Two months ago, I rejoiced that Amazon users did not greenlight Point of Honor. On the other hand, I wondered if the reason had less to do with the show’s crappiness and more to do with a general lack of interest in the Civil War from TV audiences. Surveying the scene now, it looks like producers don’t share my concerns. No less than three major networks are developing projects dealing with some aspect of the Civil War era. I have some reservations but the fact this is happening at all–and on the heels of the sesquicentennial, when one would expect Civil War fatigue–seems like a win.
The first project to show up on my radar started to get attention during Point of Honor‘s brief lifespan, PBS’s Mercy Street (I’m happy to think it’s named for the Peter Gabriel song until someone tells me otherwise). The most surprising aspect is that Ridley Scott, a major Hollywood director, is producing it. Some of the initial buzz suggested it would be America’s response to Downton Abbey, but that seems like an oversimplification. Here’s a synopsis from Deadline:
Mercy Street follows the lives of two volunteer nurses on opposing sides of the Civil War — New England abolitionist Mary Phinney and Confederate supporter Emma Green. The Green family’s luxury hotel in Alexandria, VA, has been transformed into Mansion House, a Union Army hospital tending to the war’s wounded. The series, being shot in the Richmond and Petersburg, VA areas, is inspired by memoirs and letters from real doctors and nurse volunteers at the hospital in Alexandria, the longest occupied Confederate city of the war.
This all sounds very promising and there is enormous potential in a Civil War hospital for moving and deep historical drama. Concentrating on women from the Confederate and Union sides is also intriguing (since southern women typically get all the attention in historical fiction). Old Town Alexandria makes an awesome backdrop, so I’m a little surprised they’re filming in Richmond and Petersburg. On the other hand, at least they’ll make better substitutes for 19th-Century Alexandria than whatever Walking Dead is using for its post-apocalyptic version of the city.
Around the same time, reports emerged for two more projects–each related to Civil War era African American history. First came new of a History [Channel] remake of Roots with Allen Hughes directing. I’m a little embarrassed to say I’ve only seen parts of the original miniseries (I plan on remedying that for this blog) but I’m familiar enough with it and Alex Haley’s book to know the story makes for excellent source material (despite potential historical problems). The History [Channel] got the rights back in 2013 but didn’t do anything with them until now. I suspect the success of 12 Years a Slave and Selma inspired the network to move forward. I just hope Hughes applies some of the historical nuance and realism that made those films great.
I was even more excited to learn that HBO has greenlit a TV film based on Kate Clifford Larson’s biography of Harriet Tubman. It will star Viola Davis as Tubman from an adaptation by Kirk Ellis, who also penned the network’s outstanding miniseries based on David McCullough’s John Adams. Tubman is generally underrepresented in popular culture, so this is a particularly welcome development. She’s been in the news a lot lately–recently winning a poll of potential replacements for Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill–so, hopefully the film will get a big audience and make Tubman a more widely-known historical figure.
All three projects have strong potential, but there’s some room for doubt. I’m most skeptical of Roots, if only because it’s a product of the History [Channel] and the network’s most recent stab at historical drama, Sons of Liberty, was over-the-top horrifying. I’m aware that series was intentionally campy and Roots obviously calls for a more serious treatment, but the History [Channel] has done little to convince me that it can handle subjects as weighty as slavery and the black experience in America, so I’ll keep a little pessimism until proven wrong.
Mercy Street looks better but also has possible signs of trouble. Its focus on characters from New England and Virginia in a hospital could help writers explore how the war affected different groups of Americans, but it could also result in the same “brother against brother” cliches we’ve seen a million times. Ridley Scott’s involvement may cause trouble too. His last really good film was probably Gladiator and, whatever strengths it had as a movie (It won the Oscar for best picture), it was a horrible piece of history–and don’t get me started on Kingdom of Heaven. What’s more, Scott’s only other foray into the Civil War, his Gettysburg documentary for the History [Channel], was an overwrought mess. On the other hand, Scott directed at least two undisputed classics (Alien and Blade Runner), which also happen to be two of my favorite movies, so his guiding hand could be a strong one. Taken alongside a pretty good cast and PBS’s dependable track record with historical fiction, Mercy Street has more going for it than against it, so I’ll remain optimistic for now.
I’m not going to cast any shade on the Tubman film because everything I’ve read only inspires confidence. Indeed, it would be great to see all three projects do well. Point of Honor made a terrible ambassador for the Civil War on TV, but good productions about slavery, the African American experience, and the impact of the war on those who experienced it could spark renewed public interest in the conflict as well as enjoyable, smart entertainment. Pair them with the upcoming Hollywood treatment of The Free State of Jones and we could be looking at a full-blown Civil War pop culture renaissance.
Fingers crossed . . .