Beulah Land (1980)

Read this description: “An epic story of the Old South…follows the trials and tribulations of…a strong-willed woman who runs a thriving plantation in antebellum Georgia.  Married to a man whose wasteful ways take her family to the brink of ruin…struggles, to endure family betrayals, extramarital affairs, financial hardships and General Sherman’s troops in a sweeping series…”

Even with the ellipses, it sounds familiar, right?  “Gone With the Wind,” no?  No.  “Scarlett?”  No, we’ve done that, remember?  “North and South?” Oh, come on!  That’s not a female-focused story!

Nope, this would be “Beulah Land,” a decade and a half before “Scarlett,” (giddy where “Scarlett” is maddening).  But, it might as well be “Gone With the Wind,” because it’s virtually the same story.  Countless Civil War tales of vibrant heroines followed Margaret Mitchell’s, and we know that the miniseries adores Civil War fables.  “Beulah Land” is actually on the early side of miniseries history, right on the heels of “Roots,” so this story wasn’t as tired and familiar to TV audiences as it would be by the time “Scarlett” came around to wrap up the genre.  However, it’s also not nearly as decorous or well-written as “North and South,” which really did define Civil War miniseries (from the white point-of-view). 

Lesley Ann Warren, who did valiant work in a slew of miniseries, is the Scarlett stand-in here, though her character is a smart and much-loved woman.  Curious that she would take the part, less than a decade after having actually playing Miss O’Hara herself in a musical version of “Gone With the Wind,” which closed on the road to a planned Broadway production.  But, the handful of audiences who saw her in that barely matter compared to the viewership of even the most forgotten of miniseries.

“Beulah Land” really has the potential to be riotously funny, but other than some very wrong performances, it’s actually nothing more than predictable.  The plot twists are obvious and it could have been done in less time, but it’s also not terrible.  In 1980, the genre was young and fresh and even a much-told chestnut like “Beulah Land” keeps on the right side of the quality line, especially with Lesley Ann Warren giving a fantastic performance. 
Everything looks mighty content with the slaves in the cotton fields.  Riding through the fields are Aunt Martha Scott and her two young nieces, who don’t realize this is all part of the majestic plantation, Beulah Land (which does not, I’m afraid, seem to have a theme song of its own like Tara).  The super-friendly black coach driver explains the history of Beulah Land (“it’s from the Book of Isaiah”) and even grins when asked if the head honcho is a “good master,” though managing to give an evasive answer. 

The so-called master is actually a kid, young Todd Lookinland, who is out in the fields being mischievous.  Dedicated house slave Clarice Taylor (an awfully lively take on the “Mammy” character) and his mother Hope Lange are obviously fed up with him, and he’s not there to greet the arriving kinfolks on this fine 1827 day.  The coach driver fetches Todd, who is greeting in the foyer by a big slap from his mother.  “You knew company was comin’, but you deliberately ran off,” Hope snarls. 

Equally nasty, but far scarier, is overseer Paul Shenar, who wants to beat young Todd’s slave friend, though stopped from doing so.  Pissed that he has no one to whip, Paul hisses, “this black snake is thirsty, boy, better stay out of his way,” referring to his whip, though it took me two tries to figure that one out.  He flicks it for good measure. 

Now, Aunt Martha showed up with two young nieces, one blonde and loving every minute of being a Southerner (thrilled to go when invited to see where they hang the slaves at Beulah Land) and one brunette, a quiet sweet type (the opposite of the sisters in “North and South,” where Genie Francis was so sweet it hurt and Teri Garber was so nasty it tickled).  The little brunette is so adorable that she helps Todd get a plate of food, brought to him by his slave friend, who claims, “any food you got, we got too.”  Since when?  The little brunette even wanders through the Bible to find the reference to Beulah Land.  No one doubted it, but the little blonde cracks, “that sounds foolish” because it sounds too idyllic.  Directly after that, she’s horrified to see the overseer whipping a slave, though Hope and Martha can’t understand her frustration.  Martha and nieces finish their visit with only Todd sorry to see them go.  He’s taken a shine to the little brunette.

