Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Review: Point of Honor (ABC Signature and Amazon Studios)



Here we have yet another entry into the ‘family divided’ theme of Civil War television and movies.  Point of Honor is a proposed series for ABC Signature and Amazon Studios, the online retailer’s video programming branch, focusing on a slaveholding family in Lynchburg, Virginia.  So far, only one hour-long episode has been released, produced and written by Carlton Cuse of Lost fame and Randall Wallace (writer of Braveheart, and director of Pearl Harbor, We Were Soldiers, and this).  Its promise does not look good.  Its southern focus, ridiculous handling of the slavery issue and basic historical errors ruin its dramatic impact.  The result is a series similar in style to The Blue and the Gray and North and South but also their flaws in portraying families torn apart by the Civil War. 

First, the family structure works for and against the narrative.  Ralston Rhodes (played by Apollo 13’s Brett Cullen) owns the Point of Honor plantation near Lynchburg (which actually exists if the family itself is fictional).  Although in financial straits, he still commands great respect from those around him, as evidenced when he hosts a large party with his neighbors.  Here, we are introduced to four of his five children, including arrogant and aggressive daughters Estella, Kate and Lorelei, whom Ralston prepared to be strong-willed.  Garland oversees the plantation.  John attends West Point where his best friend is an anti-slavery northerner, Robert Sumner, who also happens to be married to Lorelei.  These relationships are the grounding for the movie, but the southern focus expects the audience to see them as the heroes.  Sumner, a peripheral member of the family, serves no purpose except to tear at his wife’s allegiances, and barely so at that.  This may play out in later episodes, but it is unconvincing in the pilot.

Second, the slavery issue occupies a prominent part of the story but in ridiculous ways.  The Rhodes’ family appears to own about fifteen enslaved persons and employs them in domestic and field tasks.  When war begins, John renounces slavery to Robert’s great relief, but resigns from the Army to return home and raise a regiment of non-slaveholders for the Confederate cause.  Somehow, we are supposed to believe that this makes John the great hero, indeed it fulfills the series’ title.  Word of his decision reaches the plantation incredibly fast, for the family has a hard time believing it.  Adding to their woes, a mob of neighbors condemning the possible liberation appears at the front gate.  This part is actually credible, for non-slaveholders still had a stake in maintaining the institution.    When John carries out on his promise, the slaves are relieved but none know what comes next.  The Rhodes family promise to pay wages to them, but it is clear that they do not know what to do either. One slave is not freed as she was sold to another plantation, headed by a stereotypically cruel master and overseer, similar to David Carradine in North and South.  Even if the audience accepts John’s emancipatory act as sincere, it is clear that no one else, not even his family, does.  This evading of the politics and economics of slavery is intended to make the Rhodes the heroes.  It fails as both as drama or history. 

There are too many historical errors in this episode to count.  At West Point, Robert says that John has the highest standing since Robert E. Lee.  Either he or the screenwriters did not know that Charles Mason graduated ahead of the more famous Lee.  The assertive daughters appear out of place for an upper-class southern woman of the time.  Their father’s desire that they be strong-willed, possibly since he was a widower, may explain part of that.  A small Union cavalry troop, led in part by Robert, manages to make it from the north to outside of Lynchburg within days of the attack on Fort Sumter.  This act completely ignores the five-week delay on secession in Virginia pending the outcome of a statewide referendum.  Ralston dies in a clash with these raiders, yet it is not explained why he wore a blue uniform with officer’s insignia.  If one could speculate, he may have served in the Mexican War.  Please note that no comment has been made about limited production values.  The combined effects of its southern bias, poor handling of the slavery issue, and historical errors thwart Point of Honor in its attempt to tell a story that we have heard many times before. 

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Review: Blood and Daring: How Canada Fought the American Civil War and Forged a Nation. By John Boyko.



Review: Blood and Daring: How Canada Fought the American Civil War and Forged a Nation. By John Boyko.  Toronto: Knopf Canada, 2013.  Pp. 355.

