“GANGS OF NEW YORK” (2002) Review

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“GANGS OF NEW YORK” (2002) Review

With the exception of a few, many of Martin Scorsese’s films have been set in the City of New York – whether in the past or present. One of those films is his 2002 Oscar nominated film, “THE GANGS OF NEW YORK”

Loosely based upon Herbert Ashbury’s 1927 non-fiction book, “GANGS OF NEW YORK” had the distinction of being a crime drama about a gang war . . . set during the first half of the U.S. Civil War. Before I continue, I should add that the film was not only based upon Ashbury’s book, but also on the life and death of a street gang leader named William Poole.

“GANGS OF NEW YORK” began in 1846, when two street gangs – the Protestant”Nativists” led by William “Bill the Butcher” Cutting; and the “Dead Rabbits”, an Irish immigrant gang led by “Priest” Vallon; meet somewhere in the Five Points neighborhood of Manhattan for a fight. Near the end of a vicious street brawl, Cutting kills Vallon. A close friend of Vallon hides his young son inside an orphanage on Blackwell’s Island. Sixteen years pass and Vallon’s son, who has renamed himself Amsterdam, returns to the Five Points neighborhood to seek revenge against “Bill the Butcher”, who now rules the neighborhood. Against the back drop of the early years of the Civil War, Amsterdam maneuvers himself into Cutting’s confidence, as he waits for the right moment to strike and get his revenge against the man who killed his father.

There are aspects of “GANGS OF NEW YORK” that I either liked or found impressive. Considering that Scorsese shot the film at the Cinecittà Studios and the Silvercup Studios in Queens, New York; I must admit that I found Dante Ferretti’s production designs serving for Manhattan rather impressive. Impressive, but not exactly accurate or near accurate. The movie looked as if it had been shot on a sound stage. But I must say that I admired how the designs conveyed Scorsese’s own vision of Manhattan 1862-63. I also noticed that the color tones utilized by cinematographer Michael Ballhaus reminded me of the three-strip Technicolor process from the early-to-mid 1930s. Rather odd for a period movie set during the U.S. Civil War. However, thanks to Ferretti’s designs and Michael Ballhaus’ very colorful photography, the movie’s vision of 1860s Manhattan had a theatrical style to it – especially in the Five Points scenes. I did not love it, but I found it interesting.

I could probably say the same about Sandy Powell’s costume designs. They struck me as an extreme version of 1860s fashion, especially in regard to color and fabrics, as shown in the image below:

And there was something about the movie’s costume designs for men that I found slightly confusing. Mind you, I am not much of an expert on 19th century fashion for men. But for some reason, I found myself wondering if the costumes designed for the male cast were for a movie set in the 1840s, instead of the 1860s, as shown below:

But if I must be honest with myself, I did not like “GANGS OF NEW YORK”. Not one bit. The movie proved to be a major disappointment. One of the main problems I had with this film was that Scorsese; along with screenwriters Jay Cocks, Steven Zaillian and Kenneth Lonergan; took what should have been a character-driven period crime drama and transformed it into something nearly unwieldy. When you think about it, “GANGS OF NEW YORK” was basically a fictionalized account of a feud between American-born William Poole and an Irish immigrant named John Morrissey, the former leader of the real “Dead Rabbits” gang. And their feud had played out in the early-to-mid 1850s. Instead, Scorsese and the screenwriters shifted the movie’s setting to the early years of the Civil War and ended the narrative with the New York City Draft Riots of 1863 in some attempt to transform what could have been a more intimate period drama into this gargantuan historical epic. I found this perplexing, considering that the Civil War had little to do with the film’s main narrative. It also did not help that the film’s narrative struck me as a bit choppy, thanks to Scorsese being forced to delete a good deal of the film at the behest of the producers.

I did not have a problem with the conflict/relationship between Bill Cutting and Amsterdam Vallon. I thought Scorsese made an interesting choice by having Amsterdam ingratiate himself into Cutting’s inner circle . . . and keeping his true identity a secret. This paid off when Amsterdam saved Cutting from an assassinating attempt, leading the latter to assume the position of the younger man’s mentor. At first, I could not understand why Scorsese had included a romantic interest for Amsterdam in the form of a grifter/pickpocket named Jenny Everdeane. In the end, she proved to be a catalyst that led to Amsterdam and Cutting’s eventual conflict near the end of the film. One of the few people who knew Amsterdam’s true identity was an old childhood acquaintance named Johnny Sirocco, who became infatuated over Jenny. When he became aware of Amsterdam’s romance with Jenny, Johnny ratted out his friend’s identity to Cutting.

But what followed struck me as . . . confusing. On the 17th anniversary of his father’s death, Amsterdam tried to kill Cutting and failed. Instead of killing the younger man in retaliation, Cutting merely wounded Amsterdam, branded the latter’s cheek and declared him an outcast in the Five Points neighborhood. An outcast? That was it? I found it hard to believe that a violent and vindictive man like Bill “the Butcher” Cutting would refrain from killing someone who tried to kill him. Perhaps this scenario could have worked if Cutter had tried to kill Amsterdam and fail, allowing the latter to make his escape. Or not. But I found Scorsese’s scenario with Amsterdam being banished from Cutting’s circle and the Five Points neighborhood to be something of a joke.

