It is one of Hollywood’s minor ironies that television – considered the insidious ‘little box’ in everyone’s living room and the movies’ arch nemesis back in the 1950’s, has today - with the advent of home video - become the movie maker’s best friend; also, tragically, the reason for one media existing at the mercy and expense in artistic integrity of the other. Today’s movies don’t really look or feel like ‘movies’ at all; the masterful art direction and stylistic elements of meticulous compositions a la a Hitchcock, David Lean or even a Sydney Pollack replaced by pseudo-video game/music video esthetics meant to anesthetize and numb our sensory capacities. Alas, such efforts do nothing to enrich, captivate or ingrain themselves in our hearts and minds. The result – at least a decade’s worth of disposable entertainments; or rather, movies and TV meant to divert and distract, but hardly allowed to remain ever-present as a fond memory in our collective consciousness.
Just as live theater once regarded the movies as its inferior, in the 1950’s TV became the ungrateful bastard child of the cinema, threatening to walk away with the audience – ergo, the profits – and uncouple this time-honored, though tenuously balanced enterprise. Had more clairvoyance than sweaty anticipation been applied to embrace television back in the day, the studios might have held dominion over this, as yet, untapped domain. It was not to be. Moguls clung tight to their declining empires instead, forsaking the ‘little box’ while forbidding their roster of stars to appear on it. The eventual and inevitable implosion of the movie’s star system did come with an unexpected perk for TV, however. Beginning in the late 1960’s Hollywood’s mass exodus of talent both in front of and behind the camera created an influx of available artisans to fill the programming void: TV’s immediate cannibalization of the discarded, elevating the general stature and importance of their product.
Midway through the 1970’s, TV put the proverbial ‘final nail’ in this competitive ‘coffin’, shrinking the perceived chasm between the two arts (movies and themselves) with the debut of the first miniseries, Rich Man, Poor Man (1976). A year later, Alex Haley’s Roots (1976) would startle conventional wisdom and swamp the almighty Nielsen Ratings, becoming the most widely watched miniseries of all time. Dissecting the best elements from the serialized television soap opera (a main staple since the 1950’s), the miniseries endeavored to tell more complex, character-driven and socially conscious stories with similar dramatic arcs as a conventional motion picture (albeit stretched to accommodate a 5-10 hr. teleplay); an intoxicating marriage of substance to scope and size. In essence, the miniseries aped the big budget/big screen epics of old, with infinitely grander production values than the average half hour or hour-long TV drama, expertly scripted to accommodate the ‘cliffhanger’ and commercial breaks.
TV had stumped and trumped the movies yet again. Better still, television could draw on that seemingly bottomless wellspring of peerless talents who had already made the leap from one medium to the other – who came to TV already with built-in names and personalities that audiences could relate to, and who instinctually knew how to downscale the grandiosity of their larger-than-life performances – though, hardly their presence – to suit the small screen. In between the heady 1960’s - the decade of the road show – and the 1980’s, too many great novels had been forsaken by the movies; viewed as too expensive to produce and too ambitiously expansive in their narrative structure to condense into a manageable two – or even three – hour screenplay. With the advent of the miniseries, these sprawling, often generational, family sagas became rife for consideration. And TV, with its built-in security of commercial sponsorship was only too eager to exploit them to their best advantage. In the days before even the concept of home video had entered the public’s consciousness, and the prevailing dominance of only three major networks meant a limited amount of highly coveted primetime space available, television executives took a gargantuan leap of faith and a gamble to produce miniseries of scope and quality with increasing regularity throughout the 1980’s; an experiment with a very handsome payoff.
In our present epoch, inundated by technological capabilities to instantly stream, download, buy and/or bootleg just about everything from world news to classic movies, we’ve lost that innate spark of genuine anticipation for ‘new’ entertainment. Reflecting on the miniseries, the 1980’s were unequivocally the age of neoteric innovation as well as something of a return to the golden age of ‘movie-making’ – effectively downsized to oblige the television screen. Here was a time unlike any other, when the network debut and perennial reissue of celebrated motion pictures – like The Wizard of Oz or The Sound of Music – stirred boundless enthusiasm for weeks on end, before and after the broadcast, and the premiere of most any new show – sitcom or drama – was heralded with all the pomp and circumstance of the second coming. What can I tell you? You had to be there.
