Fascinating collection of made-for-TV histories, produced on an epic scale. A&E has released The Epic Drama Collection, a six volume, six movie gathering that includes 2002's Shackleton, starring Kenneth Branagh as the failed Antarctic explorer, and Napoleon, starring French funnyman Christian Clavier; 1999's Longitude, starring Michael Gambon as marine chronometer inventor John Harrison, and Jeremy Irons; 2000's The Crossing, with Jeff Daniels as George Washington; 2003's Benedict Arnold: A Question of Honor, starring Aidan Quinn as America's most notorious traitor, and Kelsey Grammer as Washington; and 2001's The Lost Battalion, with Ricky Schroder as legendary WWI hero, Major Charles White Whittlesey. Three of the titles here are standouts, while even the less successful ones are worthy of a look, so The Epic Drama Collection should be a cinch for history buffs and fans of the stars. Extras are okay, and the transfers vary. As much as I'd like to write full reviews for each of these titles...I don't think my four or five readers would tolerate the excess, so let's look very briefly at each of these movies.
England, 1912. Antarctic explorer Sir Ernest Henry Shackleton (Kenneth Branagh), now earning money as a lecturer after failing to reach the South Pole on a previous expedition, must come to grips with the news that fellow explorer Amundsen has successfully reached the Pole. Still restless for exploration, Shackleton lights on a new venture: the first land crossing of the Antarctic continent, from the Weddell Sea to the Ross Sea, over the Pole. Months are spent trying to get first the British government and then the reluctant Royal Geographical Society interested in financing the venture, before Shackleton (through his own self-promotional efforts and private backers) finally raises the dosh. Labeling his venture the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition, Shackleton leaves behind his wife, Emily (Phoebe Nicholls), his children, his brother Frank (Mark Tandy), whose financial illegalities embarrass and impede Ernest's money-raising efforts...and Ernest's mistress, Rosaline Chetwynd (Embeth Davidtz). Setting sail in the Endurance in 1914, with right hand Frank Wild (Lorcan Cranitch), photographer Frank Hurley (Matt Day), and the rest of his crew, Shackleton's efforts to reach Vahsel Bay are stymied by ice floes, until eventually, after drifting during the Antarctic winter of 1915, he's forced to abandon ship. More months are spent on the ice floes until the crew, via rowboats, make way for Elephant Island. Once there, Shackleton leaves behind half the men to sail 800 miles to South Georgia, where eventually he leads a rescue party for the men on Elephant Island in 1917...without losing one life.
A long haul. Directed and written by Charles Sturridge (Brideshead Revisited, A Handful of Dust), Shackleton takes forever to get moving during its first half, chronicling the rather unsympathetic lead character's efforts to wrangle his personal and professional life into some semblance of order. I'm a fan of Sturridge's work (both of the above mentioned titles are superlative examples of their genre), but I was perplexed at the stillborn, glacial pacing of this first half. The production design is impeccable, the scripting is balanced, and the performances are...okay, but there's a languor to Shackleton, a stiffness that's fatal before we ever hit the ice floes (and I'm not sure it ever really recovers). This is "epic" moviemaking in the constipated manner of Richard Attenborough: self-important, self-indulgent, self-satisfied, and wholly superficial. Frankly, I'm at a loss to explain the "Shackleton cult" I've read about, an unsuccessful explorer rediscovered and venerated for his rescue exploits. The way he comes over in this movie, he's a failure as a businessman, a husband, a father, and an explorer. The movie has an odd, disconcerting tone that seems to want us to admire him precisely for these failings, thereby putting his leadership during the return and rescue portion of the expedition into stronger relief (as many British success stories have stated, the British public despises a success). And yet, we never really feel or understand why he's such a great leader of men, because as essayed by Branagh, he's a rather colorless cardboard "hero." In epic filmmaking, you can have all the production detail money can buy, you can orchestrate stunning location filming and suitably impressive action scenes (the only time Shackleton really takes off, during the second half), but if your lead actor isn't "epic-worthy," you've got a big problem from minute one. Simply put: either Branagh doesn't have the stature to pull off one of these epic hero types...or Shackleton the man wasn't innately interesting enough outside of this one failed exploit to provide a worthy subject for such a movie. Maybe it's both. I don't care what others have acclaimed for Branagh: I've always found him a technically proficient but "small" actor (imagine him on screen next to Olivier or Burton...and getting blown off of it), and his insufficient efforts to bring Shackleton's internals to life just confirms that opinion. A cold, rather lifeless dead fish of an epic.
