Judge Lacey Worrell delights in this exciting miniseries, even though it lasts almost as long as the Civil War itself.
Two great family dynasties, spanning three generations…brought together in friendship, but torn apart by a storm of events that divided a nation.
Anyone who ever tried to frantically tape the many, many installments of this miniseries back in the '80s and mid-'90s, or who invested hundreds of dollars and far too much shelf space in the VHS collection that was available about 10 years ago, will absolutely adore the compact, convenient North and South: The Complete Collection. This is what DVDs were made for, my friends, and taking into account the engrossing nature of the detailed storyline, this collection does not disappoint.
Facts of the Case
The North and South trilogy is based on three books written by John Jakes: North and South, which covers the antebellum period of American history, Love and War, which takes place during the Civil War, and Heaven and Hell, which covers Reconstruction and the period of western expansion that followed. This miniseries, like Roots before it, includes big-name stars, boasts elaborate production values, and addresses several generations of families all struggling with the difficulties and hardships of war and class and racial differences, with a healthy dollop of romance thrown in for good measure.
North and South: Book I introduces the audience to protagonist Orry Main (Patrick Swayze, Dirty Dancing), a southern gentleman who, while on his way to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, saves the lovely Madeline Fabray (Lesley-Anne Down, The Bold and the Beautiful) from an overturned stagecoach. It is love at first sight, and although Orry must report for school, he is instantly smitten. On his way to West Point, Orry befriends a confident Northerner, George Hazard, the scion of a powerful Pennsylvania family who has benefited from the iron business. At West Point, both young men find tensions running high as classmates begin to take sides along regional lines. They also make an enemy in upperclassman Elkanah Bent (Philip Casnoff, How Stella Got Her Groove Back), who subjects them to physical training that borders on the torturous.
A rivalry brews between Orry's two young sisters, the manipulative Ashton and sweet Brett, who both grow to love George's younger brother, Billy (John Stockwell, Christine), who follows in Orry's footsteps to attend West Point with Orry's young loose-cannon of a cousin, Charles (Lewis Smith, Wyatt Earp). Madeline, in the meantime, is pushed by her father into marrying Orry's neighbor, the cruel, abusive Justin LaMotte (David Carradine, Kung Fu). George's sister, Virgilia (Kirstie Alley, Cheers), a fiery abolitionist, wreaks havoc on a trip to Mont Royal, Orry's beloved home, while Ashton becomes just as fervent about states' rights and the secession movement.
North and South: Book II finds friends Orry and George, as well as Billy and Charles, fighting for opposite sides during the Civil War. Orry and Madeline are finally able to marry; however, Justin lurks, still causing trouble, and Madeline is introduced to a new man who tempts her in Orry's absence. While fighting the Yankees, Charles is intrigued by a Virginia widow who spies for the Confederates, and there is tension between Billy and Brett because of their vastly different backgrounds and the resulting tensions of the war.
Elkanah Bent, still licking his wounds after being outsmarted by Orry and George during the trio's West Point days, joins forces with Ashton to seek revenge on Orry. In the end, George and Orry must defend Mont Royal from being raided and in the process remember despite their differences to remain true to the friendship they first cemented at West Point. North and South: Book II covers all of the important battles of the Civil War, including Manassas, Gettysburg, and Vicksburg, and features guest stars such as Wayne Newton and television veteran William Schallert (The Patty Duke Show).
In North and South: Book III, Elkanah Bent exacts his revenge on Orry at last, leaving Madeline alone to pick up the pieces of the ruined Mont Royal. When she plans to build a school for black children and hires a Yankee teacher (Mariette Hartley, Peyton Place) it arouses the interest of the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan as well as Orry's older brother, Cooper Main, who is also displeased with the situation.
Charles sets his sights on the West and along the way finds himself falling for a stage actress. George, in an effort to help Madeline and the few remaining occupants of Mont Royal, offers to build a sawmill on the property as an investment for Hazard Iron and in order to provide an income for his friend's widow. In the process of starting the mill, George and Madeline feel an attraction for one another, one that is only cemented by the untimely death of George's wife, Constance. When word comes that Bent has captured Charles's young son, however, George leaves Mont Royal to fight his nemesis, but returns in time to help Madeline save the plantation from the Klan.
Patrick Swayze fans should take note that except for a very brief scene that appears to be recycled footage from earlier episodes, Swayze does not appear in this installment. This is true to the books, however, because the character of Orry was inexplicably killed off around the same time.
The scope of this collection is staggering. Clocking in at 1212 minutes now that the commercials have been cut out, its breadth is astonishing. It appears that no expense was spared in terms of the story, the filming, or even the sweeping score; North and South is a true epic in every sense of the word. Having also read each of the books this collection was based on, I can attest that for the most part the television version is quite true to the original plotline, with a few obvious exceptions, most notably the fact that Orry loses an arm in the first book, but in the miniseries he simply suffers from a limp. Also, his older brother, Cooper, does not make an appearance until the lamentable third installment of the miniseries, whereas in the books he was threaded in throughout.
North and South: Book I is the longest and best installment. Patrick Swayze, who at that time was not a big star, more than ably carries the bulk of the storyline. Lesley-Anne Down is just lovely as Madeline, and James Read plays the swashbuckling George Hazard with great humor and likeability. The storyline of this installment is also the best, at least from the perspective of the characters' personal lives. Orry and Madeline's unrequited love is painful and moving. George's constant conflict with his brother, Stanley, over the future of Hazard Iron, as well as his well-founded fear that Virgilia will overstep the bounds of the law to further the cause of the abolitionists, is engrossing. Ashton's attempts to woo Billy over Brett add to the intrigue and the drama.
