"NORTH AND SOUTH: BOOK II" (1986) - EPISODE ONE "June-July 1861" Commentary
Judging from past articles I have written about the "NORTH AND SOUTH" Trilogy, one would surmise that of the three miniseries that have aired in the past decades (two in the 1980s and one in the 1990s) that I seemed to have the most problem with the second miniseries in the trilogy, namely "BOOK II". And if I have to be honest, one would be right.
It is odd that I would choose the second miniseries as the most problematic of the three. "BOOK II" is set during the four years of the Civil War – a historical conflict that has heavily attracted my attention for so many years that I cannot measure how long. "BOOK III", which had aired at least eight years after the second miniseries, was set during the early years of Reconstruction and has a reputation among the "NORTH AND SOUTH" fans as being inferior to the other two. But for some reason, I have had more of a problem with "BOOK II". So I have decided to examine each of the six episodes of the 1986 miniseries to determine why this chapter in the "NORTH AND SOUTH" trilogy is such a problem for me.
Without a doubt, Episode One of "BOOK II" is my favorite in the entire miniseries. It re-introduced the main characters from the first miniseries in the story. It also set the stage for the main characters’ experiences during the war, for the rest of the miniseries. It featured an excellent opening shot on the streets of Washington D.C. that introduced both Brett Main Hazard, and the slave Semiramis. It also featured a well shot sequence that centered around a colorful ball at the Spotswood Hotel in Richmond, attended by Ashton and James Huntoon, and Elkhannah Bent. Most importantly, it featured one of my favorite battle scenes – namely the Battle of Bull Run that was fought near Manassas, Virginia on July 18, 1861. If I have to be frank, this interpretation of Bull Run remains my favorite. Director Kevin Connors filmed the entire sequence with great style and skill and composer Bill Conti injected it with a brash, yet haunting score that still give me goose bumps whenever I watch it. Even better, the sequence ended with actress Wendy Kilbourne uttering one of the best lines in the entire trilogy.
I certainly have no problems with the miniseries' production values. Jacques R. Marquette's photography struck me as rather beautiful and colorful. This was especially apparent in the opening Washington D.C., the Spotswood Hotel ball and Bull Run sequences. If I have one complaint, I wish the photography had been a little sharper. Joseph R. Jennings and his production designs team did an excellent job in re-creating the United States during the Civil War era. Bill Conti continued his excellent work as composer for the saga's production. But if there is one aspect of the miniseries' production values that really blew my mind were the costumes designed by Robert Fletcher. I was especially impressed by the following costumes:
I do have a few quibbles about Episode One. First of all, it introduced Charles Main’s role as a cavalry scout for the Confederate Army. Considering that he started out as a Captain in this miniseries, it made no sense to me that he and another officer - a first lieutenant - would be participating scout duties without the assistance of enlisted men. I guess one could call it as an example of the story being historically inaccurate. And I wish someone would explain why the Mains' neighbors (or slaves) sent word to Brett Main Hazard in Washington D.C., of the injuries her mother, Clarissa Main, had suffered when Mont Royal's barn was set on fire by Justin La Motte. Would it have been a lot easier (and quicker) to send word to Orry Main, who was on duty in Richmond, Virginia?
I find the idea of both George Hazard and Orry Main serving as military aides to their respective political leaders - Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis - very improbable. Following their graduation from West Point in 1846, the two friends had only served at least 18 months in the U.S. Army before resigning for personal reasons. Yet, after the outbreak of a civil war, thirteen years, the audience is supposed to believe that both were able to secure such high positions within their respective armies? Especially when one considers the fact that neither were politically active between 1848 and 1861? I find this very illogical . . . even for a work of fiction.
My last major quibble featured the character of Elkhannah Bent. What was he doing with the portrait of Madeline Fabray LaMotte’s mother? The audience knew that he had procured it from an expensive whorehouse in New Orleans. But Bent had no idea that Madeline was romantically involved with one of his nemesis, Orry Main, until after Ashton Main Huntoon informed him. So, why did he bother to get his hands on the painting at a time when he was ignorant of the romantic and emotional connection between Orry and Madeline?
I certainly had no problems with the episode's performances. The cast, more or less, gave solid performances. But I was especially impressed by a handful. Two of the better performances came from Parker Stevenson and Genie Francis, who portrayed the recently married Billy and Brett Hazard. I was especially impressed by one scene in which the two nearly quarreled over Billy's decision to transfer from the Corps of Engineers to Hiram Berdan's Sharpshooters Regiment. Terri Garber and Philip Casnoff literally burned the screen in their portrayal of the early stages of Ashton Main Huntoon and Elkhannah Bent's affair. This episode featured another quarrel . . . one between George Hazard and his sister, Virgilia, who had arrived in Washington D.C. to become a nurse. Both James Read and Kirstie Alley were superb in that scene. And finally, I have to single out Forest Whitaker, who did a superb job in expressing the resentful anger that his character, Cuffey, felt toward his situation as a slave and toward his owners, the Mains.
Although Episode One featured some stumbling blocks that I have already mentioned, I must say that it turned out rather well. For me, it is probably the best episode in the entire 1986 miniseries. Not only did it featured some excellent performances, it was capped with a superb sequence featuring the Battle of Bull Run, directed with skill by Kevin Connor.