St. Helena Island, 1816. A defeated, imprisoned Napoleon Bonaparte (Christian Clavier) reminisces over the events of his life with young British girl, Miss Betsy Balcombe (Tamsin Egerton-Dick). An impoverished Corsican officer in the French Army, Napoleon's rise to power comes with two momentous events in 1975: his defense of Paris against Royalist mobs, and his meeting the widow Josephine de Beauharnais (Isabella Rossellini). Solidifying his position as a public hero with his military exploits in Italy and Egypt, Napoleon orchestrates a coup and crowns himself Emperor. Further military successes, such as Austerlitz, embolden the despot (or savior, depending on what historian you're reading), who dreams of a unified Europe...under his thumb. Dalliances with other women, including the seductive Pole, Maria Walewska (Alexandra Maria Lara), fuel the Emperor's desire for a family empire, but a disastrous military campaign into Russia proves his first undoing.
Same thing as Shackleton: sensational production values, interesting script...but miscasting at the choke point. Directed by Yves Simoneau (some good TV outings, particularly 44 Minutes: The North Hollywood Shoot-Out), and scripted by Didier Decoin and noted French author Max Gallo, Napoleon was reportedly the most expensive European TV miniseries ever produced up to that time ($43 million). And it shows, with gorgeous production values (always a vitally important part of any straight-ahead epic), impressive, lengthy (and realistically gory) battle sequences, and a host of famous, hefty-repped players capable of commanding their real-life counterparts, including Gerard Depardieu (my new hero for saying "Adieu!" to France), John Malkovich, and Anouk Aimee―all of which should whet anyone's appetite for a truly outsized historical drama. However, the producers of the miniseries (Depardieu among them) made the critical error of casting popular French comedian Christian Clavier (probably best known over here in the States for the international smash hit, les Visiteurs) as Napoleon, perhaps in a bid for built-in viewership, and the results are disastrous. Several times during Napoleon, the camera tracks in portentously on Clavier as diminutive Nappy, staring off into the distance as he, as he...as he what, you find yourself asking, because nothing is coming off the blank cipher Clavier. As I wrote in the previous review, the actor has to summon up―through artifice or "craft" or just plain personal magnetism―a measure of the character he's playing in an epic (Charlton Heston being the perfect example of this innate gift). The internal, psychological conflicts of the historical figure must come through, giving the viewer a complex rendering of the hero/villain, or else we're stuck, in Napoleon's case, with a Bonaparte-looking emcee hosting a series of expensive CGI-enhanced battle scenes: fun for a while, but hardly enlightening. One of my all-time favorite performances from that absolutely brilliant hambone Rod Steiger, was his Napoleon in the critically-eviscerated epic, Waterloo. Now, say what you want about his interpretation (I call it a "full-throated grotesquerie"), the point of the exercise was to be the equal of the character and the mythological gestalt that surrounds such a historical figure―and Steiger achieved that, regardless of whether or not your stomach could take it (I could watch it every week). Clavier on the other hand, is a complete cipher, putting forth an uninteresting (and by the look on his face, uninterested) pan that isn't a window onto Nappy's soul, but an impassive brick wall (others seem to have taken a cue from Clavier; Malkovich appears not slyly Machiavellian but heavily sedated). Of course Napoleon's military conquests make for visceral, entertaining television...but doesn't our prime curiosity with this historical figure lie with Nappy's desires and ambitions? Was he saint or devil? Despot or savior? Or a combination of both? Good luck finding out here in this handsome but empty spectacle.
