This television mini-series originally ran during three nights in November 1984, just two months after my fourth birthday. But I still remember watching it when it was first on, and I sometimes feel like I am the only one who does. All too often when I ask if someone has seen it--or remembers it--I am met with either blank stares or with, "Oh, yeah, I saw it. . .it was the one with Patrick Swayze, right?" No, that was The North and South, in my opinion, the lesser of the two mid-eighties Civil War mini-series.
I really enjoyed The Blue and the Gray when it first aired. . .and I still do. When I was a kid, I watched it repeatedly and to the point where I am still able to quote dialogue at length. The movie was based, loosely I believe, on a Bruce Catton story and centers around two families divided by war: the Geisers, from Virginia, and the Hales, from Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. The matriarch of the Geiser family and that of the Hale family are sisters, meaning that their children are cousins. Of course, the Geiser kids--Matthew, Mark, and Luke--fought for the Confederacy, and the Hales' sons--Jacob, James, and Malachi--fought for the Union. The main character, however, is John Geiser, brother of Matt, Mark, and Luke, and a man opposed to war but who serves as a newspaper artist/correspondent employed by Harper's Weekly. And who suggested that young John Geiser pursue this vocation? Well, none other than Abraham Lincoln himself, portrayed by Gregory Peck. The other main character is Jonas Steele, a man, we discover, who was the Forrest Gump of the Civil War. . .he was seemingly everywhere and knew everyone associated with the conflict. He worked as a detective for the Pinkerton Agency and was one of Lincoln's bodyguards at the outset of the war. He was also on hand for the John Brown trial and execution and, during the war itself, was a trusted scout/advisor for high-ranking Union officers, including U.S. Grant. Stacy Keach, who I tabbed several weeks ago to portray General Israel Richardson in an imagined movie about the battle of Antietam, plays the part of Steele. Steele and John Geiser meet at the John Brown trial and develop a close friendship. John even introduces Jonas to his cousin, Mary Hale, and they eventually wed. Their marriage was a short one, however, as Mary falls dead when a bullet pierces the door of their Hanover home and strikes her while she is caring for a wounded Confederate cavalryman.
In addition to Gregory Peck and Stacy Keach, The Blue and the Gray featured a number of other big-name celebs. Lloyd Bridges plays the father of the Geisers, and Matt Geiser is portrayed by Cooper Huckabee, much better remembered in Civil War filmography as the spy Harrison in Gettysburg. Other Civil War movie aficionados will also recognize Royce Applegate, who had a brief role in The Blue and the Gray as a newspaper reporter, but a larger one as General James Kemper in Gettysburg. Rip Torn is Ulysses Grant, Paul Winfield portrayed Jonathan Henry, a slave of the Geiser family who was lynched by slave catchers for helping conceal runaways in his small cabin. And Robert Vaughn, who is now the spokesman for the Metzer-Wickersham law firm here in central Pennsylvania, played Senator Reynolds, father of Kathy, whom John Geiser meets on the Bull Run battlefield and finally weds in the movie's closing scene.
There are some truly laughable scenes in this movie, particularly the battle sequences, and some of the acting is awful. . .just awful. Still, every now and then, when I have an afternoon to kill, I will pop in The Blue and the Gray, and remember how I felt as a kid when the Civil War was "new" to me. If you haven't seen it, and if you're thinking about how to spend seven hours this weekend, rent the movie. . .and if it has been awhile since you last seen it, go reacquaint yourself. Then come to Antietam, look me up, and perhaps we can go through some of the dialogue and recreate some of the incredibly badly acted scenes.