“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.

Erie-canal_1840_map

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

 

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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

“THE EUROPEANS” (1979) Review

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“THE EUROPEANS” (1979) Review

Merchant-Ivory Productions first began as a production company in 1961. Formed by Ishmail Merchant and James Ivory, the film company produced and released a series of movies, usually written by German-born screenwriter,
Ruth Prawer Jhabvala. A few years before Merchant-Ivory entered its artistic heyday of the 1980s and 90s, it released“THE EUROPEANS”, an adaptation of Henry James’ 1878 short novel, “The Europeans: A Sketch”

Set in antebellum Massachusetts in either 1849 or 1850, “THE EUROPEANS” begins with the arrival of an European visitor named Felix Young, who is in the United States to visit his American cousins, the Wentworths. The first member of the family he meets is Gertrude Wentworth, who is shirking attendance at church. Felix eventually meets the rest of the family – patriarch Mr. Wentworth, Charlotte and the youngest member, Clifford. He also meets Mr. Brand, the local minister who hopes to marry Gertrude. Felix’s sister, Eugenia Munster, arrives the next day. Not only does she meet the Wentworths and Mr. Brand; but also Robert and Lizzie Acton, a brother and sister who happen to be neighbors of the Wentworths.

It is apparent that Gertrude has not only become enamored of her European cousins’ lifestyle, but especially Felix. Meanwhile, Eugenia and Robert have grown increasingly attracted to one another. However, Eugenia is reluctant to sign the divorce papers that would signal the end of her morganatic marriage to Prince Adolf of Silberstadt-Schreckenstein, whose family wants the marriage to end for political reasons. Despite Eugenia’s marriage and her obvious dislike of her cousins’ Unitarian society, she managed to become attracted to Robert . . . much to his sister Lizzie’s distaste. As for Felix, he and Gertrude become romantically involved. Unfortunately, the Wentworths are not thrilled by this new development between the distant cousins. All of them expect Gertrude to marry Mr. Brand – including Charlotte, who happens to be in love with the minister. The story ends up as a clash between 19th century European and American sensibilities and culture; and also a series of love stories or subplots that feature family disapproval, procrastination and bad communication.

I might as well say it. “THE EUROPEANS” is not exactly an example of the Merchant Ivory team at its cinematic best. Mind you, the movie is visually lovely. And thanks to Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s screenplay, it does featuring some amusing wit. But there is something archaic, almost static about this film. I get the feeling that Ishmail Merchant and James Ivory were either overwhelmed by the film’s period setting. Or else they, along with Prawer Jhabvala, were determined to indulged in some cliched view of stoic 19th century New England. There were times when “THE EUROPEANS” struck me as a bit too slow, almost bloodless. This pristine, yet chilly style even permeated the movie’s production designs managed by Joyce Herlihy.

But there were plenty of aspects of “THE EUROPEANS” that I enjoyed. Cinematographer Larry Pizer beautifully captured the New England locations of the film. Although Henry James’ story was set during the spring, Merchant, Ivory and their production team were so dazzled by the region’s beauty during the fall season that they decided to change the story’s period. I was also very impressed by Judy Moorcroft’s costume designs. Not only did I find her costumes beautiful, but I was also impressed by Moorcroft’s successful attempt to make her costumes a near re-creation of 1849-1850 fashions in Western countries. A good example is the following outfit worn by Lee Remick:

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Despite my complaints about the movie’s staid adaptation of James’ novel, I must admit that I still managed to enjoy the story. What I found surprising about the movie’s plot is that the so-called battle between the cultures did not result in any real winners. Did American or European culture win? My answer is “neither”. But individuals won, especially three particular characters – Felix Young and the two Wentworth sisters, Gertrude and Charlotte. The romance . . . or flirtation between Eugenia Munster and Robert Acton proved to be a bit more complicated. Despite their flirtations and battles of will, I came away with the particular feeling that neither really triumphed in the end. Yet at the same time, I found it equally hard to believe that either of them had suffered a sound defeat. The Eugenia-Robert romance proved to be one of the most complex literary relationships I have ever encountered. Most of the performances in “THE EUROPEANS” proved to be solid, especially those from Tim Woodward, Lisa Eichhorn, Robert Addy and Norman Snow. But the two performances that really impressed me came from Lee Remick and Robin Ellis, who did a marvelous job in conveying the complicated Eugenia-Robert romance.

