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. 

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