Blood & Orchids (1986)

Hawaii in 1937 does not initially look like a fantasy, and it won’t through “Blood & Orchids.”  In fact, the first scene shows four hardworking native lads toiling in sugar cane fields.  The day over, they go out for the night with some alcohol. 

Their night is not nearly as formal as the one spent by naval officers and their fancily dressed girls.  Seemingly perfect couple William Russ and Sean Madeleine Stowe are dancing until she decides she needs some air.  The drunk cane field workers go skinny dipping.  Madeleine isn’t really getting air, but rather about to have sex with her husband’s best friend before the announcement that she’s pregnant blunts that moment.  Boyfriend Matt Salinger, up for a naval promotion, tells her to have an abortion, but she won’t hear of it.  She threatens to tell everyone, so he slaps her silly.  Trying to get help, she drips blood on the free-growing orchids (we have our title). 

It’s left to the four cane workers to discover her, still alive, but beaten up and naked.  Only one of them wants to take her to the hospital, and when he drops her off, he runs away with the others.  Since they are natives and she is white, they fear what will be assumed.  And they are right.  A police officer sees them running, finds the car and the alcohol.  Madeleine asks for the doctors to call her mother, Jane Alexander, and they react immediately, as mama is a big deal in the Territory.

“Blood & Orchids” captivates from the onset, not wasting any time in getting to the meat of this story: white girl is battered and left for dead, so it’s assumed the natives had to have done it.  Throw in the navy and a very wealthy mother, and you have all of the elements needed for a gripping American miniseries, a fictionalized account of a real-life 1932 case.  There is local color, overwrought performances that are supposed to be that way, stars galore, trials, police, the whole deal.  It’s a soap opera crammed into a few hours and a damn good one.

The policeman who will ultimately be involved is Kris Kristofferson, clean-shaven and almost unrecognizably youthful, who chats with his gal pal, waitress Susan Blakely (miniseries royalty all the way back to “Rich Man, Poor Man”), in an unflattering dark wig.  Their “where-do-we-stand” conversation is interrupted by Kris being summoned to take the new case, but Kris leaves Susan his key on the way out so they can meet later. 

The racial undertones that will be so important are not whitewashed.  Jane Alexander is giving a dinner party for some high-toned men in white tuxedos and blames questionable maid service on the fact that “she’s new, gentleman,” which means essentially, she’s native and not used to my stuffy ways.  The topic of statehood comes up, and there is some argument.  “What about the Orientals?  What do we do about them?” one asks.  “Follow my lead, don’t say anything,” Richard Dysart cracks and everyone laughs.  “There will be no statehood.  The democratic process would raise holy hell around here,” he continues.  Queenly Jane agrees, saying, “we govern here by divine right, chosen by God to lead these people.  Controlling three million acres of sugar cane fields as the four of us do, I should think the natives should be grateful for the jobs we provide them.”  If the sentiment is heavy and patronizing, it’s not historically inaccurate.  Big companies did dominate Hawaiian history once the Americans got there and they did essentially rule the islands from their well-appointed mansions. 

When Kris comes to tell Jane her daughter is in the hospital, she reacts with elegant sang froid, excuses herself from her guests and goes with him to the hospital still decked out in her finest.  Kris opens the front door for her, but she elects to sit in the back.  Even under the circumstances, she’ll follow every rule of decorum invented by the snob class.

At the hospital, Jane’s first concern when Madeleine opens her eyes is “who did this?”  Madeleine is very clear that it’s not the four native men who brought.  “They saved me, they are innocent!”  She also clears her husband, but Jane keeps pushing.  “I’m responsible because I’m the pregnant one!” Madeleine blurts out.  Jane raises herself up to her full height, now angry that her daughter is pregnant by a man clearly not her husband, desperate to know who the father is.  Madeleine begs with all of her strength to make Jane go, but that’s not going to happen, as she tells her daughter, “I’m going to wait right here until we get our stories straight.  You are not going to destroy me.  I created an empire from your father’s estate and I have a position here.  No one’s higher.  You will not drag me down in disgrace.”  That is one ice-cold bitch.  As protective of position of Claudette Colbert’s Alice Grenville, as blind to truth as Lee Remick’s Frances Schreuder in “Nutcracker: Money, Madness, Murder” and as nutso as Meredith Baxter’s Betty Broderick, who at least did the dirty work herself, Jane Alexander’s character may indeed give her the title of Meanest Miniseries Mother, but she’s just getting warmed up!  Wait until you see her in full battle armor. 

