Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Review: The Kent Chronicles (DVD)

Note: This review contains spoilers.

Having read only John Jakes "The Seekers", the last in the trilogy, known as  "The Kent Chronicles" about the founding of America, I was curious to explore its two predecessors, "The Bastard" and "The Rebels".   So, I gladly agreed to review "The Kent Chronicles" DVD based on the bestselling series when Acorn Media recently offered to send me a review copy.

Jakes wrote the series, set during the period of the American Revolution, to coincide with the nation's celebration of the bicentennial (no doubt at the urging of a marketing savvy publisher) and they proved to be bestsellers, now with over 55,000,000 in print.  But, although I vividly remember watching the tall ships sail into New York harbor on July 4, 1976, I somehow didn't get around to reading any of Jakes books until well after that date when I managed to find "The Seekers" audiobook for sale at a local flea market.
"The Seekers", however, was actually the last book in the trilogy although it read more like it was the first of a new trilogy and even ended with both main characters left dangling without resolution.  Apparently, the publisher wished Jakes to move on so he pulled the plug on the Kents at that point and moved on to the American Civil War, penning "North and South".

I may have seen "The Kent Chronicles" when it aired in 1978-79 as I was quite a fan of historical miniseries but I honestly don't remember it, although I vividly remember "North and South" that aired in 2004.  Whether this is a statement on the quality of the production or insight into the brutal schedule of a young farm family trying to scratch a living out of the high desert of eastern Oregon (which I was doing at the time), I'm not sure.  So when I watched the review DVDs, the story was relatively new to me.

Casting wise, Hollywood certainly gave "The Kent Chronicles" every opportunity to be memorable.  They must have netted almost every recognizable actor and actress available at the time, particularly those who had achieved success on the small screen.

Andrew Stevens, son of actress Shelly Stevens, played the title role of Philippe Charbonneau (who became the Americanized Philip Kent).  I immediately recognized Stevens as he had previously had a role in my favorite miniseries, "Once An Eagle", playing Sam Damon's  son, Donny.

[As an aside, "Once An Eagle", a gritty 9-hour miniseries based on Anton Myrer's bestselling novel and the vehicle that launched Sam Elliott's acting career,  was unavailable in any home video format for decades until, after much lobbying from fans including former students at West Point where the novel is required reading, Timess Media Group finally released it in 2010 .]

Stevens also received a Golden Globe nomination for Best Motion Picture Acting Debut for "The Boys in Company C", another of my favorite war films, in 1979.

Stevens gives a solid performance in both "The Bastard" and "The Rebels" although both he and Patricia Neal, who played the role of his mother Marie Charbonneau, struggled a little with their French accents.  As the bastard son of an English lord, Philippe has been raised on the promise that when he reached manhood he would be formally recognized by his father, the Duke of Kentland, and would spend his life in the pursuits of the wealthy and powerful.  We get a brief glimpse of pre-revolutionary France and Philippe even becomes good friends with the Marquis de Lafayette.

When word arrives that Philippe's father is near death, Philippe and his mother set out for England but find, upon arrival, that the Duke's wife, protective of her spoiled and arrogant son, will not even let them see the Duke and throws them out of the house.  Then, they are approached by a duplicitous bishop played quite effectively by Lorne Greene who has cast off his goody two-shoes role as Ben Cartwright.  The smarmy bishop attempts to get Marie to surrender the Duke's letter of formal acknowledgement.  Nearly sucuumbing to his wiles, Phillipe and Marie recognize his true aim at the last minute and send him packing.  Then somewhere in the middle of all this, Phillipe manages to have an affair with the Duke's son's wife Alicia, played quite seductively by Olivia Hussey.

[Although her character in this miniseries is not an admirable one, I found her character of Rebecca of York in the miniseries "Ivanhoe" produced in 1982 quite sympathetic.  That miniseries was another example of an outstanding novel adaptation that was not available on home video anywhere close to me anyway (remember there was no internet or Amazon's back then) for decades but was finally released on DVD in 2009.  I have to admit, though, my favorite character was the villain, Brian de Bois-Guilbert, wonderfully played by Sam Neill.]

When Philippe and Marie decide to return to Kentland and demand admittance, Phillipe and the Duke's recognized son get into a scuffle (rather poorly choreographed I'm afraid) and the Duke's son's hand is irreparably damaged.  Philippe and his mother are urged to flee and they retreat to London where they are rescued from street ruffians by a well meaning printer and his son.  To repay the printer's kindness Phillipe begins helping with the firm's printing orders and demonstrates a talent for the task.  But the Duke's mangled son has hired a deliciously villainous one-eyed assassin played by Cameron Mitchell (at that time most remembered for his role as Uncle Buck on "The High Chaparral".

