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Monday, March 10, 2014

Movie Review - North and South

With slim pickings at the theater, I decided to review one of my favorite TV miniseries from the 80s, North and South, based on the Civil War novels by John Jakes. Fortunately, a recent outing at Walmart landed me in the DVD aisle where I stumbled upon the entire three part collection (approximately 1400 minutes!) for a mere twenty dollars. My husband and I have been glued to the television ever since, engrossed in a compelling, action-packed drama that borders on the melodrama at times, but thoroughly entertains. I especially liked seeing Patrick Swayze, one of my favorite actors, with his long hair and Civil War regalia, sweeping the gorgeous Leslie-Anne Down off her feet. He was a wonderful actor and so romantic. I have to gulp down a sob just writing this.

The story centers on the friendship between Orry Main (Swayze), a southern plantation owner from South Carolina, and George Hazard (played by John Read in a great performance), the wealthy owner of an iron foundry in Pennsylvania. They meet at West Point before the Mexican War and develop a bond closer than brothers, much like David and Jonathan in the Bible. At West Point, they cross paths with the evil Elkanah Bent (played by Philip Casnoff), a character one loves to hate. Casnoff’s southern accent is exaggerated at times, common for American actors with Yankee roots who think we southerners are full of twang, but it works. He brings a great deal of conflict and excitement to the story as his hatred for Orry and George fuels a vendetta that leads to heartache and tragedy.

As time passes and the abolitionist movement takes hold, Orry and George’s friendship suffers. George cannot condone the South’s use of slavery, and Orry will not tolerate a northerner criticizing his family’s way of life. George takes over his family’s business in Philadelphia and marries the lovely Constance, while Orry runs Mont Royal, his family’s plantation in South Carolina, and pines over the beautiful Madeline Fabray (Leslie Anne-Down). I have to say that I haven’t seen a prettier face on the television screen in a long time—Down is a stunningly gorgeous woman with the looks of Elizabeth Taylor and a young Vivian Leigh.

Sadly, Madeline and Orry are ill-fated lovers who cannot be together because of her father’s evil schemes. Thinking Orry is dead somewhere in Mexico, Madeline marries an evil, abusive man from a nearby plantation (David Carradine), only to discover on her wedding day that Orry is very much alive. Orry pledges to never love another woman, and he holds true to his word, despite the circumstances. Isn’t that romantic? Yes, there may be a bit of adultery, but this is Hollywood and it is John Jakes.

 As for pretty actresses, there certainly is no shortage of old television and soap stars from the 80s in this series. For those of you with a fondness for Genie Francis, who played Laura from General Hospital, you’ll be pleased to know you can see her in a hundred different hoop skirts and bonnets, playing the lovely and sweet Brett Main, Orry’s sister. Think Melanie Wilkes from Gone With the Wind with a bit more spine. You’ll also see Linda Evans, Morgan Fairchild, more of the cast from Dallas, Lee Horsley, and even old Hollywood actors like Gene Kelly, Olivia de Havilland, and Lloyd Bridges. Even Wayne Newton shows up as a really nasty Confederate prison warden. But my two favorite are Kristie Alley, who plays George’s sister, Virgilia, a stanch abolitionist who marries a black slave, and Terri Garber, who plays Orry’s sister, Ashton.  Ashton is a souped-up Scarlett O’Hara-type with a sadistic streak a mile wide. While she borders on comical at times with her over-the-top antics, she does add quite a bit of spice to the story. Some of it is racy for television, especially from thirty years ago, so be prepared.

By now you may be thinking I am absolutely desperate for entertainment, but be assured that this is a wonderful miniseries that still holds up almost three decades later. The acting is great, the story moving, the romance is strong and believable, and according to my history buff husband, the authenticity of Civil War events is accurate. Just the romance between Orry and Madeline is enough to satisfy, but the other characters (like Charles Main, Orry’s cousin) and their trials during a very tumultuous time in our nation’s history will stay with you for days afterwards.

I love the feeling of going back in time and experiencing the lives of an entire generation of people who suffered greatly but overcame hardship, holding firmly to their faith. If that’s what over a thousand minutes of a TV miniseries will do to a person, then it was time well spent! I look forward to sharing North and South with my children over the holidays.  I have no doubt it will become a family favorite.

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