As for the movie’s performances . . . for me they seemed to range from decent to below average. For a movie that featured some of my favorite actors and actresses, I was surprised that not one performance really impressed me. Not even Daniel Day-Lewis’ Oscar nominated performance as William “Bill the Butcher” Cutting. Mind you, Day-Lewis had one or two scenes that impressed – especially one that involved a conversation between Bill the Butcher and Amsterdam, inside a brothel. Otherwise, I felt that the actor was chewing the scenery just a bit too much for my tastes. Leonardo Di Caprio, on the other hand, was crucified by critics and moviegoers for his portrayal of the revenge seeking Amsterdam Vallon. Aside from his questionable Irish accent, I had no real problems with Di Caprio’s performance. I simply did not find his character very interesting. Just another kid seeking revenge for the death of his father. What made this desire for revenge ridiculous to me is that Bill the Butcher had killed “Priest” Vallon in a fair fight. Not many critics were that impressed by Cameron Diaz’s performance. Aside from her questionable Irish accent, I had no real problems with the actress. I had a bigger problem with her character, Jenny Everdeane. To put it quite frankly, aside from her role serving as a catalyst to Cutting’s discovery of Amsterdam’s true identity, I found Jenny’s role in this movie rather irrelevant.

As for the other members of the cast . . . I found their performances solid, but not particularly noteworthy. I thought Henry Thomas gave a decent performance as the lovelorn and vindictive Johnny Sirocco. The movie featured Jim Broadbent, Roger Ashton-Griffiths, Cara Seymour and Michael Byrne portraying true-life characters like William “Boss” Tweed, P.T. Barnum, Hell Cat Maggie and Horace Greeley. They gave competent performances, but I did not find them particularly memorable. The movie also featured solid performances from the likes of Liam Neeson, John C. Reilly, Brendan Gleeson, Gary Lewis, Lawrence Gilliard Jr., Stephen Graham, Eddie Marsan, David Hemmings, Barbara Bouchet and Alec McCowen. But honestly, I could not think of a performance that I found memorable.

My real problem with “GANGS OF NEW YORK” was Scorsese’s handling of the movie’s historical background. Quite frankly, I thought it was appalling. I am not referring to the film’s visual re-creation of early 1860s Manhattan. I am referring to how Scorsese utilized the movie’s mid-19th century historical background for the film. Earlier, I had pointed out that the Civil War setting for “GANGS OF NEW YORK” barely had any impact upon the movie’s narrative. I think it may have been a bit in error. Scorsese and the screenwriters did utilize the Civil War setting, but in a very poor manner.

“GANGS OF NEW YORK” should never have been set during the U.S. Civil War. It was a big mistake on Scorsese’s part. Day-Lewis’ character is based upon someone who was killed in 1855, six years before the war’s outbreak. Scorsese should have considered setting the movie during the late antebellum period, for his handling of the Civil War politics in the movie struck me as very questionable. From Scorsese’s point of view in this film, the Union is basically a militaristic entity bent upon not only oppressing the Confederacy, but also its citizens in the North – including immigrants and African-Americans. This view was overtly manifested in two scenes – the U.S. Naval bombing of the Five Points neighborhood during the Draft Riots . . . something that never happened; and a poster featuring the images of both Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass that appeared in the movie:

What made this poster even more ridiculous is that the image of Frederick Douglass was anachronistic. Douglass was roughly around 44 to 45 years old during the movie’s time period. He looked at least 15 to 20 years older in the poster.

In “GANGS OF NEW YORK”, Americans of Anglo descent like Bill the Butcher were the real bigots of 1860s Manhattan. Not only did they hate immigrants, especially Irish-born immigrants, but also black Americans. I am not claiming that all 19th century Anglo-Americans tolerated blacks and immigrants. Trust me, they did not. But did Scorsese actually expected moviegoers to believe that most of the Irish immigrants were more tolerant of African-Americans than the Anglos? Apparently, he did. He actually portrayed one character, an African-American named Jimmy Spoils, as one of Amsterdam’s close friends and a member of the latter’s newly reformed “Dead Rabbits” gang. Honestly? It was bad enough that Scorsese’s portrayal of Jimmy Spoils was so damn limited. I cannot recall a well-rounded black character in any of his movies. Not one.

Scorsese and his screenwriters made the situation worse by portraying the Irish immigrants as generally more tolerant toward blacks than the Anglos. In fact, the only Irish-born or characters of Irish descent hostile toward African-Americans in the film were those manipulated by Anglos or traitors to their own kind. According to the movie, the violent inflicted upon blacks by Irish immigrants was the instigation of Federal military policy. By embracing this viewpoint, Scorsese seemed unwilling to face the the real hostility that had existed between Irish immigrants and African-Americans years before the draft riots in July 1863. Actually, both the Irish and the Anglo-Americans – “the Natives” – were racist toward the blacks. One group was not more tolerant than the other. The movie also featured Chinese immigrants as background characters. In other words, not one of them was given a speaking part. If Scorsese had really wanted the New York Draft Riots to be the centerpiece of this movie, he should have focused more on race relations and been more honest about it.