Let’s jump ahead seven years and get rid of the pesky kids.  The little brunette has become Lesley Ann Warren, everyone’s darling.  Madeleine Stowe is as sullen as ever as Hope’s daughter (she’s only happy hanging out in the kitchen with Clarice’s daughter, Jean Foster), though handsome Don Johnson (yup, Don Johnson, temporarily antebellum before pastel sport coats overwhelmed his career) tries to be nice to her.  And the master is more grown up, a very perky blond Paul Rudd (not the Paul Rudd you think, just an actor with the same name). 

What do all pre-war young men of stature do before the horrors will either kill them or turn them earnest?  They get drunk in town, just like Don and Paul, who overdo their accents, stumble and tell crass stories.  Don confesses he wants to get busy with someone.  “Now you know what they say, pedigree or not, they all lay eggs,” he notes, before revealing it’s Lesley Ann’s blonde sister he worships.  “She’s be mighty good for what ails you,” Don notes, but Paul wonders about Lesley Ann.  “She’s an angel, she’s gonna be a virgin ’til she’s…” Uh oh, he realizes that Paul actually fancies Lesley Ann.  Well, he had a confession to make himself.  Though he’s all talk about women, it’s Madeleine he really loves, though Lord knows why, she’s so damn miserable.  Paul is thrilled that they might be brothers-in-law.  They cackle and continue their drunken revelry. 

Paul Shenar visits a house of ill repute, where he wants only Jenny Agutter, though the other gals can’t understand why.  “Every time you come for [Jenny], you have to wait,” one says.  Well, I guess popularity is a good thing in their trade.  Actually not.  Paul is very jealous of any man who spends time with his beloved British tart.  “Waiting is waiting,” he snarls.  “And work is work,” she replies, “but play is play” and leans down to kiss him.  “When you and I go upstairs, people know better than to wait,” she laughs as they head up for some privacy.

Approaching Hope bravely, Don asks for Madeleine’s hand in marriage.  Clarice praises the heavens.  Hope asks if it’s actually true, and Madeleine actually seems happy to admit it is, though when she looks at Jean, the latter is staring daggers.  Hmmm, exactly what has been going on between these two since Madeleine was a girl and crashes the all-black hoe-downs to dance with her slave friend?

Rushing through the woods in a carriage with Jenny, Paul Shenar is stopped by one of the local landowners who needs to borrow money.  The guarantee behind it is his land.  Paul tells Jenny he intends to own so much land that it will make even the owners of Beulah Land quake.  Villains are never subtle in these pieces, but in under 30 minutes, we’ve seen Paul Shenar commit pretty much all of the seven deadly sins.  Of course, we know how he’ll ultimately end up, but hopefully he’ll be mean old fun until the inevitable.  The next day, Jenny is introduced to Hope and her frizzy-haired son Paul, whom of course she knows as “Mr. Jones of Charleston,” aka a frequent visitor to the whorehouse.  “You’re not going to tattle on me?” she coyly asks.  “Not if you don’t tattle on me,” he replies with a toothy smile. 

Lesley’s blonde sister has grown up into Meredith Baxter (with Birney here), a braying brat.  In order to get Lesley’s attention through the wall, she goes into a howling routine, and of course Lesley falls for it.  The reason is to inform her that she’s fallen in love with an actor whose company is leaving town.  Next morning, when Aunt Martha Scott hits the floor with a scream, a slave merely clucks, “she fainted again?” but Lesley sees the note in her hand: yup, Meredith has eloped with the actor.  Aunt Martha cries the entire way to Beulah Land, having missed Don and Madeleine’s wedding.

Don is also missing Don and Madeleine’s wedding, so drunk that he not only knocks over furniture, but rips Madeleine’s dress as she recoils in horror.  “You gonna take them clothes off or am I gonna have to take them off for you?” he asks her as she realizes she apparently made a mistake marrying him (let’s get together a big chorus of “I told you so” for when Jean finds out).  Madeleine tries to resist Don’s advances, but he slaps her down to the bed, telling her, “you can scream, but ain’t nobody going to get involved in this private matter” and rapes her. 

A friend to all slaves, because she’s so gleefully angelic, Lesley is trotting through the woods with one slave while waving hellos as another (Dorian Harewood is the grown-up version of Paul Rudd’s childhood friend), when they come across that other great-friend-to-the-slaves, Madeleine, bloody and nearly passed out.  She’s taken to the slave quarters where Hope is summoned.  “Did you refuse to consummate your marriage?” Hope asks coldly.  “You have humiliated me,” she adds, puts on her iciest face and walks out as quickly as she came in.  Egad, that is one bitch of a mother! 

