ABC’s miniseries of John Jakes’ North and South (1985-94) has been dubbed “television’s Gone With The Wind”; high praise indeed, though, suggestively untrue. There are, of course, parallels between the two similarly themed properties - some blatantly obvious beyond the time frame and real estate; the Rhett and Scarlett-esque romance between cultured Southern gentleman, Orry Main (Patrick Swayze) and fiery belle, Madeline Fabray-LaMotte (Lesley Anne Down); also, the brazen ‘homage’ to Hattie McDaniel’s Mammie in Olivia Coles' Creole lady’s maid, Maum Sally. Setting aside the rip offs, North and South is an epic undertaking in its own right; its recreations of the gallant and soon to be embattled Southern gentry – the plantation-owning Mains of South Carolina – eloquently paralleled with the prosperity of a prominent Yankee clan, the Pennsylvanian Hazards – who operate an iron works. John Jakes’ novel is a sprawling saga about the similarities rather than the differences between these two families, and the social conflict arising from their varying inabilities to come to terms with the shifting ground of turbulent times quaking beneath their feet. So much for the novel.
Alas, producer, David L. Wolper has far more ambitious plans for his miniseries, using the general framework of Jakes’ magnum opus to stir into reality his own huge ensemble period/costume drama, essentially built upon the clichés that made Gone With The Wind such an enduring masterpiece in American cinema. Where comparisons differ is in the luridly operatic approach taken by Wolper. Whereas producer, David O. Selznick’s towering achievement of 1939 avoids the muck and mire of cheaply erotic sentiment, Wolper’s tampering with Jakes’ novel wallows in that spectacular chestnut, resurrecting the South a la Gone With The Wind by way of Lady Chatterly’s Lover and on a far more expansive, though arguably, much less refined scale, occasionally to yield an even more slavishly glossy product, minus the good sense to pull on the bridle and merely tell a good story.
Consider the plot of the first three episodes for starters: the great white hope of the Hazard family; middle brother, George (James Read); a clear-eyed and noble businessman, under siege from a jealous elder brother, Stanley (Jonathan Frakes), desperate to gain control over this northern dynasty. George is beloved by his youngest sibling, Billy (John Stockwell in the first miniseries, then inexplicably recast with Parker Stevenson for the sequel). George befriends Orry Main during their hellish cadet training at West Point Academy where the pair makes rather a bad enemy of the marginally psychotic, Elkanah Bent (Philip Casnoff). From this auspicious beginning, the Douglas Heyes’ screenplay, co-authored with Jakes’ assistance and approval and augmented by Paul F. Edwards, Patricia Green and Kathleen A. Shelley, ferments a bro-mance to weather these changing times: George and Orry – a friendship only strengthened through time and by the many tribulations life has in store for each of them. George’s wicked sister, Virgilia (Kirstie Alley), a staunch abolitionist, takes an immediate and venomous dislike to Orry and his family. Blindsided by her own steadfast dedication to the cause of ending slavery, Virgilia engages in a disastrous sexual relationship with freed slave, Garrison Grady (Georg Stanford Brown).
The Mains, of course, are not without their familial skirmishes. Orry has two sisters; the vial, Ashton (Terri Garber), who revels in her perpetual scheming, meant to destroy virtually any happiness unrelated to her own, and the virginal, Brett (Genie Francis, shades of Olivia de Havilland’s Melanie Wilkes from Gone With The Wind). Billy is smitten with Brett and vice versa. To spite the couple, Ashton marries a prominent Southern prig, James Huntoon (Jim Metzler); then, conspires with a devious lover, Forbes LaMotte (William Ostrander) to ruin her sister’s happiness. By contrast, George’s relatively uncomplicated love life, his great and abiding attachment for pure-hearted Irish lass, Constance Flynn (Wendy Kilbourne) is counterbalanced by the even more complex romantic arc in Orry and Madeline’s perilously flawed love affair. Having chivalrously rescued Madeline from a runaway carriage, a snake, a truly vial husband and a loveless marriage, Orry remains steadfastly dumbstruck by Cupid’s arrow. Madeline shares in the sting of this love wound.