I really wish that I had enjoyed “GANGS OF NEW YORK”. I really do. I have always been fascinated by U.S. history during the Antebellum and Civil War periods. But after watching this film, I came away with the feeling that Martin Scorsese either had no idea what kind of film that he wanted or that he tried to do too much. Was “GANGS OF NEW YORK” a period crime drama or a historical drama about the events that led to the New York Draft Riots? It seemed as if the director was more interested in his tale about Amsterdam Vallon and William “Bill the Butcher” Cutting. If so, he could have followed the William Poole-John Morrissey conflict more closely, set this film where it truly belonged – in the 1850s – and left the Civil War alone. I believe his handling of the Civil War proved to be a major stumbling block of what could have been an well done film.

 

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TIME MACHINE: John Brown’s Raid on Harper’s Ferry

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TIME MACHINE: JOHN BROWN’S RAID ON HARPER’S FERRY

Between October 16-20, 1859; abolitionist John Brown and a group of men raided the town of Harper’s Ferry in western Virginia. The event lasted over a period of three to four days and is now considered one of the catalysts of the U.S. Civil War (1861-1865): 

After a period of recruiting followers and raising money, John Brown rented a farmhouse just four miles north of Harper’s Ferry, Virginia (now West Virginia). He had planned to hold Harpers Ferry for a short time, expecting that many volunteers – white and black – would join him in a wild plan to free the slaves in the Southern states. Brown hope to gather ammunition from a local Army armory, make a rapid movement southward, sending out armed bands along the way. He planned to free more slaves, obtain food, horses and hostages, and destroy slave holding morale. Brown planned to follow the Appalachian mountains south into Tennessee and even Alabama, the heart of the South, making forays into the plains on either side

On the evening of October 16, 1859; he and his followers arrived in the small town of Harper’s Ferry. They captured several townspeople, including Colonel Lewis Washington, the great-grandnephew of George Washington. The band of abolitionists also cut the telegraph wire and seized a Baltimore & Ohio train passing through. An African-American baggage handler on the train named Hayward Shepherd confronted the raiders and was subsequently shot and killed. Ironically, a freed slave became the first casualty of the raid. Then for unknown reasons, Brown let the train continue unimpeded. The train reached Washington the next day and the conductor alerted the authorities.

President James Buchannan ordered a detachment of U.S. Marines to march on Harpers Ferry, under the command of Brevet Colonel Robert E. Lee of the 2nd U.S. Army Cavalry on October 17. Lee was on leave from Texas and visiting his family in nearby Arlington. By the following day, on October 18, the Marines under Lee and the local militia managed to trap Brown and many of his followers inside the town’s engine house. Following a military attack, Brown’s surviving followers and the man himself were captured.

The Marines and the local militia spent the following day – October 19 – hunting down any remaining participants of the raid. Meanwhile, Lee a summary report of the events that took place at Harpers Ferry to Colonel Samuel Cooper, the U. S. Army Adjutant General. According to Lee’s notes Lee believed John Brown was insane, “…the plan [raiding the Harpers Ferry Arsenal] was the attempt of a fanatic or mad­man”. Lee also believed that the African-Americans used in the raid were forced to by John Brown himself. “The blacks, whom he [John Brown] forced from their homes in this neighborhood, as far as I could learn, gave him no voluntary assistance.” The future Civil War general, a slaveowner himself, failed to consider there were free blacks among Brown’s followers or that they would have no qualms about following Brown on their own free will. He seemed to regard them as nothing more than docile children.

The raid’s aftermath led to John Brown standing trial for treason against the Commonwealth of Virginia in nearby Charles Town for trial. He was found guilty of treason and was hanged on December 2, 1859. His execution was witnessed by the actor John Wilkes Booth, who would later assassinate President Abraham Lincoln. Four other raiders were executed on December 15 and two more on March 16, 1860. Colonel Robert E. Lee and another officer who served under him during the raid, J.E.B. Stuart, became officers in the Confederate States Army during the following Civil War.

If you want to know more about John Brown and the Harper’s Ferry Raid, check out the following books:

“John Brown, Abolitionist: The Man Who Killed Slavery, Sparked the Civil War, and Seeded Civil Rights” (2006) by David S. Reynolds

“John Brown’s Raid on Harpers Ferry: A Brief History with Documents” (2008) by Jonathan Earle

“WESTWARD HO!”: Part Two – “THE WAY WEST” (1967)

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Below is Part Two to my article about Hollywood’s depiction about the westward migration via wagon trains in 19th century United States. It focuses upon the 1967 movie, “THE WAY WEST”

“WESTWARD HO!”: Part Two – “THE WAY WEST” (1967)

I. Introduction

Based upon A.B. Guthrie Jr.’s 1949 novel, “THE WAY WEST” told the story of a large wagon train’s journey to Oregon in 1843. The wagon train is led by a widowed former U.S. Senator named William Tadlock (Kirk Douglas). A former mountain man named Dick Summers (Robert Mitchum) is hired as the wagon party’s guide and among the last to join the train is farmer Lije Evans (Richard Widmark), his wife Rebecca (Lola Albright)and their 16 year-old son Brownie (Michael McGreevey); who were living near Independence when the wagon train was being formed.

