Koch Vision // 1976 // 494 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Cynthia Boris (Retired) // February 2nd, 2009
"Beware of enterprises that require new clothes." -- Joseph Armagh quoting Thoreau
Nominated for eight Emmy Awards and winner of two (Lead Actress, Cinematography), Captains and the Kings was one of the early examples of the TV format known as "the mini-series." Conceived during a time when there were only three networks to choose from, mini-series were must-see events. Series such as this one, Rich Man, Poor Man, and Roots drew from the combined talent pools of classic movie stars and fresh, young TV faces in order to lure in audience members of all ages. They were drawn primarily from best selling novels, this one coming from the Taylor Caldwell saga of the same name. As such, they were thought of as literary, even though they often boiled down to only the most soap operatic elements of a popular novel. In the world of television in the seventies, mini-series meant class.
So break out the spray cheese and the Ritz, it's time to settle in with Captains and the Kings: The Complete Mini-Series.
Irish immigrant Joseph Armagh (Richard Jordan, The Hunt for Red October) is orphaned before he ever hits the American shore. A child himself, he finds himself charged with the task of raising his brother and sister, Sean and Mary, in a foreign land whose people have no love for the Irish. Determined to make good at any cost, Joseph takes every job he can, including several extremely dangerous ones such as driving nitroglycerin wagons and running guns. His brother and sister live in a convent and it's there that he meets Katherine Hennessey (Joanna Pettet, Knots Landing), a refined woman with an abusive politician husband (Vic Morrow, Combat). Katherine lends Joseph books, which he devours; they teach him about love and beauty. But when the Hennesseys ask to adopt Sean and Mary, it turns into a feud that ruins the one nice relationship Joseph has in this world.
A fortuitous train ride lands Joseph in the sights of oil baron "Big" Ed Healey (Charles Durning, Rescue Me). Stuffed into a train car full of men hoping to profit from an oil strike, Joseph is on hand when Harry Zieff (Harvey Jason, The Lost World: Jurassic Park) gets his leg crushed when he slips between two cars. Joseph saves Zieff, impressing Healey, and this leads to the next big chapter in Joseph's life.
Healey lives in a grand home with two mistresses, the mysterious Martinique (Barbara Parkins, Peyton Place) and the sweet but dopey Miss Emmy (Beverly D'Angelo, Entourage). As time passes, Joseph takes up with Martinique and Emmy with Zieff but this is a dramatic mini-series so you know they don't live happily ever after. Joseph and Zieff go into business for themselves buying up worthless oil leases, but Joseph has learned to work the system with the best of them and he quickly aligns with Healey in return for a share of Ed's company. Meanwhile, Healey's daughter Elizabeth (Blair Brown, Fringe) comes to town and falls head-over-heels for Joseph but through a series of even more twists and turns he ends up marring the Hennessey's daughter, Bernadette (Patty Duke Astin, The Patty Duke Show) instead.
Romance is quickly shoved aside as the series moves more heavily into Joseph's political and business dealings, all of which are a tad on the shady side. Enter Robert Vaughn, Henry Fonda, Peter Donat, and more Vic Morrow, as Joseph buys and sells his way through Washington. As we move into the turn of the century, Joseph has a grown son of his own, Rory (Perry King, Melrose Place) who has a girlfriend Marjorie (Jane Seymour, Doctor Quinn, Medicine Woman) and a quest to be the first Irish Catholic president. Okay, maybe it's more his father's quest than his, but poor Rory's caught in the middle whether he likes it or not.
The mini-series also features John Carradine, Celeste Holm, Katherine Crawford, John Houseman, Burl Ives, Ann Southern, Pernell Roberts, and a whole host of TV familiar faces such as John de Lancie, Martin Kove, and Cynthia Sikes.
Captains and the Kings is a cautionary tale about the desire for money and power. Through the course of the movie, we see Joseph go from a penniless but earnest child only interested in the welfare of his family, to a heartless robber baron who will step on anyone, including his own brother, in order to stay on top.
Much of Joseph's motivation comes from the fact that he is an Irish immigrant, which puts him even lower than the lowest rung on the American ladder of life. Because of this, he's forced to abandon his heritage, do away with his accent and even Angelo-size his name in order to get ahead. The question becomes, how far is too far, when you're striving for your dream? Kicking your friends to the curb? Some petty larceny? Bribery? Blackmail? Joseph runs the gamut as he uses his brains and his wits to amass a fortune.
The first few hours of this mini-series do a good job of depicting what life was life for most of our immigrant ancestors. This is life in the Eastern seaboard in the 1800's; children working the mines, ten people living in a single, unheated room, starvation, sickness and widespread racial discrimination. That is, until you cross to the other side of town were old money lives in a stately home with a maid and butler and a coachman to drive you around. Books, theater, plenty of food and doctors to take care of the sick. It was a time when you either had money or you didn't. There was no middle class.
