Turn Back The Clock
North and South - The Trilogy
Reviewed by Melissa Minners
When I was a kid, I remember that one of my Dad’s favorite authors was John Jakes. You could always spot him with a John Jakes novel in hand. Author John Jakes was known for his period-piece epic novels that recounted the complicated lives of fictitious characters in historic settings. Dad would travel easily through books like The Rebels, The Bastard, The Seekers, etc., and when those novels were made into television movies, Dad would make certain he caught every episode.
In 1985, our mutual love of history and Dad’s faithfulness to John Jakes found us glued to the television as the first episode of the epic miniseries, North and South, aired. The miniseries was the first of a trilogy of John Jakes novels that take place before, during, and after the Civil War. What was unique about this particular set of John Jakes novels is that the story was centered around not one, but two families. Thus, we get an idea of what it was like to be a Northerner and a Southerner at this turbulent time.
Being a history buff whose favorite subject of study is the Civil War, it’s no small wonder that I would be held captivated by the North and South television miniseries. Upon its conclusion, I was not only eager to read the novel, but impatient to see the second novel, Love and War, come to television. I have long since read all three novels and watched the movies numerous times.
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Book one of the trilogy revolves around two diverse families, the Mains and the Hazards. It all begins when Orry Main meets George Hazard on his way to the famed military academy, West Point. Orry Main is the son of a plantation owner from South Carolina with aspirations of using the best education in the country to help improve conditions at his father’s plantation. Pennsylvanian George Hazard, a son of one of the most prestigious iron work factories in the country, has his heart set on becoming a soldier.
Though their reasons for being at the academy differ greatly, the two share a common goal – graduation. The two young men see something in each other and soon become fast friends, promising each other that each will help the other in the difficult tasks that lay before them at the Point. Chief among these is the maniacal Elkanah Bent, a cadet who takes extreme pleasure in the vigorous hazing of plebes. His favorite targets, George Hazard and Orry Main.
Although they have sworn allegiance to one another, there is one particular issue that often comes between the two, threatening to tear their friendship apart – that of slavery. Although Orry is not a complete fan of slavery, it has been his way of life for years and his family does their best to make certain that their slaves are treated well. However, in George’s eyes, no matter how well the slaves are treated, they are still not free. George believes that no man should be held in bondage and events witnessed by George on a visit to the south make him certain that slavery is wrong. While Orry points out that conditions are not much better for workers at Hazard Iron, he can hardly disagree with George’s point that the workers are free to find better conditions, unlike the slaves of the south who would receive harsh punishment for leaving. The two decide that slavery is a topic that they should not discuss if they want to remain friends.
Orry and George soon complete their training at West Point and graduate, their required time in the army to be spent fighting the war with Mexico over Texas. While in Mexico, Elkanah Bent seeks revenge against his former West Point enemies. Following Bent’s orders to scout a bridge that is under heavy fire by the enemy, Orry is injured, almost losing his leg were it not for George’s intervention. The injury, in addition with other events in his life, pushes Orry into a deep depression that only George can bring him back from. Although the relationship between them is strained, the bond is still strong and each rejoices to find that other members of their family wish to join West Point.
Billy Hazard (George’s younger brother) and Charles Main (Orry’s cousin) follow George and Orry’s example, joining West Point together and becoming fast friends. As with George and Orry, Billy and Charles’ friendship is tested by the issue of slavery as there is increasing talk of secession by the southern states. As talk of secession and war between the north and south continue, the Hazards and Mains struggle to keep their bonds alive.
In addition to the historic and political stories told by North and South, there are also tales of romance. Orry Main is haunted by the forbidden love he shares with another plantation owner’s wife. George Hazard finds difficulty with certain members of his family when he marries the Irish daughter of a field doctor he met in Mexico. Her Catholic faith is the issue…and her heritage. And then there is the love between Billy Hazard and Orry’s sister Brett Main, a love whose bonds are threatened by the impending war between their homelands.