The Mitchell character spots Phillipe and trails him to the print shop.  But Phillipe is warned in time and prepares to flee once again but not before Phillipe meets a gregarious Ben Franklin played rather flippantly by Tom Bosley.  The encounter injects the seed of adventure into young Phillipe and, armed with a letter of recommendation from Franklin, he decides to try to find a job as a printer in the American colonies.  To be more readily accepted in the colonies, he also decides to adopt a new name, Philip Kent.

Fortunately, upon arrival in America, after a few missteps and a thorough thrashing by some toughs near the docks, Philip manages to land a job with a well-regarded printer, Benjamin Edes, played by Buddy Ebsen, who is also a member of the Sons of Liberty.  Philip gets involved with them as well and his subsequent exploits include encounters with Paul Revere played by a certain former Star Fleet captain, William Shatner and a fiery Samuel Adams played by William Daniels.

Of course, in the second installment, "The Rebels" Philip ends up as an officer in the Continental Army and best friends with Judson Fletcher played quite forcefully by a very young Don Johnson just a few years before he gained fame on "Miami Vice".  TV's favorite sidekick, Doug McClure also joins the action and even Rory Calhoun drops in for a few scenes.  My favorite part of this segment was the depiction of the treacherous march when Philip and his companions are trying to drag huge cannon  from Fort Ticonderoga back to Washington's beleaguered troops outside of Boston in the dead of winter.  This particular event did actually happen but occurred in May 1775 so I doubt there was much snow then.  It was also spearheaded by the famous Green Mountain Boys led by Ethan Allen and Benedict Arnold.  As Benedict Arnold was still viewed narrow mindedly as America's worst traitor back in the 1970s, I'm sure Hollywood did not want to confuse anyone by highlighting his valiant efforts on behalf of the American cause at Fort Ticonderoga.

The poorly trained American army also actually suffered many defeats early in the Revolution, even after Washington assumed command.  But these events were only mentioned briefly as minor setbacks in the miniseries.  Even Valley Forge wasn't portrayed as devastating to the troops as it actually was probably so as not to shine too much light on the conditions of the troops compared to the relative comfort of Washington and his adjutants.  The wealthy elite making up the Continental Congress were also not portrayed in a particularly negative light even though there were times during the revolution that they wouldn't even back the financial committments made to the volunteer army in the field in favor of war profiteering. But, after all, the movie was supposed to be a celebration of our independence not a critique of our founding fathers' motives.

In the third installment, Philip, now played by Martin Milner, has unfortunately morphed into a rather rigid curmudgeon who tries to lay the law down to his son Abraham played effectively by Randolph Mantooth of "Emergency" fame.  But Abraham does not wish to follow in his father's footsteps into the printing business and strikes out, rather naively, for the land west of Ohio with the assistance of nasty and nefarious Leland Pell played by Vic Morrow.  (Vic Morrow was such a talented actor playing riveting heroes and villains alike).  Abraham succeeds in protecting his wife from Pell but he is a poor farmer at best and when his wife is killed by two drunken Indians looking for whiskey in the barn of his homestead, he retreats to Boston where he attempts to resume his father's trade under the supervision of his younger brother Gilbert who has taken over the firm after his father's death.  But Abraham drinks and spends so much time in the local brothels that he contracts "the pox", apparently syphillis.  Finally, his brother orders him out of the family home but refuses to let him take Abraham's young son, Jarod, with him.  Instead, Jarod is raised by Gilbert although Gilbert's shrewish wife makes it clear she can't abide the boy making his life miserable.

Jarod finally reaches an age where he would be accepted into the budding American Navy so escapes the wicked step mother by heading off to sea on "Old Ironsides" (which I have toured in Boston harbor and is still manned by the U.S. Navy).  But Jarod finds he has attracted the unwanted attention of the lascivious Lt. Hamilton Stovall played quite effectively by George Hamilton.  Fortunately, Stovall suffers severe burns when he falls against a red-hot cannon during his attempts to corner Jarod in the middle of a battle with the British and disappears into a rehabilitation hospital.

Jarod eventually returns to Boston after four years in the Navy but I must admit, he is the most innocent and naive sailor I have ever seen (being the daughter of a career Navy man and wife of a Vietnam veteran).  He can't seem to defend himself even after that long in the service so it makes you roll your eyes when he swears to protect his cousin Amanda.

