Captains and the Kings (1976)

If you want, you can look at “Captains and the Kings” as a very thinly-veiled miniseries about the Kennedys, but that’s undermining the quality of the piece.  It makes it sound cheap and tawdry, like the actual Kennedy miniseries (all 403 of them).  Sure, the hero is an Irish immigrant who scrapes his way to untold riches and…well, you know the rest.  “Captain and the Kings” is a terrific homage to the American dream, both sides of it, and owes plenty to other giants of industry like Rockefeller and Carnegie.  Its central character, Joseph Armagh, is the embodiment of both sides, a great hero with great flaws.  Expertly written and free enough of the clutter that would have schmaltzed this up if it had been produced a decade later (hell, even half a decade later), “Captain and the Kings” is a true classic of the genre, as American as they come in sincerity and opulence, two other sides of the American dream.

Though “Rich Man, Poor Man” pre-dated “Captains and the Kings” by about seven months and thus earns the distinction of being the groundbreaking miniseries, the one that started it all, I would say that “Captain and the Kings” is actually a better cornerstone.  “Rich Man, Poor Man” certainly set up the future of the romance miniseries, but its scope is rather small, staying tight on its three lead characters.  “Captain and the Kings” is history and adventure, a fore running to the decade-spawning and character-driven epics to follow in the coming twenty years or so.  It also foreshadows the seedier side of the miniseries genre, the Sidney Sheldon and Judith Krantz sagas, full of greed and lust, which are a whole lot of fun.  Therefore, “Captains and the Kings” is far more comprehensive an effort than “Richard Man, Poor Man” even if it’s been more forgotten over time. 

All good epics start with a tragedy, giving the hero something to make up for his whole life long.  It’s 1857, New York harbor and a ship of Irish immigrants is waiting to get in.  A young boy and his two siblings are on board with their mother, who promptly dies after five minutes.  Priest John Carradine tells the young boy that the ship is being sent back to Ireland, and he’ll have none of that, this plucky smart youth.  He tosses his siblings overboard with a life preserver. 

The city’s homeless feed them and put them on a train to find their father.  They show up at the address they remember, with a sign outside that says “Irish Allowed.”  Grumpy frumpy Ann Southern runs the place, milking the Irish accent and a cane for all they are worth, but she has more bad news for the kids: Dad is dead too.  The youth decides that he can no longer be a child and support his siblings.  He deposits them in a convent run by Sister Celeste Holm.  He tells his siblings to lose their Irish accents, to become Americans.  He then goes off to work in a coal mine, doing backbreaking labor during the day and studying at night.  The kid isn’t stupid, cunning enough to realize that Ray Bolger runs the town and all of its crime, offering his services.

Four years later, our boy has matured into Richard Jordan, still carrying illegal goods for Ray Bolger, playing his few scenes to the back of the balcony.  Ray can’t imagine what Richard does with his free time and books.  “I’m the secret lover of a lady librarian,” he says.  He gets his books from rich Joanna Pettet, on whom he has a crush.  He tells a priest he doesn’t covet her, he “adores her” and intends to someday live her lifestyle. 

Joanna may be rich, but her life isn’t perfect.  Hubby Vic Morrow is a drunk who beats their young daughter.  Vic churns through his intro scene with an accent anything but Irish, blasting a lot of hot air as his wife because he intends to be Senator.  He drunkenly goes to make an oath on the Bible, which Joanna considers blasphemy and they fight over…at the top of the staircase.  Yup, she takes a tumble down the stairs, killing the child she was about to have, though she survives.  It was a boy, and Vic knows how much she wanted a son.  Arguing with his wife’s doctor, who is no fan of his, Vic remembers a boy at the orphanage.  He wonders…

As resilient as ever, Richard is attacked by three men for his money belt and beats the crap out of all three without breaking a sweat.  Nothing stops him from delivering Ray Bolger’s illegal money.  Ray knows about the three guys, “a-moanin’ and a-groanin'” in an alley, but he’s impressed by the fact that Richard never spills the beans or has any trouble with the illegal activities.  Ray offers him a job, at $20 a week, no less, but he turns it down.  It’s not part of his plan.

When Vic wondered about the kids in the orphanage, it was Richard’s siblings he was talking about.  Joanna and Sister Celeste Holm try to get him to agree to let them be adopted, but he refuses.  He has always wanted to keep his siblings together, the three of them as a family.  Despite the soft lighting just on Joanna’s pretty eyes, he keeps saying no, but he can’t refuse a visit to her home, to see how she lives, to see what he’s turning down.  Thuggish Vic is in bed with a maid when Joanna comes hope, drunk and ornery.  Having finished with the maid, Vic argues with Richard about the kids, Richard still standing firm against the adoption.  Richard won’t let the kids live in Vic’s home, “until it’s up for sale.”  Vic even tries to buy the kids, which infuriates Richard, but makes it worse by telling Richard he’ll never amount to anything.  Richard has a comeback to Vic’s high-handed attitude (not as good as when Vic calls him “smug-mouth potato boiler”) because he knows Vic has made his money from selling slaves, and this is 1861 after all. 