Gratefully, I was, and fondly recall the mass hysteria over ‘who shot J.R.?’ and the giddy excitement brewing for months after it was announced producer, David L. Wolper had acquired the rights to Colleen McCullough’s sweeping novel, The Thorn Birds (published in 1977). While most of the specifics about casting and shooting this epic miniseries were kept under lock and key, the gradual trickle down of media hype, mostly fed to the audience via the popular show about shows - Entertainment Tonight! - slowly built upon a singular note of distinction. The Thorn Birds (1983) was going to be huge; spanning the globe with scheduled shoots in Rome, Hawaii and California (the latter, substituting for the Australian outback).
While many actors were considered for the pivotal part of Father Ralph de Bricassart, the Catholic priest whose driving aspiration to become a viable candidate for the papacy (though he never rises above the status of Cardinal…not bad!) overrides his frustrated/enduring love affair with a very young charge (and arguably, even his supposed devotion to God), Wolper’s decision to cast Richard Chamberlain seems to have been largely predicated on the insistence of his wife. By 1983, Chamberlain had accrued an impressive resume on film and television; playing everything from the heroic Dr. Kildare (1961-66) to an unscrupulous engineer, responsible for the perilous and tragic blaze in The Towering Inferno (1974). Chamberlain’s superb portrayal as Maj. John Blackthorne in TV’s Shogun (1980) probably won the actor extra bonus points in the end. For, here was a star – a name above the title - who could also act; deftly handling a sustained reoccurring performance in an ever-evolving TV drama.
David L. Wolper’s decision to stockpile The Thorn Birds with an array of A-list talents from both past and present led him to briefly consider Audrey Hepburn for the part of Mary Carson; the role eventually going to another Hollywood alumnus, Barbara Stanwyck after Hepburn turned it down. The ties to classic Hollywood were also firmly invested in the casting of Jean Simmons (as stern matriarch, Fiona ‘Fee’ Cleary), Earl Holliman and Piper Laurie (as Meggie’s devoted friends, Luddie and Anne Mueller), Richard Kiley (Paddy Cleary) and Christopher Plummer (as the wily Archbishop Vittorio Contini-Verchese, whose tests of Father Ralph’s true fidelity to his spiritual calling bring out a more primal urge stirring from within). To this mix, Wolper gave plum acting challenges to relative newcomers, Bryan Brown (the only legitimate Aussie in the cast, herein playing the unscrupulous, Luke O’Neill), Ken Howard (as love interest, Rainer Hartheim), Mare Winningham (the emotionally scarred Justine O’Neill) and Philip Anglim (as the introspective/illegitimate son, Dane).
In the pivotal role of Meggie Cleary, the young willful lass who woos, wins, then jealously schemes to devastate Father Ralph, but finally comes to terms with their lost opportunities for a life together, David Wolper made the unorthodox decision to cast Rachel Ward. The actress’ CV was threadbare to practically nonexistent. For the early episodes, depicting Meggie as a young girl, the part would be played by Sydney Penny, an almost clairvoyant child star with a powerful presence somewhat unfulfilled in the transitioning over to Ward to fill Meggie’s adult shoes. Ward’s Meggie is a turbulent young woman, prone to bouts of moping around and driven to maleficent extremes by her fitful worship of the sinfully handsome priest who cannot satisfy her burgeoning sexual desires without betraying his pledge to God and thus, destroying himself.
In the fictional realm of ‘impossible romances’ The Thorn Birds is undeniably one of the most complex and extreme, testing the boundaries of innate human sexual attraction with an immovable impediment set against its lovers. In a brief and almost forgotten moment from the teleplay, the Archbishop reveals his knowledge of Ralph’s divided love. Ralph has lost a rose given to him by Meggie after the fire on Drogheda, the flower once pressed between the pages of a book to preserve it. “When your rose fell to the ground I understood at last the sadness you always wear like a holy mantle,” the Archbishop reasons, to which Ralph painfully confesses, “I’ve tried so hard to get her out of my heart.” “You think I don’t know that, Ralph,” the Archbishop compassionately confides, “Our God has given us free will and with that gift comes the burden of choice. It is time…far past time…you took up this burden, because until you do you cannot go on.” But sending me back to her is like asking me to fail,” Ralph admits. “No,” corrects the Archbishop with confidence, “It’s asking you to choose.”