William rushes to the hospital where Jane stops him at the door to his wife’s room.  “I’m her husband,” he insists when she won’t let him in.  “Yes you are her husband.  Can’t she sleep?” she tells  more than asks.  She then turns to Kris and informs him that “those four men raped her, they beat her, they almost killed her.”  Wow, in only a few minutes, she’s come up with a whole brand new truth to cover up the whole sordid affair, just fine with sending four innocent men to some sort of doom.  With that, the four men are arrested and booked. 

Kris starts his questioning with Robert Andre, the one who first spotted Madeleine and insisted on getting her to the hospital, despite the fears of his friends.  Kris is actually friendly to him, until he drops the rape bombshell, which Robert denies.  “Maybe it was your three friends who had the hot pants tonight,” Kris attacks, then going back to good cop to get him to rat out his pals. 

Lawyer James Saito arrives, roused out of bed by Robert’s sister, Dorothy Roberts, since he’s the only lawyer Robert knows.  His friends are not pleased that he’s Hawaiian as well.  “Up against them?  Why don’t we just confess!”  The men scream and threaten each other, and soft-spoken James is unable to answer any questions, instilling no faith.  Driving James home, Dorothy launches into him for being “like a lump” and not helpful.  “How many cases have you had?  How many times have you been in court?  How many lives have you saved?” she wants to know.  He meekly answers, “I’m just starting out.”  Robert and he only know each other because James was Robert’s math teacher in high school. 

The next morning, Honolulu wakes up to news of the ghastly affair and Kris starts his detective work in earnest, yielding some clues very quickly.  He finds Madeleine’s clothing just outside the restaurant where she and her husband had gone dancing.  Dr. George Coe declares Madeleine will heal perfectly, but Jane asks him to lunch to discuss “another matter.”  Then it’s Kris’ turn with Madeleine and Jane insists she identify the four men as her assailants.  No, she wants to tell the truth.  “Very well, what is the truth?” Jane asks.  When she hears it, she’s furious and tells Madeleine she will make sure William finds out the truth.  “I hate you, you’re evil!” Madeleine cries.  “I’m not evil.  I’m a survivor,” Jane insists.  With her mother holding onto her neck and her husband now in the room, Madeleine tells Kris the four men, who are brought into her hospital room, are the ones who attacked her. 

At the bail hearing, James’ inexperience shows, but he does prove that he understands the law.  The prosecution wants the men held without bail and he not only gets the judge to agree to bail, but to knock it down from $10,000 to $2,500, not that the families can even afford that.  He assures the men he will get the money, for which Dorothy attacks him.  “You filled them with false hope.  I hate you for that,” she says, as prickly as she was the night before. 

James goes to the only native Hawaiian he can think of who might have the money, Princess Huanani Minn, who is not happy he ignored her “absolutely no visitors” sign.  “There is no Princess here.  I’m a rancher now and those are my subjects,” she says, pointing to her cattle.  He tells her of the rape, and she’s not moved.  He tells her the girl’s mother is Jane Alexander.  “Give up, you lose,” she says.  He appeals to her position as a Princess and bluntly asks for the bail money.  She explains why she’s gone into seclusion, horrified at what has happened to her people.  “The missionaries’ sons have turned these islands into one big work force,” she tells him.  However, she does ultimately give him the money. 

Kris questions William, who gets huffy as hell when Kris claims to be there to ask “routine questions.”  Kris has him very defensive, making it worse by asking, “how about sex problems?”  William denies any, of course.  Kris next turns up at the gym in Pearl Harbor to question Matt.  He lies, saying he did not hear Madeleine ask to go out for air.  Kris knows the whole conversation is false, and it ends when William shows up to chase him off.  “Now it’s getting insulting,” he tells Kris.  “That’s what I do.  Insult people.  Keeps the world safe,” the grizzly detective remarks as he walks off.  Then Kris visits Richard Dysart, on whose plantation the four men worked.  “It’s an open and shut case, leave it like that,” Richard threatens. 

The cover up at the hospital is astounding.  Dr. George Coe calls in the very emergency room doctor, Henry Bal who treated Madeleine to give her an abortion because he’s a Cardiologist and can’t do the surgery.  Henry says he can tell she’s three months pregnant, which means she was that way before the supposed rape and he doesn’t want to be a part of a cover up.  But, George promises him “the next staff position” to open up and he agrees. 