As I had stated earlier, I would never consider “THE EUROPEANS” as one of the best movies produced by the Merchant-Ivory team. I found it a bit slow and at times, bloodless. It lacked the earthy humor and drama of some of the production company’s bigger successes in the 1980s and 90s. On the other hand, I must admit that it looked beautiful and still featured some complex characterizations, thanks to a solid cast led by Lee Remick and Robin Ellis. With patience, one could overlook the movie’s flaws and still manage to enjoy Henry James’ tale.

 

“BARBARY COAST” (1935) Review

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“BARBARY COAST” (1935) Review

I have seen a good number of television and movie Westerns in my time. But I find it rather odd that it is hard – almost difficult – to find a well known story set during the California Gold Rush era. And I find that rather surprising, considering many historians regard it as one of the most interesting periods in the history of the American Old West. 

Of the movies and television productions I have come across, one of them is the 1935 Western, “BARBARY COAST”. Directed by Howard Hawks and adapted from Herbert Asbury’s 1933 book, the movie told the story about one Mary Rutledge, a young woman from the East Coast who arrives in 1850 San Francisco to marry the wealthy owner of a local saloon. She learns from a group of men at the wharf that her fiancé had been killed – probably murdered the owner of the Bella Donna restaurant, one Louis Chamalis. Upon meeting Chamalis at his establishment, Mary agrees to be his companion for both economic and personal reasons. She eventually ends up running a crooked roulette wheel at the Bella Donna and becoming Chamalis’ escort. But despite her own larceny, Mary (who becomes known as “the Swan), becomes disenchanted with Chamalis’ bloody methods of maintaining power within San Francisco’s Barbary Coast neighborhood. He even manages to coerce a newspaper owner named Colonel Cobb, who had accused Chamalis of a past murder, into keeping silent. During a morning ride in the countryside, Mary meets and falls in love with a handsome gold miner named Jim Carmichael. Life eventually becomes more difficult for Mary, as she finds herself torn between Jim’s idyllic love and Chamalis’ luxurious lifestyle and his obsessive passion for her.

Judging from my recap of “BARBARY COAST”, it is easy to see that the movie is more than just a Western. It seemed to be part crime melodrama, part romance, part Western and part adventure story. “BARBARY COAST” seemed to have the makings of a good old-fashioned costume epic that was very popular with Hollywood studios during the mid-to-late 1930s. If there is one scene in the movie that truly personified its epic status, it is one of the opening sequences that featured Mary Rutledge’s arrival in San Francisco and her first meeting with Louis Chamalis. Mary’s first viewing of the socializing inside the Bella Donna is filled with details and reeked with atmosphere. Frankly, I consider this scene an artistic triumph for both director Howard Hawks and the movie’s art director, Richard Day.

“BARBARY COAST” went through four screenwriters and five script revisions to make it to the screen. The movie began as a tale about San Francisco’s Barbary Coast, but ended up as a love triangle within the setting. This was due to the Production Code that was recently enforced by Joseph Breen. The latter objected to the original screenplay’s frank portrayal of the San Francisco neighborhood’s activities. By changing the screenplay into a love story in which the heroine finds redemption through love for a decent sort, the filmmakers finally managed to gain approval from Breen. Although Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur were credited as the movie’s writers, screenwriters Stephen Longstreet and Edward Chodorov also worked on the script, but did not receive any screen credit. Personally, I had no problems with this choice. Thanks to Hawks’ direction, moviegoers still managed to get a few peeps on just how sordid and corrupt San Francisco was during the Gold Rush.