Having realized money is the only way to make it in America, he wants it quickly.  He pays off Sister Celeste to take care of the kids for a year or more, and she promises to care for them as long as she lives.  He then steals Ray Bolger’s money, writing him a letter that he’s doing so, promising to bring it back with interest in a year.  On his way to the train, he’s detained by Sargent Martin Kove, who tries to force him into the army, but he knocks him out and still can’t get to the train because Lebanese pick pocket/chatterbox Harvey Jason stops him, figuring of all the men in the crowd, he stands the best chance of getting on the train with Richard.  He’s right, for they do get on the train, but just as he’s describing the best way to get rich, Harvey’s leg gets stuck and almost amputated, but Richard does a bit of daring and saves his new buddy. 

Impressed by Richard’s bravery is Charles Durning, slurping down a bottle of whiskey and renaming Harvey’s character to make him sound less like a “heathen.”  He’s another bombastic loud mouth.  Richard can’t escape them!  Richard tells Charles of his ambition, and after Charles stops choking on his liquor and laughing, he actually agrees.  The two gab the whole train ride, where Richard reveals himself to be educated and ambitious.  “You’ve got all the makings of a good scoundrel,” Charles admires.  Charles is something of a big deal in Titusville, and he takes Richard and Harvey under his wing, insisting that Richard is responsible for Harvey.  The lure of Titusville is its oil, Richard’s surest way to success. 

Talk about your attempt at scene stealing, Charles introduces Richard to “Martinique,” not his wife, but the woman living with him, played by Barbara Parkins like a slutty Mrs. Danvers.  Also living at Charles’ is Beverly D’Angelo, not his daughter, but a hooker he bought.  “She loves me like a father in every way but one,” he boasts.  Charles decides to teach Richard everything, but for Richard, it’s all about money and since Charles won’t pay him much, he decides to work in the fields, against Charles’ advice. 

Richard takes the worst possible job he can, hauling nitro glycerine around, while he learns everything he can and tends to his now-hobbled friend Harvey, who has caught the attention of Miss Beverly.  Using their combined skills (Harvey is a banker), Richard decides to buy up oil field options for his new company.  In less than a year, Richard is able to pay Ray Bolger back, with interest.  Ray notes that Richard paid him back in less than half the time promised, which reminds us that Richard may be hungry for money, but he’s a man of his word, so much so that he’s able to wheedle an exorbitant amount of money from Ray to give to Harvey to buy up the oil field options (remember, he’s the hero, so he’s once again promised to pay Ray back, even though this money isn’t stolen). 

Even nature can’t get in the way of Richard’s drive.  He and a fellow nitro glycerine hauler are doing their work when a convenient avalanche kills the other guy.  Later in the day, he’s dressed in his finest, visiting with Barbara Parkins, ogling all the books in the library.  The difference between the money Charles has and Richard will have is in these books: Charles told Barbara to buy the finest books, but he doesn’t care what the books are.  Richard knows all of the authors and what is IN the books.  Okay, okay, it’s a bit on the heavy-handed side, but it keeps Richard human.  No one ever talked about Joe Kennedy’s library. 

Charles proposes another scheme, this one requiring Richard to dress up in brand-new finery to get into a “venture” with Peter Donat.  At $2000 per month, Richard accepts the job without even finding out what the job is.  “The alternative to the success of this job is not failure, but death,” Peter warns him, but Richard is undaunted, asking only to write out a sort of will.  It turns out the job is to run guns during the height of the Civil War.  Richard isn’t afraid of that. 

He then gets a visit on a stormy night from va-va-vooming Barbara Parkins, who pegs him as a virgin.  With serious intent, she decides to solve that problem.  It’s the least romantic deflowering I can think of in any miniseries.  She starts kissing his chest, but he stops her.  “Before you take off all my clothes, take off yours,” he commands.  The camera pans to the window and then back to the two, now finished, Barbara resting her head on Richard’s sprawling chest, as we’ve seen so many times in the genre.  Barbara tells a somewhat cryptic history of her time with Charles, and that they do not have sex.  “His needs are very simple, and, as you can tell, mine are not,” she purrs, saying that she’s been waiting for a man like him.  This one sexual experience has given Richard sexual balls as well, and he wants Barbara for his own, but she shoots that one down, refusing to be owned by anyone.  Vamping the hell out of the scene, standing naked at the window, she tells him she’ll be his any time he wants her, but he is never to ask what hold Charles has over her ever again. 