North and South: Book II, with its measured focus on the havoc wrought by the Civil War on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line, is the most interesting from a historical perspective, although I have yet to find someone who tuned into this miniseries for its historical value. Parker Stevenson (Baywatch) replaces John Stockton as Billy, although I prefer Stockton's interpretation of the character. The costumes, especially Madeline's, are even more sumptuous, but viewers may grow weary of the war's interference with Madeline's time with Orry and Billy's with Brett. Charles's affair with the fiery Augusta provides plenty of romance, however.
North and South: Book III, as did Jakes's Heaven and Hell, asks far too much of viewers. Having to accept not only Orry's absence but a romance between George and Madeline is a little too much to ask and strains the bounds of credibility and good taste. If Madeline supposedly loved Orry so much, and George truly honored the friendship the two of them shared, it is difficult to accept that they would fall so easily into a love affair without feeling just a little bit guilty. Soon after Orry's death, George extends his condolences to Madeline, whose response is equivalent to a shrug. She chirps instead about the necessity of building the school and practically brushes off the mention of Orry's death. The entire production has a very different look and feel from the other two installments, and is only about half the length of the original.
The distinguished guest stars who pepper the episodes of each miniseries include icons such as Elizabeth Taylor, Robert Guillaume, Robert Mitchum, Hal Holbrook, Olivia de Havilland, Gene Kelly, Johnny Cash, Forest Whitaker, Georg Stanford Brown, David Ogden Stiers, Morgan Fairchild, Linda Evans, and even the late, great Jimmy Stewart. Fans of Fame will recognize Erica Gimpel, who has a significant role in the first two installments of the miniseries as slave Semiramis.
By far the standout performance of the collection goes to Alley, who plays the fanatical Virgilia with the perfect creepy seriousness. Those who have read the trilogy may be hard pressed to picture anyone else in the role, as Alley captures Virgilia's steely drive so perfectly. It is a meaty role, and although it is not as expansive as Swayze's, Read's, or Downs's, Alley is a formidable presence in every single scene she is in. Despite her recent role as tabloid queen, this woman can act, and there is no better evidence than in North and South.
The fact that John Jakes was so involved in the miniseries, as revealed in the 30-minute documentary "The History of North and South," more than likely helped it to please the many fans of the books. The documentary also features present-day interviews with Patrick Swayze, James Read, and Lesley-Anne Down, who looks like she hasn't aged a day since production ended. Producer David Wolper, whose credits include the miniseries Roots and The Thorn Birds, contributes fascinating detail on the casting and filming process as well as the rationale behind various creative decisions that were a departure from the plot of the books.
Overall, the picture quality is excellent, with an edge in favor of the latter two installments in terms of clarity and color. The sound quality is quite good, especially with the emotional score that takes over the more dramatic scenes. It should also be noted that the transitions, especially considering that this was a television miniseries, are exceptionally good; there are none of the obvious breaks that usually plague DVD releases of television shows, and this makes for a more enjoyable experience.
Cast alumni went on to do high-profile and distinguished work. Everyone remembers Patrick Swayze as the strong but sensitive Johnny Castle in Dirty Dancing. John Stockwell (Billy) went on to write and direct the well-received sleeper hit Blue Crush, he wrote the entertaining Mark Wahlberg vehicle Rock Star, and he also directed Kirsten Dunst in Crazy/Beautiful. Forest Whitaker has also become an esteemed director of such underappreciated works as Hope Floats and Waiting to Exhale. James Read appears regularly on NBC's American Dreams and appeared in both Legally Blonde films, and Lesley-Anne Down has amassed a formidable television resume. Also remember that Kirstie Alley (Virgilia) and Parker Stevenson, who takes over the role of Billy in North and South: Book II, were married at one time.
The exterior shots of Mont Royal were filmed at Boone Hall Plantation, in Mt. Pleasant, South Carolina, just outside of Charleston; this plantation, with a driveway lined by massive oaks just like in the movie, is open to the public and contains many old artifacts from its antebellum days.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Some of the southern accents, especially Philip Casnoff's attempt at a flat Georgia drawl and Genie Francis's obviously affected accent, border on the shrill and detract from the otherwise terrific performances. Although in "The History of North and South" John Jakes states that he refused while writing the books to be an apologist for slavery, each installment strains credibility in that the Mains…especially Madeline…are portrayed as being kind to slaves while overlooking the fact that, well, they are still slave owners. This was obviously done in order to make the Mains more likable to the viewing audience, but again, it certainly is not representative of what was actually going on at the time.
For an actual history lesson on the Civil War, you may be better off sticking with films like Gettysburg and Gods and Generals, but you can't beat this particular collection in terms of pure entertainment value and the camp factor. Although the original installment is now twenty years old, it holds up beautifully and is as engrossing as ever. Even though North and South: Book III does not live up to its predecessors and can be completely cut out from the viewing experience with no ill effects, this collection is well worth your entertainment dollar.
The court urges you to clear about 20 consecutive hours from your calendar (no sleep allowed, either!) and lose yourself in this engrossing epic. Case dismissed.
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Scales of Justice, North And South
Perp Profile, North And South
Studio: Warner Bros.
Distinguishing Marks, North And South
Scales of Justice, North And South, Book II
Perp Profile, North And South, Book II
Studio: Warner Bros.
Distinguishing Marks, North And South, Book II
Scales of Justice, North And South, Book III
Perp Profile, North And South, Book III
Studio: Warner Bros.
Distinguishing Marks, North And South, Book III
• "The History of North and South" Featurette
Review content copyright © 2005 Lacey Worrell; Site design and review layout copyright © 2013 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.