The movie also benefited from a first-rate cast led by Miriam Hopkins, Edward G. Robinson and Joel McCrea. I would not consider their performances as memorable or outstanding, but all three gave solid performances that more or less kept the movie on track. I found this a miracle, considering the emotional rifts that seemed to permeate the set during production. As it turned out, Robinson and Hopkins could barely stand each other. However . . . there were moments when Robinson and McCrea’s performances were in danger of being less than competent. Robinson nearly veered into the realm of over-the-top melodrama while conveying his character’s jealousy in the movie’s last twenty minutes. And McCrea came off as a bit of a stiff in most of his early scenes. Only with Walter Brennan, did the actor truly conveyed his sharp acting skills. As for Hopkins . . . well, she gave a better performance in this movie than she did in the film for which she had earned an Oscar nomination – namely “BECKY SHARP”.

The movie also featured competent performances from the likes of Walter Brennan, Frank Craven, Harry Carey, and Donald Meek. But if I had to give a prize for the most interesting performance in the film, I would give it Brian Donlevy for his portrayal of Louis Chamalis’ ruthless enforcer, Knuckles Jacoby. Superficially, Donlevy’s Knuckles is portrayed as the typical movie villain’s minion, who usually stands around wearing a menacing expression. Donlevy did all this and at the same time, managed to inject a little pathos in a character who found himself in a legally desperation situation, thanks to his loyalty toward his employer.

But you know what? Despite some of the performances – especially Brian Donlevy’s and the movie’s production values, I did not like “BARBARY COAST”. Not one bit. There were at least two reasons for this dislike. One, I was not that fond of Omar Kiam’s costume designs – namely the ones for Miriam Hopkins. The problem with her costumes is that Kiam seemed incapable of determining whether the movie is set in 1850 or 1935. Honestly. A peek at the costume worn by the actress in the image below should convey the contradicting nature of her costume:

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The other . . . and bigger reason why I disliked “BARBARY COAST” is that the plot ended up disappointing me so much. This movie had the potential to be one of the blockbuster costume dramas shown in movie theaters during the mid-to-late 1930s. If only Joseph Breen and the Censor Board had allowed the filmmakers to somewhat follow Asbury’s book and explore the colorful history of San Francisco from the mid-1840s to the California Gold Rush period of the early-to-mid 1850s. Despite the colorful opening featuring Mary Rutledge’s arrival in San Francisco and the subplot about the Louis Chamalis-Colonel Cobb conflict, “BARBARY COAST” was merely reduced to a 90 minute turgid melodrama about a love triangle between a gold digger, a villain with a penchant for being a drama queen, and stiff-necked gold miner and poet who only seemed to come alive in the company of his crotchety companion. To make matters worse, the movie ended with Mary and Jim Carmichael floating around San Francisco Bay, hidden by the darkness and fog, while evading the increasingly jealous Chamalis, before they can board a clipper ship bound for the East Coast. I mean, honestly . . . really?

I have nothing else to say about “BARBARY COAST”. What else is there to say? Judging from the numerous reviews I have read online, a good number of people seemed to have a high regard for it. However, I simply do not feel the same. Neither director Howard Hawks; screenwriters Ben Hetch and Charles MacArthur; and a cast led by Miriam Hopkins, Edward G. Robinson and Joel McCrea could prevent me from feeling only disappointed. Pity.