The fanatic Elkanah Bent is not the only villain to be found in the North and South miniseries. There are numerous others. There is the fanaticism of George Hazard’s sister Virgilia, who becomes somewhat of a misguided villain, fighting for a righteous cause, but going overboard in her actions. There is Justin LaMotte, the evil, abusive man married to Orry’s love, Madeline and his equally sleazy nephew Forbes. And then there is greed, in the forms of Ashton Main (Orry’s sister) and Isabel Hazard (George’s sister-in-law), whose characters very actions cause much trouble for both families and even eventually put lives at risk.
North and South features an ensemble cast of excellent actors in both prominent and cameo roles. Orry Main and George Hazard are masterfully portrayed by Patrick Swayze and James Read respectively. Lesley-Ann Down portrays the beautiful and suffering Madeline LaMotte. Other actors appearing in the series include Jean Simmons, Wendy Kilbourne, Terri Garber, Genie Francis, Lewis Smith, Philip Casnoff, Inga Swenson, Jonathan Frakes, Georg Stanford Brown, Robert Mitchum, Robert Guillaume, Forest Whitaker, Elizabeth Taylor, and many, many more. But perhaps the most powerful performance is that of Kirstie Alley as Virgilia Hazard. Hers’ is an incredibly believable and surprising performance. Noted for her comedic roles, this performance shows that Alley can handle dramatic delivery as easily as she can deliver a punch line.
There are several differences between the television miniseries and the novel it is based upon. In the novel, Orry’s arm is amputated as a result of his wounds in Mexico. The Mains are cotton plantation owners in the movie, rice plantation owners in the novel. Orry’s older brother, Cooper, is omitted from the movie – no great loss as his role in the novel was hardly strong. But however many differences between the novel and the miniseries, they don’t detract from the entertainment value or believability of the movie.
Of course, the acting in the miniseries does tend to be a tad melodramatic at times, but most television movies of the time (1985) were similar in nature and one could hardly fault the series for that. The cinematography when it comes to South Carolina is breath-taking. The story is intriguing. Each chapter of the miniseries will leave you on the edge of your seat. At the end of each episode, you will find yourself wanting more.
Love and War, the sequel to North and South, takes place during the war. Both the Mains and the Hazards have chosen to fight for their beliefs and their way of life. Although this places them on opposite sides of the war, the families still place great stock in their friendship and hope that the war will destroy it.
The miniseries depicts the hardships on both sides as former friends and, often times, siblings find themselves fighting on opposing sides of the battle. To make matters worse, corruption is rampant in both the North and the South. In the North, Stanley and Isabel Hazard, now in control of Hazard Iron while George is off fighting the war, begin a partnership with an underhanded rogue. With his assistance, Stanley and Isabel begin to make cannons and other such weaponry from iron of inferior quality. They sell this weaponry at top prices to the government for use in its war against the South. Many soldiers are killed or wounded thanks to weaponry of inferior quality. Meanwhile, in the South, Ashton Main Huntoon begins an affair with her brother’s nemesis Elkanah Bent. She invests in Bent’s smuggling operation, bringing luxury items through enemy lines and selling the items at tremendous profit. She also involves herself in Bent’s scheme to overthrow Jefferson Davis by force, replacing him with Bent himself.
On a smaller scale, Ashton strikes out at her brother and his new wife, Madeline, when she threatens to tell the world about Madeline’s mother and her origins. Knowing that this revelation could bring nothing but shame on the proud Main family, Madeline leaves Orry and goes into hiding. Bret and Billy suffer the pain of being newlyweds on opposite sides of the battlefield. Virgilia, seeking to build a new life serving her cause as a field nurse, learns that she will never truly be free of her demons. The war takes its toll on all involved, but none so much as Charlie who finds that he has become callous and cold thanks to the struggles he has endured throughout the war.
This segment of the trilogy is interesting in that the viewer gets to see the frustrations on both sides of the war – the fears, the ineptitude, the senseless slaughter, and the atrocities. Both sides have their prisons for captured soldiers, and although we only get to see the South’s Libby Prison, we are given the impression that the prisons in the North aren’t much better. Viewers are made to see that the soldiers fighting the Civil War, whether for the North or for the South, weren’t much different from each other. We also are reminded that not all that fought on the side of the south fought for slavery. As Lee states in the movie, he is against slavery, but he could not find it in his heart to take up arms against his home state of Virginia. We begin to see that pride, honor, money and greed were as much a part of the war as slavery, if not more so.
