This 1980s miniseries is a marathon of a soap opera, based on three staggeringly successful novels by historical novelist John Jakes, that uses two fictional families and their intertwined fates to tell the story of the American Civil War. The boxed DVD set comprises the three miniseries that begin when young men Orry Main and George Hazard head off to West Point in 1842. Main is a scion of a family of South Carolina planters; Hazard, of Philadelphia industrialists. A chance encounter and the hardships of plebe year bind them together in lifelong friendship. The nation’s coming reckoning with the institution of slavery tears them apart. An array of subplots and secondary characters played by a who’s who of acting talent keep things hopping for generations of Mains and Hazards for a span of some fifty years.
If there are faults with North & South they are that the third miniseries, as we’ll see, falls far short of the bar set by the first two; and some of the characters are too one-sided, especially the villains, who would twirl their mustachios if many of them weren’t women; and some characters that seem to be finally disposed of make soap-opera-like reappearances later. But other characters are remarkably nuanced and complex.
There’s really nothing quite comparable. Thanks to the careful adaptation of Jakes’s work (a number of plot liberties were taken, with Jakes’s approval, to bring the show to the small screen), and Jakes’s well-known obsession with historical accuracy, this miniseries is a fairly decent education in the causes, course, and consequences of the American Civil War. With a subject as well-studied and, to many, personal as the Civil War, quibbles can probably be found, but there are worse ways for a teen to review for a history test than to watch a marathon of North & South.
He just needs to remember that, while Abe Lincoln (well-played by a heavily made-up Hal Holbrook) and Jeff Davis (Lloyd Bridges) are real people, as are Lee and Grant, it’s best to leave anyone named Main or Hazard out of the answers to any essay questions.
Acting and Production
The acting varies from subtle and understated to scenery-chewing of both the soap-opera (many of the actors are soap veterans) and stagey variety. The two protagonists are played skillfully by the late Patrick Swayze (Orry Main) and James Read (George Hazard). Read wasn’t a skillful rider, so prior to shooting, Swayze, who kept a ranch, invited him for a visit and got him comfortable in the saddle — a trip that must have helped them play lifelong friends.
Their loves are portrayed by Lesley-Anne Down, never more beautiful, and Wendy Kilbourne, who is still playing across from James Read as his real-life wife after meeting him on the set of North & South. One somehow doubts that mid-19th-Century women dressed in quite as magnificent gowns as they are shown wearing on the screen; if they did, the men of the era might be understandable in their bewitchment. (Note to today’s so-called “hot chick stars”: broadcasting it all is not titillating, just sleazy).
Nobody writes a villain like Jakes, except perhaps Dickens; and villains like manipulative Ashton Main (Terri Garber, perfectly two-faced), brutish Justin LaMotte (an incredible performance by David Carradine, who ever beat him for the Emmy in ’85?), oily Elkanah Bent (Philip Casnoff) and cruel Salem Jones (the late Tony Frank) are enjoyable (if creepy) to watch. Even short-lived villains like Series II’s malevolent Captain Thomas Turner (Wayne Newton[!]) are hateful delights.
Some old-timers show up and lend class to the proceedings: Holbrook and Bridges as the two Presidents; Jimmy Stewart as an avuncular lawyer who gets jammed between the word he has given and never broken in his life; Johnny Cash as the original Man in Black, John Brown. Look for Elizabeth Taylor, Olivia DeHavilland, and Gene Kelly, and you can’t miss Robert Mitchum in the first series. (We’re leaving many talented actors and enjoyable performances out; it’s that kind of show, there are just too many).
It’s fun to see what subsequently-famous actors appear in small roles among the hundreds of actors and thousands of extras. A young, skinny Kirstie Alley has a key role as a driven abolitionist whose uncompromising nature portends a bad end. Forrest Whittaker, for another example, has a complex supporting role as Cuffey, a slave whose liberation leads him to mischief; a young Bryan Cranston has a blink-you-missed-it role as “Col. Austin,” and there are undoubtedly many others.