What keeps “Blood & Orchids” so vivid is that it’s written like a 1930s gumshoe mystery.  Kris is right out of Raymond Chandler or one of his contemporaries.  That means it’s not all business all the time like most true crime stories.  That’s where Susan Blakely comes in, as the girl who pines for the always-unavailable cop.  He only sees her when he has time, and that’s not enough for her, so she gives him the kiss-off, speaking like every tough dame in a 1930s movie (more like the 1940s, but close enough).  She tells him not to come into the restaurant anymore because it would be too hard to see him.  “There was never a time I saw ya, I didn’t want to undress ya,” she says ruefully.  Her scenes are not really important to the plot, just to give Kris some added color and keep this from becoming just another tale of justice, rich-and-famous style.

The trial is stalled in jury selection because both sides are refusing all of the candidates.  The prosecution wants no one native on the panel.  When a Hawaiian name is called, the prosecutor refuses without even looking up.  “Your honor, he doesn’t want a jury, he wants a cheering section,” James barks.  He actually wins the argument, especially by playing to the reporters.  Both sides have to give in, so the jury ends up with a mix of natives and whites. 

Big bad Jane has a secret meeting with Matt to tell him “I’m your safety” and she wants him in court “every day, all day.”  He has no choice but to agree. 

Kris is first to testify, but nothing emerges from his testimony.  As he leaves the bench, he is told by another detective that Matt lied about his whereabouts that night.  Then Dr. Henry is sworn in, but before any questions can be asked, in sweeps the Princess.  She builds some sympathy for the Hawaiians, all of whom stand up when she enters.  So does the judge, but he reminds her, “your authority does not extend to this courtroom.”  “With all due respect, your honor, my authority does not extend to the end of my nose,” she says to laughter from all.  Then it’s back to the doctor.  He admits to performing a “therapeutic abortion” at Madeleine’s family’s request.  James gets him to admit he never actually spoke to Madeleine at any point, that she never said she had been raped.  His reward for doing well in court is a moonlight stroll down the beach with Dorothy, who knows thinks he’s wonderful. 

Navy grunt and card-carrying redneck Merritt Butrick has been an avid supporter of William’s since the whole episode began.  He comes to the house to deliver William’s laundry and opines that “those four monkeys wouldn’t be sitting there in court where I come from.  They wouldn’t be around anymore, sir, they wouldn’t be around.”  That’s just creepy.  William goes upstairs and loads his gun. 

Madeleine is ready for her day in the witness box dressed in red.  Jane is mortified.  “What hell of a masquerade party do you think you’re dressed for?” she demands to know, but Madeleine, claiming she’s a a murderer of her own baby and an unfaithful wife, is “the scarlet woman.”  Mother wins the day, appearing in appropriate black, up to the neck, with a simple stand of pearls.  She points to the four natives as the ones who raped and beat her.  Under James’ cross examination, she is hesitant, but ultimately sticks to her mother’s story.  He asks her to describe the incident, and the prosecution’s objection is over-ruled.  James’ questions have her all at sea, but she squirms out of the trap.  So, he changes tactics and brings into evidence her clothing, which has “not a drop of blood” anywhere on it. 

As Madeleine is about to break, William jumps up, in slow motion and shoots Robert.  The whole court watches it unravel in slow motion and the episode ends there.  This is American TV know-how at its best!  The trial had been building and building and then this totally unexpected twist occurred, leaving the viewers with an incredibly cliffhanger.  I can’t imagine not wanting to return to see the rest.  There is nothing campy or artificial about the way this is handled, just pure writing ingenuity.

“On the mainland, they considered [William] a hero.  Their only complaint is that he did not kill the other three boys.  Here in Hawaii, people know only fear, fear of what could happen next,” the Princess makes sure everyone knows.  The second portion starts with Robert’s funeral, where Dorothy eulogizes him as a man who could never pass a person in trouble and that’s what got him killed.  That turns into a teary tirade against the whites.  “Deep down, they believe they own us,” she says.  Kris, leaving the funeral, insists the remaining three be guarded.  “Wherever those three go, a cop goes, including the toilet!”

Admiral Sandy McPeak has moved Jane to the army compound for her safety, but she’s not happy.  “Did you come to see the prisoner?” she nastily asks Richard Dysart when he pays a visit.  He’s brought the news that the “best criminal lawyer alive” is William’s only chance, and that would be Jose Ferrer (playing a character based on Clarence Darrow). 