A story of two men, bridging two centuries. Told in cross-cutting fashion, Longitude details the efforts of 18th century clockmaker John Harrison (Michael Gambon) to develop a marine chronometer capable of determining accurate longitude measurements for transatlantic voyages. The movie also tells the story of Rupert Gould (Jeremy Irons), a former British Navy officer and horologist who devotes a considerable portion of his life in the 1920s and 1930s restoring Harrison's early chronometers. Harrison, a "commoner" without any formal scientific training, is the last person the British Parliamentary Board of Longitude, made up of aristocratic scientists disdainful of a "country toolmaker," wanted to win the Longitude Prize (equivalent to millions of dollars today). Through multiple setbacks, both technical and political, Harrison, with the unappreciated help of his son, William (Ian Hart, Liam Jennings), finally perfects his chronometer...but the Prize is never officially awarded to him. As for Gould, his obsession with repairing and restoring Harrison's abandoned, forgotten clocks ruins his marriage and unbalances his already precarious mental stability, it having already suffered a nervous breakdown during active duty in WWI.
An absolutely first-rate adventure story concerning what seems like a most unadventuresome subject: the discovery of accurate longitudinal measurement. To be honest, I didn't know a thing about the subject (I would have been hard-pressed to get out, "it's those lines on the globe" if asked about it), so I was dreading watching Longitude because I just couldn't see how it was going to work and be entertaining. Wrong. Directed and written by Charles Sturridge, based on David Sobel's book, Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time (I already have it on order at the library), Longitude cut through the seeming tedium the subject suggests, combining elements of biography, political intrigue, and flat-out high-seas adventure to achieve a dense, complex, remarkably satisfying story. If I had one caveat about Longitude, it would be not the integration of the modern Gould subplot (the script's cross-cutting is well thought-out, with segments frequently punctuating, thematically and visually, the segments that follow), but the imbalance the Gould subplot brings here. Harrison's accomplishments are so far more consequential in terms of their historical importance, both in what he ultimately achieved as well as the time it took and the oppressive obstacles he stubbornly overcame, that Gould's rocky love life and mental breakdown over the restoration of Harrison's clocks, is comparatively, historically speaking, small potatoes. The cross-cutting and the equal screen time, as well as the weight of having someone like Jeremy Irons (who's terrific, as always) "opposite" Michael Gambon, seems to suggest the two historical figures are equals. Perhaps they were, at least in their passionate pursuits, but in terms of historical impact, well.... Gambon's simple, clean, less-showy approach here is perfectly suited to his character, and a host of familiar faces―John Nettleton, Nigel Davenport, Frank Finlay, Stephen Fry (in a hilarious cameo), Brian Cox, Peter Vaughan, Charles Gray, and Alec McCowen, just to name a few―keep popping up, giving Longitude a suitably weighty, epic "spot the star" feel. Fascinating from start to finish.
December, 1776. Six months after the Declaration of Independence is signed, General George Washington (Jeff Daniels) of the Continental Army is about this close to losing the Revolutionary War, as his tired, sick, ragged troops are chased across New Jersey to the Pennsylvania side of the Delaware River. Sensing that something has to be done to turn the tide of war, Washington devises a bold plan: cross the icy Delaware with 2,400 troops and capture the sleeping, drunk Hessians holed up in Trenton, New Jersey. Comrade/adversary General Horatio Gates (Nigel Bennett) calls Washington's sanity into question, but with the help of loyal friend General Hugh Mercer (Roger Rees), Washington not only gets his exhausted, frozen troops across the Delaware, he captures the Huns napping, and zaps them for the first major victory of the Continental Army.