Along this road to Tara, our heroes and heroines are made to repeatedly suffer from plagues of illness, natural disasters, a war and the varying physical and verbal abuses, backstabbing and scheming from sibling rivalries. Shifting alliances aside, North and South embraces its muckrakers and sensationalists more willingly than its plot: Madeline’s father, Nicholas (Lee Bergere) setting other plans into motion by orchestrating an arranged marriage to wealthy plantation owner, Justin LaMotte (David Carradine) in order to mask Madeline’s checkered past (she’s half Creole). LaMotte, at first, presents himself as a fairly cordial, though somewhat foreboding figure. Remaining loyal to her father’s wishes, Madeline denies her love for Orry and weds Justin. She soon regrets this decision as Justin unleashes the true nature of his character – or lack, thereof – on their wedding night by raping his wife. Aware of Madeline’s enduring love for Orry, and after Nicholas’ passing, Justin increasingly dominates and scrutinizes his wife’s every move, drugging Madeline with an addictive narcotic to keep her a virtual prisoner in his house; later, pushing her maid, Maum Sally down a flight of stairs to her untimely death after she attempts a daring rescue of her mistress.
If all of this sounds just a tad whetted by frivolity – it is. Among its many other attributes, North and South is a grandly amusing, and occasionally over the top prime time soap opera; just the sort of venture television’s grand master, Aaron Spelling would have admired, if hoop skirts and corsets were Spelling’s forte; a superbly cast ensemble piece that, like a wheel, contains a good many narrative spokes spinning wildly out of control; the first miniseries culminating with the penultimate declaration of war between the states, seemingly to split Orry and George’s fellowship right down the middle. Created by the ambitious, David L. Wolper, whose previous track record producing megahit miniseries Roots (1977) and The Thorn Birds (1983) won him considerable clout in Hollywood, North and South is monumental on so many levels its near flawless execution masks its more basic motivations to be good ole fashioned tawdry TV. Bodice-ripping aside, Wolper has taken a page directly from Michael Todd’s Around the World in 80 Days playbook, populating the backdrop of his faux Southern blockbuster with some stellar talent from Hollywood’s golden age to pad out, legitimize and prime its mass appeal: Robert Mitchum as Constance’s doting father, Patrick; Hal Holbrook (a queerly unsettling Abraham Lincoln), Gene Kelly (as wily politico, Sen. Charles Edwards), Elizabeth Taylor (the elegant proprietress of a bordello, Madam Conti), Robert Guillaume (as social reformer/abolitionist, Frederick Douglass), Johnny Cash (abolitionist, John Brown) and, Jean Simmons (as Orry’s mother, Clarissa Main) among others.
North and South is a veritable who’s who potpourri; perhaps one of television’s finest – and certainly, one of its last – corralling a lot of big-time ‘names’ to do what they did best. It’s the sort of lushly prodigal – yet, satisfyingly elephantine - undertaking only possible and made palpable in the 1980’s; a decade known for its extravagances and excesses. The production treads a very fine line between the fictionalized land of cavaliers and cotton fields torn from the pages of a Margaret Mitchell-ized literary interpretation of the ‘old south’, dispensing with, or at the very least, white-washing, the more hardcore history lessons with half-truths and heavily weighted melodrama. Jake's novel is essentially a sprawling saga devoted to two families running a parallel course with destiny. As a miniseries, North and South is far more romantically inclined than historical, delving into that wellspring of moonlight and magnolias, leaving creator, David L. Wolper with the mammoth task of resurrecting these mythological odes to bygone gallantry using some truly inspired and resplendent scenery to encapsulate – nee, stand in for – that gentile way of life, while balancing then contemporary views on slavery and the eventual demise of a cultural mindset far too isolationist to last.
Our saga begins in the summer of 1842, as young South Carolinian, Orry Main leaves his familial estate to attend West Point. Along the road, he meets the beautiful New Orleans French-Creole, Madeline Fabray whom he vows to write to while away attending to his studies. In New York, Orry befriends Pennsylvanian heir apparent, George Hazard, also on his way to West Point. The new incumbents also include George Pickett (Cody W. Hampton), Ned Fisk (Andy Stahl), George McClellan (Chris Douridas), Tom ‘Stonewall’ Jackson (Bill Eudaly) and a senior; Ulysses S. Grant (Mark Moses). The early part of North and South is dedicated to establishing a fraternity among these men from disparate social backgrounds. Here, so we are told, are gentlemen of quality, united in their singular desire to be proud soldiers and a credit to the households from whence they hail. Virtually all are bonded together in their general contempt for the amoral narcissist, Elkanah Bent; a silver-tongued, venomous deviant, his perversity concealed beneath an exceptionally thin veneer of charm. As the company’s drillmaster, Bent is single-minded in his passion to break Orry and, to a lesser extent, George.