His uncle Gilbert has died and his stepmother has gotten married to a ruthless gold digger, Mr. Piggott, played by Hugh O'Brian.  (Hugh O'Brian, who gained fame as a very sanitized and heroic Wyatt Earp in the late 1950s and early 1960s is much like Vic Morrow in that he can play a really nasty villain when given the part)  Piggott is not only a gold digger but a terrible gambler who has frittered away Kent & Sons.  When Jarod goes down to the print shop to see what can be salvaged, he discovers the entire estate his grandfather worked so hard to build has been acquired by none other than the evil Hamilton Stovall who openly admits to cheating Piggott out of the Kent assetts in his master plan to ruin the Kents.  In a fury, Jarod fires a pistol at Stovall but hits Stovall's attorney instead.  Fearing he will be charged with murder, he flees Boston taking his cousin Amanda with him.  They head west with practically nothing but the clothes on their backs and come upon what appears to be a harmless minister played by Stuart Whitman who rapes and kidnaps Amanda after knocking Jarod out.  Amanda is subsequently sold to a pair of trappers heading up the Missouri River who are attacked by Indians.  Amanda changes hands once more and is taken into the household of one of the warriors.  Meanwhile, Jarod searches for her accompanied by an old mountain man played by Brian Keith.

Although its been years since I read the book, this is the point where the book ends.  But Hollywood couldn't quite leave things unresolved so they have Jarod track down his cousin, which takes several years, only to find she now has a family of her own and doesn't wish to leave her (very handsome) warrior/husband played by Donald Mantooth, Randolph's brother - sort of bringing this segment full circle.

The miniseries, as a product of the 1970s, does not get into the political details driving the separation of the American colonies from Great Britain and all traditional American heroes that make an appearance in the miniseries are portrayed as pretty much squeaky clean.  So a serious scholar of the American Revolution should not view this production as Hollywood's  attempt to educate the public.  The budget for this miniseries must have also been tight after paying so many name actors for such small cameo appearances.  There are no large scale battle scenes and no scenes involving large numbers of costumed actors or extras.  But the series served its purpose to bring attention to the country's origins shortly after the celebration of the bicentennial and entertain a public relieved to be out of the Vietnam War and wishing to forget the sordid Washington politics of the Watergate era.

Note: The DVD set is now available directly from Acorn Media or from the usual internet sources like Amazon.  Acorn Media specializes in historical dramas and documentaries. They also offer an online streaming service as well "with a special focus on the best of British television and mind, body, spirit programming."  They presently charge only $29.95 for a full year of streamed, commercial free programming with over 100 hours of programming available at any given time.  Membership also includes free standard shipping on any DVDs ordered from their extensive library and specials offers throughout the year.

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Thursday, July 26, 2012

Review: Conqueror by Conn Iggulden

This fifth novel in Conn Iggulden's series covering the rise to power and reigns of Genghis Khan and his descendants is once more breathtaking in its scope and alive with vibrant characters who slash their way across Asia in their struggle to become the Great Khan of the Mongol people.   

As the novel opens, Güyük, eldest son of Genghis Khan's third son, Ogedei, has assumed the throne after his father dies of a heart ailment.  But, Güyük is suspicious of Prince Batu, son of Ghengis' eldest son Jochi, because Batu did not attend the great kurultai or tribal gathering where tribal leaders confirm the choice of the new khan and swear an oath of loyalty to him.  Batu rules remnants of the famous Golden Horde that swept through Russia initially under the leadership of the famed warlord Subutai and now controls the lands west of the Volga River.

Historically, this is accurate as far as it goes.  Batu claimed he could not attend the kurultai when first invited by Ogedei's widow and ruling regent, Toregene, and Batu's failure to obey the summons delayed the succession for several years.  But eventually, in 1246 CE, Güyük was proclaimed Great Khan at a ceremony attended by Batu's brothers, who represented the Jochid branch of the family.  But Güyük would have been painfully aware of Batu's personal popularity as Batu was called "agha" (or elder brother in Mongolian) by the people and considered the most respected prince in the Empire so certainly the attendance of substitutes would have been duly noted.

Friction between the two actually dates back to the Mongol invasion of Europe.  The Great Khan Ogedei ordered Batu to conquer the western nations at a kurultai in 1235 CE and was assigned an army of over 130,000 men.  He was joined by the other Mongol princes including Güyük.  After three brutal years of fighting, including the devastation of 14 Rus cities, a victory banquet was held where Batu was ridiculed by Güyük, apparently disapproving of Batu's battle strategies, and calling him "an old woman with a beard".  Infuriated, Batu reported Güyük's behavior to the Great Khan who called Güyük back to Mongolia for a reprimand.

In the novel, once Güyük was named Great Khan, he took his father's warriors and began to march west under a pretext of training exercises, with the actual goal of personally wresting Batu's khanate away from him.  Batu is warned of Güyük's intentions by Sorghaghtani, widow of Genghis Khan's younger brother Tolui and mother of Kublai.  In the novel (Spoiler alert) Kublai disguises himself as a Yam rider, the Mongolian version of the Pony Express, and embarks on a strenuous dash across the continent to warn Batu who clandestinely intercepts Güyük while the Great Khan is out hunting with only a body slave in attendance.
Historically, Güyük is said to have died suddenly from natural causes but the thrilling encounter between Güyük and Batu theoretically could have occurred.

Kublai's involvement is also imagined although Sorghaghtani did warn Batu and probably would have used the Yam messenger system and would have needed to find a messenger that would not have been loyal to the new Khan.  Who better than one of her own sons?

Meanwhile, Kublai's older brother, Mongke, is with Güyük's entourage.  Mongke orders the army to return the Khan's body to the Mongolian capital where a kurultai is held following the funeral and Mongke is proclaimed the new Khan.  After Mongke assumes the throne, he immediately begins a purge of the Ogedeid clan including the execution of the much revered Toregene, widow of Ogedei Khan and mother of Güyük.
This purge is quite probable although history merely records that the Ogedeid and Chagataid clans were punished for their lack of support for Mongke's ascension to the throne.  The death of Toregene, who has been portrayed sympathetically in  Iggulden's previous novel, "Empire of Silver", lends a dark aspect to the rule of Mongke which is not supported by the historical record although Toregene was also not as ethically unassailable as she was portrayed either.

Historically, Ogedei named a son by another wife, Kochu, as his successor. When that son died unexpectedly on a campaign in China, Ogedei named Kochu's son, Siremun, as his successor.   Toregene was determined, though, that Güyük would be Khan.  When Ogedei died and Toregene was named regent until a kurultai could be held to confirm a new Khan, Toregene delayed the kurultai until Güyük garnered enough support for a successful bid.  (Evidently, Batu was not the only one trying to delay the naming of a new Khan).

However, the relationship between mother and son did not last after Güyük ascended the throne.  Toregene had promoted a Tajik or Persian woman named Fatima to a high post in the imperial administration and she and Toregene had become close friends.  When Güyük's brother, Koden, became ill he accused Fatima of witchcraft.  Güyük demanded that the woman be turned over for execution.  His mother, Toregene, refused and threatened suicide if he tried to harm the woman.  Güyük's men seized Fatima anyway and put her to death then purged his mother's other supporters in the imperial household.  Toregene herself died under unexplained circumstances about 18 months later.  Therefore, she was presumably already dead by the time
Mongke ascended the throne although the timing would have been close.

But, let's return to Iggulden's story.

Mongke is a Mongol warrior of the old school in sharp contrast to Kublai who has pursued an education in Chinese philosophy and cultural pursuits.  When Mongke assumes the throne he purges the Mongolian court of all Chinese officials and philosophers and orders Kublai to China to expand the empire by conquering the Song.  He also asks Kublai to swear he will forsake his Chinese books and ways and learn the skills of a warrior and general.  He sends with him a son of the famous warlord Subutai named Uryankhadai.  The subsequent battles require all of the cunning and expert military strategy Kublai and Uryankhadai can devise to defeat Song armies often with as much as a 10 to 1 numerical advantage over the Mongolian forces.  But Kublai is often cut off from the Mongolian homeland and little information trickles back to Mongke Khan.  Mongke becomes suspicious and decides his younger brother may need some assistance and sets out with a relief force.

On the way, an Ismaili assassin from the Fatimid Empire that was  attacked and sacked by Mongke's younger brother Hulagu, ends Mongke's reign.

Historically, there are various conflicting accounts about Mongke's death.  Most scholars have settled upon reports that he died of dysentery or cholera while besieging a city.  However, there are accounts that at one point the Ismaili-Hashashin's imam Alaud-Din dispatched hundreds of assassins to kill Mongke in his palace. So Iggulden's use of this scenario is certainly plausible.

Kublai is still fighting the Song and senses he is close to total victory so when he finally receives a summons to a kurultai in Karakorum to choose a successor to the Khan, he ignores it.  But his younger brother, Ariq Böke, does not wait and has himself declared Khan.  In the meantime, after a horrendous battle and great Mongolian victory, Kublai is declared Khan by his troops setting the stage for an epic succession struggle that served as the climax for the book.

One last historical note.  At the end of the novel, Ariq Böke is executed.  Kublai actually pardoned Ariq Böke although he did have many of Ariq Böke's companions executed.

According to scholar David Morgan, "Ariq Böke can be seen as representing an influential school of thought among the Mongols, which Kublai through his actions and attitudes after 1260 opposed. Some Mongols felt there was a dangerous drift towards softness, typified in those like Kublai who thought there was something to be said for settled civilization and for the Chinese way of life."

Once more Conn Iggulden succeeded in bringing the vibrant Mongol culture to life in a way that leaves you, at times, breathless.  I would love another installment that explores the world Kublai envisioned compared to the legacy he actually left behind.  Are you listening Mr. Iggulden?

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