During the journey to Oregon, the movie introduced audiences with the other members of the wagon train. They included a family from Georgia named the McBees (Harry Carey Jr., Connie Sawyer and Sally Field), and the recently married Johnnie and Amanda Mack (Mike Witney and Katherine Justice). Personal friendships and animosities flourished during the 2,000 miles journey. Summers managed to befriend both Lije and Brownie Evans. The latter fell in love with the McBees’ extroverted daughter Mercy, who developed a crush on Johnnie Mack. The latter had difficulty consummating his marriage with a sexually unresponsive wife. Frustrated, Mack turned to Mercy for a brief tryst. Senator Tadlock proved to be an intimidating, yet manipulative leader. Only two people dared to question his decisions – Summers and Lije. Especially the latter. Although willing to question Tadlock’s leadership, Lije was reluctant to replace him as the wagon party’s new leader.

“THE WAY WEST” received a good deal of negative criticisms. It has also been compared to “HOW THE WEST WAS WON” to its detriment. I plan to write a review of “THE WAY WEST” in the future. But right now, I am more interested in how the movie fared in regard to historical accuracy.

II. History vs. Hollywood

The Tadlock wagon party headed for Oregon Territory in 1843, the year known as “The Great Migration of 1843” or the “Wagon Train of 1843”, in which an estimated 700 to 1,000 emigrants left for Oregon. The number of emigrants in Tadlock’s party and the year in which the movie is set, seemed historically accurate. “THE WAY WEST” also featured a few well-known landmarks along the Oregon Trail. Such landmarks included Chimney Rock, Scott’s Bluff, Independence Rock and Fort Hall. Fort Laramie did not play a role in the movie’s plot.

So far, “THE WAY WEST” seemed to be adhering to historical accuracy. Unfortunately, this did not last. One, the wagons featured in the movie came in all shapes and sizes. They ranged from farm wagons to large Conestoga wagons. I cannot even describe the wagon used by the McFee family. It was not as heavy as a Conestoga, but it was long enough to convey Mr. McFee’s peach tree saplings across the continent. The draft animals used by the emigrants turned out to be a mêlée of oxen, mules and horses. The movie did point out the necessity of abandoning unnecessary possessions to lighten the wagons’ loads. Only, it was pointed out when the wagon party attempted to ascend a very steep slope what looked like the in Idaho.

“THE WAY WEST” did not feature a large-scale attack by a horde of Native Americans. But the movie came damn near close to including one. The wagon party first encountered a group of Cheyenne warriors not far from Independence Rock. When one of the emigrants, Johnnie Mack, mistook a chief’s young son hidden underneath a wolf’s skin as a real wolf and shot him, the wagon train made tracks in order to avoid retribution. The Cheyenne caught up with the wagon party and demanded the head of the boy’s killer. The other emigrants declared they were willing to fight it out with the Cheyenne, until they discovered they would be facing a large horde of warriors. In the end, Mr. Mack confessed to the crime and allowed himself to be hanged, in order to spare Brownie Evans from being handed over to the Cheyenne by Tadlock.

Dramatically, I found this sequence to be effective. I admired how director Andrew V. McLaglen developed the tension between the emigrants, Senator Tadlock and the Cheyenne demanding justice. Historically, I found it a mess. The number of Cheyenne warriors that had gathered for the sake of one boy struck me as very improbable. The only times I could recall that many Native Americans gathering at one spot was the council for the 1851 Treaty of Fort Laramie and the Battle of Little Bighorn. And considering that the Cheyenne nation were spread out from the Black Hills in present-day South Dakota to southern Colorado, I found this encounter between the Tadlock wagon party and the Cheyenne historically improbable.

“THE WAY WEST” fared somewhat better than “HOW THE WEST WAS WON” in regard to historical accuracy. But I found it lacking in some aspects of the plot. Like the 1962 movie, “THE WAY WEST” proved to be more entertaining than historically accurate.

 

“12 YEARS A SLAVE” (2013) Review

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“12 YEARS A SLAVE” (2013) Review

I first learned about Solomon Northup many years ago, when I came across a television adaptation of his story in my local video story. One glance at the video case for “HALF-SLAVE, HALF-FREE: SOLOMON NORTHUP’S ODYSSEY” made me assume that this movie was basically a fictional tale. But when I read the movie’s description on the back of the case, I discovered that I had stumbled across an adaption about a historical figure. 

Intrigued by the idea of a free black man in antebellum America being kidnapped into slavery, I rented “HALF-SLAVE, HALF-FREE: SOLOMON NORTHUP’S ODYSSEY”, which starred Avery Brooks, and enjoyed it very much. In fact, I fell in love with Gordon Park’s adaption so much that I tried to buy a video copy of the movie. But I could not find it. Many years passed before I was able to purchase a DVD copy. And despite the passage of time, I still remained impressed by the movie. However, I had no idea that someone in the film industry would be interested in Northup’s tale again. So five years later, I was very surprised to learn of a new adaptation with Brad Pitt as one of the film’s producer and Briton Steve McQueen as another producer and the film’s director.

Based upon Northup’s 1853 memoirs of the same title, “12 YEARS A SLAVE” told the story of a New York-born African-American named Solomon Northup, who found himself kidnapped and sold into slavery in 1841. Northup was a 33 year-old carpenter and violinist living in Saratoga Springs, New York with his wife and children. After Mrs. Northup leaves Saratoga Springs with their children for a job that would last for several weeks, Northup is approached by two men, who offered him a brief, high-paying job as a musician with their traveling circus. Without bothering to inform Northup traveled with the strangers as far as south as Washington, D.C. Not long after his arrival in the capital, Northup found himself drugged and later, bound in the cell of a slave pen. When Northup tried to claim he was a free man, he was beaten and warned never again to mention his free status again.

Eventually, Northup and a group of other slaves were conveyed to the slave marts of New Orleans, Louisiana and given the identity of a Georgia-born slave named “Platt”. There, a slave dealer named Theophilus Freeman sells him to a plantation owner/minister named William Ford. The latter’s kindness seemed to be offset by his unwillingness to acknowledge the sorrow another slave named Eliza over her separation from her children. When Northup has a violent clash with one of Ford’s white employees, a carpenter named John Tibeats, the planter is forced to sell the Northerner to another planter named Edwin Epps. Unfortunately for Northup, Epps proves to be a brutal and hard man. Even worse, Epps becomes sexually interested in a female slave named Patsey. She eventually becomes a victim of Epps’ sexual abuse and Mrs. Epps’ jealousy. And Epps becomes aware of Patsey’s friendship with Northup.

“TWELVE YEARS A SLAVE” has gained a great deal of critical acclaim since its release. It is already considered a front-runner for the Academy Awards. Many critics and film goers consider it the truest portrait of American slavery ever shown in a Hollywood film. I have to admit that both director Steve McQueen and screenwriter John Ridley have created a powerful film. Both did an excellent job of translating the basic gist of Solomon Northup’s experiences to the screen. And both did an excellent job re-creating a major aspect of American slavery. I was especially impressed by certain scenes that featured the emotional and physical trauma that Northup experienced during his twelve years as a Southern slave.

For me, one of the most powerful scenes featured Northup’s initial experiences at the Washington D.C. slave pen, where one of the owners resorted to physical abuse to coerce him into acknowledging his new identity as “Platt”. Other powerful scenes include the slave mart sequence in New Orleans, where fellow slave Eliza had to endure the loss of her children through sale. I found the revelation of Eliza’s mixed blood daughter being sold to a New Orleans bordello rather troubling and heartbreaking. Northup’s encounter with Tibeats struck me fascinating . . . in a dark way. But the film’s most powerful scene – at least for me – proved to be the harsh whipping that Patsey endured for leaving the plantation to borrow soap from a neighboring plantation. Some people complained that particular scene bordered on “torture porn”. I disagree. I found it brutal and frank.

I have to give kudos to the movie’s visual re-creation of the country’s Antebellum Period. As in any well made movie, this was achieved by a group of talented people. Adam Stockhausen’s production designs impressed me a great deal, especially in scenes featuring Saratoga Springs of the 1840s, the Washington D.C. sequences, the New Orleans slave marts and of course, the three plantations where Northup worked during his twelve years in Louisiana. In fact, the entire movie was filmed in Louisiana, including the Saratoga Springs and Washington D.C. sequences. And Sean Bobbitt’s photography perfectly captured the lush beauty and color of the state. Trust the movie’s producers and McQueen to hire long time costume designer, Patricia Norris, to design the film’s costumes. She did an excellent job in re-creating the fashions worn during the period between 1841 and 1852-53.

Most importantly, the movie benefited from a talented cast that included Garrett Dillahunt as a white field hand who betrays Northup’s attempt to contact friends in New York; Paul Giamatti as the New Orleans slave dealer Theophilus Freeman; Michael K. Williams as fellow slave Robert, who tried to protect Eliza from a lustful sailor during the voyage to Louisiana; Alfre Woodward as Mistress Shaw, the black common-law wife of a local planter; and Bryan Blatt as Judge Turner, a sugar planter to whom Northup was loaned out. More impressive performances came from Paul Dano as the young carpenter John Tibeats, who resented Northup’s talent as a carpenter; Sarah Poulson, who portrayed Edwin Epp’s cold wife and jealous wife; and Adepero Oduye, who was effectively emotional as the slave mother Eliza, who lost her children at Freeman’s slave mart. Benedict Cumberbatch gave a complex portrayal of Northup’s first owner, the somewhat kindly William Ford. However, I must point out that the written portryal of the character may have been erroneous, considering Northup’s opinion of the man. Northup never judged Ford as a hypocrite, but only a a good man who was negatively influenced by the slave society. But the two best performances, in my opinion, came from Lupita Nyong’o and especially Chiwetel Ejiofor. Nyong’o gave a beautiful performance as the abused slave woman Patsey, whose endurance of Epps’ lust and Mrs. Epps’ wrath takes her to a breaking point of suicidal desire. Chiwetel Ejiofor, whom I have been aware for the past decade, gave the definitive performance of his career – so far – as the New Yorker Solomon Northup, who finds himself trapped in the nightmarish situation of American slavery. Ejiofor did an excellent job of conveying Northup’s emotional roller coaster experiences of disbelief, fear, desperation and gradual despair.