 

 

“THE EUROPEANS” (1979) Review

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“THE EUROPEANS” (1979) Review

Merchant-Ivory Productions first began as a production company in 1961. Formed by Ishmail Merchant and James Ivory, the film company produced and released a series of movies, usually written by German-born screenwriter,
Ruth Prawer Jhabvala. A few years before Merchant-Ivory entered its artistic heyday of the 1980s and 90s, it released “THE EUROPEANS”, an adaptation of Henry James’ 1878 short novel, “The Europeans: A Sketch”

Set in antebellum Massachusetts in either 1849 or 1850, “THE EUROPEANS” begins with the arrival of an European visitor named Felix Young, who is in the United States to visit his American cousins, the Wentworths. The first member of the family he meets is Gertrude Wentworth, who is shirking attendance at church. Felix eventually meets the rest of the family – patriarch Mr. Wentworth, Charlotte and the youngest member, Clifford. He also meets Mr. Brand, the local minister who hopes to marry Gertrude. Felix’s sister, Eugenia Munster, arrives the next day. Not only does she meet the Wentworths and Mr. Brand; but also Robert and Lizzie Acton, a brother and sister who happen to be neighbors of the Wentworths.

It is apparent that Gertrude has not only become enamored of her European cousins’ lifestyle, but especially Felix. Meanwhile, Eugenia and Robert have grown increasingly attracted to one another. However, Eugenia is reluctant to sign the divorce papers that would signal the end of her morganatic marriage to Prince Adolf of Silberstadt-Schreckenstein, whose family wants the marriage to end for political reasons. Despite Eugenia’s marriage and her obvious dislike of her cousins’ Unitarian society, she managed to become attracted to Robert . . . much to his sister Lizzie’s distaste. As for Felix, he and Gertrude become romantically involved. Unfortunately, the Wentworths are not thrilled by this new development between the distant cousins. All of them expect Gertrude to marry Mr. Brand – including Charlotte, who happens to be in love with the minister. The story ends up as a clash between 19th century European and American sensibilities and culture; and also a series of love stories or subplots that feature family disapproval, procrastination and bad communication.

I might as well say it. “THE EUROPEANS” is not exactly an example of the Merchant Ivory team at its cinematic best. Mind you, the movie is visually lovely. And thanks to Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s screenplay, it does featuring some amusing wit. But there is something archaic, almost static about this film. I get the feeling that Ishmail Merchant and James Ivory were either overwhelmed by the film’s period setting. Or else they, along with Prawer Jhabvala, were determined to indulged in some cliched view of stoic 19th century New England. There were times when “THE EUROPEANS” struck me as a bit too slow, almost bloodless. This pristine, yet chilly style even permeated the movie’s production designs managed by Joyce Herlihy.

But there were plenty of aspects of “THE EUROPEANS” that I enjoyed. Cinematographer Larry Pizer beautifully captured the New England locations of the film. Although Henry James’ story was set during the spring, Merchant, Ivory and their production team were so dazzled by the region’s beauty during the fall season that they decided to change the story’s period. I was also very impressed by Judy Moorcroft’s costume designs. Not only did I find her costumes beautiful, but I was also impressed by Moorcroft’s successful attempt to make her costumes a near re-creation of 1849-1850 fashions in Western countries. A good example is the following outfit worn by Lee Remick:

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Despite my complaints about the movie’s staid adaptation of James’ novel, I must admit that I still managed to enjoy the story. What I found surprising about the movie’s plot is that the so-called battle between the cultures did not result in any real winners. Did American or European culture win? My answer is “neither”. But individuals won, especially three particular characters – Felix Young and the two Wentworth sisters, Gertrude and Charlotte. The romance . . . or flirtation between Eugenia Munster and Robert Acton proved to be a bit more complicated. Despite their flirtations and battles of will, I came away with the particular feeling that neither really triumphed in the end. Yet at the same time, I found it equally hard to believe that either of them had suffered a sound defeat. The Eugenia-Robert romance proved to be one of the most complex literary relationships I have ever encountered. Most of the performances in “THE EUROPEANS” proved to be solid, especially those from Tim Woodward, Lisa Eichhorn, Robert Addy and Norman Snow. But the two performances that really impressed me came from Lee Remick and Robin Ellis, who did a marvelous job in conveying the complicated Eugenia-Robert romance.