William summons Merritt to the brig to spit more insults about the “monkeys.”  Kris follows up with Matt to tell him he knows he lied, that he disappeared about the time Madeleine did.  “I think you’re laying again, partner,” Kris tells him.  He asks point blank if Matt and Madeleine were having an affair.  Matt hits the punching bag as Kris is leaving.  “You’re pretty handy with those things.  Every try using them on something that can hit back?” Kris cracks as he leaves. 

Madeleine calls James, I suppose to make a confession, but Jane, acting all Louise-Fletcher-Flowers-in-the-Attic, barges into her room, pulls the phone out of the socket and leaves.  Don’t mess with Mother! 

William is taken to Pearl Harbor instead of the county jail, putting him out of Kris’ reach, who is also informed that the protection detail has been taken off the other three suspects.  His superior makes life even worse, telling him to be Jose’s shadow when he arrives the next day.  To feel better, he goes to visit Susan, still slinging hash, but she’s still not biting.

So, Kris has to what he’s been told and goes to the boat to fetch Jose and his wife, Sean Young, quite a bit younger than the old geezer.  She certainly dotes on her husband, who says he took the case so he could bring her to an exciting locale instead of hotel rooms. 

With all the attention now on William, being defended by legendary legal eagle Jose Ferrer, the three innocent Hawaiian lads are in legal limbo.  James begs David Clennon, his opposing counsel, for a trial date, but the other case is too important and he’s tossed aside.  The whole nation is following William’s case, and most of them want him freed. 

Jose, busy busy, sends Sean off to have lunch by herself, but since Kris is waiting for them as ordered, they can have lunch together.  He introduces her to the Mai Tai and she delights in all the orchids around her.  “They are so…ethereal,” she says.  Sean Young playing a smart proper lawyer’s wife, who says “dine” instead of “eat” and such, is terrible casting.  But, even the best miniseries have their weaknesses.  But, she has him smiling, and not even Susan Blakely could do that.

Dr. Henry is furious because Dr. George did not fulfill his promise to get Dr. Henry the next free position, and Henry threatens to tell all, but George says he’ll “run you off this island” if he does, so it’s a stalemate. 

Merritt has formed a posse to go after the remaining three accused men and wait outside their homes for just the right moment.  They kidnap one to lead them to the others.  The three are strung up and Merritt wants them to sign a confession, but they opt for a brutal whipping that Merritt the sadist loves, though his cronies aren’t quite as into it.  Having beaten them unconscious, Merritt allows the three to be cut loose. 

Jose finds himself being taken on a tour of Richard’s farm and realizes just how much he produces.  “You must be the most powerful man between San Francisco and Hong Kong,” he says with the hint of a sneer.  “I wouldn’t say that.”  “Oh, what would you say?” Jose replies, definitely learning what’s going on in Hawaii.  Jose wants his money and offers up his back as a desk.  “You’re not defending me,” Richard angrily says.  “I’m not so sure.”

Unfortunately, following that scene, we have another goofy game of puns and bad acting from Sean and Kris, who obviously isn’t as excited by this part of the plot as he is by playing a detective, but since the case has shifted, it would mean he would have to disappear completely without this flirting nonsense.  This scene has their first kiss.  It’s interrupted by a call to go to the hospital, where the three boys have been brought. 

Jane decides to be sweet and motherly with Madeleine, as the two have not spoken since the phone call.  She asks her daughter to confide in her and Madeleine is upset because Matt hasn’t called.  Wow, she’s as deluded as her mother!  “He can’t, not until this calamity has ended,” Jane reassures her.  At the same time, Jose finally meets William, to discuss strategy.  He won’t be acquitted, since everyone saw him do it, but if Jose plays (illegally) on the jury’s sympathy for a husband protecting his wife, he can pull it off.  Oh, and William must always be in his naval uniform.  “I wanted you dressed as if you’re getting a medal for bravery,” the cunning lawyer instructs him. 

After a very slow and unnecessary sex scene with Sean, Kris goes to visit the three boys in the hospital.  With some prodding, he gets details out of them, like the make of the car, Merritt’s tattoo and the word “bilge” bandied about by their attackers.  In no time, the clues pour in and Kris knows it was naval men.  They catch one of the naval men responsible, and Kris is too good a cop not to have the guy singing like a canary out of fear.  Kris hustles to the base and tries to arrest the other tree, but he’s stonewalled.  “I’m tired of your stinking rules.  Pearl Harbor isn’t a foreign country,” he says, arrest warrants in hand.  The Admiral calls Richard to find what to do, and Richard says, “turn them over.”  “You were supposed to neutralize [Kris],” the Admiral tells Richard, who promises to do so.  But, Kris does leave with the three men he came for, despite all sorts of threats. 