As a sweeping story that encompasses the Mexican War, John Brown’s Rebellion, and many of the headline campaigns and battles of the Civil War, the 12-plus hours sometimes strains a made-for-TV budget (the original shows were presented by ABC on broadcast TV). That said, the three productions cost $25 million 1980s dollars, then a TV record.
Not only the war, but also the political intrigues of two separate national capitals at war, factor into the many subplots. (We had never considered, for example, how the “states’ rights” basis of secession hamstrung Davis’s government’s halting attempts at a centralized war effort. The first-cut at Confederate civil authority was as weak as the much-reviled Articles of Confederation of US History). Jakes’s heroes and villains make you want to keep watching.
Unfortunately the three miniseries really comprise two separate productions, and most of what we’ve had to say so far only applies to the first two miniseries. The second production was based entirely on Jakes’s third book of the trilogy, creating real continuity problems, because the first two miniseries made a number of changes. (For instance, Orry Main’s brother Cooper’s character is merged with Orry in Series I and II, but appears out of nowhere in Series III. In the books and in Series III he is the more progressive, if that’s the word, foil to traditionalist Orry). The second production, third series, also lacks the polish and budget (as well as many stars, whose characters were or are killed off at the end of Series II and the start of Series III — including Swayze’s central Orry Main, who appears only in leftover footage from the earlier shows). For most people, if you watch the first two miniseries, you’ve checked the North & South box, made it through to the end of the Civil War, and might want to consider whether you watch the anticlimactic and dissatisfying third series.
Accuracy and Weapons
You can’t tell the Civil War story without guns, and there are guns aplenty. George’s brother Billy joins the First US Sharp Shooters under Col. Daniel Berdan, who is portrayed — accurately — as a detail-obsessed martinet. Naturally, the Sharpshooters shoot Sharpses, although we admit insufficient expertise to quibble, or not. Union cavalry are generally shown with breechloaders, which by 1863 at least was largely true. Some at Appomattox Court House are depicted with brass Henry repeaters.
Cannon figure in a subplot: naughty characters conspire to sell the Union bad cannons and blame this on some of the good characters, others of whom are slain by the same exploding characters. If things like that hadn’t really happened, we’d have found this subplot a bit Hollywood (even though it came from the pen of Mr Jakes, not the screen writers).
To get the right guns, as well as the quantity of extras needed for marching and battle scenes, producer David Wolper employed Civil War reenactors. As is usually the case with films relying on reenactors, the picayune details are mostly taken care of by the painstaking living-history buffs. Of course, today’s reenactors can probably find fault with their 1985 ancestors’ depiction, but it sure beats what Hollywood often does on its own.
As is common with Hollywood films set in the era of black powder, the amount of smoke the weapons generate is deliberately reduced. The cannons sadly don’t recoil when they fire, but other than that, the din and chaos of a Civil War battlefield comes to life.
There is of course no CGI in this vintage film, from before the dawn of digital effects.
Several interesting special features, including a making-of production and various retrospectives by key members of the cast and crew, have been made, but they’re not all included on all DVD prints for reasons known but to Warner Brothers.
The bottom line
North & South is fun, it’s a Civil War tale that doesn’t butcher the history, although there are a few groansome anachronistic attitudes. You get slices of life and of history to include the run up to, conduct of, and aftermath of the Civil War. (With Mexican and Indian wars thrown in as bookends). And you get it packaged with enough romance, intrigue, suspense and excitement that the whole family can watch it with you.
You do need to suspend disbelief enough to think that the same characters would be at Harper’s Ferry when John Brown attacked, at Fort Sumter in the heady early days of secession, with Lincoln as he made his decision on the Emancipation Proclamation, alongside Grant and Lee at the surrender, and, in short, in every single significant event of the entire continent-spanning war (and the following years as well). This is of course a convention of historical fiction, the convention so ably mocked by Winston Groom in Forrest Gump.
But if you know a lot about the Civil War you won’t be offended too much, and if you know a little, you’ll certainly learn more, thanks to North & South.
For More Information
- Amazon page
- IMDB pages: