Top Ten Favorite HISTORY DOCUMENTARIES

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Below is a list of my favorite history documentaries:

 

TOP TEN FAVORITE HISTORY DOCUMENTARIES

1 - Ken Burns The Civil War

1. “The Civil War” (1990) – Ken Burns produced this award-winning documentary about the U.S. Civil War. Narrated by David McCullough, the documentary was shown in eleven episodes.

2 - Supersizers Go-Eat

2. “The Supersizers Go/Eat” (2008-2009) – Food critic Giles Coren and comedian-broadcaster Sue Perkins co-hosted two entertaining series about the culinary history of Britain (with side trips to late 18th century France and Imperial Rome).

3 - MGM - When the Lion Roared

3. “MGM: When the Lion Roared” (1992) – Patrick Stewart narrated and hosted this three-part look into the history of one of the most famous Hollywood studios – Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM).

4 - Africans in America

4. “Africans in America: America’s Journey Through Slavery” (1998) – Angela Bassett narrated this four-part documentary on the history of slavery in the United States, from the Colonial era to Reconstruction.

5 - Queen Victoria Empire

5. “Queen Victoria’s Empire” (2001) – This PBS documentary is a two-part look at the British Empire during the reign of Queen Victoria. Donald Sutherland narrated.

6 - Motown 40 - The Music Is Forever

6. “Motown 40: The Music Is Forever” (1998) – Diana Ross hosted and narrated this look into the history of Motown, from its inception in 1958 to the 1990s.

7 - Ken Burns The War

7. “The War” (2007) – Ken Burns created another critically acclaimed documentary for PBS. Narrated by Keith David, this seven-part documentary focused upon the United States’ participation in World War II.

8 - Manor House

8. “The Edwardian Manor House” (2002) – This five-episode documentary is also a reality television series in which a British family assume the identity of Edwardian aristocrats and live in an opulent Scottish manor with fifteen (15) people from all walks of life participating as their servants.

9 - Elegance and Decadence - The Age of Regency

9. “Elegance and Decadence: The Age of Regency” (2011) – Historian Dr. Lucy Worsley presented and hosted this three-part documentary about Britain’s Regency era between 1810 and 1820.

10 - Ken Burns The West

10. “The West” (1996) – Directed by Steven Ives and produced by Ken Burns, this eight-part documentary chronicled the history of the trans-Appalachian West in the United States. Peter Coyote narrated.

HM - Fahrenheit 9-11

Honorable Mention: “Fahrenheit 9/11” (2004) – Michael Moore co-produced and directed this Oscar winning documentary that took a critical look at the presidency of George W. Bush, the War on Terror, and its coverage in the news media.

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“SHENANDOAH” (1965) Review

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“SHENANDOAH” (1965) Review

During my recent viewing of the 1965 movie, “SHENANDOAH”, I came to the surprising conclusion that it proved to be entirely different than what I had assumed it would be. But it is not surprising that it would take several years for the movie to be appreciated by today’s audiences than it was back in 1965.

Like I said, “SHENANDOAH” is an unusual film. Set in 1864, during the U.S. Civil War, the movie is about the efforts of a sardonic Virginia farmer and widower named Charlie Anderson to prevent his sons from fighting in the war. Although, he is sympathetic toward the travails his neighbors face from the Union Army’s presence in the Shenandoah Valley, he feels no obligation to fight on behalf of a state he believes had never help him maintain his farm. Nor does he support the Confederacy’s pro-slavery stance. His neighbors seem willing to tolerate his pacifist stance, although a few like Pastor Bjoerling occasionally make barbed comments.

Not long after his only daughter’s wedding to neighbor and Confederate Army officer Sam and the birth of his first grandchild, Charlie’s family fortunes take a turn for the worse. His youngest son, 16 year-old Boy, is captured by Union soldiers, while playing with his close friend Gabriel, a neighbor’s slave. Boy had been wearing a Confederate Army kepi cap he had earlier found. When Gabriel informs the Anderson family of the news; Charlie, most of his sons and daughter Jennie leave to look for Boy. They leave James and his wife Ann at the farm with their young baby.