“Mother’s not someone you love or hate.  She’s someone you accept or hate,” Paul Rudd tells Lesley as they poke along through the woods on horses.  She was a bit aghast at Hope’s reaction to her daughter’s beating.  This worries Lesley because she’s crushing on Paul.  “I wonder if she really likes me or just approves of me,” she wonders aloud with a flirty smile.  “With mother, I think they are the same thing,” he reassures her.  Stay away from the crazies, Lesley!!!!!  Oh, and if Hope isn’t scary enough, overseer Paul Shenar and his ex-hooker wife also look at her funny whenever she’s around.  Only Dorian Harewood treats her nicely, forging a ring for her in his capacity as blacksmith.  He’s doing his best to get Paul Rudd to propose to her. 

When Don shows up to claim Madeleine, still looking like a drunk devil, Clarice meets him at the door and gives him the strangest pep talk in miniseries history, claiming he can’t see her because she and the others need time to talk to her and get her to realize her wifely duties.  What the hell goes on at Beulah Land?  Is it Stepford 150 years too early?  “You tell her I’m coming back here to take her home,” Don insists.  Clarice then catches her daughter Jean running around the house with a gigantic knife, saying, “I’m not going to let him hurt her again, Mama.”  Clarice wrestles the knife from her and Jean goes to visit Madeleine, finding her catatonic in bed.  She actually responds to Jean, holding out a hand for her. 

“Marry me.  I and Beulah Land need you,” Paul Rudd uses as a marriage proposal because Lesley is set to depart.  These two are so happy and chaste, they have never even exchanged cheek pecs, but she agrees and they couldn’t be more excited.  Before we know it (literally, the next scene), Paul Rudd is hung over from his bachelor party, going to Dorian’s hovel to first complain of his physical state, then his excitement and then his nerves.  Unfortunately, he and Dorian can’t be friends like they used to be, and Dorian is rather unpleasant to him about it. 

Everyone is invited to the wedding.  Don’s parents tell him to behave and not make a fuss, even if Madeleine does not put in an appearance.  The slaves are all decked out in ridiculous livery for the occasion.  Only the Paul Shenars are missing because they are in a huff having not been invited to all the festivities, only the ceremony.  Madeleine and Jean watch from a window, upsetting Don, who misses his cue as ring-bearer.  Paul slips on the new wedding ring as well as the one Dorian made, though he’s had that dipped in gold.  “I know that Beulah Lane is going to be in good hands,” an uncharacteristically chipper Hope tells brother-in-law Eddie Albert and Governor Peter Hobbs.  Only the kitchen slaves seem to be upset, and then just a few of the women who know they can never enjoy such a lovely day and wedding of their own. 

Governor Peter Hobbs chastises Hope for teaching her slaves to read, and she replies that it’s actually a good thing, because “they never run away.”  He’s only worried about his re-election and how this could affect it.  Frankly, I don’t see the connection.  “Let’s just hope we don’t have another Nat Turner on our hands,” he mutters to her.  Don pounds on Madeleine’s door as the guests are leaving and demands she return home with him.  Jean opens the door, points a gun at Don and tells him, “go away and never come back!”  As you can expect, he does not react well, shouting until his father slaps him across the face. 

Lesley takes to her role as mistress of Beulah Lane like gangbusters as we jump ahead a year.  She summons Paul Shenar and rails at him for whipping a slave.  “I sent word to you that I do not approve of whippin’,” she tells him, but he replies, “but you did not forbid it.”  She officially forbids it.  He pulls out one of the hoariest excuses of all slave ownership and most overused line in moviedom about it, noting, “slaves are like children.  They must be punished or discipline will be destroy.”  All whippings must be approved by her or her husband.  Furthermore, she wants him to stop pulling “my slaves” out of school.  By the way, the school is taught by Madeleine and Jean.

Lesley is not thrilled when she learns that Franklyn’s father is her husband.  “It happens all the time,” Madeleine and Jean tell her, that plantation owners “have their way” with slaves whenever they want.  In a rage, she confronts her gun-cleaning husband about it, and he tells her the true story and then snaps, “a Southern lady should NEVER mention such matters to her husband!”  Hope, who is obviously dying, tells Lesley she had to treat her son with cruelty over the matter because “the only thing that matters is to keep Beulah Land thriving.”  Thank you, Gerald O’Hara.  Lesley finally admits her unabashed love for Beulah Land. 

