One of the first big television miniseries, The Thorn Birds was an immediate success when it aired in 1983. The tragic romance between Meggie Cleary (Rachel Ward), the woman who wants only to love and be loved, and Ralph de Briccasart (Richard Chamberlain), the priest who is torn between his holy vows and his human passions, is the seed for a highly entertaining story that spans fifty years and touches on love, hatred, revenge, forgiveness, marriage, birth, and death. The Thorn Birds received acclaim as well as popularity, winning six Emmy Awards: Best Actress (Barbara Stanwyck, as Mary Carson, the head of Drogheda), Best Supporting Actor (Richard Kiley, as Meggie's father), Best Supporting Actress (Jean Simmons, as Meggie's mother), Best Art Direction, Best Film Editing, and Best Makeup. Now that it's come to DVD, The Thorn Birds proves to hold up quite well even twenty years later.
The Thorn Birds offers a broad stage for its romantic drama to play out, from the Australian Outback to the Vatican in terms of location, and from the 1920s to almost the present day. It's an unabashedly melodramatic story, and therein lies the fun: if we're going to follow the lives of a group of characters over fifty years, why, we want interesting things to happen to them, and The Thorn Birds obliges. That's not to say that the story overdoes it: the twists in the story are entirely plausible and the characters' reactions to these events are reasonable. And while the characters may sometimes have dialogue or speeches that are a bit over-dramatic, they always remain in the realm of the believable. Is it because Meggie, Ralph, and the others really are realistic characters, or is it that we want to believe in them because they're interesting? Who knows – in any case, the story gets us hooked into their lives and keeps us interested in how things turn out.
The first episode does get off to a slow start; we are introduced to the characters who will be important players in the story, but it's not immediately clear where the story is headed or who we should be most interested in. About halfway through the first part, though, the story tightens up a bit and becomes more engaging, and from there it remains consistently entertaining up to the end.
After it gets going, the story is well paced, and as we move into the second, third, and final episodes, there's always something new going on: new people for the main characters to interact with, new places as the characters move on with their lives, new events for them to deal with. Whether it's Meggie's life in Queensland or Frank's career in Rome, the varied settings and events make the story more memorable than if it had remained entirely focused on Drogheda, even though that ranch remains the center point of the characters' lives. One of the aspects of The Thorn Birds that I enjoyed is that the story doesn't fixate on just one period in the characters' lives: the story moves on at a relatively fast pace, sometimes jumping ahead only one or two years, sometimes much longer (fortunately, always with a clear indication of how much time has passed). I've always enjoyed "generational sagas" and The Thorn Birds fits the bill admirably, making good use of its full fifty years of story time.
The Thorn Birds shows a few weak spots, one of which is the total inconsistency of the characters' accents. We get a wild mix of U.S., British, Irish, and Australian accents that have no apparent relation to whether the character is supposed to be, as most of them are, either Irish or Australian. The transition from Meggie-as-a-little-girl (played by Sydney Penney) to Meggie-as-young-woman (played by Rachel Ward) is also a bit awkward; there are some scenes in the middle that really cry out for a third, intermediate-age actress in the part instead of the too-young Penney being used to play Meggie as an adolescent. But these are just small bumps in an otherwise very entertaining story; it's not perfect, but in the end, it's lots of fun.
The Thorn Birds is a two-DVD set, packaged in a cardboard fold-out holder inside a cardboard slipcase. Each disc is a "flipper," with one episode on Side A and the other on Side B.
The Thorn Birds appears in its original television aspect ratio of 1.33:1. Rather oddly, the transfer varies a great deal in quality from beginning to end of the miniseries. The first episode looks terrible: it's extremely blurry and the contrast is lousy, with detail completely lost in any dark areas. At this point, I would have given the image quality about one and a half stars as a rating. As the series progresses, the image quality gradually improves, becoming sharper and cleaner-looking, so that by the time we get to the fourth episode, close-up shots look very crisp and clear, and even the longer-distance shots have a reasonable level of clarity and detail; contrast has also improved. I'd probably have given the image three and a half stars if it had all been like this. The one slight flaw that's consistent across the series is the colors are very slightly muted, with a faint brownish tint. Overall, I've ended up giving an average mark, two and a half stars, to the image quality.
The Dolby mono soundtrack provided for The Thorn Birds is reasonable for this dialogue-driven show. It's obviously lacking in depth, but the sound is clear and natural. The musical soundtrack is annoyingly sappy at first, but either it improves as the series progresses, or I got used to it, because it seemed perfectly fine by the end.
On Side B of the second disc, we have a 25-minute featurette called "The Thorn Birds: Old Friends, New Stories." It's a nicely done retrospective on the making of the series, with both the filmmakers and the principal actors (Chamberlain and Ward) offering their thoughts on what it was like to make the series. The featurette is refreshingly non-promotional, and jumps right into interesting information about the series, such as the casting process for the role of Meggie.
The Thorn Birds has a place in television history as the second-most-watched miniseries of all time (conceding the number one slot to Roots), and its appeal turns out to be a lasting one: this saga of forbidden love and the conflict between the spirit and the flesh, dramatized by Richard Chamberlain and Rachel Ward, is a very entertaining one. Fans of the series will be disappointed that the image quality is not better, but at any rate it's watchable. Overall, The Thorn Birds gets a solid "recommended."