In retrospect, The Thorn Birds is a story about such life choices, so perfectly cast, so impressively mounted, and so tightly scripted by Carmen Culver, the novel’s author, Colleen McCullough and Lee Stanley, it seems impervious to failure. However, in its initial phase, the project was considered risky despite the best-selling status of McCullough’s book. McCullough would later disown the miniseries in its entirety, rather unflatteringly calling it “instant vomit”. In preparing the project, David Wolper ran into several complications early on; first with Richard Chamberlain – who felt his character – as written - was not nearly strong enough to carry the weight of the story. Wolper would eventually reach a truce with Chamberlain, affording him certain latitude to vocalize the character in his own way, while adhering to the screenplay verbatim. As for the part of Meggie: Wolper found himself inundated with offers from some of Hollywood’s most prominent stars, desperate to at least read for the part. Rachel Ward, Olivia Newton John, Michelle Pfeiffer and Jane Seymour all auditioned. Ultimately, it was Ward’s vulnerability that convinced Wolper he had found his Meggie. But Ward would remain slightly terrorized by the experience of making and promoting this miniseries.
Of all the actors assembled for the first run through of the script, no one could match Barbara Stanwyck for peerless perfection. “Everything you’ve heard about her is true,” Richard Chamberlain would later reminisce, “Total professional. She knew all her lines…even all her looks on the first run through, saying to the camera man, you’ll catch this look, won’t you? Amazing!” Stanwyck’s influence was not limited to the part; playing matchmaker off camera for Rachel Ward and Bryan Brown, the latter to whom she took an immediate liking and encouraged Ward to romantically pursue, lest Brown stray into some other young woman’s clutches. Evidently, this was good advice on Stanwyck’s part; Ward and Brown falling deeply in love on the set and marrying shortly after production wrapped. Twenty-five years later – they remain one of Hollywood’s most enduring, happily-married couples.
Wolper’s other inspiration came in hiring Daryl Duke to direct The Thorn Birds; the craggy Canadian completely absorbed in the material. Moreover, Duke understood and appreciated actors – particularly, their innate insecurities – able to coddle, coax and refine their performances; an undeniable guiding presence on set, and with a keen eye and visual flair for lushly romantic storytelling. Alas, such meticulous attention to detail proved exceptionally costly; The Thorn Birds going way over budget. Roughly midway through the shoot, co-producers David Wolper and Stan Margulies briefly contemplated firing Duke for these lavish expenditures; in the last analysis, unable to bring themselves to do it. It is important to delineate that Daryl Duke was not profligate in his spending. He did not waste production moneys or dillydally with intrusive delays never to be seen on the screen. Rather, his focus was so much on the actors; on evolving their contributions to augment his own purposeful camera movements and setups, these delays were chiefly in service of the story and maintaining harmony on the set; achieving the best possible results in composition and stylistic quality for the entire production.
The proof, alas, is in the finished product. The Thorn Birds is visually arresting; by far, one of the most exquisitely photographed television events of its vintage, its style holding up remarkably well even under today’s scrutiny. Alas, David Wolper’s initial verve to shoot at least a portion of the production in its native Australia proved unwieldy; Robert MacKichan’s production design reconstructing the sprawling Carson estate, Drogheda, with its ranch house, outdoor sump and barns built full scale on some acreage in Simi Valley, California, complete with imported foliage, vintage automobiles and even a solitary kangaroo, who managed to succumb to sunstroke on his first day’s call from the stifling 110 degree heat.
Wolper’s final bit of kismet was getting composer, Henry Mancini to underscore the miniseries. Mancini’s artistry is often trademarked by a timeless adherence to the swinging sixties jazz age. For The Thorn Birds, however, Mancini completely eschews his own pop influences. The main title and ‘Meggie’s theme’, as example, go well beyond mere quality; capturing the period romanticism as few compositions written for television before or since have, while lending itself to variations either meant to evoke elevated levels of joy and/or sadness, depending on the scene. Meggie’s theme in particular is a lithe concerto for flute, given strength of character and occasional bombast by a full orchestral accompaniment.
As a miniseries, The Thorn Birds begins differently from Colleen McCullough’s novel. The book has a lengthy prologue in New Zealand, beginning with Meghann ‘Meggie’ Cleary’s fourth birthday. The family’s patriarch, Padriac ‘Paddy’ Cleary is a gruff, though hard-working laborer; his wife, Fiona (‘Fee’) a one-time aristocrat disowned by her own family for having married ‘beneath her station’. What is later revealed, in both the book and the miniseries is that Fiona was impregnated by another man – undisclosed in either the novel or its TV incarnation: her bastard child, Frank (John Friedrich) reared by Paddy as his own, even though he begrudgingly acknowledges the stubborn-willed scrapper bears an uncanny resemblance – both physically and in temperament – to Fee’s former lover.