As I had stated earlier, I would never consider “THE EUROPEANS” as one of the best movies produced by the Merchant-Ivory team. I found it a bit slow and at times, bloodless. It lacked the earthy humor and drama of some of the production company’s bigger successes in the 1980s and 90s. On the other hand, I must admit that it looked beautiful and still featured some complex characterizations, thanks to a solid cast led by Lee Remick and Robin Ellis. With patience, one could overlook the movie’s flaws and still manage to enjoy Henry James’ tale.

“THE ADVENTURES OF HUCK FINN” (1993) Review

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“THE ADVENTURES OF HUCK FINN” (1993) Review

Looking back, I realized that I have seen very few movie and television adaptations of Mark Twain’s novels – especially those that featured his two most famous characters, Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. I take that back. I have seen a good number of adaptations, but it has been a long time since I have viewed any of them. Realizing this, I decided to review the 1993 Disney adaptation of Twain’s 1885 novel, “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn”.

According to Wikipedia“THE ADVENTURES OF HUCK FINN” mainly focused the first half of Twain’s novel. After watching the film, I realized that Wikipedia had made an error. The movie focused on four-fifths of the narrative. It ignored the novel’s last segment – namely Huck Finn’s reunion with his friend, Tom Sawyer, at the Arkansas plantation owned by the latter’s uncle. Actually, director/screenwriter Stephen Sommers combined the aspects of both this chapter and the previous one in which Huck meets the two con men – “The Duke” and “The King” – along with the Wilkes sisters into one long segment for the movie’s second half. In fact, Sommers named the town in which the Wilkes sisters lived after Tom’s Uncle Phelps. I know what many are thinking . . . “THE ADVENTURES OF HUCK FINN” is not a completely faithful adaptation of Twain’s novel. Considering that I have yet to come across a movie or television production that is not completely faithful of a source novel or play, I find such complaints unnecessary. At least for me. Especially since I had very little problems with Sommers’ adaptation in the first place.

Anyone familiar with Twain’s novel knows what happened. A Missouri boy named Huckleberry Finn (who first appeared in Twain’s 1876 novel, “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer”) is living with a pair of widowed sisters – the Widow Douglas and Miss Watson – when his drunken and violent father, “Pap” Finn, reappears in his life, determined to get his hands on the money left to Huck by his late wife. After Huck spends a terrifying night with a drunken Pap, he decides to fake his death and head for Jackson’s Island in the middle of the Mississippi River. There, he discovers Jim, Miss Watson’s slave and one of Huck’s closest friends, hiding out as well. Jim had escaped after learning Miss Watson’s decision to sell him down the river. Huck initially condemns Jim for running away. But due to their friendship, he decides to help Jim escape and join the latter on a trip down the Mississippi to Cairo, Illinois. There, Jim hopes to find river passage up the Ohio River to freedom. Unfortunately, their plans fail fall apart and the two friends end up facing a series of adventures and different characters as they find themselves heading down the Mississippi River.

To be honest, I have never read a review of “THE ADVENTURES OF HUCK FINN”. In fact, I have never seen the movie in theaters. Which is a shame. Because this film is damn good. I had seen the version that aired on PBS back in 1985. And I never thought any version could top it. Well, this particular version did not top it . . . so to speak. But, I do not regard it as inferior to the 1985 version. I believe that both movies are truly first-rate. I just happen to prefer this version, which was written and directed by Stephen Sommers. I do recall how many critics had initially dismissed the film, believing it had “Disneyfied” what is regarded by many as Mark Twain’s masterpiece . . . well, at least in the many years following his death.

