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NORTH AND SOUTH

Review by Mark Wiechman

Stars:  Patrick Swayze, James Read, Lesley-Anne Down, Wendy Kilbourne, Kirstie Alley, Jean Simmons, Elizabeth Taylor, Terri Garber, Genie Francis, 
Director:  David Wolper
Audio:  Part One, mono, Parts Two and Three, Stereo
Video:  Full Screen 1.33:1
Studio:  Warner Bros.
Features:  See Review
Length:  1212 Minutes, Five discs (several double-sided)
Release Date:  October 5, 2004

“Please... we mustn't say things like that to each other.”
”Why not? We feel them.”
”There's nothing we can do.”
”You don't love him. You are not his.”

Film ***

While Ken Burns captured the romance of the history of the Civil War, North and South created a fictional soap opera which captured the romance of the times before, during, and after the war.  It launched Patrick Swayze’s career and saw many other stars in their final major roles.  Ken Burns made me thankful for the sacrifices of our troops and made me glad I was not there, but North and South makes me wish I had been.

Director David Wolper, fresh off of Roots and The Thornbirds tells us in the documentary that Roots told the story of the Old South from the black point of view while North and South tells the story from the white point of view.  This is probably accurate.  The series also has less controversy than it could have because it presented both a southern and northern point of view.  This is its main strength; it avoids too much melodrama and instead presents mostly believable characters who rise above stereotypes of the time.  Lieutenant Bent and Ashton Mains are a bit too evil to be believable and belong more on Dallas’ Southfork than in a historical series, but then every good story has to have a few evil clowns to keep things interesting.  Kirstie Alley also delivered a great performance as an abolitionist who can’t stand to sit at the same table as Orry Main merely because his family owns slaves. 

My favorite scene in the entire series happens in episode two when Orry and George tour the slums near Hazard Ironworks and Orry comments on the dismal conditions the workers live in.  George replies that this is certainly better than slavery, and they can leave at any time.  Orry does not like slavery but the message is that obviously the North had its problems as well as the South.   This is the first crack in their friendship.  

This boxed set has three separate books:  Book One, North and South, which was by far the most popular and energized of the three in film form.  It provides the biographies of Orry Mains and George Hazard, two young West Point cadets who become friends for life despite Orry being a son of a slave-owning plantation owner and George being the brother of an abolitionist and son of an ironworks manager.  Their friendship is stretched to the breaking point leading up to the Civil War.  The love story between Orry and Madeline, portrayed lusciously by Lesley-Anne Down is woven into his struggle with his father and his war injury.  He wants to modernize the South, but his vision of a modern south without slavery would not come to be peacefully.  Meanwhile, George (played dashingly by James Read) marries a bonny and beautiful Irish lass Constance Flynn (played by Wendy Kilborne, who resembles Mariel Hemingway but is even more lovely) and struggles with family responsibilities. 

Book Two is Love and War, which covers the two families through the war itself.  Book Three is Heaven and Hell, which opens at the end of the war and covers Reconstruction.  The second side of the last disc has one of the better documentaries on a TV series, which features the best sections of the wondrous soundtrack and opens with John Jakes explaining the genesis of the entire trilogy. 

He was inspired by a list he found at West Point of generals who had graduated from that hallowed institution who fought against each other during the Civil War.  This heartbreaking contradiction was the most tragic aspect of the American Civil War and Jakes realized that this was the heart of his story. 

Video **

I recently got to visit Boone Hall in Charleston, South Carolina, where much of the miniseries was filmed.  This film captures the majesty of the Old South (and the Old North) beautifully.  The first chapter has some minor specs and flaws which could be excused due to the age of the film, though it is a shame since it is so beautifully filmed.  The second and third installments do not suffer from this problem but are not as picturesque and seem to have been filmed more hastily.

Audio ***

The first installment is only in mono, though the sound is still excellent.  The subsequent installments are in a very serviceable stereo. 

Features ***1/2

Only one, but the featurette The History of North and South is outstanding, and features interviews with Patrick Swayze and Lesley-Anne Down as well as Director David Wolper, composer Bill Conti, and author John Jakes.   I recommend that viewers watch this first.  Patrick Swayze tells of filming winter scenes in Mississippi in July in which the heat caused him to pass out several times, and the fake snow actually melted!  Authentic, eh?  Bill Conti's score is not only incredibly romantic and haunting at the same time, but he only had three weeks to write and record the entire first installment.  He wrote all day and recorded into the night. 

Summary :

While the first film is by far the most interesting and well-acted, the entire series is worth viewing, especially in DVD form since you can watch two episodes at a time (up to three hours) without a break.  It deserved its Emmys and is a worthy addition to any collection.

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