All this is backstory of a kind, most of it skillfully woven into the miniseries various subplots and parceled out for maximum dramatic effect much later on. The miniseries begins five years later, the Clearys summoned by their infinitely richer relation, Mary Carson, from their native New Zealand to Australia after Paddy’s ranch has failed. Mary intends to make the Clearys her benefactors after her passing. The wealthy widow is a stern, business-minded woman, driven to distraction in her casual flirtations with Father Ralph de Bricassart. Mary’s fortunes are tempting to the Catholic Church as well, even though Ralph does nothing to encourage Mary to change her Will. Mary sets it into her head to get Ralph to break his vows to God. Although youthful and stunningly handsome, Ralph is not entirely naïve about Mary’s ulterior motives. Alas, as time wears on, Mary becomes agitated by Ralph’s indifference to her advances. He’s much too handsome to be a priest, and far too young to become the lover she might have desired for herself.
Meggie and Father Ralph form a special bond from the moment he gathers the family at the train station. Mary becomes quite jealous of this, even though the girl is utterly innocent in her affections, turning to Ralph after her favorite brother Frank is exiled from the family. The first episodes of The Thorn Birds are dedicated to the Clearys settling into their new lives on Mary’s farm, Drogheda. Although Mary is fair in the treatment of her brother, she increasingly comes to resent Meggie.
In the meantime, Frank's relationship with Paddy ruptures after it is discovered Fee is pregnant once again. Paddy reveals to Frank he is not his father; that long ago, Fee had an affair with a married politician. To spare the family honor then, Fee’s father married her off to Paddy to conceal his daughter’s shame. Because Frank bears a striking resemblance to Fee’s former lover, Fee has always harbored a more genuine affection towards him. Sometime later, Fee gave birth to twin boys, Jack (Stephen W. Burns), Bob (Jack Cullen), then Stuart (Dwier Brown). Now, she becomes pregnant with the baby of the family, Hal, whom Meggie comes to regard with great affection as her personal pride and joy after Fee all but refuses to care for the infant.
Ralph does everything he can to heal the wounds between Paddy and Frank, but their terrible rift remains; marked by an equally painful separation for Meggie after Frank elects to become a professional pugilist and leaves the family fold. Dogged by bad luck, Frank is charged with murder after getting into a bar room brawl. Not long thereafter, the baby, Hal contracts a terrible fever and dies. Meggie is inconsolable, her overwhelming sadness and loneliness compounded by her fearful inability to realize that her menstruation cycle is a normal and healthy biological part of becoming a woman. Instead, Meggie believes she is dying; her fears abated by Father Ralph’s tender guidance and explanation of these facts of life.
In the novel, Ralph is incensed at Fee for having failed to educate her daughter on such matters. For the miniseries, Ralph’s reaction to Meggie’s confidences was rewritten to establish a growing tenderness between the two. At one point, Ralph even attempts to make restitution between Meggie and Fee, suggesting, “She's your daughter. It's as if you never remember that.” Fee’s bone-chilling reply cuts Ralph to the quick, “Does any woman? What is a daughter? A reminder of the pain... a younger version of oneself... who will do all the same things, cry the same tears. No, Father. I try to forget I have a daughter.”
Determined to part Meggie from Ralph, Mary devises a devious plan to have him relocated to another parish. In the interim, Meggie grows up and Mary decides to throw a lavish party for her 72nd birthday; the townsfolk invited to Drogheda for this elaborate affair. Ralph’s return to the outback is predicated on Mary’s insistence. Later, Mary confides in Ralph she shall not live to see another birthday. When Ralph makes a magnanimous bid to console Mary, she lashes out at him for the last time, explaining that simply because the body has aged it does not mean the mind ever quite accepts what the passage of the years has done to it. Regaining her composure, Mary retires for the evening. In the parlor, Meggie flirts with Ralph: the obviousness of her affections proving a genuine threat to both their integrities in a roomful of watchful eyes and gossipy tongues.