But is “12 YEARS A SLAVE” perfect? No. Trust me, it has its flaws. Many have commented on the film’s historical accuracy in regard to American slavery and Northup’s twelve years in Louisiana. First of all, both McQueen and Ridley took historical liberty with some of Northup’s slavery experience for the sake of drama. If I must be honest, that does not bother me. The 1984 movie with Avery Brooks did the same. I dare anyone to find a historical movie that is completely accurate about its topic. But what did bother me was some of the inaccuracies featured in the movie’s portrayal of antebellum America.

One scene featured Northup eating in a Washington D.C. hotel dining room with his two kidnapper. A black man eating in the dining room of a fashionable Washington D.C. hotel in 1841? Were McQueen and Ridley kidding? The first integrated Washington D.C. hotel opened in 1871, thirty years later. Even more ludicrous was a scene featuring a drugged and ill Northup inside one of the hotel’s room near white patrons. Because he was black, Northup was forced to sleep in a room in the back of the hotel. The death of the slave Robert at the hands of a sailor bent on raping Eliza also struck me as ludicrous. One, it never happened. And two, there is no way some mere sailor – regardless of his color – could casually kill a slave owned by another. Especially one headed for the slave marts. He would find himself in serious financial trouble. Even Tibeats was warned by Ford’s overseer about the financial danger he would face upon killing Northup. I can only assume that Epps was a very hands on planter, because I was surprised by the numerous scenes featuring him supervising the field slaves. And I have never heard of this before. And I am still shaking my head at the scene featuring Northup’s visit to the Shaw plantation, where he found a loaned out Patsey having refreshments with the plantation mistress, Harriet Shaw. Black or white, I simply find it difficult to surmise a plantation mistress having refreshments with a slave – owned or loaned out. Speaking of Patsey’s social visit to the Shaw plantation, could someone explain why she and Mistress Shaw are eating a dessert that had been created in France, during the early 20th century? Check out the image below:

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The image features the two women eating macarons. Now I realize that macarons had existed even before the 1840s. But the macarons featured in the image above (with a sweet paste creating a sandwich with two cookies) first made its debut in the early 20th century, nearly a century after the movie’s setting. This was a very sloppy move either on the part of Stockhausen or the movie’s set decorator, Alice Baker.

And if I must be frank, I had a problem with some of the movie’s dialogue. I realize that McQueen and Ridley were attempting to recapture the dialogue of 19th century America. But there were times I felt they had failed spectacularly. Some of it brought back painful memories of the stilted dialogue from the 2003 Civil War movie, “GODS AND GENERALS”. The words coming out of the actors’ mouths struck me as part dialogue, part speeches. The only thing missing was a speech from a Shakespearean play.

Not only did I have a problem with the dialogue, but also some of the performances. Even those performances I had earlier praised nearly got off tracked by the movie’s more questionable dialogue. But I was not impressed by two particular performances. One came from Brad Pitt, who portrayed a Canadian carpenter hired by Epps to build a gazebo. To be fair, my main problems with Pitt’s performance was the dialogue that sounded like a speech . . . and his accent. Do Canadians actually sound like that? In fact, I find it difficult to pinpoint what kind of accent he actually used. The performance that I really found troubling was Michael Fassbender’s portrayal of the brutal Edwin Epps. Mind you, he had his moments of subtle acting that really impressed me – especially in scenes featuring Epps’ clashes with his wife or the more subtle attempts of intimidation of Northup. Those moments reminded me why I had been a fan of the actor for years. But Fassbender’s Epps mainly came off as a one-dimensional villain with very little subtlety or complexity. Consider the image below in which Fassbender is trying to convey Epps’ casual brutality:

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For me, it seemed as if the actor is trying just a little too hard. And I suspect that McQueen’s direction is to blame for this. I blame both McQueen and Ridley for their failure to reveal Epps’ insecurities, which were not only apparent in Northup’s memoirs, but also in the 1984 television movie. Speaking of McQueen, there were times when I found his direction heavy-handed. This was especially apparent in most of Fassbender’s scenes and in sequences in which some of the other characters’ dialogue spiraled into speeches. And then there was Hans Zimmer’s score. I have been a fan of Zimmer for nearly two decades. But I have to say that I did not particularly care for his work in “12 YEARS A SLAVE”. His use of horns in the score struck me as somewhat over-the-top.

Do I feel that “12 YEARS A SLAVE” deserved its acclaim? Well . . . yes. Despite its flaws, it is a very good movie that did not whitewash Solomon Northup’s brutal experiences as a slave. And it also featured some exceptional performances, especially from Chiwetel Ejiofor and Lupita Nyong’o.  But I also feel that some of the acclaim that the movie had garnered, may have been undeserved. As good as it was, I found it hard to accept that “12 YEARS A SLAVE” was the best movie about American slavery ever made.

