Written by Carmen Culver, Colleen McCullough, and Lee Stanley
Directed by Daryl Duke
With the increasing use of a mini-series to adapt novels in the late seventies and early eighties, many stories that wouldn’t have translated well into a two hour film on the big screen nor played well crammed in one evening on television began to get attention to be adapted into mini-series’. Some of these translated quite well. One of the better projects of this magnitude was The Thorn Birds.
Barbara Stanwyck is Mrs. Carson, the richest woman in Australia. She is a widow with no children. Richard Chamberlain is Father Ralph de Bricassart, a priest banished to serve the Australian outback after disagreeing publicly with a Bishop. He is young, handsome, and ambitious. Mrs. Carson feeds this ambition by taunting him with leaving her dead husband’s estate, Drogheda, to the church. The possibility of that happening – and therefore ensuring his success in the eyes of the church – seem dashed when she brings her brother and his family to live on the estate.
Richard Kiley is Paddy Cleary, a hard-working man who has a family of four sons and a daughter. When Father de Bricassart meets them at the train station to bring them to Drogheda, he is immediately taken with the young Meggie Cleary (Syndney Penny). She is the lost child in a family of four brothers, virtually ignored by her parents, but dear to her brothers Frank (John Friedrich) and Stu (Vidal Peterson as a young boy, Dwier Brown later on).
The story for much of the first disc of the film is the story of the hardships faced by the Cleary family, while Mrs. Carson continues to use her money and power over the priest to taunt him. She wants him, and he won’t give her what she wants, but she sees his weakness for the young Meggie and uses the girl to manipulate him.
As Meggie grows up (and turns into Rachel Ward), her feelings for Father de Bricassart evolve from simply childish adoration to a full-blown love. Ralph cannot help feeling the same way for her, but his ties to the church prevent him from acting upon them. Still, Meggie holds out hope for him leaving the church and coming to her, only to have her hopes dashed time and time again.
This is especially true when Mrs. Carson puts Father de Bricassart in the position where he must choose whether to honor what he truly knows in his heart to be the right thing, or secure himself a place in the church’s hierarchy. Mrs. Carson dies and leaves her original will where the Clearys inherit everything. The night before her death, she creates another will, witnessed only by her servants, where she leaves everything to the church. Only Father de Bricassart and her attorney know the contents of the second will, something both of them could easily forget.
It’s nice to see an adaptation of a novel that stays true to the story, as this production has done quite well. Even at more than eight hours in length, some of the plots in the novel needed to be written out, but the overall tone of the production stayed quite the same. The story is not just about the love between Father Ralph and Meggie, but also about a lonely old woman who uses her money to manipulate those around her for fun and revenge; a story about the hardships of one family; a story of the dynamics within that family and what happens when one child is favored above all others; a story of politics and ambition in the church.
The acting here is first-rate. Richard Chamberlain is excellent as Father Ralph de Bricassart. He made me believe the torment in the man between the promises he’s made to the church and his feelings for Meggie, as well as the crises he feels as he faces various forms of temptation. The way he acted whether he was riding a horse on the farm, or praying for guidance always struck me as totally genuine, and I honestly saw the character and not Richard Chamberlain for most of the production. He ages quite well in the film, and comparing how they aged him in the makeup to how he looks now, the job was done quite well.
Barbara Stanwyck is outstanding as Mrs. Carson. Some of the scenes were reminiscent of her The Big Valley days, but her performance here tops that easily. I could see the manipulation in her eyes and the desire and anger as she would watch Father Ralph, and especially as she watched him with the young Meggie. Her insane jealousy over his relationship to a child, whom he honestly saw as nothing more than a kindred spirit who had been cast off by her mother at the time, feeds into the rest of the story, as her actions are in all likelihood what ultimately keeps them apart.
Sydney Penny must be complimented for her performance as the young Meggie. She is an outstanding child actress, who soap fans may know from her later stint on All My Children. Here she holds her own opposite adults with plenty more experience than her. She is also quite believable as the younger version of Rachel Ward.
Ward’s performance is one of the best as well. Perhaps because this was one of her first major roles, or because of the cast she was surrounded by, she seems quite unsteady as Meggie, but that serves the character. She is stunningly beautiful in the rose dress that enchants Father de Bricassart at her Aunt’s birthday party, yet comes off as so unsure of herself. He is the only person who has ever given her a nod of approval in her life, and when he is reluctant to do so for fear of how others will take it, she can’t handle it. Ward gives Meggie enough unsteadiness that despite the beauty on the screen, she’s believable as being the child cast aside always uncertain of just where her place is amongst everyone else.
The performance I was most disappointed in was Bryan Brown’s as Luke O’Neill, Meggie’s love interest and future husband. I thought he gave a terribly wooden performance as the only real Australian in a the cast of a production that was supposed to be set in Australia.
It’s a pity that the filming couldn’t take place there, but was actually done in California. Director Daryl Duke originally intended to film in Australia, but when faced with the strict guidelines for filming a movie there, plus the fact that he would have trouble assembling the type of crew he wanted, he and Producer David L. Wolper made this difficult choice. The scenes are still quite stunning, although the transfer could have perhaps been better. The picture is quite grainy and colors did bleed at times and tones tended to influence objects around it. Is this because of the drabness and lack of color of the “Australian outback” in general? I don’t think so as I also felt underwhelmed by some of the beautiful scenes set in Italy near the end of the story. The only scenes that truly seemed to be captured in it’s original color and beauty were those in Greece – the Mediterranean was stunningly beautiful.
For Star Trek fans, there’s a couple of very big connections here. John “Q” deLancie appears as Alastair McQueen, the son of a local well-placed family and possible suitor for Meggie. The man who plays Meggie’s son Dane, Philip Anglim, also appeared as Vedek Bareil on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.
The musical score was composed by Henry Mancini and it’s a great soundtrack. It really seems to accompany the story rather than overpower it. The production won awards, including an acting awards to Barbara Stanwyck, Richard Kiley, and to Jean Simmons for her portrayal of Meggie’s mother, and it should have won an award for the soundtrack as well. It also took home Golden Globes for Best Made-For-TV Motion Picture or Mini-Series, and acting for Richard Chamberlain, Richard Kiley, and Barbara Stanwyck.
On the DVD release, the only Special Feature is The Thorn Birds: Old Friends New Stories which contained interviews with David Wolper, Richard Chamberlain, Rachel Ward, Bryan Brown giving remembrances of the making of the mini-series. Rachel and Bryan were married during the production of the mini-series and have stayed together since. It was quite interesting and not so long that it seemed to drag on with bits of information I couldn’t have cared less about.
For anyone with more than eight hours to kill, the mini-series is awesome. I’d highly recommend spreading it out over a few days, though. The discs are broken up in that each disc contains two nights of the original airings, complete with previews and re-caps, so it would be quite easy to watch over a four night period.