Yet again...it's the actor. When The Crossing is concerned with strategy and battles, it's a clean, straightforward actioner, told with admirable simplicity by director Robert Harmon (the classic cult thriller, The Hitcher, along with all those wonderful Jesse Stone made-for-TV mysteries), from a screenplay by noted author Howard Fast (Spartacus). Harmon keeps his frames as uncluttered as the narrative, staying on-point with the story's main arc―Washington's grim determination to pull off this last-ditch hail Mary campaign―while letting the subtleties of the personality conflicts between confident Washington and his distrustful subordinates, play out naturally. Had an actor with some gravitas played Washington, I would have judged The Crossing as one of the best (of the shamefully few produced) movies about the Revolutionary War (I can only think of a handful or two, from a superior effort like Mel Gibson's The Patriot, to junk like Hugh Hudson's Revolution). Unfortunately, the hole in The Crossing's doughnut is Daniel's performance as Washington. Daniels, an excellent actor who can move through movies like The Purple Rose of Cairo and Dumb and Dumber with ease...simply can't bring to bear a force, a presence, to our most mythical of American heroes. Some may take that low-key approach as an effort to "humanize" Washington precisely because he's become such a distant figure to contemporary audiences, hazed over by hundreds of years of legends. And that's fine...if Daniels could have also projected an inner magnitude that's equal to Washington's deeds and persona. Washington wasn't just "some guy" who also happened to be the father of our country, and "some guy" Daniels just isn't the type of actor that lends himself easily to "historical heroic" roles. At least not Washington.
BENEDICT ARNOLD: A QUESTION OF HONOR
General Washington's (Kelsey Grammer) most valued warrior, Benedict Arnold (Aidan Quinn), master of field strategy and the tomahawk, almost loses his leg at the Battle of Saratoga, a battle he largely won by disobeying the orders of jealous commander General Gates. When Gates takes credit for Arnold's victory, and Congress compounds the insult by denying Arnold a promotion, Washington secures his elevation to Major General...with Congress denying him his due backpay. Fed up with what he perceives as Congress' ingratitude, Arnold offers his resignation. Washington refuses it, and implores Arnold to become military governor of Philadelphia, where he's to keep in check the growing power of Congressman and Pennsylvania Militia commander Joseph Reed (Stephen Hogan). Once in Philadelphia, Arnold spies young Peggy Shippen (Flora Montgomery), the former paramour of Major John Andre (John Light) of the British forces. Loyalist sympathizers, Shippen's family is aghast at her relationship with Arnold, but before Arnold is brought up on profiteering charges in a postponed court-martial he asked for (to clear his name), he marries Shippen. Soon, Arnold's position in Philadelphia becomes threatened due to pressure concerning his wife's perceived Loyalist sympathies; when Congress refuses to provide troops to protect his family, Arnold begins to listen to his wife's insistent plea: switch sides and join the British. Tempted by Washington's offer of redemption as second-in-command of the entire Continental Army, the already stained Arnold refuses and asks for a lesser post as defender of West Point...so he can give the fort over to the British in a plan of heinous betrayal that includes assassinating his loyal supporter: George Washington.