Peter takes Richard to meet Pernell Roberts, the Union Colonel who is part of the gun-running scheme.  His is initially afraid to be caught as a traitor, but receiving $50K for his part in it soothes those worries.  Richard turns out to be a better deal-maker than anyone expects.  That night, it’s off to the theater to see Edwin Booth (Peter notes that he’s never seen him, but has met his brother, John Wilkes Booth, “excellent”–yes, we know, it’s still the Civil War).  What I’m not mentioning here is the way all of these deals go down.  It’s beautiful writing (we have to thank Taylor Caldwell’s novel as well as the writers of the script), very cleverly handled, like a mystery novel. 

With the gun running episode successful, Richard returns to visit his siblings, Sister Celeste Holm and Joanna Pettet.  Richard and Joanna have a talky scene about, well, not a whole lot, and she insists that he better not be in love with him.  He never has been.  To make sure we understand, the next scene has Barbara accosting him on the doorstep with an open mouth.  Charles’ daughter is in town, and the house rule is that when she is in residence, Beverly isn’t.  They stash her in a hotel.  Hanging out the window that evening, she spies Harvey on the street and beckons him to her room.  Beverly keeps trying to take her clothes off and seduce him, but nervous Harvey, like Richard, is too focused on the financial rewards of life.  He’s also scared of fooling around with her because Charles won’t like it.  “I didn’t ask you up here to do anything bad,” Beverly mopes, “it’s just that I’m so lonely.”  To make sure he understands her flirtations are more pure, she gives him a token to a whorehouse, which he says he will keep “forever.” 

Charles’ daughter is lovely Blair Brown, a belle pure as snow, especially coming from such a hard-boiled tough as her conniving father.  Charles makes it clear that Blair is only good enough for someone high-toned (Charles would play Honey Fitz later on his career, Rose Kennedy’s father, in some very similar scenes).  Charles announces the gun running is over and he wants Richard to come into the oil business with him, but Richard has no money to buy stocks, all of his money in what is considered the oil-free land he and Harry have been buying.  Basically, the scene rolls on as Charles tries to screw Richard out of everything he owns, and a furious Richard storms out, which makes Charles all contrary.  He knows Richard’s land is worth a fortune, so he wants to be his partner.  Richard agrees, but on his terms.  Charles has no choice but to agree, with a few conditions of his own and a promise that he’ll “never cheat ya.”  Richard tries to angle in one last term, that Charles tell him what hold he has over Barbara, but he refuses.  At any rate, they agree.

Richard sets out to re-invent the oil industry, starting with the railroads, bringing us Robert Vaughn.  It’s here that Richard shows is darker side, getting the railroad barons to agree to ship only oil controlled by his company or those of his friends.  “That’s nasty…and I love it,” perpetual villain Robert sneers. 

Among all the scenes of corporate greed, we have to suffer through a little more pain between Harvey and Beverly.  Their scenes reek of the dippy secondary love plots in creaky musical comedies.  But, they finally do have sex and though Richard is thrilled, he knows Charles will be pissed, so he sends Harvey out the back way to avoid detection.  Unfortunately for Richard, the sex happened in his bed, so when Charles’ hulking manservant comes in, he thinks it’s Richard who has had his way with her.  A fight ensues and the manservant ends up dead, with Beverly pretending that the manservant tried to rape her.  Charles doesn’t believe that, still thinking it was Richard, but Barbara gives him a true alibi.  No one rats out Harvey, and Peter Donat steps in to save the whole mess by concocting a story where the manservant was drunk and fell out of the window. 

The biggest question is whether or not Charles and Richard can trust each other anymore.   

Blair Brown has an instant crush on Richard.  Daddy’s chaste little girl is an avowed flirt, but Richard will not allow himself to be taken in, as he promised Charles.  Late one night in the kitchen, Blair lays it on the line: she’s not looking for a husband, just fun and sex, like the arrangement he has with Barbara.  Just as Blair tells Richard she does not intend to be a virgin forever, Charles and Barbara arrive back home with Vic Morrow, Richard’s old nemesis who wanted to buy his siblings.  To make Richard jealous, Blair takes up Vic on his offer to take her back to school on his private train.  And it’s there that Blair ceases to be a virgin.

Over a pool game, Richard gets back to business, buying out George Gaynes’ company without actually spending a dime, and now the robber barons and Robert Vaughn consider him for membership in their exclusive club of fat cats. 

For the first time, we venture into real-life characters in a brief scene where President Lincoln welcomes Vic Morrow to Washington as its newest Senator.  Blair follows him to DC to drop the bomb that she’s pregnant.  This smart cookie has decided to marry a “socially prominent Protestant” man to act as the father of the baby, a man who has asked for her hand in marriage.  He can’t say no because he’s just died in battle, so Blair insists that Senator Vic forge the necessary papers to make her an instant war widow with a legitimate child on the way.  Richard and Barbara go along with the scheme (whether they believe it or not doesn’t matter), but Charles gets rip-roaring drunk, going for the gold with a hoot of a scene and then dies. 