Sommers’ screenplay had managed to “Disneyfied” Twain’s story in one way. It avoided the use of the word “nigger” to describe Jim Watson and other African-American characters. Instead, some characters called Jim “boy” in a very insulting and derogatory manner. But there were other changes made to Twain story. Huck’s joke to Jim by pretending he was dead was erased. And as I had stated earlier, the last segment that featured Jim being sold to an Arkansas plantation owned by Tom Sawyer’s uncle, along with Huck’s reunion with his best friend, had been removed. Personally, I had no problems with the removal of Tom’s appearance. Like many literary critics – including those who admired the novel – I have never liked that particular subplot. Instead, Sommers had decided to end the story with a major sequence featuring Huck and Jim’s “partnership” with the two con men who posed as the long-lost brothers of a dead rich man named Wilkes. This allowed Sommers to name Wilkes’ town after Tom Sawyer’s uncle Phelps. Sommers also allowed Huck to experience Tom’s fate in the story. By getting rid of Huck and Jim’s reunion with Tom, Sommers managed to end the movie on a more exciting note, instead of the anti-climatic one that seemed to mar Twain’s story.

But there is one thing that Sommers did not do . . . he did not softened the anti-slavery and anti-racism themes from Twain’s novel. Sommers not only retained the strong sense of travel and adventure along the Mississippi River in the story, he did an effective job of maintaining the author’s anti-slavery and anti-racism themes. This was apparent in scenes that featured Huck and Jim’s debate about the presence of non-English speaking people in the world, the two con men’s discovery of Jim’s status as a runaway slave and their blackmail of the two friends and finally, Huck and Jim’s attempt to make their escape from Phelps’ Landing to a northbound steamboat. To reinforce the theme, Sommers even allowed Jim to be caught by the Grangerford family and forced to become one of their field slaves – something that did not happen in Twain’s novel. More importantly, Jim’s decision to run from Miss Watson would have an impact on their friendship, which had already been established before the story began. This was apparent in Huck’s reluctance to help Jim escape and the latter’s knowledge of Pap’s death . . . something he kept from the boy throughout most of the story. Jim’s status as a runaway, along with the two con men’s dealings at Phelps’ Landing culminated in an exciting conclusion that resulted with a rather scary lynch mob after Huck and Jim’s hides.

But it was not just Sommers’ adaptation of Twain’s story that I found satisfying. “THE ADVENTURES OF HUCK FINN” is a visually beautiful film. And the producers can thank veteran Hollywood filmmaker Janusz Kaminski for his beautiful photography. His rich and sharp colors, which holds up very well after 22 years, really captured the beauties of the film’s Natchez, Mississippi locations. His photography also added to the film’s early 19th century Mississippi Valley setting. However, Kaminski’s photography was not the only aspect that allowed Sommers to beautifully recapture the film’s setting. I was also impressed by Randy Moore’s art direction and Michael Warga’s set decorations – especially at a riverboat landing in which Huck, Jim and the two con men meet a former resident of Phelps’ Landing. I noticed that Betsy Heimann’s career in Hollywood mainly consisted of movie projects set in the present day. As far as I know, “THE ADVENTURES OF HUCK FINN” was her only movie project set in the past. I find this a pity, because I was very impressed by her costumes for the movie. In fact, I found them quite beautiful, especially her costumes for Anne Heche, Renée O’Connor and Dana Ivey.

However, the costumes also brought up a small issue I had with the movie. Exactly when is this movie set? Was it set during the 1820s or the 1830s? During a scene between Huck and young Susan Wilks, the former (who was impersonating the Duke and the King’s Cockney valet) pointed out that George IV reigned Great Britain. Which meant the movie could be set anywhere between January 1820 and June 1830. But Heimann’s costumes for the women, with its fuller skirts, seemed to indicate that the movie was definitely set in the 1830s. So, I am a little confused. I am also confused as to why Huck had failed to tell Billy Grangerford that the captured Jim was his servant. Why did he pretend that he did not know Jim? The latter could have been spared a brutal beating at the hands of the family’s overseer. I congratulate Sommers for using the Grangerford sequence to reveal more on the brutality of 19th century American slavery. But he could have easily done this by allowing both Huck and Jim to witness the whipping of a Grangerford slave. I also had a problem with Bill Conti’s score. Well . . . at least half of it. On one hand, Conti’s score meshed well with the story and its setting. However . . . I noticed that some parts of his score had not originally been created for this movie. Being a long time fan of John Jakes’ “North and South” Trilogy and the three television adaptations, I had no problem realizing that Conti had lifted parts of the score he had written for the 1985 miniseries, “NORTH AND SOUTH” and used it for this movie. 