While watching the first twenty to thirty minutes of “SHENANDOAH”, one gets the impression of watching a warm family comedy-drama with a Civil War setting. I almost felt as if I were watching “THE WALTONS” in a 19th century setting. There are very few characters in uniform. The movie featured the Anderson family at home, at work and a mildly amusing scene of them arriving late at church during the beginning of the sermon. And when the war did infringe upon their lives, the family usually responded in humorous ways – namely their boisterous fight with a state official and soldiers trying to acquire horses for the army, and a stand-off between Anderson’s sons and a group of army recruiters. By the time Charlie and his family set out to find the missing Boy, I felt certain that their adventures would be exciting, topped by a happy ending. Charlie and the rest of the Andersons got their happy ending. . . but at great costs, thanks to the Union Army, the Confederate Army and a group of deserters. The movie’s growing dark tones and anti-war sentiments really took me by surprise, considering its earlier tone. But what really took me by surprise is that the movie’s changing tone had been gradual, thanks to director Andrew V. McLaglen and screenwriter James Lee Barrett.

There were scenes in “SHENANDOAH” that really impressed me. I enjoyed those scenes with Charlie’s conversations with his future son-in-law, Sam, and his daughter-in-law Ann; due to their heartwarming nature, Charlie’s outlooks on both his family dynamics and dealing with marriage, and fine performances from James Stewart, Doug McClure and Katherine Ross. However, his conversation with Union Army officer Colonel Fairchild really impressed me, thanks to Stewart and George Kennedy’s performances, and the way the two men managed to emotionally connect on the horrors of war and fear of losing their sons. Boy’s escape with a group of Confederate soldiers from a riverboat struck me as rather exciting. In one of the movie’s earlier scene, Jennie Anderson had encouraged Gabriel to run away from his master. Not only did Gabriel run, he eventually joined the Union Army. This is probably why I found Gabriel’s reunion on the battlefield with a wounded Boy emotionally satisfying. The friendship and warmth the two boys felt for each other had not wavered, despite finding themselves within the ranks of the opposite armies. And I was amazed at how both Philip Alford and Eugene Jackson Jr. managed to convey the close friendship of the two characters with hardly any words. However, I feel that the movie’s two best scenes were featured in the Andersons’ local church. The first church scene proved to be a very funny affair, thanks to actor Denver Pyle’s skillful conveyance of Pastor Bjoerling’s irritated reaction to the Andersons’ late arrival in the middle of his sermon. The second church scene, which ended the film, was a beautifully acted and emotional that surprisingly left me in tears. It had the perfect mixture of relief, happiness and a little pathos that followed the emotionally draining aspects of the movie’s second half. Even after nearly five decades, many people still talk about it.

Despite my satisfaction with “SHENANDOAH”, there were some aspects of it that I found troubling. Most of my dissatisfaction came from the movie’s historical portrait of its setting. One of the Union soldiers that captured Boy proved to be black. The Union Army was not integrated in 1864. In fact, I do not believe it was ever integrated during the four years of the Civil War. And for the likes of me, I could not see how all of Charlie’s six sons could have avoided military service during the war’s first three years. His sons, especially Jacob, seemed to have minds of their own. I figured if they really wanted to fight in the war – whether for the Confederacy or the Union – they would have left the farm and join the military. I could not understand how someone as strong-willed as Jacob (who was the oldest) could have allowed his father to prevent him from joining the Confederate Army. And even if all the boys had wanted to remain on the farm, they would have been subjected to the military draft. The Confederacy had enacted the military draft about a year before the Union. And the Andersons were not rich or owned any slaves. I have one last complaint – a minor one at that. Some of the acting by the supporting characters in minor roles sucked. Period. I found their performances rather wooden and could not understand how they managed to get roles in an “A” production like“SHENANDOAH”.

Flaws or not, I can honestly say that “SHENANDOAH” is one of the better Civil War movies I have ever seen. Instead of telling the story of the war from one side or the other, it told the story about a family that desperately tried to avoid being dragged into the chaos and tragedy of war . . . and failed. Thanks to a well-written script written by James Lee Bennett and a talented cast led by the even more talented James Stewart, director Andrew V. McLaglen crafted an excellent story about the Civil War that proved to be more emotional and surprising than I could ever imagine.

“THE JOURNEY OF AUGUST KING” (1995) Review

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“THE JOURNEY OF AUGUST KING” (1995) Review

When the 1995 adaptation of John Ehle’s 1971 novel, “The Journey of August King” hit the theaters, it barely made a flicker in the consciousness of moviegoers. In a way, I could see why.