Two years later, Paul Shenar, having trouble with Dorian Harewood, comes to discuss “the North Field.”  Lesley has given “specific instructions” on how that field was supposed to be handled, so the surprise of her dippy husband, who clearly doesn’t care, and now Paul Shenar wants to reprimand Dorian for following Lesley’s orders.  Naturally, Lesley puts the kibosh on it, so Paul Shenar retorts, “I do hope your mother is doing better these days,” as a swipe at Lesley.  “Don’t you think I know who’s running Beulah Land?  Every time I try to be the master, I end up being the fool!” Paul Rudd yells at Lesley in frustration. 

Paul Rudd flits off to see his sister-in-law Meredith, who is in town with the theater company.  They flirt hot and heavy from the onset, and since she’s tarted up, TV-speak for “I’m ready to have sex,” they are kissing in the middle of sentences and thus an affair begins.  And wouldn’t you know (of course you do, because we know how plot twists occur in pairs in these things), that’s the very night Hope picks to die.  When Lesley tells Madeleine, hiding in her room with Jean, Madeleine tells Lesley to plan the funeral. 

Eddie Albert gives everyone the news Hope’s will decrees the lead slaves (though four with speaking parts) have been freed, but Jean reacts angrily since it’s technically “illegal in the state of Georgia” and they “can’t use the papers unless we leave the state.”  “You may not want them now, but someday they may be very valuable to you,” Eddie cautions.  He must know the Civil War is fast approaching. 

Looking even more tarted up, Meredith pays a visit to Beulah Land.  “Actors don’t usually come home unless they’re hungry,” Don Johnson’s smart-ass mother wryly adds.  This is going to be uncomfortable for Paul Rudd!  Meredith is pregnant, allowing Lesley to think the baby belongs to her actor husband, who abandoned her long before Paul arrived in her life and knocked her up.  “It’s so great to be home,” Meredith keeps cooing, though Beulah Land has never been her home.  Details, details.  Oh, and she flirts shamelessly with her old flame Don. 

Meredith turns out to be a first class bitch.  “Of course it’s yours!” she yells at Paul when he asks if it’s his baby.  And what does she want?  “To be treated as a first class lady…after all, it’s me who is giving you a child,” a nasty swipe at her sister, who has yet to become a mother.  After he leaves Meredith, who is actually cackling, he gets drunk and ends up riding past Jenny’s house, where she’s lonely, though okay with that since “the more he [Paul Shenar] beats on them [slave women], the less he beats on me.”  He declines her offer of sex (for now) and stumbles home drunk where he insults Dorian.  Lesley tells him he can’t keep getting drunk because “Beulah Land needs you.”  “You’re Beulah Land,” he slurs and crumples to the floor.  More Melanie than Scarlett, she cradles him with only sweetness in her demeanor. 

Dorian fixes a parlor table with a metal piece and when they look under the table to wonder at it, their hands touch.  Just as they are realizing the attraction we’ve long seen, Clarice sees it too and calls everyone out to see one of the slaves breastfeeding absentee Meredith’s baby with her own, “just like I done” with Paul Rudd and Dorian.  Dorian leaves Beulah Land because of his attraction.  Paul Shenar wants to go after Dorian because he stole a horse, but Eddie Albert arrives just in time to say he gave him the horse, defended by Lesley, who said as uncle to her husband, he had every right to do so.  To Dorian’s parents, she says, “be proud.  He must have had a good reason or he never would have left us.  He’s a good man!” without a trace of irony or self-awareness.  More “God bless yous” are exchanged than fist bumps after dessert at Hooters. 

In the middle of the night, Lesley catches Meredith fleeing, suitcases in hand, to start a life with Don Johnson.  They argue and Lesley asks how she can leave the child, which she admits is Paul’s.  “I give her to you,” Meredith coldly announces and Lesley demands she leave.  She runs into the bedroom and starts beating her husband for his women.  He weakly apologizes, but she and the music are way too angry!  The only thing that calms her down is the baby, which she can now raise as her own.  “You’re gonna have a mama now, a real mama,” she tells the baby as the score changes to triumphant and determined.  That’s as good a place as any to end the first installment.