Charles’ will is a hoot.  He leaves an awfully lot of money to his servants and employees, $50K to Beverly, who can now marry Harvey, and $150K to Barbara.  She is now free to tell her story: she’s part black from parentage in Jamaica, killed the son of the Jamaican government who tried to make her a slave and was taken to safety by Charles.  She will go to Europe and seek a rich man, telling Richard to stay and marry Blair.  Charles leaves the bulk of his fortune to Richard, with the stipulation that he manage Blair’s money.  With Richard and Blair now tied together by this condition, Richard wants to marry Blair, but she refuses.  “It’s just too late!”

Now that Richard is sole owner of Charles’ oil company, he’s invited join the robber barons on Good Friday, 1865, just as Lincoln is shot.

Fast forward to 1873.  Richard is fabulously wealthy in his massive garish house, finding that money isn’t enough for him.  He wants power!  So, he gets Harvey to buy a bunch of politicians.  Speaking of politicians, his neighbors are Vic’s family, with now-grown daughter Patty Duke. 

Also grown are Richard’s siblings.  Katherine Crawford is first seen at confession, saying she wants to join a convent in Baltimore.  Brother David Huffman, at Harvard, is bent on labor reform, pushing unionization on the workers, much to Richard’s chagrin.  Richard sees the irony in this: David is “weeping for the downtrodden” without “having worked a day in his life.”  He quips that he should have never left his siblings so long in the church.  Unfortunately for David, he’s caught in the middle of a labor battle where Richard’s goons mow down a bunch of workers before being saved by Jenny Sullivan, a mine worker herself, who sends David to his brother to report on the heinous crime.

Joanna is dying, so she gets a deathbed scene with Richard.  She had once asked Richard not to love her, but now she admits that she’s loved him all along, and he admits the same.  Geez, it only took a few decades!  The conversation takes a creepy turn when Joanna tells Richard that her daughter Patty also loves him and she wants Richard to take her safely from obnoxious Vic’s house and to marry her.  It’s one hell of a deathbed scene, full of halting whispered sentences delivered only with the light from a nearby fire.  As soon as Richard agrees to marry Patty, Joanna dies peacefully. 

Rather than actually grieve for his wife, Vic decides to lambaste Richard, accusing him of having an affair with his wife.  The two have a gigantic fight, and of course old alkie Vic is no match for strapping Richard.  Stopped from beating him to a pulp, Richard declares, “I won’t kill him.  I’ll destroy him, and by God he’ll wish I had killed him!”  That makes for a great cliffhanger as the episode ends.

Vic chases Richard, who asks him for Patty’s hand in marriage, which prompts Vic to think that it’s Patty Richard has wanted all along.  Richard doesn’t bother correcting him.

His siblings are still proving a problem.  Richard and David have a blowout over the labor issue, where David sounds like like any labor organizer of the 1870s, ending with the capper that he feels Richard made all of his money only for himself, not his siblings.  Well, he may not be entirely wrong.  After all, we do have a flawed hero here.  It’s possible Richard had his siblings in mind, but also himself.  The argument ends with Richard cutting David out of his life and David vowing that he’ll be a permanent thorn in his side over the labor issue, even from afar.  Katherine has been listening to all of this while praying upstairs for the courage to leave Richard and join the convent.  The causes Richard’s second argument in ten minutes.  If anyone else arrives, the poor man will lose his voice, not to mention he’s fast running out of cliches (his siblings are so dull and I get the feeling the writers agree).  “Sean can go to hell and you…can go to Jesus!” Richard bellows at the end of the argument, with Katherine playing herself on the floor.  At least he ended on a grandiose note.

The problem of labor takes over for a while.  The governor, the railroads and management gang up on the workers, with David and Jenny at the center of it.  David is a fierce orator.  He actually castigates the workers at a meeting for forming a mob because that “invites suppressive action from government.”  A different tactic is needed. 

In 1880 and Patty, who knows she’s stuck in a marriage springing from a deathbed promise, has given birth to four children, and now Patty’s father Vic is marrying Blair.  Not only does he think Blair is too good for Vic, but Richard has been keeping a dossier on the Senator that he intends to use at some point, to utterly destroy him.  That might make his marriage a little uncomfortable.  Harvey hopes to blunt this action by reminding Richard of this, but Richard says that what Patty thinks means absolutely nothing to him.  Richard is becoming far more of a flawed hero.

Six months later, Richard’s plan has worked so well that Vic is politically neutered and about to be destroyed financially because the government is demanding “recompense.”  Drunk as hell, Vic spews a whole speech at Richard, not knowing it’s Richard who has ruined him, but he soon finds out!  Vic pulls a gun and says he’s going to make his daughter “a widow,” but Richard is calm, even telling him to wait for a thunderclap in order to shoot so his daughter and grandchildren will never know.  But Vic can’t pull the trigger.  Having thoroughly destroyed Vic, Richard literally tosses him out of the house into the violent storm. 