As in North and South: Book I, Love and War is a treat filled with star-studded performances. Most of the main characters reprise their roles, however, in this series, Parker Stevenson takes on the role of Billy Hazard. We are also treated to the performances of such notables as James Stewart, Lloyd Bridges, Olivia de Havilland, Hal Holbrook, Linda Evans, Anthony Zerbe, and more. As in Book I, each actor does an outstanding job in their roles, lending incredible believability to their characters. Watching this miniseries, one immerses themselves in the characters and the events surrounding them and becomes totally engrossed, needing to know what might happen to the characters next. Although an attractive yet believable storyline plays a role in such a reaction, it is the portrayal of characters that brings the story to life. Without good acting, a good story is sometimes not enough. Yes, the melodrama is back, but such is the norm for a dramatic piece of this time (1986).
Some would complain about the believability of certain events that take place in the movie. For instance, it would seem that officers on both sides of the war seemed to take off to see their families whenever they wanted to. Many would scoff at this, but history has shown that this sort of thing happened quite often in the military of that time. Not just during the Civil War, but during the Revolution, as well as the War of 1812. It was a tough thing to keep a man in the army to face such hardships as the soldiers faced in those times. Many officers were granted leave, some were punished for desertion, but a great deal were welcomed back with valid explanations as to why they left – times were desperate and soldiers were needed.
There might also be complaints regarding the many historic events that seem to involve either the Hazards or the Mains. Creative license was indeed taken to make Orry and George so close to the Presidents on their respective sides. The probability factor of this occurring? Well, it is well known that there were generals who served under both Presidents who had once been classmates and friends at West Point, so it is not such a huge stretch that Orry and George would find themselves at such high positions in their respective government’s armies.
Overall, Love and War is an excellent sequel to North and South, tying up storylines and hinting at hope for the future. The story, the acting, the battle scenes, the intrigue and the suspense all add up to a highly enjoyable miniseries for your viewing pleasure.
Heaven and Hell is the concluding miniseries of the North and South Trilogy. Airing a full eight years after Love and War, one wonders why the thing ever aired at all. This installment focuses on the Reconstruction Period after the war. The story basically revolves around Madeline, Charles, George, Ashton and Bent’s long-standing vendetta against both families. Although the characters of Madeline, George, Ashton and Bent are all portrayed by the original actors, Lewis Smith was wise enough not to reprise his role as Charles Main. This time around, the character is portrayed by Kyle Chandler (pre-Early Edition fame). Even Patrick Swayze was smart enough not to return for this series. The one scene in which Orry makes a visible appearance is a clip from a performance aired in either North and South or Love and War. The editing was so bad, it was easy to see that this had been clipped from one of the other miniseries and not filmed for Heaven and Hell.
Robert Wagner joins the cast as Orry’s brother Cooper Main. Mind you, Cooper Main was eliminated from the previous installments of the trilogy. He makes his first appearance here, confusing all viewers who have never read the novels. It would seem that Cooper is a major character in the third novel and the producers, having once thought the role less than important, changed their minds when they got to the third installment. More is the pity. Robert Wagner’s portrayal of a man destroyed by the loss of pride brought on by the Reconstruction of the South is less than admirable. In fact, it is downright dull and unconvincing. The viewer has no sympathy with this character at all and in fact will find himself groaning every time Cooper makes an appearance.
Although quite a bit of the movie focuses on Charles Main’s character, many important events that occur in Charles’ life in the novel are left out of the series. Take for instance the reason Charles decides to leave scouting duty. The movie would have you thinking that one tragic incident on one particular date soured Charles to the army and their dealings with Native Americans forever. In the book, there are a series of events that occur. The miniseries airs Charles in a horrible light – as a drifter who can’t seem to find his way after the war. The novel portrays the character in much the same way, but in a more positive light, so the reader roots for the character to find whatever it is he’s searching for. The miniseries just leaves the viewer with a desire to shake the hell out of Charles Main…you wouldn’t want to slap him around – Kyle Chandler is just too hot a piece of eye candy to inflict such injury upon.