Two years pass: George invites Orry to his family’s home during summer leave. Alas, his sister, Virgilia, though ravishing and congenial on the surface, is a headstrong abolitionist who takes immediate umbrage to the Mains as slave owners. Returning to his own family estate, Mount Royal, Orry is devastated to discover Madeline’s absence in returning his overtures of love via letter-writing has resulted in an engagement to Justin LaMotte; a neighboring plantation owner. Later, it is revealed Nicholas kept Orry’s letters from Madeline to further his own interests. Mount Royal may be home, but it is hardly pleasant. Orry clashes with his father over the hiring of Salem Jones (Tony Frank); a ruthless overseer who believes an honest day’s slave labor is gleaned by the crack of a whip. Orry prevents Jones from bullwhipping Priam (David Harris). But the rift from this intervention will never entirely heal, and much later, will rupture with devastating consequences. We leap forward to the autumn of 1844. Orry and George, together with their fellow cadets, arrange for Bent to be caught with a prostitute by his superior, thus forcing Bent out of West Point. Such humiliation is intolerable. Bent vows revenge and gets it when, upon graduation, Orry and George are sent to fight in the Mexican War where Bent has already attained a superior rank, thanks in large part to his family’s political connections. At the Battle of Churubusco, Bent orders George and Orry to lead a suicidal charge. Mercifully, both survive the ordeal. But Orry is permanently crippled in the leg. Meanwhile, George is introduced to Constance Flynn, daughter of the Army’s surgeon, Patrick. The two fall in love and eventually make plans to marry.
Deprived of his great love and now his military career, Orry becomes reclusive, drowning his sorrows and anxieties in strong drink. George avenges his friend’s downfall by seeking out and engaging Bent in a battle of fisticuffs he wins, vowing to kill Bent on sight if ever again he threatens either of them. Back on the home front, Orry’s father dies. Orry is now the head of the family. Previously, Madeline had helped Priam to escape Salem Jones to the underground. Now, Orry does one better by firing his overseer and ordering Salem to vacate the property before sundown. Madeline and Orry become secret lovers, their clandestine meetings in an abandoned church eventually found out by Justin. Meanwhile, George and Constance are married. Orry’s estranged cousin Charles (Lewis Smith) is challenged to a duel of pistols over a dispute involving a woman. Orry helps Charles to survive the duel and a bond is solidified between the two men. The Mains are invited by the Hazards to visit Pennsylvania. There, Ashton pursues George’s impressionable brother, Billy. Ashton is a vial creature, toying with Billy’s heart without really loving him. Alas, Billy is too blind to see Ashton for what she truly is. Billy and Charles become friends just as George and Orry had before, the pair eagerly planning to attend West Point together. But Virgilia has not softened in her contempt for the Mains, particularly after learning George has agreed to begin a partnership with Orry for a cotton mill in South Carolina on the proviso no slave labor is employed.
Reciprocating the hospitality shown them, the Mains entertain the Hazards in South Carolina where Billy, at last, is freed from the spell of the vain and wicked Ashton. He now begins to gravitate toward her sister, Brett, who has always been sweet on him but far too much the lady to pursue a romance. Virgilia inveigles herself in a plot to help one of the Main’s slaves, Grady escape into the night. In the meantime, Nicholas confides to Madeline on his deathbed that her grandmother was black. Ashton embarks upon a notorious campaign to bed as many of Billy’s friends as she can, alas, becoming pregnant by one of them. To spare her the humiliation of a bastard child, Madeline reluctantly agrees to take Ashton to a local midwife where an abortion is performed in secrecy. But upon her return home, Justin accuses Madeline of infidelity, severely beating, then locking her in an upstairs bedroom where he leaves her to starve. Later, Maum Sally attempts to free her mistress and is murdered by Justin.
By the spring of 1857, Justin has managed to convince a local doctor his wife requires heavy sedation in order to control her ‘outbursts’. Madeline is severely hooked on an addictive narcotic, virtually disappearing from all ‘good’ society and seemingly forsaken her love for Orry once again. Ashton marries an enterprising, but easily swayed politico, James Huntoon, of whom she quickly grows tired and soon after takes up a lover to satisfy her carnal needs. In the meantime, Orry and George’s friendship is put to the test over the issue of slavery. Recognizing the division between the North and the South is quickly escalating to a point of no return, Orry refuses to allow Brett to marry Billy. For once, Brett defies her elder brother, traveling to Fort Sumter where Billy is stationed. George and Orry mutually agree to bury the hatchet. No ‘cause’ is worth sacrificing their friendship. As such, Orry agrees to allow Brett to marry Billy. Meanwhile, Virgilia secretly weds Grady; the pair joining abolitionist leader, John Brown who leads an infamous raid on Harper’s Ferry in Virginia. Regrettably, the U.S. Army has known about the raid for some time. An ambush ensues. Brown is taken prisoner and Grady and Priam are killed. Virgilia’s narrow escape from the deluge causes her to grow bitterer still. Ashton plots with Justin and her newest lover, Forbes, to have Billy killed, mostly out of her enduring jealousy for his happy marriage to Brett. Even in her heavily sedated state, Madeline is able to deduce their dastardly plan afoot. Making a daring escape from Justin, accosting him with a sword, Madeline arrives at Mont Royal on horseback, barely conscious, but with news of Ashton’s plans to kill Billy. Orry is incensed and ostracizes Ashton from the family. He takes Madeline into his care and gradually weans her off the narcotic poisoning her ability to function for so long.
Orry embarks upon his last trip to the north, to the Hazard’s country manor house near Philadelphia, to give George his half of their cotton mill profits. George shares the good news with Orry: Constance has given birth to a baby girl they have decided to call Hope. Returned to the family fold, Virgilia proves as unfriendly as ever toward Orry, orchestrating a lynch mob to march on the Hazard estate. The angry Northerners demand George give up ‘the rebel traitor’. United in their loyalty, Orry and George face down the mob together with rifles. But George is no fool. He realizes it is only a matter of time before they return in greater numbers to have their demands met. In the dead of night, George hurries Orry to the train depot. Amidst a flurry of bittersweet farewells the men part; George waving goodbye to his best friend from the platform as the train pulls out of station; the nation on the very brink of civil war.
Producer, David L. Wolper’s golden touch in producing hit TV miniseries continued unabated with North and South. A whopping 9 ½ hours later, America, and indeed, the world, were obsessively absorbed in this enveloping saga spread out over the course of two weeks. To date, its original television broadcast holds the record as the highest-rated miniseries of all time. Naturally, the public, and ABC, demanded a sequel. Mercifully, author, John Jakes had written: Love and War, rechristened ‘North and South Book II’ by Wolper. If anything, the resultant miniseries proved a far more intricate and lavish than its predecessor. In retrospect, ‘Book II’ is the obvious beneficiary of Wolper’s renewed clout in the industry; also, ABC and Warner Bros. faith to mount a spectacular entertainment on a budget nearly as epic as its subject matter. Most of the original cast and crew returned, the obvious exception being Parker Stevenson, hired to replace John Stockwell as Billy Hazard. Behind the scenes, there were other changes. Whereas the original series had been photographed by Stevan Larner with a sort of gauzy and romanticized view of the old South, the sequel elected to go for an ultra-high gloss treatment a la cinematographer, Jacques R. Marquette. In hindsight, North and South Book II has a decidedly different ‘feel’ to it; still very much in keeping with the principles and precepts established in the original series, but somehow advancing both the style and tempo of the piece to cruder, more superficially attractive standards. Joseph R. Jennings’ production design for the sequel exhibits a grandiosity that Richard Berger’s similarly themed interiors in the original series could only marginally guess at and/or aspire to create.
Book II begins with Orry and Charles, now officers in the Confederate Army. Despite his initial apprehensions against secession, Orry has since had a change of heart, acting as a general and military aide to Confederate President Jefferson Davis (Lloyd Bridges) in Richmond, Virginia. Charles is introduced to Augusta Barclay (Kate McNeil), a Virginia belle smuggling badly needed medical supplies behind enemy lines to comfort wounded southern soldiers. Paralleling this plot, George and Billy have joined the U.S. Army in Washington, D.C.; Billy as a sharpshooter, and, George, a military aide to President Abraham Lincoln. Meanwhile, Virgilia pursues her ambitions to become a nurse, encouraging fellow abolitionist, Congressman Sam Greene (David Ogden Stiers) to use his clout to help her. Ashton becomes romantically involved with Elkanah Bent. Alas, even her devious feminine wiles are no match for Bent’s psychotic hatred of the Mains. He sees Ashton as a means for getting revenge on the family and the war, simply as a way to get rich quick as a blockade runner. Ashton’s husband, James Huntoon, remains blissfully unaware of his wife’s adultery. As Mount Royal is relatively undefended in Orry and Charles’ absence, Justin stages a daring kidnap of Madeline. In the deluge, Orry's mother, Clarissa is injured while attempting to put out a fire started by Justin in the barn.
The First Battle of Bull Run favors the South; George and Constance inadvertently caught in its chaotic aftermath. Meanwhile, learning of Clarissa’s injuries, Brett elects to make the perilous trip from Washington to South Carolina with her maid, Semiramis (Erica Gimpel). Orry receives word of Justin’s treachery and vows to restore his family’s honor by assailing Justin’s plantation to rescue Madeline. A duel ensues and Orry kills Justin in self-defense. Shortly thereafter, Orry and Madeline are wed. Unearthing Bent's operation, Orry sets an ambush for his men, confiscating and destroying most of their illegal merchandise. When word reaches Bent, he is even more hell-bent on destroying Orry. In George’s absence, his elder brother, Stanley has assumed control of the Hazard Ironworks. Seeing a loophole in which to turn the company’s profits into a windfall, Stanley’s enterprising wife, Isabel Truscott Hazard (Mary Crosby) encourages him to use a cheaper grade of iron to make their cannons. Alas, the iron is unstable, resulting in several cannons exploding on their pads and killing Northern soldiers, including one of Charles’ good friends. To mask their complicity in the crime, Isabel convinced Stanley to forge George’s name on the legal company documents.
As the war rages on, brother is pitted against brother. At Antietam, Charles and Billy are forced to come to blows; each allowing the other to escape unharmed – thereby betraying the articles of war, but preserving their friendship. After President Lincoln signs the Emancipation Proclamation into law, Mount Royal experiences a mass exodus of its slave labor. A few loyal souls remain behind. Having escaped life on a plantation, Ashton now gloats about its folly and demise, feigning concern for her mother’s recovery, but later, pulling Madeline aside to inform her of a salacious family secret: Madeline’s mother was a half-black New Orleans prostitute. Threatening to reveal this secret to the local gentry and thus destroy her brother’s public reputation, Ashton agrees to remain silent – but only if Madeline leaves Mount Royal at once and without any further explanation.
Madeline flees to Charleston where she is befriended by Rafe Beaudeen (Lee Horsley); a suave gambler. Endeavoring to benefit the city's destitute and orphaned, Madeline and Rafe are drawn closer together. Ashton is satisfied in her deceitfulness, except Bent has begun to descend into madness with dreams of assassinating the Confederate President, Jefferson Davis to become the new ‘dictator’ of the South. In a moment of weakness, Billy goes AWOL from the army and makes his way to South Carolina. Determined to ruin her sister’s marriage, Ashton plans to alert the local authorities of Billy's desertion. He is spared capture when Brett holds Ashton hostage at the point of a pitchfork, long enough for her husband to escape. Upon his return to the army, Billy is severely censured by his commanding officer. He is, however, spared a court-martial and public execution. After all, the war needs all of its fighting men.
George is captured in a raid and taken to the infamous Libby Prison where he is tortured by the mentally deranged, Captain Thomas Turner (Wayne Newton). At the same instance, Orry is wounded in battle and placed under Virgilia’s care. Despite her hatred of Southerners, Virgilia seems to have undergone a miraculous contrition where Orry is concerned; nursing him back to health and looking the other way as he plots a daring escape. Sometime later, Virgilia is erroneously accused by chief nurse, Mrs. Neal (Olivia de Havilland) of deliberately allowing another Southern soldier to die under her watch. In a fit of rage, Virgilia violently pushes Neal, who loses her footing and topples to the floor. Believing she has killed Neal, Virgilia flees the hospital, pleading with Congressman Greene to give her food, money and asylum. He promises all three in return for sexual favors. In the meantime, Charles saves Augusta from certain rape by small band of Northern soldiers. The two later become lovers.
The tide has turned against the South. Learning of George’s incarceration at Libby, Orry and Charles plot a daring prison break. Turner is killed in the process. Upon his return home, George discovers Stanley and Isabel’s betrayal and forces the couple to admit their complicity. In Charleston, Madeline is discovered by Bent who attempts to murder her. Rafe intervenes, but is shot and killed by Bent for his chivalry. Now Bent, who is completely mad, enlists James Huntoon in his dastardly plot to overthrow the Confederate government. Still oblivious to his wife’s flagrante delicto with Bent, Huntoon nevertheless acts as a double agent, gathering intelligence on Bent’s coup d'état for Jefferson Davis. The Confederate President orders Orry to thwart this dire plot and Bent is presumably killed when his ammunition shack is incinerated in a hellish explosion. Believing her only way to self-preservation is via a complete confession Ashton comes clean to Orry and her husband about her affair with Bent, also about sending Madeline away to deliberately hurt Orry. Too bad for Ashton, some apologies are not enough. Orry disowns his sister while Huntoon, finally realizing he will never have his wife’s loyalty or respect, walks away from their marriage – such as it is.
Despite our collective knowledge of the war’s outcome, Book II’s last act is anything but predictable. During the battle at Petersburg Orry is wounded and Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrenders. Charles returns to Augusta's farm to discover she has died giving birth to his child – a son named Gus. At war’s end, Billy and Brett are reunited and Congressman Greene cruelly ends his affair with Virgilia whom he now considers a political hot potato, detrimental to his future aspirations. Alas, the cruelty is two-fold; for Greene has been lying to Virgilia all along. Neal did not die in the fall instigated by Virgilia. Hence, there was no need for Virgilia to rely on him for her safety and protection. He has been using her for his own gratification. In a fit of rage, Virgilia stabs Greene to death and is sentenced to be hanged. George rushes to his sister’s side but is unable to stave off the execution. The two share a bittersweet farewell and Virgilia is put to death.
Now, George goes in search of Orry, their reunion spoiled by news of Lincoln’s assassination. With George’s help, Orry and Madeline are reunited. She reveals to him they have a son. She also confides the truth about her parentage to Orry. None of it matters now. George, Orry, Madeline and their child return to Mont Royal. Regrettably, Salem Jones, together with Cuffey (Forrest Whitaker) a former slave have decided to lay siege to the Main plantation just as the family has gathered for their reunion. In the resultant blaze, Clarissa is killed by Cuffey while trying to prevent him from raping Semiramis. Charles kills Cuffey and Brett kills Salem, who is about to shoot Billy. By dawn’s early light, Orry and George pledge to renew their family’s friendship, George vowing to have Mount Royal’s smoldering ruins rebuilt with profits derived by reopening the cotton mill.
Love and War is where it all should have ended. Indeed, the first and second miniseries are all-inclusive in their storytelling. And Wolper too felt he had committed every last ounce of energy and prowess as a storyteller to this sequel, bringing about a sense of finality to the franchise. Too bad for all concerned author, John Jakes had written a third novel, Heaven and Hell; worse still, ABC and Warner Bros. dilly-dallied for nearly nine years before resurrecting the franchise on the small screen. By then, the public fascination with the era of the super-colossal television miniseries had cooled – the halcyon decade of the 80’s gone; retired and never again to return to such an epoch of glitz and optimism, its superb ensemble casting and verve – nee, excitement – for telling great stories on a truly epic scale. Neither company was prepared to invest what it had on the first two miniseries; their cost-cutting on Heaven and Hell painfully obvious.