David is sent to prison on a fake charge of inciting a gang of men to blow up a train and sentenced to hang.  Jenny, baby in tow, begs David to contact Richard to help, but he refuses.  So, she goes herself.  Richard agrees to help only if Jenny agrees never to tell anyone he has done so.  When Robert Vaughn wonders why Richard has not gone after the culprits of train bombing with more venom, he claims it’s not because of his brother, but for his son.  Why?  Because he wants him to be the first Irish Catholic President (that does indeed sound familiar) and an uncle who was executed will not be a help.  Robert retorts that “he has as much chance as little black Sambo.”  That’s certainly laying it on the line.  Richard and Robert even agree to marry their small children at some future date. 

Vic dies in the gutter one rainy night (it always rains when he’s around, have you noticed that?) and even President Garfield expresses his sympathy, introducing Richard to Senator Henry Fonda.  He’s a problem for the robber barons because he’s pro-labor and apparently squeaky clean. 

Things get ugly when, at the Capitol rotunda, Blair demands to see Richard.  She knows everything Richard has done and she wants her money separated from Richard’s, against the will of her father.  Richard refuses anyway because in order to disentangle their money, he would lose money and that he refuses to do.  Blair picks this moment to tell Richard that the baby of the dead fake husband was actually Vic’s.  “It seems we all wasted our best years…without love,” Richard tells Blair before grabbing her and marching her upstairs to the bedroom.  He’s always wanted her and now his reasons for not having her have all disappeared. 

Richard wants to marry Blair but she knows of his plans to put his son in the White House and she’s fine being his mistress so as not to ruin those plans.  “For the first time, everything is as it should be,” she says before doing what all miniseries lovers do, placing her head on his chest. 

An intimate dinner is thrown by Richard for just himself and Senator Henry Fonda.  Richard oozes charm at first, but Henry wants honesty, so they hash out the issues.  Henry has a bill in Congress that will help even the poorest workers by outlawing foreign workers.  Richard and his gang want the foreign labor because they come damn cheap.  Henry notes that Richard is attempting to bribe him, which Richard knows he can’t prove, and Henry has had enough.  But, Richard has a surprise waiting and calls in Harvey.  He brings a bunch of documents that would ruin Henry.  The big secret?  Henry had a mulatto grandmother.  It’s 1881 and that still carries some weight.  Henry nails this scene, his usual understated acting style a virtue in handling the character’s conflicts. 

Once Henry leaves, Richard burns the documents, his only hold over Henry, much to the admiration of Harvey, but events may have gone too far already.  Henry leaves a note at the hotel desk that he plans to kill himself and leave that curse hanging over Richard’s head forever.  That’s a delicious plot twist.  Yes, we could see it coming by Henry’s demeanor, but watching it unfold is great TV.

Wifey Patty has had Richard followed by a detective, who says Richard is completely faithful, except for “the party.”  “Stop calling her a party.  It sounds positively festive,” Patty snaps.  When she finds out it’s Blair, she’s calm and actually offers the detective a new job.  She’s figured out that Blair’s son is actually Vic’s.  She wants her detective to find out the truth she already knows, this time with physical proof.  Patty races off to Blair’s house for the showdown.  In no uncertain terms, Patty wants the affair to end, but Blair refuses, so Patty pulls out the evidence.  However, Blair doesn’t give Patty the reaction she was hoping for.  Blair doesn’t care if the truth comes out: she’ll help put it out there!  She was only holding it back while Vic was alive.  What does it matter now?  No wonder Patty won an Emmy for this performance.  She’s sensational here.  She goes from calm and definitive to wild and angry with a slow build and then to utter devastation when foiled.  By the end she’s begging Blair not to tell Richard any of this because she “fears his hate” more than anything.  It’s a gorgeous performance and a great way to handle plotting. 

In 1892, Richard’s son has grown into Perry King.  At the theater, Richard tries to push Perry into Robert Vaughn’s daughter Cynthia Syke’s arms, but Perry likes to squire around many women and doesn’t want the unintelligent Terry. 

When Richard gets home, he finds Patty drunk.  It seems she’s degenerated into an alcoholic worse than her father.  The showdown with Blair has completely undone her and forced her into this depraved lifestyle.  She hisses at Robert that he’s using his son to get back at the world for treating him badly as a child and ignoring his other kids.  She begs him to hit her.  “It’s the first time you’ll have touched me since you started sleeping with my S…T…E…P…M…O…T…H…E…R!” 

Perry is about to be kicked out of school for fighting and this angers Richard, who threatens to fight back by blackmailing the other kid’s father, who was forced to drop out of a campaign for cloudy reasons.  He dispatches Harvey to Mayor Burl Ives’ house to find out the dirt (a homosexual liaison) and gluttonous Burl is happy to oblige.  The plan, naturally, works. 

As for Perry, he’s infatuated with a Vassar girl…wait for it…she’s here…Jane Seymour!  Yup, she’s here, gracing this story with her presence!  With the help of his relative Terry Kiser (Blair’s son), he meets her in an ice cream shop where she’s on a date with another man.  Perry refuses to leave and Jane’s date’s friends gang up on him.  He leaves, but he’s just beginning his assault on Jane’s attentions.  It’s working during a Romeo and Juliet-like balcony scene when the thugs from the ice cream shop beat him up.  They douse him in alcohol and hang a sign around his neck: NO IRISH.

Though Perry wants no immediate revenge, his brother Doug Heyes doesn’t see it like that and beats the hell out of Jane’s other suitor.  Perry is still infatuated with Jane, who is definitely cracking under the full weight of his charm.  The biggest problem is that Jane is Protestant and Perry is Catholic.  As violins suddenly spring up on the soundtrack, Jane tells Perry that she can’t disobey his father, that he’s confined to a wheelchair and needs her.  But, Perry is tough and they two make out on the grass as Jane confesses her love.

And who should be playing Jane’s papa but John Houseman?  A miniseries regular, he and Jane missed out on working together in the Herman Wouk pieces, with Houseman in “Winds of War,” replaced by John Gielgud in “War and Remembrance,” while Jane took over Ali McGraw’s role for the latter.  In his spitting venomously way of speaking, John spells out all the reasons he hates the whole Armagh family (father cheats, son is a “libertine”).  He then has a convenient attack of whatever ails him and then lays the guilt on thick.  “If you choose to to be seen with this Rory Armagh (Perry King), you’ve seen the last of me…in the little time I have left.”  Are we sure he’s not playing a Jewish mother?  Even an Italian mother? 

Perry has to break the news to his father too.  Richard is thrilled, only because he assumes it’s an affair and won’t last.  He can’t countenance an actual marriage because Catholicism doesn’t allow for divorce should Perry grow tired of her, but that’s not the worst of it.  He tells of Jane’s religion, and Richard explodes in a tirade worthy of his long-gone mentor, Charles Durning.  He tries to make Perry understand that it’s only a select group of men who control the entire world, but Perry doesn’t buy it (I guess he hadn’t watched the previous five episodes).  “They exist.  I know, because I’m one of them!  And you will be too.  And those men will make you President!” Richard yells, but only if he marries a Catholic. 

In 1896, Perry graduates and they commemorate the occasion with some photographs on the lawn.  Everyone is present except sister Ann Dusenberry, who is in love with Perry’s pal Terry Kiser, making out when Perry goes to find them.  They want to get married, but that presents a problem because they are blood relatives.  No one but Richard and Patty know (which is why Patty hates him), but not Perry does.  Richard breaks the news to Terry, who races off to find Ann, dashing off to tell Patty about the impending nuptials.  Fate intervenes, as it always does in these situations, and before she can tell Patty, she is thrown from her horse and falls.  As good at “Captains and the Kings” is, it’s still a soap opera, and these helpful twists of fate have a way of settling difficult situations.  Everyone waits for Ann to return, but she doesn’t and by nightfall, they are worried and go looking for her.  Terry finds her alive, but barely.

Something has happened to her.  She’s awake, eyes open and such, but she does not understand, cannot comm…okay, I’ll say it…she has brain damage!  This part does in fact reek of the Kennedy curse, in the form of a Rosemary stand-in.  Patty, in a full rage, wants Blair and Terry out of the house, but they leave only after Terry lets loose a little bile in Richard’s direction.  He’s always liked Richard, but now he hates him as much as he hates Patty.  Before leaving, Terry demands some alone with Ann to tell her he’s leaving, not that she comprehends.  Richard and Patty take Ann to the best specialists in Europe, but no one can help.  Perry tries to gloss over it by noting Patty gets to spend time alone with Richard as she’s always wanted.

Harvey sums up a few plots for us, just because they have been dangling: Richard’s siblings are still alive and Kathleen even writes twice a month, though Harvey hides the letters.  And Harvey’s own beloved Beverly has died.

Perry and Jane get married by a Justice of the Peace and head right to bed while the Justice’s wife realizes who Perry is and formulates a plan in her mind due to Richard’s wealth. 

London, 1897.  Cantankerous Patty and Richard are at a hotel, where Patty annoys the staff, but Richard is only excited that Robert Vaughn has been appointed Ambassador to the Court of St. James, which means the marriage between Perry and his daughter will be even more important.  Oh, and then there’s a letter in the same packet from the Justice of the Peace. 

Neither father nor son brings up the marriage when Perry arrives in London.  Instead, Richard takes Perry to meet the men who rule the world, telling him it may be the most important night of his life. 