We pick up the story in 1838.  Paul Shenar and his wife Jenny now own land and are two years gone from Beulah Land.  Paul is thrilled because the family he so detested has fallen on hard times and needs money.  “I am gonna be the master of Beulah Land before this is over,” Paul declares to his wife.  Paul Shenar wants to buy five slaves to help with the cash flow, but Lesley would never sell slaves because she doesn’t see them like that.  “Slaves don’t care who owns them,” Paul Shenar tells her.  She’s indignant, refusing to sell slaves to a man she knows will beat them.  “We will not sell, but if we are ever forced to sell, we will not sell to you,” she vows. 

Cue the warehouse fire.  Yes, that’s where all the cotton is stored, so this will bankrupt them for sure.  There’s always a warehouse fire in these stories.  Lesley knows Paul Shenar did it, but “we can never prove it.”  Meanwhile, manning the water brigade, Eddie Albert has a stroke (don’t worry, he’ll live to mug another day).  Paul Shenar returns with an offer to buy Beulah Land, but Lesley once again refuses, steely as ever when it comes to this slimeball, who gets in a dig as he leaves that “I thought [Paul Rudd] was the master of Beulah Land.”  He tells Lesley, “we have to swallow our pride,” accepting responsibility for the “change in our fortunes,” but Lesley is adamant they not sell to the former overseer.  “We’re gonna pray for a miracle and we’re gonna find a way!” Lesley rages, just as Aunt Martha Scott arrives for her annual visit.  Deux ex machina-in-petticoats, she gives them a check to cover all the money owed on Beulah Land.  “I hope it helps,” she says sweetly.

Also back at Beulah Land is an obviously successful Dorian, who of course sports a mustache as proof of his success.  His parents are overjoyed, though dad takes his hammy time getting there.  Paul and Lesley are happy too, though Dorian tells them he’s learned, “being a colored man, saying you’re free and being free are two different things.”  They ignore that comment.  Paul invites Dorian to be the overseer, the first black man ever, so they will call him “foreman.”  With everything but the bugles, the three decide to “get Beulah Land back on its feet!”

1846 sweeps in with the speed of a title card.  Dorian’s father has died, though there is only a ramshackle headstone to note it, where Dorian finds her, rather than at her big fancy party.  A portrait painter, Michael Sarrazin, has come to Beulah Land.  He first painted Madeleine and Jean, looking like perfectly miserable lesbians in the picture, which means they must be quite happy together.  Michael is a smooth one.  Unable to get Lesley to sit still long enough to be painted, he tells her “the challenge will be not only to portray you, but also your devotion to the land.”  Oh, for crying out loud!  Naturally, there is an attraction between them. 

Once she finally does sit, Lesley and Michael discuss abolition, morality, the history of slavery, etc., all the boring stuff that needs to be said to make this educational as well as entertaining.  Michael keeps saying the settings and dresses Lesley wears are all wrong so he can stretch out their time together and discuss politics.  Lesley fills the little scenes with terrific acting, but Michael is as wooden as a stick of furniture, so it’s easy to tune out.  Finally, Michael kisses Lesley and she him (seen by a slave in the bushes).  The finished portrait shocks old ladies and causes Lesley to give her patented laugh when it’s suggested perhaps Michael might fancy her.  On the night before he leaves, he finally confesses his love for her, speaking of her in the third person, as someone who “is already married to a great plantation, to a way of life.”  She admits, in the third person, that she feels the same way. 

The slave who saw Lesley and Michael kissing (who is Paul Shenar’s son, by the way), follows her into the woods.  When she doesn’t return home, the whole plantation goes looking for her.  Loyal slave Franklyn Seale finds her, her clothes torn, having been raped.  Franklyn, who has adored Lesley his whole life, shoots the rapist point blank.  Lesley wants to make sure Franklyn is safe, so Dorian and Eddie prepare to send him off with a gift of money and a plan for safety.  Just as it’s all happening, Paul Shenar comes galloping up to the house.  He demands Franklyn for a beating, but Dorian refuses.  Paul tries to whip him, but Dorian catches the whip.  “You’re life ain’t worth a torn hamstring off this plantation,” Paul snarls.  Huh?  Is that something that would have really been said in the antebellum South, or did the writer just come from the gym?  With every appearance, Paul becomes more a villain, which means his downfall will be extra fun (though we have a looooooong way to go before then). 