 

 

“WESTWARD HO!”: Part One – “HOW THE WEST WAS WON” (1962)

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Below is Part One to my article about Hollywood’s depiction about the westward migration via wagon trains in 19th century United States. It focuses upon the 1962 movie, “HOW THE WEST WAS WON”

“WESTWARD HO!”: Part One – “HOW THE WEST WAS WON” (1962)

I. Introduction

The sprawling 1962 movie, “HOW THE WEST WAS WON” focused upon the fifty (50) years history of the Prescott-Rawlins family between 1839 and 1889. The movie was divided into five sections – “The Rivers”“The Plains”“The Civil War”“The Railroad” and “The Outlaws”. Westbound migration was featured in the movie’s first two segments – “The River” and “The Plains”.

“HOW THE WEST WAS WON” opens in 1839 (I think) with the Prescotts, a family from upstate New York, westbound to settle on new land in Illinois. After a trip along the Erie Canal, the Prescotts and their traveling companions, the Harveys from Scotland, build flatboats for the westbound journey on the Ohio River. During their journey, they meet a mountain man named Linus Rawlins (James Stewart), who is eastbound to sell his furs in Pittsburgh. The Prescotts’ oldest daughter, Eve (Carroll Baker), and Linus fall in love. After a disastrous encounter with river rapids that led to the deaths of Mr. and Mrs. Prescott; Eve decides to settle at the very location of their deaths in Southern Ohio and accept Linus’ marriage proposal. Younger sister Lilith Prescott (Debbie Reynolds) decides to move on.

“The Plains” picks up over a decade later, with Lilith as a dance hall performer in St. Louis. She learns from an attorney that she has inherited a California gold claim from a now deceased customer. Lilith travels to Independence, where she joins a California-bound wagon train by becoming the traveling companion of a middle-aged woman named Aggie Clegg (Thelma Ritter), willing to use Lilith’s looks to attract eligible men for marriage. Lilith also attracts the attention of two men, wagonmaster Roger Morgan (Robert Preston) and a roguish gambler named Cleve Van Valen (Gregory Peck).

II. History vs. Hollywood

To this day, I never understood why screenwriter James R. Webb allowed the Prescotts and the Harveys to travel across the Erie Canal. It is obvious that he had every intention of having them settle in Southern Ohio, along the River. So why use that route? According to the 1840 map below, the Erie Canal was a waterway that stretched from Albany to Buffalo in upstate New York.

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This meant that the Prescotts and Harveys’s first leg of their journey ended at Buffalo, along the shores of Lake Erie. Are we really supposed to believe that the two families then journeyed from Buffalo to the banks of the Ohio River, in order to reach Illinois, when they could have easily traveled near the U.S.-Canada border to reach their destination? And Webb failed to reveal how they reached the Ohio River without a wagon. He could have allowed Eve Prescott and the other surviving members of the family to settle in Illinois or Ohio near one of the Great Lakes . . . or avoid the Erie Canal altogether and end up in Southern Ohio. Unfortunately, the screenwriter settled for a convoluted route. Even worse, he had mountain man Linus Rawlins traveling toward Pittsburgh to sell furs. Really? In 1839? Linus could have easily sold his furs further west in St. Louis or more importantly, Independence in western Missouri, without having to cross the Mississippi River.

When Lilith Prescott traveled to California after inheriting her California gold claim over a decade later, she chose the correct route – the Oregon/California Trails. However, Webb, director Henry Hathaway, and the producers decide to include nearly every cliché regarding western migration.

One, gambler Cleve Van Valen tried to join Roger Morgan’s wagon train in Independence, in order to make acquaintance with Lilith. He was told to get lost. Cleve managed to catch up with the wagon train some 100 miles west of Independence. Yet, the terrain looked suspiciously arid for eastern Kansas. The wagon trains used in this production were very large. In fact, they struck me as looking larger than a typical Conestoga wagon. One scene in the movie featured Cleve and a group of male emigrants playing poker inside one wagon . . . while it was traveling. This was Hollywood history at its worse. And guess what? Those wagons were pulled by horses, not oxen or mules.

“HOW THE WEST WAS WON” never featured any well known landmarks along the Oregon/California Trails. I suspect this was due to the movie’s constraining time for each segment. However, there was time to feature a large scale attack on the wagon train by a horde of Cheyenne warriors. And this attack was made against a large and well-armed wagon train. In reality, there would have never been such an attack in the first place. And if such a thing had happened, the Cheyenne would have been seriously wiped out.

I cannot deny that “HOW THE WEST WAS WON” was an entertaining film. But in the end, it turned out to be too much “Hollywood” and not enough “History”.

UHxW

 

Mary S. Peake (1823-1862)

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MARY S. PEAKE (1823-1862)

Mary S. Peake was an American educator and humanitarian who, along with her husband, was a member of the African-American elite of Hampton, Virginia before the Civil War.

Mrs. Peake was known for starting a school for the children of former slaves between the fall of 1861 and February 1862, first in Union-held Hampton, Virginia; and later inside Fort Monroeafter Hampton was torched by Confederate forces in August 1861.  Mrs. Peake became the first teacher hired by the American Missionary Association.  And she was associated with the Association’s later founding of Hampton University in 1868.

Sometime before the outbreak of war, Mrs. Peake had contacted tuberculosis and eventually died on February 22, 1862.

 

TIME MACHINE: The Oberlin-Wellington Rescue

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TIME MACHINE: THE OBERLIN-WELLINGTON RESCUE

For once I decided to write about a historical event that is not celebrating any particular anniversary.  Two months from now, September 2018, would mark as the 160th anniversary of the Oberlin-Wellington Rescue.  Why I did not wait until September to post this article?  I have no idea.  Impatience, perhaps? 