Perry goes to the meeting and it’s downright bizarre.  It literally is a collection of accents, men who run the world, or at least they think they do.  If we thought Richard was getting too evil, we now have TRUE evil to make him look a little better (though he’s one of them, he says he doesn’t like them).  Just as Perry is about to tell Richard he is married to Jane, when Richard tells him of his plans, $20 million the day he marries Robert Vaughn’s daughter.  If he does not marry the girl, he’s cut out of dad’s will and dad’s life.  Perry chickens out and doesn’t tell him (although he already knows). 

Back in NYC, and back in bed, because that’s where they exist, Perry admits he didn’t tell his father about Jane, but that he will stay married to her and his father can make one of his brothers President.  The world then gets in the way when the Spanish-American War breaks out and Perry realizes the men in London made it happen. 

When Richard returns to Philadelphia, he takes his anger at the marriage out on Harvey, whom he accuses of disloyalty and everything thing else he can think of.  An impassioned speech of eternal devotion brings Richard back down to earth and he forgives Harvey.  Besides, he has a plan already to “destroy” the marriage. 

Perry and brother Doug argue about what the war means right before a montage of Teddy Roosevelt and Bill McKinley disagree about what to do with the war.  Roosevelt wins out and McKinley declares war.  Doug even joins Teddy’s Rough Riders.  Somehow the only solution to bring him back is for Perry to go after him.  I could think of about 15 reasons right now that might work better, but so be the vagaries of plot.

Have you been missing Patty Duke?  She’s losing it, sort of mad, sort of drunk, sort of guilty at Ann’s side.  Ann is still in the same medical state, and Patty tells her a fairy tale that ends with self-recrimination.  They aren’t part of the plot much anymore, but Patty is still acting up a storm. 

Two different wars are juxtaposed in quick alternating scenes.  The first is the war in Cuba, with Perry hunting down his brother.  The other is Richard going to John Houseman’s office to discuss their children.  John his aides he expects to melt Richard’s gruff exterior, but if not, he will ring his bell and they will take him forcibly.  Uh huh, two old men against Richard.  Richard has the upper hand because he knows of the marriage.  Judge John is aghast when he finds out Richard has destroyed all records of the marriage, having paid off the Justice of the Peace and the County Clerk.  Furthermore, he’s forged notes and had a handwriting expert pen them in Perry and Jane’s handwriting ending the marriage.  To sweeten the pot and get John to go along with it, he’ll pay John $10K a month. 

In Cuba, Perry looks very sexy in a shirt ripped in all the places to show off his body to maximum effect as he is forced to take up a gun and look for Doug.  It takes a while, but he finds his brother, mortally wounded so badly that Perry has to lie to him and tell him the Rough Riders have won the battle, which is far from the truth.  Watch Perry as he listens to Doug’s patriotic speech about fighting for one’s country.  He looks like he’s going to laugh the whole time.  It is over-written to say the least, the kind that makes you want to rush to your closet and dig out that flag you’ve been saving for the front lawn.  Doug dies right after giving the speech, cradled in his brothers arms. 

When Richard goes to tell Patty about Doug, she is asleep in bed, clutching a glass.  He happily fills it for her because she’s going to need it.  Before he can tell her about Doug, she admits to having told Ann about Terry (causing her to race out and get herself injured), but Richard forgives that quickly in order to deliver the really bad news.  Patty flies into a rage and then crouches on the ground, wide-eyed, talking of a curse on her family: father, daughter, son…at least for now.  Patty and Ann are packed off to a nut house and Perry brings back Doug’s body for burial. 

Perry dashes over to find Jane, but only finds the note his father has planted.  It’s a doozie, saying she had to leave him and is off to travel with her father.  Perry goes on a binge that ends him up in Chicago where a local thief and hooker snatch his wallet, but realize he’s the nephew of labor leader Uncle David.  So, they call him and David tries to talk sense into his nephew.  Perry goes home, admitting defeat to his father.  He will marry Robert Vaughn’s daughter, collect the $20 million and become President. 

It’s 1910 and Richard wants Perry to be President in 1912.  He’s been a dithering Congressman, so Richard wants the governor, whom he pays, to appoint Perry a senator (in the days before senators were directly elected).  Marriage to Cynthia has produced some heirs, so everyone has done their duties.  Perry does everything asked of him by the men in power, bending their way to kill bills in Congress he believes in. 

Then there is brother Cliff DeYoung, up to now ignored.  He’s a wastrel, flying planes and thinking of selling them to armies should a war come.  He even has a movie star girlfriend and a movie studio.  She’s a ditz.  “I cried at my own acting,” she proudly says.  “So did I,” he says sarcastically.

Sorry to end Cliff’s mirth, but Richard has had a heart attack.  Not expected to live, he’s defying the odds and even firing doctors.  The dream of Perry being President is not dying with Richard.  Cliff is his campaign manager and they bring all their cronies together to buy votes across the country.  “And send me the bill,” Perry says.  Handsome and excitable, Perry is an ideal candidate, with his father reading every paper praising his son from his bed.  Not everyone is happy, though.  Protestant preachers and the KKK aren’t happy.  Hell, the KKK does their whole cross burning thing on Richard’s lawn. 