“THE JOURNEY OF AUGUST KING” begins with widowed farmer August King traveling through the hills of western North Carolina in the spring of 1815, after selling his produce, making a final payment on his land, and purchasing goods at the local markets. During his journey, he learns about a hunt for an escaped slave. August eventually comes across the slave – a 17 year-old girl named Annalees. Although he is unwilling to expose her to slave catchers and her owner, a brusque farmer named Olaf Singletary; August wants nothing to do with her. But Annalees, sensing a sympathetic soul, literally follows August’s wagon until she literally forces him to help her. For the next several days, August and Annalees engage in a tension-filled journey in an effort to dodge Singletary and his slave hunters . . . and fellow travelers, whose curiosity or friendliness threatened to expose August and his new travel companion.

Earlier, I had stated that I could understand why “THE JOURNEY OF AUGUST KING” barely made a flicker in the consciousness of moviegoers. One, the movie was based upon a novel that had been published 24 years earlier. And two, Miramax made little effort to publicize this ninety-minute film. I suspect the reason behind the lack of real publicity has to do with the film’s subject – American slavery. Aside from the recent movie, “DJANGO UNCHAINED”, the topic of U.S. slavery has not been that popular with moviegoers and television viewers in the past twenty years or so. I am not going to claim that “THE JOURNEY OF AUGUST KING” is a cinematic classic. But I do wish that Miramax had made a bigger effort to promote this film.

“THE JOURNEY OF AUGUST KING” had its flaws. There were times when the movie’s pacing threatened to crawl to a halt – especially in its second half hour. At the beginning of the movie, August claimed that it would take him at least three days to reach his farm. Yet, the journey to his farm and a nearby trail for escaped slaves seemed to take him and Annalees to reach. Perhaps this is not surprising. I also got the feeling that most of the characters traveling on that road – including August and Annalees – seemed to be traveling in circles. There were times when the pair seemed to be ahead of Singletary . . . and there were times when he seemed to be ahead of them. Very confusing. I only had one final complaint. Thandie Newton gave an excellent performance as Annalees in this movie. But . . . there were times I found her Southern slave girl accent a little exaggerated. I guess I should not have been surprised, considering that the actress hails from Britain.

Thankfully, “THE JOURNEY OF AUGUST KING” possessed a lot more virtues than flaws. Despite her occasionally shaky Southern accent, Newton gave a first-rate performance as the extroverted, yet desperate fugitive slave, who took the chance to recruit the reluctant white farmer to help her. And Jason Patric was brilliant as the cautious August King, suffering from loneliness following the death of his wife. The actor did an excellent job in conveying his character’s development from the farmer who allowed his compassion and loneliness to overcome his caution . . . and at the same time, maintain his quiet nature. More importantly, both Patric and Newton produced a sharp, yet slightly sensual screen chemistry. Larry Drake (from “DARKMAN” and NBC’s “L.A. LAW”) gave a subtle, yet frightening performance as Annalees’ relentless owner, who is determined to recapture her. The movie also boasted a solid supporting performance from Sam Waterston as August’s neighbor and a local lawman.

“THE JOURNEY OF AUGUST KING” had more to offer. One, it featured some solid direction by Andrew Duigan. Also, the movie was filmed in – where else? North Carolina. Not only did it looked beautiful, its beauty was enhanced by Slawomir Idziak’s sharp and colorful photography. Although I would not view the movie’s setting as an excuse to provide eye-catching costumes, I must admit that Patricia Norris did an excellent job in re-creating the styles of Early America Appalachia through her costume designs.

I was surprised to learn that author John Ehle wrote the movie’s screenplay. I am usually wary of novelists writing the screen adaptations of their own novels. They tend to overdo it with over-the-top dialogue or protracted pacing. Granted, a third of the movie did suffer from a slow pacing, but I feel that Ehle did an otherwise excellent job in translating his novel into a movie. I was especially impressed by his portrayal of both August and Annalees. As I had noted earlier, August’s character was very well developed, without the loss of his core nature. Some film critics have complained that Annalees was portrayed as a passive character. I never got that impression. Granted, August had to help her evade Singletary and his slave hunters. But critics seemed to forget that Annalees had more or less forced August to help her. More importantly, she steadfastly maintained her own sense of individuality – even to the point of reacting violently when she believed August was expressing sexual interest in her during the movie’s first half hour. Ehle also provided a good deal of action and tension – surprisingly so for a movie that is basically a character study.

With the success of “DJANGO UNCHAINED”, the Oscar winning movie, “12 YEARS A SLAVE” and the new television series, “UNDERGROUND”, I hope that more film fans would consider taking the time to view “THE JOURNEY OF AUGUST KING”. It has its flaws, but I feel that it is a rewarding character study of two people during a period that is considered dark during this country’s history.