Elkanah Bent is crazier than ever and well-portrayed by Philip Casnoff. All of his plans have been thwarted by the Mains and the Hazards and he is hell-“Bent” on seeking revenge. His rage has culminated into a thirst for blood, one that must be quenched by his own hand as he systematically hunts down those he holds a vendetta against. Suddenly, we learn that Bent hates Charles. Why? It is quickly mentioned that Charles served under Bent in Mexico. That’s all the information supplied, again leaving those of us who didn’t read the novels scratching our heads.
Even with all of its continuity issues, one could call Heaven and Hell just a bad novel adaptation were it not for one deciding factor that pushes it from bad to horrid – the romance between George and Madeline. Yes, the romance is a factor in the novel, but only at the very end. I remember disliking it when I read about it. But in the novel, it was something that occurred over a great passage of time. It seems that the moment Madeline sees George in Heaven and Hell, she’s ready to jump in the sack with him. Their attraction to each other is nowhere near as believable as the romance between Madeline and Orry or George and Constance. It actually annoyed me to watch the two of them profess their feelings for one another. The budding romance between Charles and Willa Parker was much more enjoyable to watch.
Overall, Heaven and Hell is a horrible sequel to have to suffer through. The only positive thing is the eye candy, Philip Casnoff’s performance as Elkanah Bent, and Stan Shaw’s portrayal of freed slave Isaac. Truly those are the only nice things I have to say about this final installment of the North and South Trilogy. My advise is to watch the first two movies and leave it at that. If you are a completist…or a masochist…and must watch the trilogy all the way to the end, I wish you well…and hope you survive the endeavor without wishing you had met the same fate as Isaac.
Unfortunately, North and South: The Complete Collection DVD Set contains one sole extra found at the end of Heaven and Hell. The History of North and South is a retrospective documentary featuring commentary from author John Jakes, actors Lesley- Ann Down, Patrick Swayze and James Read, executive producer David Wolper, and composer Bill Conti. John Jakes illuminates us on how the written trilogy came to be, his thoughts on the adaptation into film, his favorite novel in the trilogy and more. David Wolper discusses the adaptation of the novels to screen and the scope and scale of various parts of the project. Both Jakes and Wolper discuss why the injury to Orry Main was different in the movie from that of the novel. Bill Conti discusses his musical contributions to the miniseries. Individual characters are discussed by all. Each actor discusses their characters, their thoughts about the project, and their thoughts on the actors they worked with throughout the miniseries.
The documentary was interesting in that it didn’t just give factual details about the production. The documentary could have been a droll discussion of how the sets were created or the costumes chosen, but the interview format, toggling from cast to crew to author made things interesting. Yes, we do learn about how the sets were chosen, how the music was created, how certain actors were chosen for the project. But we also learn things that bring us closer to the human side of the production, like how the worst part of the filming for the female members of the cast were the costumes. Lesley-Ann Down is very animated as she discusses the elaborate, constricting costumes and the attractive actors she worked with throughout the series. Patrick Swayze commented on how personal circumstances made the scenes after Orry loses his father became very special to him. He also notes how the heat in certain filming locales was excruciating enough to melt fake flakes in snow scenes. Each of the individuals who comment on the movie note how proud they are of the finished project.
It is the commentary from cast and crew that adds a personal touch to the documentary. We are given a glimpse of what it was like for all involved to film such an epic adventure. However, I did notice one particular thing missing from the documentary. Only one actor mentioned Heaven and Hell, fleetingly at best. Could it be that they agreed with my opinion of the project?
Overall, I enjoyed the documentary, but found it rather short in the scope of things. The complete series is hours long and the documentary flies by in a flash. It would have been nice to see some deleted scenes or a gag reel of some kind. Even a small documentary about the Civil War events covered in the films would have been welcome. That’s not to say that I didn’t enjoy the DVD set. I just wish there were more extras included. However, North and South: The Complete Collection DVD Set is still worth the money – 5 DVDs filled with over 9 ½ hours of viewing time is definitely worth the $50.00 (U.S.) price tag!