The campaign goes very well.  It has some bumps, some people within his own party who don’t like him, but the juggernaut rolls on.  And then Jane Seymour calls out of nowhere.  Perry dashes off to see her and they fall into each other’s arms (and onto the floor) the minute she opens the door.  On his deathbed, her father admitted all he had done.  They confess eternal love to each other, but Cliff has to find a way to figure this all out. 

Blair Brown is dying.  She and Richard have stayed apart ever since Ann’s accident, but since she is dying, maybe it’s time.  Harvey is dispatched to see how she is.  Other than some bad putty wrinkles and make-up, she looks pretty damn good!  The doctor has given her a sedative, so she has to sleep, but she invites Harvey back in a week to “talk all day.”  Uh oh, don’t put timing on it, because that makes it a sure thing she’ll be gone in a week.  On his way out, Harvey finds a letter that Blair has written but never intended to send, one last love letter.  Indeed, Blair croaks four hours after Harvey left. 

As Cliff runs around buying votes for Perry, Harvey tells Richard he wants to retire.  “Was it something I did…or didn’t do?” Richard asks of his one true friend, the only person he really trusts.  As a parting gift, he gives Richard his sister’s letters that Richard thought were destroyed.  Harvey intends to travel the world and be back in time to vote for Perry. 

Uh oh.  The men in power have decided they want Woodrow Wilson to be President, with Perry as Vice President, still promising to make him President, but not until 1920.  The men have decided a war is necessary in the coming years and Wilson is the best man to handle it.  This is all rather a nasty plot twist to characters we have come to love, undermining the dream Richard has had for so many years, as good or bad as he may be. 

Uncle David gets a surprise when Richard shows up at his house.  His wife decides to tell him the truth about how Richard saved him all those years ago, so he agrees to see Richard.  This is the first time Richard has appeared timid and tentative, even afraid.  There is some power missing from the scene because David was never given a fully developed characterization.  Anyway, the reason he’s there is to ask his brother’s help in winning the election for his son, having to fight against the men in power.  This whole scene serves to redeem Richard’s character one last time.  No longer a member of the evil boy’s club, he wants to what he’s always wanted now based on merit.  Richard tells Perry the men have dropped him and Perry is thrilled, because he has wanted to smash them.  Unfortunately, Robert Vaughn has been listening to the whole conversation on a phone extension, so things are going to end badly.

Okay, with only moments to go in the movie, we get a plot twist we did not expect and one that is, frankly, damn annoying.  The Titanic sinks with Harvey on it.  Come on, is that REALLY necessary?  Fine, I understand that Harvey needs to pay for his sins just as much as anyone, but on the Titanic?  That’s historical fiction at its dumbest. 

I hate to bring this up, folks, but with Perry running as an idealist, suddenly on the opposite side of the men in power, he has to die.  A story like this demands it.  During a campaign stop, he is shot and dies, but at least in Jane’s arms.  Where else is Richard to turn but to Patty, calling herself “confused,” but completely bonkers.  She’s been paying for her sins for way too long.  Richard is just starting.  He even invites Jane to mourn with him at the funeral.  She tells Richard how much Perry loved him and he starts to cry, not having really understood it all these years.  The funeral is an odd assortment: Richard, his nun sister, both of Perry’s wives and even Robert Vaughn, who had him killed. 

Humbled and broken (we assume that Cliff dies in an airplane accident), Richard sits in a chair in his great mansion, having lost everyone and everything that should have mattered to him as he spend his life racing for power and money. 

If the last episode of the miniseries is a bit too sentimental, a completely change of tone from the rest, it’s to be expected.  People do have to pay for the things they want most, and in this case, it’s not payment in money, but in lives.  That’s a lofty idea, one we might not have expected television to tackle in the 1970s.  But here it is and it’s splendid.

Categories: Adventure Miniseries, Romance Miniseries

3 Comments to “Captains and the Kings (1976)”

  1. Anonymous 26 April 2012 at 1:25 pm #

    I own and have seen this GREAT mini-series many times. The description would be MUCH better if the character names and not the actor’s names were used. It is rather confusing. I couldn’t even finish reading this, because it is too confusing this way.

  2. Tom Cantrell 29 May 2017 at 5:37 pm #

    I’ve been writing about Captains and Kings and after watching the miniseries and reading the 637 page novel by Taylor Caldwell I was getting confused. Your synopsis sure helped me verify what the differences in action between movie and book are.

    • Bj Kirschner 8 July 2017 at 3:57 pm #

      There are a lot of differences between the book and movie, but as miniseries go, the changes aren’t too terrible. That was was one of the earliest miniseries and those tended to be either extremely faithful to their sources or altered in a way that made since. By the time you get around to something like “Scarlett,” the changes are incongruous and idiotic (not that the novel itself was any good to start with).


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