ABC’s miniseries of John Jakes’ North and South (1985-94) has been dubbed “television’s Gone With The Wind.” There are, of course, parallels between the two - some blatantly obvious, from the Rhett and Scarlett-esque romance between cultured Southern gentleman, Orry Main (Patrick Swayze) and fiery Madalaine Fabray-LaMotte (Lesley Anne Down), right down to the brazen homage to Hattie McDaniel’s Mammie in Olivia Coles' Maum Sally.
North and South treads a fine line between those fictionalized cotton fields of the literary old south and its more hardcore history lessons. Jake's novel is really more romantic than clinical, however, leaving creator David L. Wolper with the mammoth task of resurrecting the gallantry and resplendent scenery of that gentile society, while balancing our contemporary views on slavery and the eventual demise of a culture too isolationist to last.
Sweeping and impressive in its sheer size and scope (particularly Parts One and Two) the enduring narrative thread follows the exploits of an unlikely friendship between two men; Southerner Orry Maine (Patrick Swayze) and Northerner George Hazard (James Read).
They meet as military cadets at West Point. Yet, certain irreconcilable differences conspire to drive a wedge into their friendship. Chief instigator in this malady of convictions is George’s abolishonist sister, Virgilia (Kirstie Alley), whose scandalous affair with a runaway slave, Grady (George Stanford Brown) ends badly for all concerned.
Essentially the saga of these two men, and the backdrop of war that looms large on their horizon, is distilled into soap opera clichés; Orry and Madeleine’s doomed romance - she is forced to marry the unscrupulous plantation owner, Justin LaMonte (David Carradine); the sibling rivalry between Orry’s two sisters - angelic Brett (Genie Francis) and devilish Ashton (Terri Garber) for the affections of Billy Hazard (John Stockwell); George’s burgeoning romance with Constance Flynn (Wendy Kilbourne); a revenge scenario against George and Orry put forth by their disgraced military captain, Elkanah Brent (Philip Casnoff); and the growing discontent between the northern and southern states that will eventually shatter two worlds with one declaration of war.
Director Richard T. Heffron populates his all-star cast with a cavalcade of Hollywood luminaries: Gene Kelly as Sen. Charles Edwards, Elizabeth Taylor (Madam Conti); Robert Mitchum (Patrick Flynn); Hal Holbrook (Abe Lincoln himself), Morgan Fairchild (Burdetta Halloran); Johnny Cash (John Brown); James Stewart (Miles Colbert) and Olivia DeHavilland (to whom the part of Mrs. Neal must have seemed old hat).
When it debuted on television, North and South was an event, second only as a ratings bonanza to ABC’s The Thorn Birds. The first installment of this miniseries deals with the gathering storm clouds of conflict, ending in uncertainty between the states even as Orry and George’s enduring friendship has been secured.
North and South was so incredibly popular that ABC just had to have a followup. The multi-million dollar and equally lavish North and South Book II historically covers the war years and ends with the beginning of the period of reconstruction with a reinstatement of Orry and George’s friendship. There's really too much exposition to go into in such a short review, but North and South Book II proves just as satisfying for audiences as its predecessor and another 'must see' television event that drew massive audiences over its seven night run.
Together, these two gargantuan miniseries stand apart from anything television has done before or since. Given the overwhelming success of Part II one would have thought that ABC would have invested another princely sum in bringing John Jake's last act to the small screen. However, Book III is an entirely mawkish, forgettable and wholly unworthy successor.
Inconsequential and rather plotless, Book III was shot on a much smaller budget nearly a decade after both the allure and popularity of such epic 'small screen' entertainments had passed quietly into the night. With precious little to say, and a budget unworthy of its content, this final truncated act in the series is very second rate. Frankly, the casual viewer would do just as well to skip Book III altogether.
Warner Home Video’s DVD exhibits a pleasing image; quite smooth and refined with colors that seem far more saturated than they ever did on television. Contrast levels are a tad weaker than expected. Blacks are rarely deep or solid. Whites however are quite clean. Age related artifacts exist, as do slight digital anomalies (edge enhancement and pixelization) though neither is very distracting. These are flipper discs with two episodes contained per side.
The audio is Stereo Surround. It should be noted that television productions of this vintage in general have a tinny characteristic that was barely flattering then, and is anything but complimentary now. Ergo, you aren’t getting this set to give your bass channels a workout. A very brief ‘retrospective’ is the only extra.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)
Book I 4
Book II 3.5
Book III 1.5