Heaven and Hell is a scaled down affair; made on a comparatively miniscule budget and pared down from 6-two hour episodes to only three. It really is a mess: beginning with its shifted focus on Elkanah Bent and his enduring hatred for the Mains and the Hazards, having survived the explosion. Bent murders Orry with a single stab wound in the first few moments of the very first episode. Patrick Swayze did not return to the franchise after 1985, necessitating his death be shot in silhouette and shrouded by dense fog. It is a flawed beginning to what is essentially a very troubled, narratively uneven and turgidly scripted last act. We press on to a contrite Ashton, who attempts to kill Bent. She then flees to the West to begin a new life. Remaining behind to face a solitary life, Madeline endeavors to rebuild Mont Royal as her husband might have wished. After learning of his friend’s murder, George pledges to help Madeline in any way he can. Meanwhile, Corporal Charles Main (inexplicably recast with Kyle Chandler), departs for the West, falling passionately in love with Willa Parker (Rya Kihlstedt). Unable to establish herself without familial support, Ashton becomes a prostitute in Santa Fe, endeavoring to earn enough money to acquire the deed to Mont Royal and thus have Madeline evicted from her family home. Carrying out the next part of his revenge scenario, Bent sneaks into the Hazard’s Philadelphia mansion and murders Constance while she sleeps. Like Swayze, Wendy Kilbourne did not reprise her role as George’s devote Irish Catholic wife; the corpse obviously played by another actress.
The last two installments to Heaven and Hell are more of the latter at the expense of the former; George desiring revenge – nee justice – for Constance’s murder by hunting down Bent. We are introduced to Orry’s elder brother, Cooper (Robert Wagner) a member of the Ku Klux Klan who undermines Madeline’s work with the local displaced slaves. Presumably, still suffering the spank of having to admit her part in the cannon debacle, Isabel schemes behind George’s back to buy Mont Royal merely to evict the Mains from their ancestral home. If anything, the last two episodes of Heaven and Hell suffer from too much going on and a fragmented narrative meandering between the wide open spaces of the west and the ensconced remnants of the decaying old South. We toggle back and forth, then back again, from Charles’ romance with Willa, to Madeline’s struggles to keep Mount Royal in the family. In between, George takes time off from his hot pursuit of Bent to pitch in and Charles forms a unit of buffalo soldiers. The predictability of the ‘love affair’ blossoming between Madeline and George seems a grotesque betrayal of both George’s bro-manly devotion to Orry and his once evergreen love for Constance, so indelibly etched in the first two miniseries.
Exploiting Bent as the franchise’s psychotic popinjay, as he covers the nation from one end to the other for his penultimate act of revenge (the kidnapping of Charles and Augusta’s son, Gus) becomes a very ludicrous scenario that, even in Jakes’ novel, seemed far-fetched. Forced to condense the timeline and activities of that sprawling book into a rush job for the miniseries only exaggerates these imperfections. The final confrontation; George and Charles vs. Bent (the latter hanged, thus putting a definite period to his lengthy and tedious revenge scenario) is neither emotionally satisfying nor a fitting end to the character, made somewhat super-subhuman in his vengeance. Meanwhile, having saved enough money to return home, Ashton is stricken with grief to discover Mont Royal burned. Cooper is ordered by his clan leader, Gettys LaMotte (Cliff De Young) to murder Madeline and George. His refusal ends predictably with a gunshot and a murder – George kills LaMotte. Willa, Charles and Gus elect to return to the West while George and Madeline plan for their future happiness together.
Heaven and Hell is not John Jakes’ finest novel, though it nevertheless remains a somewhat compelling page turner for those invested in the North and South book trilogy. Alas, its small screen incarnation is a woeful bastardization; the compression of time, excision of beloved characters in a cost-cutting attempt to pare down the ensemble cast, this time populated by largely forgettable faces, and finally, its lagging production values; this final chapter directed by Larry Peerce and photographed with a decided ennui for the visuals by Don E. Faunt LeRoy, has marginalized Heaven and Hell into a bloated would-be faux marathon of endurance in which only the audience’s patience are tested. Deprived of the luxury of time, Heaven and Hell’s narrative weaknesses become exaggerated – ‘a novel for television’ but with missing chapters and subplots. It doesn’t work, plain and simple! Those choosing to invest themselves in the franchise would do best to simply end their viewing entertainment at Book II and quietly forget Heaven and Hell was ever even an afterthought.
Recalling today North and South as a television event is a little unfathomable. We have been corrupted with the passage of time and proliferation of rival networks and similarly structured epics in storytelling, making the whole endeavor of the ‘miniseries’ as merely par for the course. Yet, at a time when only three networks dominated the airwaves, North and South was a zeitgeist as few before it; the highest rated television drama of all time. What can I tell you? You had to be there. Gratefully, I was and can recall with excitement the ABC Movie logo suddenly appearing in lieu of regularly scheduled programming; maestro, Bill Conti preceding his bombastic main title with a penetrating drum roll as the announcer’s cue declared, ‘ABC proudly presents a novel for television’, followed by a montage of clips excised from the pending episode and then the announcer again interrupting with, ‘An now, John Jakes’ immortal saga of live and death, love and war, and, heaven and hell – North and South’; the screen dimming and Conti’s clash of cymbals stirring to excitement the opening credits.
