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November 14, 1982
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The eight-hour production of ''The Blue and the Gray,'' getting underway tonight at 8 and continuing on Tuesday and Wednesday, has been described by one CBS executive as ''the most ambitious project the network has ever undertaken.'' It looks it. At a reported cost of between $16 million and $18 million, this story of the American Civil War is laden with authentic costumes, grand battle scenes and a starstudded cast that includes Gregory Peck making his TV-movie debut in the role of Abraham Lincoln. In addition, the executive producers, Larry White and Lou Reda, have carefully enlisted the participation of noted historians. We are assured that the story is based on the ''personal views and impressions'' of Bruce Catton, the Pulitizer Prize-winning writer who died in 1978. The original story is credited to Mr. Catton and John Leekley, the editor of his final, posthumously published book.
The project is indeed ambitious. Unfortunately, there is a fatal flaw. What was meant to be a sweeping saga turns out to be a creaky vehicle, stuffed with the paraphernalia of trite television drama. The tragedy of the Civil War becomes a massive backdrop for a surprisingly lumbering contraption drenched in almost shameless sentimentality. The issues underlying the war are rarely more than secondary to the rather obvious gimmicks employed to ''hook'' the mass audience. Lincoln, although splendidly portrayed by Mr. Peck, is little more than a cameo character. Blacks are limited to a couple of walk-ons. One is left with the unmistakable impression that the producers and the director, Andrew V. McLaglen, were far more interested in the impressively executed battle scenes, which even manage to feature several colorful airborne balloons.
The script, written by Ian McLellan Hunter, is constructed around the motif of a house divided. Opening in Virginia in 1859, the story finds young and sensitive John Geyser sketching his father and brothers as they perform their daily chores on the family farm. The brothers complain, understandably, that John isn't pulling his weight with the farm work. But the mother (Colleen Dewhurst) is protective, noting that ''I always knew that John's been different from the rest of us.'' The father (Lloyd Bridges) is noncommittal but not unsympathetic. John heads north, to Gettysburg, Pa., where his uncle, Jacob Hale (Robin Gammell), publishes the local newspaper. John is hired as an illustrator, and his first assignment is to cover the trial of John Brown (Sterling Hayden), the abolitionist. There he meets the mysterious Jonas Steele (Stacy Keach), who later turns out to be a government agent and Lincoln's personal bodyguard. John and Jonas will go through much of the war together. In fact, Jonas will marry John's cousin Mary Hale (Julia Duffy).
John is the key character. Returning home for Christmas in 1860, he witnesses the lynching of a black man on his father's property. Although Jonathan (Paul Winfield) is technically a free man, with papers to prove it, he is treated as no more than an animal. A horrified John, arguing that ''It's not right, Pa, it's not fair,'' refuses to stay home and join the Confederate Army in the coming war. His father and brothers brand him a traitor. Heading north again, John rather rhetorically asks, ''What's wrong with this land that produces such a bitter crop?'' Needless to say, neither does he want to join the Union Army and face the possibility of confronting his own brothers on the battlefield. His dilemma is solved when he is asked to do a quick portrait of Lincoln during a brief train stop on the way to his inauguration in Washington. The President advises John to put his talent to work as an artist-correspondent and to record ''the face of war.''
The mechanics of the plot, as might be surmised at this point, are a bit awkward but still feasible. And when ''The Blue and the Gray'' switches periodically to historical fact, the production can be impressive. Mr. Hayden makes an imposing John Brown, capturing the passion of a fanatic and the searing insight of a prophet. His scenes carry a special stamp of authenticity. Some of Lincoln's appearances are contrived. He is seen, for instance, personally testing the new Spencer rifle near the White House. That never happened. And the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation is used to telescope several historical facts into a single scene. But the delivery of the Gettysburg Address, read in full, is handled with moving dignity, affording Mr. Peck one of the best moments in the entire eight hours. And there are other effective touches - Rip Torn's scraggly General Grant, Robert Symonds's General Lee, among them - but they are little more than passing brush strokes.
In the end, we are left with the central story of the Geysers, the Hales and Jonas Steele. This kind of juxtaposition of the historic and the personal is certainly legitimate. It worked superbly, for example, in the British production of ''Testament of Youth,'' in which Vera Brittain's autobiography also offered a penetrating look into the experiences of World War I. However, ''The Blue and the Gray'' too often loses sight of the larger Civil War picture as it stops to do some cute or heartwarming piece of business. Jonas's wooing of Mary is saddled with the sight of delighted onlookers giggling behind lace curtains. One long scene is devoted to a pointless cockroach race in a Union Army camp. And those balloons, affording some sweeping aerial photography, get as much on-screen time as Abraham Lincoln. The lack of proportion is disorienting, to say the least.
There is also one serious bit of miscasting. While Mr. Keach is fine as the tough, somber Jonas Steele, who also happens to possess curious psychic powers, Mr. Hammond is embarrassingly colorless as John Geyser. Short and boyish, in the Richard Thomas manner, Mr. Hammond moves through most of the production as if in a trance. Perhaps that is why Jonas has to confront him near the end and say, ''You tried to make it through the war like a bloody saint.'' Mr. Hammond begins sensitive and he winds up sensitive. Otherwise, after six tumultuous years, there is no discernible change in his person or character.
On balance, clearly, ''The Blue and the Gray,'' whatever its flaws, is preferable to still another TV movie about a handicapped but persevering athelete or an older woman having an affair with a younger man. But given the time and energy expended on this project, the result is a sad disappointment.
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TV VIEW; 'THE BLUE AND THE GRAY' OFTEN LOSES SIGHT OF THE CIVIL WAR. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe
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