And yet Kris still has time for Sean, who coos lines like, “you make me feel new, as if you invented me,” once again threatening to pull down this whole enterprise with stupid dialogue and even worse acting. 

It’s time for another trial, but this time William is at the defense table and the Hawaiians are on the other side of the aisle, the Princess included.  Jose wants to postpone his opening statement until “after the prosecution has finished its case,” which perplexes the judge.  So, in a sidebar, he tells the judge he wants to “save what juice I have” and not run the risk of repeating himself during questioning.  The judge calls a recess and Jose turns to Jane, ordering her to produce her daughter in court “all day, every day, looking tragic and wounded.”  Jane says it won’t happen and he says, “if she’s not present at 2pm, I will not be present.”  Finally, a match has been found for Jane!

Madeleine is there when the court reconvenes.  Jose does not have any questions for the prosecutions witnesses, the police and experts and such.  The prosecution rests and they are in recess until the next day.  That was nice and easy.  The prosecution proved that everyone did indeed see William kill the kid.  Jose then goes to Kris to tell him, “leave my wife alone!”  He’s found a handkerchief belonging to Kris, and as he’s ranting, Jose passes out into a diabetic coma and has a stroke, but will apparently be okay to work the next day. 

Next to yank Kris’ chain is Richard, who shows up at his tiny apartment to push him off the case, not subtle this time, but Kris refuses.  “You’re headed for more trouble than you ever imagined,” Richard threatens.  “One of us is,” Kris tartly replies. 

Suddenly it’s time for Jose’s closing statement.  Having already played Cyrano, you would think he wouldn’t need to sink his teeth into this speech with such obvious delight, but he does.  It’s one of those courtroom speeches that does not actually say anything pertinent, but sounds so full of ideals and certainties that everyone is expected to get up and clap.  Madeleine tries to get up and leave, but Jane stops her.  The prosecution finally objects to hearing information not introduced during questioning, and the judge somehow sides with Jose.  Madeleine finally stands up to declare the boys are innocent, so Jane hustles her out of the courtroom.  Matt looks like he’s going to explode and Kris is watching him the whole time. 

The Princess pays a dramatic visit to the hospital to see the three boys and to give them the news that William has been found guilty of manslaughter, sentenced to 10 years in prison.  “I want you to make something of yourselves,” she tells them.  She goads James and Dorothy about marriage and gives Dorothy a strand of pearls, promising rings when she comes back for the wedding. 

Kris, ace detective, cons Dr. Henry into confessing about the abortion and implicates Dr. George, as “I was just following orders.”  That has an eerie ring to it, no?  The police and prosecutors next stop at Jane’s mansion, where she is redecorating.  She’s at her high-and-mighty best, and Jane tries to throw them out, but Kris isn’t backing down.  “You can’t kill people and you can’t whip them and you can’t treat them like they aren’t human, which is what you’ve been doing since you stole this island from the people who founded it.  Just because your grandfather came off a ship here 80 years ago doesn’t make you God.  That’s all finished, and so are you,” he tells her, stealing some of that Jose Ferrer thunder.  He tells her the doctors told the truth, that the boys did not rape Madeleine, and that’s when David steps in with all of the charges against her and Madeleine.  The latter is convinced to tell the truth, finally.

He leaves the women and eventually Matt, to arrest everyone so he can hustle to the departing ship to see Sean one last time.  As he’s on his way, the maid discovers Madeleine has killed herself and Jane reels seeing her body, the first emotion other than anger she’s shown during the entire story.  Kris and Sean stare at each other as the boat slips out of the harbor, not the best ending, I admit.

Okay, so “Blood & Orchids” is textbook American miniseries.  It has all of the elements (noted above) and it even has the stuff, the cheesy love plot that only an American miniseries would find necessary as a time filler.  This story doesn’t need it.  It’s utterly fascinating without it.  Rich people manipulating the law, we love that kind of stuff!  It’s the top-notch performances that give it extra sheen.  Kris Kristofferson has never been a favorite of mine, but he’s superb here, half Jack Nicholson, half Humphrey Bogart.  And of course Jane Alexander shows us how it’s done.  She manages to play a horrible character and still be the most watchable person. 

Categories: Adventure Miniseries

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