This story of how the American Civil War brought the British North American colonies to form the Dominion of Canada is well known.  Every Canadian history textbook covers the issue, as do previous specialist works by Robin Winks sixty years ago and Greg Marquis fifteen years ago.  With the 150th anniversaries of both the end of the Civil War and of Confederation soon approaching, the need for a new work on Canada during this turbulent period would help.  John Boyko, a school administrator and author of five previous books, produced this book for that purpose.  The result, however, is a major disappointment.  The author contributes nothing new to the scholarship.  Even if he intended it for the popular market, flaws in research, analysis and writing reduce its value considerably. 
My first thought after reading this book is “where’s the blood and where’s the daring”?  Neither exists in this book.  Instead, he attempts to use the stories of six contemporary figures to prove a tenuous thesis about how the conflict mobilized the British North Americans to set aside their differences and form a new identity in the Dominion of Canada in 1867.  Poor research prevents him from achieving this goal.  Boyko uses the first case, escaped slave John Anderson to prove that Canadians opposed pressure from Britain and the United states by freeing him.  He neglected to mention the increasing resistance in the northern states to the institution after the Compromise of 1850, such as the Christiana Riots and Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin.  Boyko intends to show William Henry Seward as a rabid expansionist whom Canadians stopped in the Trent Affair, but the secretary of state barely appears in the chapter.  Sarah Edmonds stands in for the forty thousand or so colonists who served in the Civil War, but perhaps due to the spotty nature of the evidence, little is learned about their experiences. 
The research problems mar the remaining three chapters in ways that undermine Boyko’s thesis.  He based the book on a shallow base of including handful of Canadian archives and only U.S. printed sources.  The section on spies, as represented by Jacob Thompson of Mississippi, shows how Canadians escalated wartime tensions by aiding the rebellion, instead of being a victim.  George Brown, the Horace Greeley of Canada, portends to show how the Confederation process began amid the war’s tense last two years.  Boyko concludes with John A. MacDonald, who guided the new nation towards its new status amid Fenian Raids and annexationist fears.  He quotes Canadian leaders at length about the American threat, but contradicts himself by saying how U.S. officials rounded up the Irish invaders after the raid (p. 273) and demobilized the mighty Union Army after the war (p. 290).  These inconsistencies not only disprove his thesis, but distract the reader.  There is not much blood or daring in this book.
Writing issues compound throughout this mess.  The Civil War appears mostly as narrative in each chapter, save for the first which has no context at all.  Boyko skips over the major events of the four year conflict with celerity.  One suspects that he knew little about the subject before he started.  His handling of Confederation is likewise thin.  This book ends on a low note, with Boyko citing how Confederation yielded a “unique centralized parliamentary democracy governing a bilingual, multicultural, tolerant country with too much democracy and too few people, was underway” (p. 304).  The partisan nature of this statement needs no further commentary.  Amateurishly researched and weakly written, Blood and Daring offers nothing to scholars and little to the general public.  Its sole purpose is to capitalize on the sesquicentennials of the Civil War and Confederation.                  

Friday, January 2, 2015

Lincolnvisan (The Lincoln Song)




I found this song a while back.  In 1865, a Swedish professor and satirist named His Henric Hallback of the University of Lund composed Lincolnvisan for his school's student union.  It starts off mocking the news of President Lincoln's assassination, calling him "the king of Northern America."  Hallback continues with vivid if exaggerated descriptions of his head being shot off and speaking while disembodied.  It ends, however, on a positive note when it blessed the dead king and damned the murderer.  This is just another in a long line of references to the Civil War from around the world.

This is a link to a Swedish musician singing this song while playing the guitar, to give you some idea of how it sounds.     


The chorus is actually nonsensical, designed to carry on the melody, as if saying "la la la la".

As I am not a Swedish speaker, I had to rely on Google Translate to convert the original text into English, with some modest changes.  Any fault is mine alone.

Lincoln Visan by His Henric Hallback

Have you heard the terrible event,
it is true for it to happen right now,
when the King of Northern America
was shot, well shot down the middle.

Tjolahopp Tjang Chong faleladala,
Tjolahopp Tjang Chong fallirej.
when the King of Northern America
was shot, well shot down the middle.

He went out to see a play
for it amused His Majesty
But he could well imagine,
that he would be shot just for that.

Tjolahopp Tjang Chong faleladala,
Tjolahopp Tjang Chong fallirej.
But he could well imagine,
that he would be shot just for that.

But then came a villain through the door,
ugh, so frightful perilous he looked!
And in his hand he bore a pistol,
which was loaded with bullets and gunpowder.

Tjolahopp Tjang Chong faleladala,
Tjolahopp Tjang Chong fallirej.
And in his hand he bore a pistol,
which was loaded with bullets and gunpowder.

And so he shot the king of the planet
so that the head jump from his neck;
and blood it splashed on the wallpaper,
and it asked: who had done this?

Tjolahopp Tjang Chong faleladala,
Tjolahopp Tjang Chong fallirej.
and blood it splashed on the wallpaper,
and it asked: who had done this?

And so [they] lay the king on a couch
and stroked his hair.
And the king he took himself to the head
and said: Aye, aye so bad I feel.

Tjolahopp Tjang Chong faleladala,
Tjolahopp Tjang Chong fallirej.
And the king he took himself to the head
and said: Aye, aye so bad I feel.

"Oh, goodbye" said the good-natured king
"Now to heaven joy I receive,
where little angels they flap their hands,
so what fun they have."

Tjolahopp Tjang Chong faleladala,
Tjolahopp Tjang Chong fallirej.
where little angels they flap their hands,
so what fun they have."

And so died the good natured king
and is blessed, I think, right now.
But damn embrace the culprit,
who shot the king in half!

Tjolahopp Tjang Chong faleladala,
Tjolahopp Tjang Chong fallirej.
But damn embrace the culprit,
who shot the king in half!