Welcome in 1853.  Meredith’s daughter has grown up to become brazen flirt Laurie Prange, lusting after young lawyer Jonathan Frakes, Don Johnson’s nephew.  Lesley has to tell Don’s mother Allyn Ann McLerie that Don has been killed.  “He was not nice…been lost to us all these years,” she says rather distantly about her son.  The story is that Don had “gold madness,” played cards for the gold, was accused of cheating and was shot. 

The news of Don’s death has Paul Rudd rushing to the bottom of a bottle and, as always when he’s drunk, he comes upon Jenny, also drunk and looking haggard (given bad make-up, fake teeth, etc.–this is high budget!).  “Bring me a bottle every now and then, won’t you love?  For auld lange syne,” Jenny requests. 

Bad penny Meredith shows up with more tall tales, though they make Lesley laugh.  “Three times a wife and never having been married at all?” Lesley asks, only half scandalized.  Only after a few glasses of wine, does Meredith ask about her daughter, whom she hasn’t seen in 17 years.  Things get heated when Meredith wants to reclaim her daughter, now that all the hard work has been done, but Lesley hisses, “she is my child…she considers me to be her real mother!”  “You are welcome to stay here on one condition, you do not shock [Laurie] with any great revelations of the past,” Mistress Lesley decrees.  As ludicrous as Meredith is, once again, it’s Lesley who manages to ground both her bad acting and the inane dialogue with her surefooted work. 

Meredith can’t wait to claim her daughter, but Laurie, who gives a performance that suggests serious brain damage, knows the truth, but considers Lesley her mother.  Apparently Madeleine long ago spilled the beans (she hasn’t been seen in hours, remember Madeleine?).  “You and Mama are the same blood, but you couldn’t accommodate me and she could,” is how Laurie has chosen to deal with the truth.  This leaves Meredith nostrils flaring, still a decade and change away from Betty Broderick. 

It’s 1860 and war is on everyone’s mind.  Young Grand Bush tells Dorian he’s excited for the Union Army to free the slaves, but Dorian isn’t convinced freedom will ever really make a difference.  Just in case there is a war, Paul Rudd has enlisted, but the army told him to stay home; he’s too old.  “If there’s a way, it will be a short one,” he notes, wrong as always.  Madeleine (seen for a flash) and Jean are teaching all of the plantation kids to march and Eddie Albert is STILL kicking, able to sit outside in a wheelchair.  It’s to him Lesley delivers the news that Michael Sarrazin is back in the South.  “Shouldn’t I feel guilty?” Lesley asks him.  Not at all, Eddie says, because Paul steps out on her every chance he gets.  Eddie actively pushes Lesley into meeting the man she obviously loves, tell her, and I’m sure this will gross you out as much as it did me, that even he himself has “tasted the sweet peach of sex” with women other than his wife.  In fact, cheating saved his marriage!  It’s the Southern way.  “Justifiable skulduggery,” he calls it, laughing.

So, Lesley goes to Atlanta to rekindle the sparks with Michael.  Both of them sport full 80s make-up, despite the 1860s fashions.  Without a work spoken, they fall into an embrace and kiss passionately.  And more, apparently, since we next see them in bed naked.  Then comes the expected montage of “things lovers do,” include wine, room service and gazebos.  The montage is more welcome than Michael’s yawningly bad acting.  “There’s a war coming,” he reads from the page.  “And you’re a Yankee.  How could this have happened to us?” she replies (does she want the biological or geographical answer). 

“Do you realize you and I are recognizing the end of a way of life?” Paul asks Dorian?  “I reckon so.  Is that bad or good?” Dorian replies.

While the rest of the cast is rolling bandages, Dorian comes in with the news that war has been declared.  Some are worried, some are excited.  Paul Shenar, whose mutton chop whiskers are now gray, pays a visit to Paul Rudd.  He’s “come to finish it.”  Paul Shenar acknowledges his bastard sons, though he does it with a nefarious glee and with epithets.  Oh, and also, Lesley and Michael were seen having sex.  Paul Rudd whips out a pistol, shoots Paul Shenar and then himself.  Well, it does leave Lesley a free widow, I suppose, the most gracious act he’s committed for her. 

