Entry 2: The Trials of a Confederate Abolitionist

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.

Additional Dispatches

  • 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.

Next Entry: Cold Mountain

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9 comments

  1. David Ellrod · June 21

    I was one of the extras portraying the 5th New York Zouaves in the opening battle sequence (made up of about 50% reenactors like myself and 50% professional extras, who carried rubber guns). I’d agree with your assessments — and that the battle sequence wasn’t half bad. It would have been nice if the actual characterization/plot/etc. had kept pace.

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  3. ladylavinia1932 · December 22

    The State of Virginia wasn’t going to stand by and allow someone to free his or her slaves en masse like that. Not during the late antebellum period or around the beginning of the Civil War.

  4. wkerrigan · January 25, 2015

    Reblogged this on The Museum at Olger's Store.

  5. Glenn B · January 19, 2015

    Christian, I posted this lengthy reply elsewhere, but I thought I’d add it to the discussion here too:
    I got around to watching this mess and now that I’ve seen it I have five thoughts.
    1) The freeing of the slaves nonsense is clearly something that they are setting up as a mystery to be solved as the series progresses. In one scene the daughters ponder why their father would go along with this decision of their brother’s, and one says “I dunno, something has happened,” and then it is left at that. Cleary the reasons for the emancipation will be developed later. Of course, no matter how it turns out, it still doesn’t change the fact (as you point out) that the writers obviously did this so that the heroes of the show are not slaveholders. The same thing was done in the film The Patriot, but here it seems even more ridiculous, if that is possible. It confuses me why they think that audiences need a noble protagonist on the right side of slavery. In the age of such shows as The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, and The Walking Dead, its clear that audiences can handle complexity in their protagonists.
    2) The number of cliches in this thing is mind numbing. Besides those already mentioned here and other places, one that I found most annoying is when one of the daughters discusses how the Rebel army will be made up of farm boys that are accustomed to hunting and shooting, but that the U.S. army will be made up of textile workers, and thus “we will slaughter them by the wagonloads.” Now, it is true that a southerner would make an inaccurate boast like that, but for the uneducated viewer the statement will just affirm what many believe to be true about the differences between southern and northern soldiers. We know that the vast majority of Yankees were farm boys too, but most people don’t know it, and a line like that in the show only perpetuates a myth.
    3) The scene where the slaves discuss running away to the North (before they learn they have been freed) rings true, although it would have been more accurate to have had them talking about just making it to Union armies. In my research I found that slaves in Virginia were indeed having conversations like this even before any Union soldiers had set foot in the state and they anticipated that freedom would arrive with the Yankees.
    4) It appears that the women will be very strong characters that will bear the burden of taking care of the plantation and its finances. If done correctly, this could be a very positive and accurate aspect of the show, but given what we have seen so far I am not sure we can trust the writers to handle it well.
    5) The only other redeeming thing I found about the show (other than the attractiveness of the sisters!) is the beautiful shots of the Westover Plantation on the James River (although the show is set in Lynchburg). It was the home of the famous William Byrd II (Yes, the one with that incredible and saucy diary), and while the grounds are open to the public, the interior is not (unlike the other beautiful plantation homes near it). Watching this episode finally gave me some glimpses inside the home (built in the 1730s) and I found that fascinating.

    • Christian McWhirter · January 19, 2015

      Glenn, these are all excellent points and I only have a few things to add.
      1) While there may be plans to reveal some sordid or practical reason for John’s actions regarding his slaves, the way Wallace handles it in the pilot is still historically and artistically problematic. When we first meet John, he’s only slightly less abolitionist than Robert and he apparently comes around to Robert’s way of thinking off-camera in less than a day. This is too much of a historical aberration to explain away with some intrigue or family history. Some immediate exposition is clearly necessary. John isn’t just freeing his slaves, he’s doing it with gusto!
      2) I didn’t want my post to be too long, but I considered making it a minute-by-minute catalog of cliches. That approach quickly became too daunting due to sheer numbers.
      3) That scene absolutely made me think of your book. Maybe Wallace read it, but I wouldn’t bet on it.
      4) I’m not sure the actresses are up to the task. Estella was especially hammy.
      5) The Westover location made me wonder what huge Shenandoah river is supposed to be behind Point of Honor. If gunboats show up in a future episode, my head is going to explode. That being said, I’m still pretty confident there won’t be any future episodes.

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  7. Glenn B · January 16, 2015

    I’ll be watching this soon, but based on your assessment it doesn’t look very promising (of course it never did). But I will say this: as you point out, this is intended to be a series, so the reasons for his desire to free the slaves may be something that will slowly get fleshed out, and it might be a doozy of a mystery. Perhaps, for example, the dude knows that there are slaves on his plantation that are actually is half brothers and sisters (now wouldn’t that make for some juicy tv!). Obviously that would not be something he would be readily willing to reveal. Who knows? Just speculating. On another note, I hate to hear that the Yankees are going to be portrayed as vile, sadistic, and wanton destructors. Isn’t this getting old by now?

    • Christian McWhirter · January 16, 2015

      If the show gets picked up, I’ll share you hope that the glaring plot holes in the pilot start to get filled in, but there isn’t much room for optimism. There are lots of aspects of this pilot I didn’t get into in the review that are also troubling and badly thought out. Given the way the episode ends, I would expect a greenlit Point of Honor to transform into something more akin to a historical romance novel like North & South than a serious exploration of the Rhodes family’s relationship with slavery and/or the Confederacy.

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