I might have a few quibbles about “THE ADVENTURES OF HUCK FINN”. But I certainly had no complaints about the film’s cast. The movie was filled with first-rate performances from the movie’s supporting cast. Colorful performances included those from Dana Ivey and Mary Louise Wilson as the kind-hearted Widow Douglas and her more acerbic sister Miss Watson; Ron Perlman, who was both scary and funny as Huck’s drunken father Pap Finn; Frances Conroy as the verbose shanty woman from Huck tries to steal food; Garette Ratliff Henson as the friendly Billy Grangerford; Tom Aldredge as the suspicious Dr. Robinson, who rightly perceives that the two con men are not his late friend’s brothers; Curtis Armstrong as the slightly brainless and naïve former resident of Phelps’ Landing, who told the “Duke and King” everything about the Wilks family; and James Gammon as the tough sheriff of Phelps’ Landing, who seemed to have a naïve regard for the two con men. Anne Heche, along with Renée O’Connor (Gabrielle from “XENA: WARRIOR PRINCESS”) and Laura Bell Bundy (“JUMUNJI” and “ANGER MANAGEMENT”) portrayed the three Wilks sisters – Mary Jane, Julia and young Susan. Both Heche and O’Connor gave charming performances. But I found Bundy rather funny as the suspicious Susan, especially in her interactions with Elijah Wood.

Of all the actors I could have imagined portraying the two con men – the King and the Duke – neither Jason Robards or Robbie Coltrane enter my thoughts. In fact, I could never imagine the gruff-voiced, two-time Oscar winner and the Scottish actor known for portraying Rubeus Hagrid in the “HARRY POTTER” movie franchise as a pair of 19th century Mississippi Valley con artists, let alone an effective screen team. Not only did the pair give great performances, but to my surprise, managed to create a very funny comedy pair. Who knew? But the pair that really carried “THE ADVENTURES OF HUCK FINN” turned out to be Elijah Wood as the titled character, Huckleberry Finn and Courtney B. Vance as Jim Watson. Someone once complained that Wood was too young to portray Huck Finn in this movie. How on earth did he come up with this observation? Wood was at least twelve years old when he portrayed Huck. Not only was he not too old, he gave a superb performance as the intelligent, yet pragmatic Missouri boy. More importantly, Wood did an excellent job serving as the film’s narrator. Equally superb was Courtney B. Vance, who in my opinion, turned out to be the best cinematic Jim Watson I have ever seen. Vance did an excellent job in conveying the many facets of Jim’s nature – his sense of humor, lack of education, pragmatism and intelligence. Vance made sure that audiences knew that Jim was uneducated . . . and at the same time, a very intelligent man. The best aspect of Wood and Vance’s performances is that the pair made a superb screen team. I have no idea how they felt about each other in real life. On screen, they sparkled like fireworks on the Fourth of July.

“THE ADVENTURES OF HUCK FINN” may not be a literal adaptation of Mark Twain’s novel. It is clear that writer-director made some changes. And I must admit that the movie possessed a few flaws. But in the end, I felt it was a first-rate adaptation of the novel that bridled with energy, color, pathos, suspense, humor and a sense of adventure. And one can thank Stephen Sommers for his excellent script and energetic direction, along with the superb cast led by Elijah Wood and Courtney B. Vance. It is one Twain adaptation I could never get tired of watching over and over again.