around Fraser’s portrayals of non-white characters. Mind you, he had provided strong portrayals of West African characters in the novel’s first half. However, King Gezo was a historical figure, Lady Caroline Lamb was a passive bed mate for Flashy, and not one of the Dahomey Amazons had a name – not even the leader who had taken a fancy to Flashman. With the exception of two, the African-Americans featured in the novel’s second half ended up being mere background characters. Even worse, the only two major slave characters of African descent were light-skinned. George Randolph was one-quarter black and Cassy was one-eighth black. Both were light enough to pass for white, bar a few physical characteristics that hinted their African ancestry. And once again, I stumbled across another disappointment. Granted, Fraser probably needed Cassy light enough to pass for white during her and Flashman’s flight up the Mississippi River. But why Fraser thought it was necessary to portray Randolph as light-skinned? What exactly was the author trying to hint? That only light-skinned African-Americans were intelligent enough to be interesting characters?

But despite my misgivings about ”FLASH FOR FREEDOM”, I still consider it to be one of Fraser’s better works. First of all, I thought it took a great deal of guts on his part to write a serio-comic story that featured African slavery or race in the 19th century American South as its main theme. The only other works of art that I can recall that dared to even touch upon the subject seemed to be an episode of ”BEWITCHED” called (5.02) "Samantha Goes South For A Spell" in which Samantha Stevens ends up trapped in 1868 New Orleans, the 1971 movie ”SKIN GAME” and its 1974 remake, ”SIDEKICKS”. And despite the novel’s grim subject matter, Fraser provided some very funny moments:

*Flashman’s attempt to seduce Fanny Locke (soon to be Duberly) at the political house party at Cleeve House

*A cabin boy’s offer to sexually service Flashman

*One of the Dahomey Amazons’ interest in Flashman

*Abraham Lincoln sniffs out Flashman as a scoundrel

*Cassy’s passionate farewell to Flashman

*Captain Spring’s trial in New Orleans

*Flashman’s reaction to John Morrison’s death


But there are two humorous scenes that truly stood out for me. One involved Flashman’s description of Captain Spring and his wife:

”At any rate, he lost no opportunity of airing his Latinity to Comber and me, usually at tea in his cabin, with the placid Mrs. Spring sitting by, nodding. Sullivan was right, of course; they were both mad. You had only to see them at the divine service which Spring insisted on holding on Sundays, with the whole ship’s company drawn up, and Mrs. Spring pumping away at her German accordion while we sang ‘Hark! the wild billow’, and afterwards Spring would blast up prayers to the Almighty demanding his blessing on our voyage, and guidance in the tasks which our hands should find to do, world without end, amen. I don’t know what Wilberforce would have made of that, or my old friend John Brown, but the ship’s company took it straight-faced – mind you, they knew better than to do anything else.”

Another passage that I found particularly hilarious was U.S. Navy Captain Fairbrother’s reaction to finding the slave Lady Caroline Lamb inside his cabin, aboard the Balliol College:

”’Mr. Comber,’ says he, ‘there’s one of those black women in my berth!’

‘Indeed?’ says I, looking suitably startled.

‘My G-d, Mr. Comber!’ cries he. ‘She’s in there now – and she’s stark naked!’

I pondered this; it occurred to me that Lady Caroline Lamb, following her Balliol College training, had made her way aft and got into Fairbrother’s cabin – which lay in the same place as my berth had done on the slaver. And being the kind of gently-reared fool that he was, Fairbrother was in a fine stew. He’d probably never seen a female form in his life.”


”FLASH FOR FREEDOM” had its share of virtues. But what really stood out in the novel was its collection of some of the most interesting fictional characters created by Fraser. Yes, the novel had its share of historical figures like Benjamin Disraeli, King Gezo and Abraham Lincoln. But the fictional characters proved to be the novel’s finest assets. Fraser introduced his readers to characters like the imbecilic and pathetic Looney, the Dahomey Amazon that took in interest in Flashy, the intense and enthusiastic Underground Railroad agent Mr. Crixus, the conceited and self-involved George Randolph, the ever suspicious slave trader Peter Omohundro, the pathetic Mandeville and his cold and controlling wife Annette, and the brutish slave catcher Buck Robinson. But two characters stood above the rest. They were the beautiful, yet ruthless and determined fugitive slave, Casseopeia; and the psychotic master of the Balliol College, Captain John Charity Spring. In fact, I would say they were among the best of Fraser’s creations.

I might as well add that the novel was not perfect. Its description of the Underground Railroad was historically incorrect. Most of the African-American characters were poorly conceived, with the exception of two that happened to be light-skinned. And the novel’s second half seemed to be marred by uneven pacing. Fortunately, the virtues outweighed the flaws. Fraser did an excellent job of creating semi-humorous story from the grim topic of slavery. The story had its share of drama and action. It provided a detailed account of the Atlantic slave trade during the mid 19th century. And the novel also featured some of the most fascinating fictional characters in the entire FLASHMAN series. In the end, I believe it is one of the best novels written by George MacDonald Fraser.


Thursday, October 27, 2011

"HALF SLAVE, HALF FREE: SOLOMON NORTHUP'S ODYSSEY" (1984) Screenshots Gallery

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Below are images from the 1984 PBS television movie, "HALF SLAVE, HALF FREE: SOLOMON NORTHUP'S ODYSSEY". Based upon Solomon Northrup's 1853 autobiography, "Twelve Years a Slave" and directed by Gordon Parks, the movie starred Avery Brooks: 


"HALF SLAVE, HALF FREE: SOLOMON NORTHUP'S ODYSSEY" (1984) Image Gallery







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