Given the utter hopelessness of the period, it's easy to get behind Joseph when he starts slipping around the law in order to pocket a few dollars. His rags to riches tale is a combination of luck, brains and desperation -- a combination that has served real entrepreneurs very well.
The second portion of the story leans more heavily on the romantic entanglements and includes a few scenes that were shocking to viewers at the time. The censors had something to say about a scene where Beverly D'Angelo drops her robe for her new lover. Though she's photographed from the back and above the waist, there's still enough showing to titillate a 1970's audience. Add in the fact that Miss Emmy was a child prostitute bought by Healey to live in his house with his OTHER mistress, and this is pretty racy stuff.
This section of the story will appeal to historical romance readers and will likely have the men reaching for the remote -- but don't click the stop button just yet. The middle portion of the series revolves around business and politics and those elements were more appealing than I expected them to be. I have no doubt that high-powered business deals then and now really do walk the morally questionable line but I suppose that's how the rich get richer. Unfortunately, my interest in the story waned the more Joseph slid over that line from hero to villain. I know that the whole point of the series was to show how power corrupts, but once they hit that point, there simply wasn't anyone left to root for and thus I was bored.
The last portion of the series is dedicated to the task of getting Joseph's son, Rory, elected as President. Living in a time where we just elected our first black president, it may be hard to believe that getting an Irish Catholic elected to the office was equally as momentous. Because of this, many people say that the story is loosely based on the life of the Kennedy clan, but frankly, I don't see it. Maybe I didn't see it because I watched the end on fast forward. Why? See the rebuttal below.
Stepping away from the plot, Captains and the Kings is a lovely period piece. The costumes are excellent and the overall look is very rich and warm. If you're a Universal studios fan, you'll recognize many of the set pieces in this series as it was all shot on the back lot in Hollywood. It will be particularly familiar to fans of the TV show Alias Smith and Jones as both were produced by Jo Swerling Jr. and Roy Huggins and written by Douglas Heyes.
As for the DVD itself, the packaging is lovely, very fitting with the historical style of the series. There are three discs in a foldout case with three photos, one depicting each era of the story. Odd choices of photos, since the lead character isn't pictured at all, but lovely photos, nonetheless!
The only special feature is an interview with Blair Brown (Elizabeth Healey Hennessey). It's her, in a room, talking to the camera with a few shots from the movie thrown in now and again. She does tell a few interesting stories, like how she accidentally dislocated Patty Duke's jaw with a slap, but it's nothing spectacular.
I started off really enjoying Captains and the Kings, but my interest faded by chapter five. Part of the reason was the change in the lead character's demeanor. When he turned into a cruel and heartless bastard, I was no longer interested in seeing him succeed. The bigger issue is the size of the cast versus the length of the series. This show has a huge cast of name actors, all of whom had to be given their due on screen. There comes a point where it really is impossible to tell the players without a scorecard. For example, Elizabeth, who loved Joseph, marries Hennessey after Hennessey's daughter, Bernadette, marries Joseph, thus making Elizabeth the stepmother of the older man she loves and wants to marry. It's the kind of thing you see on soap operas every day but they have weeks to build up to these events but Captains does it in eight hours.
Time compression is a necessity since the plot takes in the lives to two generations of Armagh's. Still, there are huge leaps in the timeline and characters that appear and disappear like magic rabbits and it makes it all very hard to follow.
Speaking strictly about the DVD itself, the quality is not the best. There are plenty of pops and crackles and washed out colors, still very watchable but not it's not at all clean. The mono soundtrack does the job, so no complaints there. I will complain about the chaptering. This was an eight-part mini-series, which, for the purposes of the DVD have been labeled as "chapters" in the book sense. Unfortunately, there's no scene selection within the chapters so if you stop watching without finishing a "chapter" you'll have a heck of a time finding your place again.
Another very curious thing is the fact that each chapter starts with a montage of scenes from the episode you're about to watch. I guess the original producers thought you needed incentive to stay tuned so they frontloaded each episode with all the juicy bits. I found it confusing, especially since it's followed by a recap of the prior episode which you'll need to watch in order to keep all the twists and turns straight.
Captains and the Kings is a great mini-series for fans of historical romances and sweeping family sagas. If you're a child of the '70s, you'll get a kick out of the array of actors that parade past over the course of the series, most of whom will have you saying, "hey, where do I know that one from?"
Make no mistake, this is a period piece and by that, I don't mean the 1880s. It's firmly rooted in the television production techniques of the 1970s, which often comes off slow and flat, especially if you just finished watching an episode of 24.
This court went back in time and found Captains and the Kings to be a groovy and happening thing to watch on TV.
Review content copyright © 2009 Cynthia Boris; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2015 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Koch Vision
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 494 Minutes
Release Year: 1976
MPAA Rating: Not Rated