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Senior Shackster
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Discussion Starter #1 (Edited)
I borrowed this boxset from my sister who said it was a very good Civil War
melodrama based on three John Jakes books entitled, "North and South",
"Love and War" and "Heaven and Hell". I hadn't read the historical novels
but considering the extreme running time of this mini-series, I would guess
that they included most of what was contained in those stories.

Since the films were made for television, they are structured in typical
network fashion which is to have an artificial cliffhanger confrontation
before the fade out which encourages viewers to stay tuned after the
commercial break. A feature film would not be structured that way so
you have to get used to the format these movies were made in.
The image is 1.33 which was the ratio everything was shot in for TV
until the advent of cable and 16:9 widescreen which replaced
that standard.

The series is divided into three boxes based on each book. However they
were shot over a period of years. "North and South" was made in 1985,
"Love and War" in 1986 and "Heaven and Hell" in 1994.

The story follows the careers of two friends named George Hazard (James Read)
who was the Northern son of a factory owner and Orry Main (Patrick Swayze in his
defining role) the son of a plantation owner as they become friends as cadets in West
Point and end up on opposing sides of the Civil War. It's structured like "Gone with the
Wind" and you'll even recognize similar characters to the Mitchell story. It's no surprise
that their friendship survives every ordeal.

As I've said before, I enjoy episodic movies where characters go through a series
of adventures over many years forcing their personalities to change as they
react to events. This movie is entertaining and holds your interest despite the incredible
1212 minute running time. It is basically an epic soap opera like the David O. Selznick
classic but once you get involved with the people it's hard not to look forward to the
next installment. However, the individual books vary in interest.

The first book, "North and South", sets up the characters and events leading up to the
Civil War. It's fun but certainly drags in every cliche of the genre including a Simon
Legree type of plantation owner played by David Carradine, a sadistic West Point
drill instructor (Philip Casnoff), a Scarlett O'Hara vixen (Terri Garber) and a
beautiful melatto woman passing as a white Southern Belle (Lesley Ann-Down). The one
role that is unique to this type of story is a very thin Kirstie Alley as a crazy radical
abolishionist. Production value and acting is very good and the rousing theme music
helps establish the atmosphere.

The second book, "Love and War" is the best of the series. It covers the Civil War
and more than any other movie on the subject, really examines the issues outside
of slavery that brought it about. The strategy of the campaigns is very detailed and
you get a real feel of how it played out on the continent. For the first time I understood how
close the opposing Union and Confederate troops were to each other and the states and where
the major battles fit into the overall struggle. The battles are recreated with a sense of location.
Production value and performances are excellent.

The third book, "Heaven and Hell" is the weakest. It's still good but the loss of Patrick
Swayzie really hurts the story. It's obvious he wasn't available since this was shot nine
years after the first movie. He gets killed (via a body double) in the first scene so the
rivalry that kept the narrative together for the first two installments is lost. The
production value seemed a little shabby in this movie compared to the others. You don't
get a sense of location or history driving events. This merely wraps ups loose plot
ends and is the shortest of the series. It's basically a revenge story along the lines of
"Nevada Smith" with Read tracking down Casnoff across the West after he murdered
most of the other cast members. They skim over the reconstruction and
expansionism. It's not bad but lacks the epic scope of parts 1 and 2.

Part of the appeal of this series is the all star guest cast that pops up throughout the
long running time reminding me of "How the West Was Won". Hal Holbrook plays Lincoln
(in grotesque make up), James Stewart is a lawyer, Robert Mitchum a doctor,
Rip Torn a mountain man, Peter O'Toole as an alcoholic ham actor (continuing his role
from "My Favorite Year"), Lloyd Bridges as Jefferson Davis, Robert Wagner as a KKK
member, Billy Dee Williams as a post war black political leader and Elizabeth Taylor as the
Madam of a bordello. The quirkiest bit of casting was pop singer, Wayne Newton,
as a demended prison warden. Unfortuantely, these cameos tend to come and go
rather quickly leaving gaping plot holes. For example, there's even a scheme
to usurp Lloyd Bridges as the President of the Confederacy but then
it's dropped and he disappears from the film.

One of the liabilities of this three part series is that they couldn't round up the same
actors for some of the critical roles for each installment. I had a difficult time accepting
new actors playing the role of "Billy" and Hazard's sister in law from show to show especially
when seeing the series all at once over several days. Perhaps it was easier with years
between each film.

So as mini-series goes, this is an entertaining epic that will hold your interest and even
give you some insight into American history.
 
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