In its heyday, the mini-series was a celebrated television event—a chance to see big names working alongside familiar faces from TV-shows, and to enjoy night-after-night entertainment instead of waiting a week between episodes. Shows like "Roots," "War and Remembrance," "The Thornbirds," and "Centennial" pulled in massive audiences, and their production values were as good as Hollywood films. But somewhere along the road, the public's fascination with blockbuster entertainment waned. Perhaps the fault was the industry itself, which began cranking out these things so often that they became routine and started to look more like ordinary TV shows.
Somewhere between "North and South," that romantic soaper of a TV mini-series, and big-screen attempts to capture the realistic battles and politics of the Civil War like "Glory," "Gettysburg," or "Gods and Generals," lies "The Blue and the Gray"—an entertaining but often cheesy and inaccurate1982 mini-series.
Stars were the thing with mini-series, and this one features Gregory Peck as Abe Lincoln (looking and talking a lot like he did as Captain Ahab in "Moby Dick"), Robert "The Man from U.N.C.L.E." Vaughn as a senator, Sterling Hayden ("Dr. Strangelove") as the slightly demented John Brown, Paul Winfield as a black pottery-making freeman, Lloyd Bridges as a patriarch Virginian farmer, and Colleen Dewhurst as his wife (though some other actress's photo appears by Dewhurst's name on the box). TV veterans Stacy Keach ("Mike Hammer"), Julia Duffy and John Volstad ("Newhart"), and Paul Benedict ("The Jeffersons") appear as well, with Keach drawing top billing as a swaggering union agent in the "Wild Wild West" mode.
Artist-war correspondent John Geyser (John Hammond) says, at one point, "When I walked across the battlefield after it was over, I saw things so awful that my mind rejects it, even though I looked right at it." That's pretty much how this sprawling but sanitized 378-minute mini-series goes, keeping the violence mostly off-stage and zeroing in instead on the brother vs. brother and cousin vs. cousin aspect of the national conflict. Tonally, it comes as a shock to the system, with whimsical music and so many comic moments that you have to remind yourself you're watching a film about the Civil War. This is a tale of two related families on opposite sides—the Geysers and the Hales—that manages to carve out a different niche for itself. It also avoids the heavy romantic claptrap of "North and South"—but just barely.
The two-disc recut version is 82 minutes shorter than the original series, which was released previously on a three-disc version. I couldn't tell you what was lopped off, because it's been so long since I've seen the original. But because it's so heavily episodic, I can tell you that the editing isn't intrusive at all. If you've never seen "The Blue and the Gray," you won't notice anything jarring until the ending, with it's abrupt shift from gravity to peaches and cream. But the writing and performances? Well, that's another story. Like the series itself, they vary considerably from scene to scene, between quite good and almost laughable.
Popular Civil War historian Bruce Catton is on board, but the direction this series takes is to focus on family relationships and to highlight lesser-known aspects of the war, like hot-air observation balloons, and, yes, war correspondents. The Civil War saw the birth of journalistic syndication and the pyramid-style of writing—capturing the who, what, when, where, why, and how in the first paragraph before giving details, in case the telegraph wires were cut before the message could end.
The narrative follows John as he leaves his family's Charlottesville farm and travels to find work at his uncle's Gettysburg newspaper. His first assignment is to cover the John Brown trial, after which he begins to work for Harper's Weekly as one of the first artist war correspondents working on the union side. The cameras follow him as he rescues a senator's daughter at the first major skirmish, meets Lincoln, and tries to make contact with his brother on the other side. Part of the time the camera follows the Hales as well, with the most enjoyable segments involving one of the brothers as he wrangles "truce" spots at a Yankee dance for him and his buddy.
But the first half of the recut version (disc one) is by far the strongest—helped by the presence of the big names that vanish by the second half, but also by a plot that relies more on character than coincidence. By the time we get to the second half, happenstance becomes so prevalent that it's easy to predict the action. Example? As Keach strikes his unintentionally comic western hero poses and has a moment where he's about to shoot several retreating rebs in the back but then lowers his pistol, we next see the bookend compassionate counterpart action in his "girl" (Duffy), who gives aid and comfort to a Confederate soldier who seeks refuge in her house. Or when a pregnant Emma Geyser witnesses her profiteering husband injured in a shelling, she drives him at breakneck speed on a buckboard to the hospital, where, predictably, she goes into labor. Obvious moments like those were thankfully missing from the first half. Though it was filmed in Arkansas with over 160 characters and 6300 extras, the second half at times still feels like an episode from "Bonanza" rather than a big-budget mini-series.
Video: "The Blue and the Gray" is "recut," not "remastered." It's presented in a 1.33:1 aspect ratio, and while the quality isn't bad, it's not stellar either. There's a graininess throughout, and the colors aren't as vibrant as I remember them being when the show first aired.
Audio: The audio is Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono, so don't expect your TV room to shudder with the sounds of battle. There's a flatness to the sound as well, which reminds us that it's a made-for-TV movie. Subtitles are in English and French.
Extras: There are no extras.
Bottom Line: In the world of TV mini-series, there are must-see memorable ones, absolute bombs, and a score of uneven productions that, for all their flaws, manage to entertain us. This one falls into that last category. "The Blue and the Gray" may not take us on a Civil War journey that we expect, but the direction it goes is interesting enough . . . half of the time.