The following morning, everyone awakes to the terrible shock that Mary has passed away sometime during the night. It is the first of many surprises put forth this new day. For Father Ralph is sequestered in the parlor, informed by Mary’s solicitor that Drogheda has been left in its entirety to him – not the Clearys – Mary tempting providence from beyond the grave. If Ralph is a true man of God he will ignore her revised Will and allow the Clearys to inherit the farm as it is rightfully theirs. However, if he is as ambitious as Mary believes, she has made a provision for the Clearys. They will work the farm for the church and be allowed to remain as wards on its land without ever owning it. Ralph accepts Mary’s terms as the church’s overseer of Drogheda, its $13 million bequest all but guaranteeing he will be recalled by the diocese, thereby advancing his career but separating him from Meggie.
The middle act of The Thorn Birds divides its time between Ralph’s ascendancy within the Catholic archdiocese and his journey to Rome, and life on Drogheda – that is anything but idyllic. A brush fire threatens the farm’s live stock. While Paddy rushes to secure the sheep, his horse is spooked by the approaching flames and an electrical storm. Paddy is thrown to the ground, a bolt of lightning toppling a nearby tree that crushes him. Meanwhile, back at the farm, Drogheda is spared complete destruction from the inferno at the last possible moment; the electrical storm giving way to a torrential downpour, driving back and eventually extinguishing the flames. Alas, the next day, while in search of their father, Stuart is gored by a wild boar; Jack and Bob coming across both their father’s and brother’s remains. Meggie is tormented, seeking consolation from Fee, who can do nothing better than stare off into the distance as the bodies are taken to the nearby cemetery for burial.
Afterward, Meggie cannot bring herself to accept ‘the will of God’. “That dear and gentle God who has taken from me everyone that I've loved most in the world,” she bitterly confides in Ralph, “One by one; Frank, then Hal... and Stuie... and my father…and you, of course - always you. If God is merciful... how has He left me no one else to grieve.” When Ralph attempts to explain, “He is merciful, I know you can't see that now, but he is. He spared the rose. He sent the rain,” Meggie boldly replies, “Oh Ralph…who sent the fire?”
The miniseries avoids one of the novel’s contrivances herein; Ralph, unaware of Paddy and Stuart’s deaths, returns to Drogheda when his plane crashes in the bogs nearby during the electrical storm. In the novel, Meggie exploits this opportunity, tending his wounds but attempting yet another rebuked seduction, Ralph departing the farm just as soon as he has performed the burial ceremonies for Paddy and Stuart. Instead, the miniseries advances a period of, what in the novel is three years, but herein is established more as the passage of only several months. At a sheep shearing competition, Meggie becomes smitten with Luke O’Neill – a muscled drifter who allows her brother, Bob to win the competition. Luke is hardly the chivalrous type. In fact, he regards all women as little more than casual diversions. Alas, neither Luke nor Meggie is particularly interested or honest about the reasons they wish to procure this romance; Meggie attracted to Luke because he looks nothing like Ralph; Luke far more venal than voluptuous in his pursuits – believing he has snagged the daughter of a wealthy estate.
Meggie escalates their affair into an awkward proposal of marriage that will soon turn out to be a disastrous mistake. For upon relocating to North Queensland, Luke quietly appropriates Meggie’s dowry, sets her up in a live-in job with a kindly couple, Luddie and Anna Mueller, then quietly arranges for all Meggie’s wages to be paid directly to him. Furthermore, Luke finds he prefers the company of men to his own wife, his indulgences in cane-cutting preceding his supposed plans to invest all of his and Meggie’s monies in a new homestead where they can start a family. In her misguided attempt to settle her husband, Meggie gets Luke liquored up and then in the sack, her lack of contraception leading to an unwanted pregnancy: a daughter – Justine. Rather than bring the two together as a family, the child only manages to tear Luke and Meggie apart. The couple separate and Meggie quickly realizes motherhood is a full-time career; one for which she is decidedly ill-equipped.
In the meantime, the archbishop has been carefully observing Ralph’s progress. The time has come to promote him to a position more worthy of his talents. The church is sending Ralph to Rome. Elated, Ralph decides to bid Meggie farewell, instead learning from Anna Mueller that Meggie has gone away to an island resort for a few days relaxation. Sensing the conflict within Ralph, the archbishop encourages him to take a brief absence in order to reconsider his chosen path in life. Determined to rid himself of Meggie’s influence on his heart, Ralph instead winds up consummating his affair with Meggie on this island retreat; the two sharing a resplendent week locked in each other’s arms, perpetually silhouetted against moonlight or fiery sunsets. Alas, it was just one of those things – at least for Ralph, who confesses he has decided to return to the church. He is a priest after all. He cannot forsake God for this earthy alliance.
