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Class of ’61 (ABC TV, 1993)

Not bad. But not very good either.

The next screen Custer was a certain Joshua Lucas. He played the young West Point cadet in the pilot for a TV series that never was, Class of ’61. Actually, it’s hardly a Custer movie at all because he is just a third of the starring trio of characters, and not even the top one. The idea is that friends at the Point on the eve of the war find themselves on opposite sides in the coming conflict, and this of course heightens the brother-against-brother tragedy the war engendered. This was hardly a new idea. DW Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation in 1915 had a pretty similar plot. But the oldies are the goodies, often.

Screened by ABC in April 1993, produced by Steven Spielberg, with Civil War historian Shelby Foote acting as consultant, and documentary producer Ken Burns acknowledged for his contributions, the movie might have expected to have succeeded and made it into a couple of seasons anyway, yet nay. We have the pilot and that’s it.

Despite the credentials, though, it really isn’t very good. It’s ‘safe’, a touch anodyne and pretty mainstream. There’s a fair bit of soft focus and schmaltz. You wouldn’t have been all that surprised to find it on Hallmark.

Not my scene but it may be yours

Presumably, we would have followed Custer’s glorious Civil War career, had the story panned out, but as it is, the story ends at First Bull Run/Manassas in July 1861, which young Custer did participate in, but only in a fairly menial message-carrying capacity. So Mr Lucas did not get to become one of memorable screen Custers leading cavalry charges and such. He’s OK in the part he has, as one of the worst cadets and a drunk to boot.

Custer with his Irish pal O'Neil

The protagonists are Southerner Shelby Peyton (Dan Futterman) and convinced Yankee Devin O’Neil (Clive Owen). They are closely bound by friendship and because Shelby is aiming to marry Devin’s sister.

Shelby constrained to fight his bothers in arms

There’s a sub-plot of slavery. Shelby has a mighty close relationship with the family slaves, who call him by his first name and don’t mince words. Shelby treats them awful decent and mouths the platitudes of the war being more about states’ rights than abolition. There was to have been a plotline of the Underground Railroad, had the show been adopted.

The director was Gregory Hoblit, who had done some Hill Street Blues and LA Law.

The language is anachronistic. One lady rails at what is being printed in the “tabloids” and another character trots out the modern “It is what it is”. It was written by Jonas McCord. I sometimes feel that writers of these shows would do well to steep themselves in newspaper articles, diaries and letters of the time before tapping out their screenplays. I’m sure it would help.

They made an effort with the sets and locations. I don’t think it was cheaply produced. But the characters look unconvincing in the costumes and resemble ‘docents’ doing a historic reenactment in a tourist destination.

Battle is joined

All in all, it’s unexceptionable but unexceptional. I didn’t actually fall asleep or anything. But I was hardly riveted either.

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