Nevertheless, anyone familiar with Antebellum or Civil War history would know about this even.  The Oberlin-Wellington Rescue was a key event in the history of the American abolitionist movement before the Civil War. It centered around the arrest of an escaped slave named John Price in Oberlin, Ohio by Kentucky slave catchers and a U.S. marshal, two-and-a-half years before the outbreak of the Civil War. This story began over two years before the incident. Back in January 1856, Price and two other slaves escaped from a farm near Maysville, Kentucky. The three slaves made their way across the Ohio River, and with the help of Underground Railroad agents, they made it as far north as Oberlin, Ohio. The latter proved to be a racially integrated, liberal-minded community that served as the location of Oberlin College, a liberal arts college known for accepting both non-white and female students. Despite the presence of some conservative citizens, Oberlin was known for its strong support of the abolitionist movement. While his two companions continued north to Canada, Price decided to remain in the Ohio town, due to his poor health.

The fugitive slave spent the next two-and-a-half years struggling to make a living in Oberlin. But due to his limited skills as a farmhand, he found it difficult to make ends meet. On September 13, 1858, Price was hired by affluent farmer Lewis Boynton to work on the latter’s farm, just north of Oberlin. Boynton’s adolescent son, Shakespeare, picked up Price drove him out of town, with the intent to deliver the latter to his father’s farm by noon. Unbeknownst to Price, young Shakespeare had made a deal to deliver the fugitive to a pair of Kentucky slave catchers and a deputy U.S. marshal – Samuel Davis, Richard Mitchell and Jacob Lowe. The buggy conveying the three white men and the black fugitive swung south and headed for nearby Wellington, Ohio; where they would be able to catch a train further south to Columbus. Unfortunately for the two Kentuckians and Deputy Marshal Lowe, two Oberlin College students named Ansel Lyman and Seth Bartholomew passed them on the road. Once the two students reached Oberlin, they alerted the town’s citizens to Price’s kidnapping. Meanwhile, the slave catchers, Lowe and Price checked into a room at the Wadsworth Hotel to await for the southbound train.

Many Oberlin citizens formed a group and rushed toward Wellington to rescue Price. Among those part of the rescuers were Charles Henry Langston, Simeon E. Bushnell, and Oberlin student William E. Lincoln. Once they reached the other town around two o’clock in the afternoon, they were joined by some of Wellington’s citizens, who also harbored anti-slavery sentiments. The group formed into a mob and tried to coerce the slave catchers and the deputy marshal to release Price through intimidation and threats of violence. Davis, Mitchell and Lowe took Price to the hotel’s attic for safety. Langston and three others tried to free Price, via legal actions – the arrest of the slave catchers for kidnapping and a habeus corpus. Those efforts failed as well. Eventually, Lincoln, along with John Copeland, Jr. and Jerry Fox rushed the attic using force and firearms, grabbed Price and spirited him back to Oberlin, where they hid him inside the home of James Harris Fairchild, a future president of Oberlin College. Soon, Price’s rescuers escorted him to Canada.

A Federal grand jury indicted 37 members of the rescue party, including Langston, Lincoln, Bushnell and Copeland for breaking the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850. Bushnell and Langston were the only ones tried in court. Both were found guilty and convicted by a jury that consisted solely of pro-slavery Democrats. Bushnell was sentenced to sixty (60) days in prison and Langston, twenty (20) days. Their fellow prisoners continued to languish in the Cuyahoga County Jail. The two Kentucky slave catchers – Richard Mitchell and Samuel Davis – were arrested for Price’s kidnapping. In return for the charges against them being dropped, the Federal government chose to drop the charges against the rest of the rescuers. The entire event had attracted more notice than the James Buchanan Administration wanted. Even worse, the Federal attorneys realized that a trial for all of the Rescuers would cost the government at least $5 million dollars. After serving eighty-five (85) days in jail, the Rescuers (with the exception of Bushnell, who continued to serve out his 60-day sentence) were released on July 7, 1859. Bushnell was finally released on July 11, 1859.

The Oberlin-Wellington Rescue is considered by historians as an important contribution to the outbreak of the Civil War . . . along with John Brown’s Raid on Harper’s Ferry and the Presidential Election of 1860. Two participants in the Oberlin–Wellington Rescue, Lewis Sheridan Leary and John A. Copeland participated in the Harper Ferry’s Raid. Leary was killed and Copeland was captured and later, executed. The Rescue attracted a great deal of attention in the National press. And after a decade that featured the passing of the Fugitive Slaw Law of 1850, the passing of Senator Stephen A. Douglas‘s Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 and the Supreme Court’s decision on the Dred Scott vs. Sandford case; the Oberlin-Wellington Rescue proved to be the first breath of fresh air for the abolitionist cause.

For more information on the Oberlin-Wellington Rescue, read the following book:

*“The Town That Started the Civil War” (1990) by Nat Brandt

*“1858: Abraham Lincoln, Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, Ulysses S. Grant and the War They Failed to See” [one chapter] by Bruce Chadwick