HISTORY AS JUNK FOOD
An 18 hour-long miniseries adapted from two John Jakes novels about the Civil War as seen through the eyes of two West Point buddies, North and South is trashy but irresistible and absorbing, like a 19th Century National Enquirer. Modeled after the sweeping TV saga Roots, the whole thing is Grade A suds: we find ourselves amazed by how we get so immersed in the latherings of the old workhorse melodrama plot situations and clichés. Why it’s so deeply satisfying is the genuine bond of bromance between the buddies James Read as a Philadelphia industrialist and Patrick Swayze a Southern plantation owner tested by the loads of sons of bitches, endure upheavals and family betrayals and suffer heartbreaking tragedies. So pure and sentimentally stacked are these two men that we’re in virtual petition for their lives to be spared—and absolutely why we’re hooked until the very last scenes. As Bill Conti’s theme soars when the train slowly moves out of sight at the conclusion of first part, we’re reeling from the swirling emotions in cultural contradictions. In the second “book,” the war commences and, inevitably, the two friends face each other on the battle field. What would we do in their position? Soapers almost always have their supporting cast glories and Kirstie Alley as the Northern abolitionist is the real standout and Terri Garber as the mandatory Scarlett a real screamer. Alley’s equality-bound duty forces her into a fatal public shame to morally acquit herself; as actress, she’s a dare devil—as she also showed in ABC’s Radiant City—but what gets to us is her disquieting rabidness. Garber’s all shame as the gossipy, power-hungry vixen from the start, and she hits the villainess lows with comic pleasure. The only regret is she’s not severely punished, though in the tradition in giant sudzers, others who deserve to get it—David Carradine and Wayne Newton—get it good and Philip Casnoff as the revenge-obsessed Bent (author Jakes’ prescient version of Trump) seems to get his. Elizabeth Taylor sashaying in hourglass black gown and another delicious Southern accent as a madam, Lee Horsley looking and sounding more like James Garner than ever, James Stewart, Linda Evans, Olivia de Havilland, Jean Simmons, Anthony Zerbe and especially Hal Holbrook as Lincoln (enhanced by Dick Smith’s cosmetic rendering) add touches of class. The lovely Lesley-Anne Down plays the series’ dipshittiest character in displacing décolletage, with buttoned-up Mama Simmons taking a noticeable peek. The costumes for the ladies by Joie Hutchinson, Vicki Sánchez and Robert Fletcher rank among the most fanciful, glittering, conspicuously majestic scene-stealers designed for television. Even the men are dandified fashion plates. Gone with the Wind this miniseries ain’t and we’re very thankful: Scarlett’s whining and conniving can get mighty tiresome, while here there’s a huge and accurate dose of unforgiving shame. North and South is schlockbuster history as junk food but, given the attempt at insurrection on January 6, 2021, a needed reminder: the more things appear to change the more they stubbornly stay the same.
Note: The third “book,” Heaven and Hell, defeats everything coming before it. The only way to watch, if compelled, is to wait a few dozen years, allowing memory banks to be emptied, granting an escape clause to the presumed dead for a return engagement.
Text COPYRIGHT © 2005 RALPH BENNER (Revised 3/2023) All Rights Reserved.