We skip most of the war, heading right to 1864.  That’s mighty peculiar for a miniseries, or would be, as they grew more and more expansive.  We haven’t seen so much as a stock footage battle scene to concentrate solely on the story.  Allyn Ann gives us the speech of “what happened to our people?” that we fully expected someone to give.  She wonders if perhaps Meredith didn’t have the right idea, escaping the South.  Not so, Lesley remarks, because just that day she’s had word that Meredith was booed off the stage in Philadelphia, accused of being a Southern spy and is on her way back.  “Heaven help the Confederacy,” Ally Ann quips. 

The citizens of Atlanta are fleeing since Sherman’s army is only five miles away.  I suppose this is our big set piece, our connection to the war that we’ve so far been missing.  In the confusion, we spot Meredith, entering the city rather than leaving.  She even gets to play witness to a massive array of bodies laid out, just like in “Gone With the Wind.”  Heaven forbid we miss that yet again in American film.  She witnesses the worst of the war horrors.  She’s the wrong character to be going through this, but she is roped accidentally into nursing during an amputation.  Actually, she takes to it and soon finds wounded Jonathan Frakes, apparently blind.  He tells her Eddie and Martha are dead, but as far as he knows, everyone else is fine.  The doctor tells Meredith that Jonathan will never regain his sight, a dire situation because the Yankees are about to cut off Atlanta and any chance they have of mending the wounded.  Meredith decides she and Jonathan have to get home somehow. 

Meanwhile, Laurie ss suffering from fever, wondering why Jonathan hasn’t written in so long.  She believes she hears a carriage and gets out of bed, with Allyn Ann fighting to keep her in it.  They both go tumbling over the railing to their deaths two stories below, the swiftest character deaths in the movie.  Meredith and Jonathan walk with the rest of the citizens of Atlanta, past burning buildings they don’t even notice anymore.  They narrowly avoid being taken by Union soldiers.  “We’re goin’ home, nothing’s gonna stop us,” Meredith promises him.  In a moment made for drama, Meredith pretends to be pregnant so a passing carriage will take her and Jonathan.  It’s a bit much.  However, they do arrive at Beulah Land, spotting hunched-over Clarice (how the hell old is she by now?).  Part 2 ends with this happy family reunion. 

Dorian is to be married, but promises he’ll stay at Beulah Land and Clarice, still alive, gets her scenery-chewing moment when Lesley comes to visit the ancient woman and bring her squirrel soup, the best that she can do under the trying circumstances.  When the Union soldiers show up at Beulah Land, they are commanded by none other than Michael Sarrazin, who is as deadpan and virtually dead as ever.  Lesley is furious, but Michael says he’s trying to protect her “from worse.”  The soldiers pick Beulah Land pretty much to the bone, though Michael promised they would leave enough for Lesley and company.  Dorian takes all the valuables from Beulah Land to safety, including the portrait of Lesley that Michael had done.  Why would anyone want to steal that? 

A scary band of Union soldiers passes by Beulah Land, but does stop at Jonathan’s plantation.  They accuse the family members of treason because of an incident in town where Ilene had provoked their ire.  They kill the remaining horse there and tie up Jonathan’s son and father, but not him because he’s blind.  Jonathan tries to swing at a soldier, but misses and is shot.  From Beulah Land, everyone can see the smoke that says the other plantation is no more.  The soldiers circle back to Beulah Land and accuse Lesley of treason, saying that the whole family is a “secret rebel force just waiting to knock off a Yankee.”  The soldiers destroy everything they can find, a real old fashioned raping and pillaging expedition.  The leader even rapes a pregnant woman!  This is actually a very terrifying sequence, unabashedly violent without an attempt to make the Yankees at all sympathetic.  They kill Clarice and then burn the big house.  Lesley does her best to attack, but the leader takes her wedding ring (tossing aside the horseshoe ring Dorian gave her when he was a child for her to find the next morning in the grass) and the soldiers finally depart. 

