Point of Honor, “Pilot.” Directed by Randall Wallace. Written by Carlton Cuse and Randall Wallace
Release Date: January 15, 2015.
Available: Amazon Pilots
I have a slight soft spot for Randall Wallace’s breakout film, Braveheart (I still remember seeing it at the old Gateway 6 in Brampton, Ontario, as a teenager), so I was determined to remain objective going into Point of Honor. One negative review had already appeared by the time I fired it up on Amazon last night, and both Kevin Levin and Keith Harris had justifiably slammed the trailer. Unfortunately, it only took about ten minutes for me to realize this thing is a train wreck, both historically and artistically.
Most of the criticism has focused on the implausibility of the show’s central conceit: A Virginia planter and West Point cadet named John Rhodes (Nathan Parsons, trying his best to look and act like Jon Snow with a southern accent) reacts to the attack on Fort Sumter by both joining the Confederacy and freeing his slaves. While it’s true the historical record makes the chances of a Virginia slaveholder doing these two things unlikely at best, the problems with John’s decision and his character run much deeper and effectively make suspension of disbelief impossible.
Let’s take a closer look at John. His abolitionism is introduced almost immediately but never explained. I understand this is a series and characters develop over multiple episodes, but John’s stance on slavery is such a departure from the historical norm and from everything we know about him (he manages what appears to be a huge and prosperous tobacco plantation named Point of Honor, with lots and lots of human property), that we really need a better understanding of why he would have such a radical opposition to the institution that’s clearly made him rich. The best we get is a conversation with his sister Kate (Annabelle Stephenson), in which he tells her “they are people.”
Furthermore, although John’s stance on slavery is surely admirable, his actions are not particularly well-considered. If he holds such a deep revulsion of slavery, why hasn’t he already freed them (his father actually owns the plantation but defers to John’s will for reasons never explained)? What’s more, could there have been a worse historical moment in the history of the American South for a planter to free a large group of slaves than the outbreak of the Civil War? Where are these slaves supposed to go after being freed? Surely not out into the increasingly militarized Confederate countryside, where they’ll likely be captured, re-enslaved, and impressed into digging trenches and fortifications. Why not simply wait and see where the cards fall? He could potentially have weathered the storm until the Union Army was close enough to take in his newly-freed slaves and protect his home from Confederate sympathizers.
However, Point of Honor seems unaware that unionism was a viable option for southerners and makes John a fairly enthusiastic Confederate. Before leaving West Point, his brother-in-law Robert Sumner (Christopher O’Shea) asks, rather sensibly, “How can you renounce slavery and then join on the side that’s fighting to defend it?” John weakly responds that he’s not fighting to defend slavery and will raise a regiment of “mostly” non-slaveholders but says little else, leaving Robert understandably confused. The show, to its credit, repeatedly reminds us that the Confederacy was primarily fighting to preserve the institution of slavery, but it never fully reconciles why John is OK with this.
When John returns to Point of Honor, he tells a mob of angry white supremacists that they shouldn’t worry so much about his slaves but focus on the Union Army “ready to burn Virginia to the ground.” Wallace lets John off of the hook for joining up with the Confederates by making this statement 100% true. We only get to spend time with two northerners: One is Robert, who’s always either upset or confused, and the other is Robert’s psychotic commander and former West Point instructor Colonel Palmer Kane (Patrick Heusinger). Kane does nothing but anticipate the day he’ll have enough men under his command to burn the South’s towns, farms, and homes. He seems to take glee in the prospect of obliterating the entire region, at one point predicting that the war will be “satisfying.” Wallace gives John an extra dose of motivation by magically giving Kane an instant cavalry company and placing that company outside of Lynchburg, deep within Confederate Virginia) only weeks (maybe even days) after Sumter’s fall. Of course, they end up fighting and, of course, Kane shoots John’s father and, of course, Robert is blamed for the act. This justifies John’s previous decisions by making the Yankees such pure evil scum that he surely couldn’t have sided with them or entrusted the fate of his newly freed slaves to their care.
A television show about a Confederate officer having a crisis of conscience over slavery could work if done right. Point of Honor completely misses the mark by introducing us to John well after this transformation is complete and then surrounding him with stock characters from 150 years of Civil War fiction. Amazon viewers may well vote to greenlight a full season–and I’ll dutifully review the new episodes if they do–but I really hope they don’t.
- John’s sisters are a little better drawn than John himself and seem to understand the political and economic implications of his decisions.
- This is a pilot, so I’ll give it a pass for some of the bad acting, but Wallace really needed to hire an accent coach. Every single member of this family sounds like they’re from a different part of the South.
- The opening battle sequence actually isn’t so bad and the actors appear to be both young and thin, which is sometimes a rare thing in Civil War battle sequences done on the cheap
- The family overseer, Cutler, is almost as comically evil as Kane. Granted, I’m sure most overseers were not pleasant folks, but Cutler seems to exist purely to stare nastily at black people and kick them whenever possible.
- Does it mention slavery? Yes! And the African Americans living at Point of Honor actually get some interesting dialogue. Indeed, there are several moments in which they discuss the proper course of action and possible consequences of acting rashly. John, not so much.
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