Television Reviews

DVD Review: North and South – What a Divided People Fighting Looks Like

Written by John Jakes, Douglas Heyes, Paul F. Edwards, Patricia Green, and Kathleen A. Shelley
Directed by Richard T. Heffron

North and South is a mini-series first aired in 1985, 1986, and 1994 on network television. It was considered an epic in its time and featured an all-star cast. The DVD collection covers three novels by John Jakes and spans eight discs.

The story is based on the books by John Jakes. I say “based on” because much of it has been changed and some parts outright jettisoned. However, the mini-series has the typical Jakes flavor to it. The good thing is that some of the things that bothered me as being formulaic after reading several of his books translate quite well to an epic drama. In particular, the way it seems that whoever the protagonists happen to be in his story makes a common enemy who carries a lifelong grudge.

North and South begins with two young men meeting up on their way to the Military Academy at West Point. Orry Main (portrayed by Patrick Swayze) is from South Carolina while George Hazard (portrayed by James Read) hails from Pennsylvania. The two form a deep friendship that binds not just them but their families together.

In a sense, North and South is meant to be a tragedy, showing how the Civil War affected both sides. The problem was how to create a family of southerners with whom the audience could feel some sympathy. Jakes managed to do a good job, and the actors carry the story nicely as well. The Mains tread an uneasy line. They are somewhat above the cruel slavemasters such as their neighbors, the LaMottes. When Orry takes over managing the plantation from his father, his first action is to dismiss the overseer whom he has always thought too harsh on their slaves. Still, the fact is that they do own slaves, no matter how benevolent of an owner they might seem.

The battle scenes are well-done. From the Texas frontier where George and Orry fight the Mexicans to Bull Run and the major battles of the Civil War, it’s handled in a way that doesn’t make it look glorious. War is brutal, and especially in a time when kills weren’t made from 100 miles away, it was not fun. This is in direct contrast to how many of the men feel going in, both when George and Orry begin their military careers as well as when the Confederacy is forming and deciding to take on the North.

Jakes broke down the story of the two families into three parts. The first part was leading up to the war, then the Civil War, and finally the Reconstruction period. Some parts of the story are more faithful to his books than others. Some of the changes involve the coincidental meetings on the battlefield during the Civil War. Although it makes for dramatic effect, Jakes had Billy Hazard in the Engineering Corps, so he never met Charles Main on the battlefield. Also in the novels, Orry and Madeline never had any children. Not all of the families made it out of the war alive, either.

The acting is really great. Some people more than twenty years later might not know who these actors were at the time, but the cast is really spectacular. Having people like Hal Holbrook, Robert Mitchum, Elizabeth Taylor, and James Stewart appear in minor roles is absolutely wonderful. The lead cast really comes together well and displays camaraderie and chemistry, even with all of the shifts in the characters through the three different mini-series.

The changeover of the character of Billy Hazard was somewhat disconcerting. In the first part of the mini-series, he’s portrayed by John Stockwell. In the second book, it’s changed over to Parker Stevenson. I liked the younger character better in many ways. Parker Stevenson seems a bit too old to be opposite the younger Genie Francis as Brett. Mary Crosby also comes in as Stanley’s wife Isabella in the second installment, although her role has been a smaller one up until now so the change isn’t noticed as much. In the third installment, she’s again an entirely different actress, Deborah Rush.


Just before leaving his South Carolina plantation, Orry Main meets the love of his life, Madeline Fabray (portrayed by Lesley Anne Down). He travels to New York where Orry meets George Hazard when both are on their way to West Point. The trials of being a cadet at the Academy take their toll. The two young men end up with a common enemy in fellow cadet Elksnah Bent (portrayed by Philip Casnoff).

Kept from reading Orry’s letters to her, Madeline married a neighbor of his, Justin LaMotte (portrayed by David Carradine). The marriage is not a happy one as Justin is abusive not only to the slaves he owns but to Madeline as well. He doesn’t like a woman who has a mind of her own.

George’s sister, Virgilia (portrayed by Kirstie Alley) stirs up trouble in both the north and the south with her position as a radical abolitionist. Meanwhile, his brother Stanley (portrayed by Jonathan Frakes) schemes to keep George from the family business. George meets the love of his life, Constance (portrayed by Wendy Kilbourne) while on duty in Mexico.

Orry’s two younger sisters, Ashton and Brett (portrayed by Terri Garber and Genie Francis) vie for the attention of Billy Hazard. Ashton is ruthless and crazy and eventually, Billy sees this and chooses Brett while he and Charles Main (portrayed by Lewis Smith) are attending the Academy.


The Civil War has broken out. Knowing how it ends, I sort of knew the Mains were going to suffer terribly. Orry attempts to rescue Madeline and keep her safe, all the while remaining loyal to the Confederacy. He also attempts to remain loyal to his friends as at one point he and Charles have to break George out of the Confederate prison he’s being held in.

This story branches out and doesn’t focus as much on just Orry and George, but brings in other members of the family. Brett and Billy try to keep their marriage alive while fighting the war. At one point Brett is at the Mont-Royal plantation with her mother while Billy is fighting for the Union. How’s that for a conflict of interest?

Ashton has duped James Huntoon (portrayed by Jim Metzler) into marrying her. The only reason is for the political power she believes he will have in the new Confederacy. Behind his back, she schemes endlessly and dallies with whoever she can get her hands on, including Elkanah Bent.

This was where it diverged the most from Jakes’ novels. Elkanah was a rather large man who Ashton would have never looked at. The end of the war is, of course, the same. However, what the different family members conditions were at the time was different.


The third story I couldn’t remember ever viewing before. Kyle Chandler now portrays Orry Main’s cousin, Charles. John Jakes gives a summary of what has already taken place as well as an introduction. This is just not as good as the earlier two parts, unfortunately. Since they had left out parts of the story in the previous mini-series and left Orry alive when he had died in battle, they had to do some fast dancing to change that in the first few minutes. Patrick Swayze left, so Orry’s death was quite anti-climatic.

Cooper Main, Orry’s older brother, was completely left out of the story up until now and suddenly he makes an appearance. Bent is still alive and weaving a path of death through the two families he blames for all that has gone wrong in his life. Brett Main-Hazard makes an appearance, then disappears and nothing is said of where she and Billy are (in the book it was California). Virgilia is also gone with no explanation. I would assume she died in prison or was executed.

Many parts of this remain faithful to Jakes’ book. The problem is that it was the weakest entry in the trilogy and the way the story based on it was crafted all these years after the first two parts were shown doesn’t help at all.

Three marriages came out of this mini-series. It was on this set that Kirstie Alley and Parker Stevenson met (although they are now divorced) as well as Genie Francis and Jonathan Frakes. James Read also married the woman who portrayed his wife here, Wendy Kilbourne.

I have to comment on the costuming, which was excellent. Everything from uniforms to dresses and gowns are stunning. I really felt like I was watching people from all those years ago. The music also has to be commended. Anyone who has seen this mini-series will know the theme as soon as they hear it; it’s that memorable. Throughout the entire story the music is fantastic and sets the tone for the scenes very well.

We hear so often now about Iraq being in a civil war. Do we really have a concept of what that is like? After viewing this as well as Hotel Rwanda, I wondered how many people in Iraq are caught in the middle between the warring factions. Just as there were some caught between the Confederacy and the Union; just as Don Cheadle’s character was caught between the Tutsi and Hutu, so are some of the people in Iraq. Perhaps by remembering our own past when families, friends, and neighbors fought against each other we can figure out what to do in the future.


The History of North and South

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