Bitter and pregnant again – only this time with Ralph’s child - Meggie returns to Queensland, informs her husband she is through with him too, then comes home to Drogheda to have her second child; a son, whom she names Dane O’Neill. Fee immediately notices the child’s features bear a striking resemblance to Father Ralph and, as a result, her relationship with Meggie, thus far severely strained, grows quietly stronger. Time passes. Justine develops into a headstrong girl, partly railing against her mother’s seeming lack of interest in her life; the bond between Justine and Dane unfettered by personal jealousies. In fact, Justine and Dane are inseparable, he confiding in her first his decision to enter the priesthood. When Meggie learns of Dane’s chosen profession she is furious. God seems to have an agenda against her own happiness. Alas, Meggie’s love for Dane eventually allows her to see things his way; Fee quietly reasoning that what Meggie ‘stole’ from God (Dane) must now be returned to him. And who knows? Dane and Ralph may soon come to know one another.
Indeed, Ralph dotes on Dane like a son, though neither is aware they are, in fact, related. Meggie allows nature to take its course in the hopes God will smile good fortunes on them, perhaps even draw the family closer together. In the meantime, Justine leaves Drogheda to study acting abroad. While on the stage, she befriends Rainer Hartheim; a German politico, already a good friend of both Dane’s and Ralph’s and who is genuine in his affections towards Justine. Dane and Justine’s bond is also strengthened, she confiding in him some of her more scandalous sexual exploits – presumably to tease, titillate and get Dane hot under his collar.
For the briefest of moments the family seems to have settled into the complacency of a contented life; Meggie’s brothers never having married, are now the overseers of Drogheda’s managing farmhands. Alas, Meggie’s daydreams for serenity are thwarted when Dane, while indulging in a suntan on an isolated beach in Italy, takes notice of two young girls frolicking in the surf. The pair is suddenly caught in a dangerous undertow. Gallantly swimming out to save them, Dane is dragged below the waves and drowns. News reaches Drogheda, the family stunned by this sudden and inexplicably cruel loss. Justine is inconsolable. But Meggie, venomous and defiant, challenges God’s will for taking the only two men who ever mattered to her.
Dane’s body is shipped home to Drogheda, Ralph performing the burial service at the family crypt not far from the ranch house. Afterward, Meggie forsakes God and Ralph attempts to make her see the error of her vial thoughts. Instead, she reveals to him that Dane was his son too. This epiphany shatters Ralph’s already fragile heart. As he drops to the ground, unable to speak or even weep for his dead son, Meggie cruelly exclaims with a note of satisfaction, “Poor Father de Bricassart!” before walking away. Sometime later, at the main house Justine announces her plans to marry Rainer. Meggie’s cruel disinterest in Justine’s future prompts Fee – who has since recognized the errors in her own parenting - to side with her granddaughter. Justine slips into despair, breaking off her engagement; Rainer imploring Meggie to help restore her daughter’s faith in humanity so she may come to realize how much he truly loves her. Meggie eventually comes around, and Justine decides to wed Rainer and leave Drogheda to be his wife.
Ralph, who has suffered a terrible stroke since discovering Dane is his son is left in Meggie’s care. In this late stage in both their lives, she comes to love him once more and he confesses with his final breathes how he has always been more devoted to her – if only in his memories – than he has in his chosen calling. “The day I first saw you at the Gilly station, you smiled at me, then you said my name. Then you touched me,” Meggie confides, all bitterness removed from her heart, “And since that day, I have somehow known, though I never saw you again, that my last thought this side of the grave would be of you. And there’s nothing I can do to change it. Do you know how terrifying it is, that power you have over me?”
Ralph dies with Meggie at his side, remembering the legend of the ‘thorn bird’; a parable relayed to Meggie a long time ago when the world was new to them both and each had yet to be filled with a lifetime of heartache. “There's a story,” Ralph then explained to the child, “A legend, about a bird that sings just once in its life. From the moment it leaves its nest, it searches for a thorn tree... and never rests until it's found one. And then it sings... more sweetly than any other creature on the face of the earth. And singing, it impales itself on the longest, sharpest thorn. But, as it dies, it rises above its own agony, to out-sing the lark and the nightingale. The thorn bird pays its life for just one song. But the whole world stills to listen…and God in his heaven smiles.” When, as a child, Meggie inquired, “But what does it mean, Father?” Ralph then explained, what essentially has become the thesis of Colleen McCullough’s novel and the miniseries: “That the best is bought only at the cost of great pain.”