Now Grammer pulls off Washington...but it's really Aidan Quinn's impressively tortured portrayal of America's most notorious traitor that sells Benedict Arnold: A Question of Honor. Written by William Mastrosimone (Into the West, Extremities), and directed by Mikael Salomon (the superlative Band of Brothers, Who is Clark Rockefeller?), Benedict Arnold: A Question of Honor doesn't have enough time to fully explore the complex motivations that prompted Arnold to sell his country out (with Tinseltown's love of anti-American revisionist history, I'm shocked some Hollywood tool like Damon or Clooney hasn't proposed a pro-Arnold, anti-Washington movie by this point). Instead, we have to rely on Quinn's passionate, bitter take on Arnold to suggest the deeper layers of guilt (Arnold's common background versus his new in-law's snobbery), anger (Congress' politically-motivated attacks on him), and avarice (his making a buck off the war before he switched sides) that contributed to his downfall. Benedict Arnold: A Question of Honor plays along almost Biblical lines as it illustrates Arnold's fall from grace, including a not-so-subtle Samson and Delilah angle, as well, when Peggy Shippen increasingly exploits Arnold's overpowering love for her to push him into the arms of the British; Arnold celebrates his final betrayal by hurriedly making love to an aroused Peggy (you could throw in Greek tragedy's fatal flaw―his love for Shippen, or maybe his pride―as well as Freudian revenge, perhaps on father-figure Washington, if you like). Grammer, noted of course for his comedy performances, at least fills up Washington's persona with his own. His commanding voice, his authoritative bearing, his spot-on line-readings capturing Washington's genuine affection for Arnold...and his increasing despair at his friend's failings, all make Grammer's crack at Washington most impressive. A notable character study concerning a critical period of American history about which most of us (myself included) are woefully unfamiliar.
THE LOST BATTALION
New York lawyer Major Charles White Whittlesey (Ricky Schroder), in command of the United States 77th Division during World War I, is given his next mission by General Robert Alexander (Michael Brandon): lead his 550+ men in a three-prong attack against a heavily fortified German line in the Meuse-Argonne forest. Told that two American units would cover his right flank, and a French unit his left, Whittlesey leads his "Metropolitan" Division of NYC's Lower East Side "gangsters" into battle on the morning of October 2nd, 1918. By nightfall, however, Whittlesey realizes his unit is completely cut off and surrounded by German troops anxious to close this pocket in their lines: Whittlesey flanking units never made it as far, and U.S. command doesn't know he's far out on his own. What follows is a harrowing six days of warfare, as the well-armed, well-fed Germans repeatedly throw themselves against the impossibly tough, tenacious Yanks of the "Lost Battalion," who are without supplies, water and food. Of the 554 men that went into the Argonne Forest with Whittlesey, only 194 walked out when relieved, and yet they walked out victorious over the uncomprehending, retreating Germans.
A superior WWI actioner: tough, clean, simple, with brutish flair during the frequent, mesmerizing action scenes. Scripted by Jim Carabatsos and directed by 80s music video king, Russell Mulcahy (Highlander, The Shadow), The Lost Battalion certainly shows the influence of 1999's big-screen WWII hit, Saving Private Ryan, with a plethora of hyper-kinetic battle scenes, shot in that jerky, over-cranked style that was all the rage for a few years. The Lost Battalion isn't particularly successful in terms of getting over the most fascinating element of this true battle story―the clash of the American troops' mutt culture versus the rigid, professional German troops―because its main focus is action, not subtleties of motivation (part of the problem might also be the heavy preponderance of British actors subbing for the American troops: you can't fake a guy like Andre Vippolis). Handsome-looking, to be sure, The Lost Battalion's smaller TV budget necessarily limits the real historical scale of the battle (it never feels like 554 guys are in that forest...or even 194), but Mulcahy makes up for that by whizzing around non-stop with his camera, laying down battle scenes that not only impress with their gut-crunching realism, but also with their careful attention to grounding the viewer in the geography of the action―something that doesn't happen too often with these newer, peripatetic action movies. Ricky Schroder (going through his "Rick" phase...) is just fine as the legendary Whittlesey: low-key yet commanding, with a steel resolve emerging behind that baby face and rimless glasses. About as good an example of a television war actioner as you're going to see.
Longitude, Benedict Arnold: A Question of Honor, and The Lost Battalion are excellent examples of small-screen historical dramas. Shackleton, Napoleon, and The Crossing are for the most part, well-mounted (except for Shackleton) and well-meaning, but they're compromised by central miscasting. An even split (and a few of the transfer ratios are off), but all are worth checking out. I'm recommending A&E's The Epic Drama Collection.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published film and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.