Having paid the Union army to do it, one of Paul Shenar’s sons is delighted to hear Beulah Land has been sacked.  Dorian pledges to kill those responsible and Jonathan’s young son wants to go with him.  Lesley refuses, but he goes anyway.  Since the soldiers killed his father and grandfather, he says, “I am a man!”  Dorian has no choice but to take him since the kid refuses to return home.  It’s the bad Yankee soldier that finds Dorian first, so Dorian puts on an act and pretends absolute stupidity.  It works.  The soldier trusts him and is even willing to sleep with Dorian there.  The kid shows up and Dorian is able to grab the soldier’s gun.  The soldier claims everything was all “a misunderstanding,” ransacking his father’s grave, killing his mother, raping his wife, burning his house, etc.  Ultimately, of course, Dorian and the kid have to kill the soldier, which is no loss to humanity. 

Dorian and the kid return to Beulah Land with all of the soldier’s plunder, some horses and even Lesley’s wedding ring.  Ilene, whose firebrand talk caused all the trouble and when she shows up at Beulah Land, Lesley attacks her, blaming and slapping her.  “I have not forgiven you and I never will,” Lesley howls.  Michael shows up, alone, with the news that Lee has surrendered and the war is over.  He offers any help, but Lesley refuses his offer, saying “Beulah Land was built without any help from enemies and it will be so again.” 

Another seven years fly by, and now Lesley’s grandson is fully grown (and blond, where he was completely dark-haired as a child).  He’s at the dock with his grandmother, awaiting the return of Franklyn, now that’s it’s safe for him to return.  Grandson Patrick Harrison is goaded into hitting a man in a bar after a series of insults, all with the sheriff watching.  Franklyn’s half brother Peter De Anda, who had paid the Union army to destroy Beulah Land, proof of the few blacks who have been able to make money since the war, though dependent on white backing.  Franklyn is happy to see Beulah Land again, now rebuilt to look just like it did before (literally). 

Outside church, a wagon rumbles into view with Dorian’s dead body in it.  Lesley is so hysterical, they have to give her chloroform.  At the funeral, Lesley takes Dorian’s young son aside and delivers a teary speech, one of many she’s had to give, and all convincingly. 

The young generation is pretty damn uninteresting.  Peter’s son sees him going into the shack of a field worker and when he tells his mother, she grabs and ax kills him and the woman.  Patrick has land of his own and is sweet on a girl whose parents do not approve of him.  She brings the news of the murder to Patrick, who says, “we have no enemies living next to us” since Peter’s son is friendly to the whole family.  He proposes, she accepts.  Actually, he asks her if she’ll “live there,” but the rest is implied. 

Franklyn has opened a school, and there is trouble brewing from whites who aren’t happy about it.  Meredith brings that happy news, as well as the fact that Michael has painted her portrait.  Lesley pretends not to be interested, but Meredith says he’s already on his way to do portraits of her and the other school board of trustees.  Meredith wants Lesley to forget the past.  “Does Beulah Land kiss you goodnight?” she roars at her sister, but white brigands, sheriff in tow, start firing shots at the approaching students.  At that moment, Michael shows up with “the new federal Marshall,” as well as a camera.  The sheriff and his men lose this battle and everyone is allowed into school, whites and blacks together.  This act of courage and fairness reminds Lesley that she loves him.  She asks him to stay.  “Beulah Land needs you.  I need you,” she says.  Thankfully, she remembered herself because if I had to hear Beulah Land, Beulah Land, Beulah Land one more time, I’m not sure my television would have survived the beating. 

There’s nothing terribly wrong with “Beulah Land,” but there’s also nothing overwhelmingly right either.  A combination of two books, it has way too many characters and plot lines for a small-ish miniseries.  Some industrious chopping by the writers before it started filming would have helped.  In the end, it’s the story of a brave woman facing adversity, as are so many stories like this, and thus we’re lucky to have Lesley Ann Warren taking charge because she does it all beautifully. 

Categories: Allyn Ann McLerie, Bibi Osterwald, Don Johnson, Dorian Harewood, Eddie Albert, Hope Lange, Jonathan Frakes, Lesley Ann Warren, Martha Scott, Meredith Baxter, Michael Sarrazin, Paul Rudd

One Comment to “Beulah Land (1980)”

  1. The Rush Blog 21 May 2012 at 10:23 pm #

    We skip most of the war, heading right to 1864. That’s mighty peculiar for a miniseries, or would be, as they grew more and more expansive.

    Considering the fact that “BEULAH LAND” is based upon a trilogy of novel by Lonnie Coleman, it’s not peculiar. The first novel ended at the outbreak of the Civil War. The second novel picked up three years later, right before the military campaigns in 1864 Georgia.


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