Colleen McCullough’s negative remarks aside, as a miniseries The Thorn Birds was a monumental undertaking, and an even more herculean achievement; the most widely watched - and certainly one of television’s most fondly remembered - programming events of the twentieth century. I can think of only one other miniseries to rival its stature; Richard T. Heffron’s North and South (1985); based on the celebrated novel by John Jakes and, again, produced for the network ABC, whose affinity for miniseries throughout the 80’s was second to none. Viewed today, The Thorn Birds retains much of its timeless appeal. As a period piece, already set in the distant past, it has hardly dated by contemporary standards.
As an interesting postscript, or perhaps not, the last scene Barbara Stanwyck shot before departing from the project was the moment when Father Ralph returns to Drogheda in the dead of night, having been caught in an impromptu thundershower. In what can only be described as a truly shocking moment for then contemporary TV, Richard Chamberlain was asked to strip completely naked – and did – on the front porch of the Carson estate; his character quite unaware he is being quietly observed with sinful intent by its matriarch, Mary Carson, who is rather transparent in her designs on Farther Ralph.
The scene called for Stanwyck to suddenly make her presence known, the camera cutting away from Chamberlain’s nude, caught in full profile, to an intimate two shot from the waist up as Stanwyck’s Mary coolly approaches, placing her wrinkled hands along Father Ralph’s broad shoulders and declaring, “You are the most handsome man I have ever seen, Father de Bricassart,” to which Chamberlain’s equally unruffled priest coldly replies, “I thought it was my soul you were after, Mary.” In the middle of this scene, Stanwyck’s usually Teutonic professionalism suddenly gave way; the actress unable to remember her scripted lines and turning to director, Daryl Duke, apologetically explaining, “I’m sorry, but this is the first time in a long while I’ve stood next to a naked man.” Stanwyck’s confession not only made the crew break up with laughter, it also broke the ice between her and Chamberlain, who remained sans clothes to play the scene for a second take.
With more and more vintage catalog TV finding its way to Blu-ray, one may hope for Warner Home Video to finally remaster The Thorn Birds in 1080p. Surely, it is deserving of that honor. Alas, for now, we will have to content ourselves with their DVD release from 2003. On the whole, it’s a marginal effort at best – crammed on two flipper discs (always a bad idea) and suffering from an abhorrent amount of orangey flesh tones along with some inaccurately reproduced film grain looking rather digitized. We must remember The Thorn Birds was shot on film – not digital tape – so there’s really no good reason for this transfer looking so weak. Contrast waffles between deep and solid to anemic and struggling not to break apart into a pseudo faded gray. Flesh tones, on the whole are pasty, and color saturation is decidedly lacking; Stevan Larner’s cinematography looking pallid and dull.
Warner’s commitment to remastering TV on DVD has not been all that impressive; the studio going the route of quantity over quality. Just look at their transfers for Dallas (1978-91) – suffering from severe color implosion and a barrage of age-related artifacts, and Falcon Crest (1981-1990); particularly the latter, riddled in so much digitized noise as to render the experience of muddling through the series un-watchable. The Thorn Birds doesn’t go quite so far down this rabbit hole into dreck. In fact, apart from the aforementioned shortcomings, the image is mostly stable with few signs of age-related debris or digital tinkering. The soundtrack remains in mono as originally broadcast. It is adequate, though just. At the very least, Warner Home Video might have deigned to provide us with Henry Mancini’s score on an isolated track.
The only extra here is a brief featurette, The Thorn Birds: Old Friends/New Stories in which Rachel Ward, Bryan Brown, Richard Chamberlain and David Wolper reminisce about their experiences making the miniseries. I’ve never been a fan of any studio slapping together junkets like this, simply to market them as a full-fledged ‘making of’. This one’s no more misguided or silly than the lot – which isn’t saying all that much for the rest. It would have been prudent of WHV to give us a comprehensive look back. Oh well, can’t critique what isn’t there. Bottom line: The Thorn Birds is required viewing. This isn’t the definitive home video presentation, however, and we’ll keep our fingers crossed that WHV will get a clue what a gold mine they’re sitting on with this catalog title and remaster it – properly – to Blu-ray. Not to do so will surely make my hair fall out. At this point, it has merely turned gray.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)