In the days when television still regarded itself with a modicum of humility – the comparative ‘lesser than’ to the movies – miniseries like North and South presented a reasonable facsimile of what movies could offer audiences on a much larger canvas. The first two miniseries are gargantuan spectacles, made when it was still possible to cull talent from an impressive roster of Hollywood, old and new. We’ve lost this magic today, the passing of true stars like Robert Mitchum, Jimmy Stewart, Elizabeth Taylor, etc. et al. It is one of the great tragedies of our pop culture, that new Hollywood no longer cultivates talent of this caliber; the tenure of today’s celebrities brief: the ‘new find’ discarded for ‘the next best thing’. Although he had been around Hollywood for some time, North and South gave Patrick Swayze a new lease on his career. It also brought James Read to the forefront of public notoriety, a brief reprieve to a career that stubbornly refused to remain vibrant thereafter. No, time has indeed moved on.
The first miniseries’ incredible popularity dovetailed into an even more resplendent sequel in 1985, a multi-million dollar scale-tipper with even more fanfare and star power afforded than its predecessor. Today, studios and networks are less likely to gamble; to really put on a show with a display of glamor – if not star power. Partly, it’s a sign of the times. The 1980’s blind optimism, infused by the divining rod that was President Ronald Reagan, putting an actor in the White House and thus blurring the line between Hollywood’s inimitable brand of escapist fantasy and real-life political drama, is gone. Miniseries events like North and South have no place in modern programming; derivatives of the formula occasionally finding a new home on cable networks like HBO for those fortunate enough to rent its paid programming. But North and South serves as a reminder from an epoch not so very long ago when television implicitly understood the strength of sentiment and patriotism; Tinsel Town championing both commodities and, in the process, elevating the quality of its general programming to a level that current standards are unlikely to surpass.
Were that I could champion Warner Home Video’s DVD incarnation of North and South. Firstly, Warner has opted for the cheap route. We’re given flippers instead of single-sided discs. I have been informed Warner has gone back and made single-sided disc versions of this box set. I’ve ordered several from Amazon as gifts. None were single-sided. So if they do exist they are a very well-kept secret. A few years ago, I would have likely applauded the results herein; the image overall exhibiting a generally pleasing quality; quite smooth with semi-refined colors looking marginally more saturated than when this series first aired on television. Contrast levels are a tad weaker than expected. Blacks are rarely deep or solid. Whites however are quite clean. Age-related artifacts exist, as do slight digital anomalies (edge enhancement and pixelization) though neither is very distracting. The audio is Stereo Surround. It should be noted television productions of this vintage have a tinny characteristic. It was barely flattering then, and anything but complimentary now. Ergo, you are not getting this set to give your bass channels a workout. A very brief ‘retrospective’ is the only extra.
Now, to lower the boom. Warner’s television holdings have not been given the sound consideration they richly deserve. At this late stage in Blu-ray’s evolution, it would have been prudent of Warner Home Video or the Warner Archive to remaster North and South in 1080p. As with Wolper's sister miniseries, The Thorn Birds, North and South was recorded on film, rather than digital tape. So, a complete digital restoration is not only possible, but at this point, much preferred. An incredible amount of time, money and effort went into making these miniseries ground-breaking cultural touchstones of their time. To see North and South exist today only in a visual presentation marginally better than an old analog broadcast is, frankly, insulting. I am going to lead a charge herein for the Warner Archive to give us North and South and its sequels (plus, that other legendary miniseries under their licensing, The Thorn Birds) on Blu-ray before 2017. Having witnessed the stellar work done by NBC/Universal and Lionsgate on the Blu-ray reissues of Little House on the Prairie, we all realize now it not only is possible to achieve such quality for the next generation of broadcast hardware in 4K, but at this stage in the evolution of home video it is a virtual necessity to preserve and present these landmarks in a manner befitting their stature and reputation. Warner Bros. are you listening?
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)
Book I 5+
Book II 4.5
Book III 1.5