Thursday, January 17, 2013

War. What Is It Good For?

Here's a television rarity available on DVD and well worth your time. THE ANDERSONVILLE TRIAL may be about the Civil War, but its themes remain relevant today. Although it's nearly two-and-a-half hours of middle-aged white men talking in a room, the great performances, thought-provoking teleplay, and socially relevant themes of war and humanity (My Lai was fresh in the public's mind when THE ANDERSONVILLE TRIAL first aired on PBS in May 1970) make this a deeply affecting drama not to be missed.

George C. Scott played the role of the prosecuting Judge Advocate in the 1959 Broadway presentation of Saul Levitt's play. Eleven years later, he directed it for PBS with an all-star cast of imposing television actors at the height of their game.

Swiss-born Henry Wirz (Richard Basehart) is on trial in 1865 for atrocities that occurred while he was the ruling commandant of the Confederate prisoner-of-war camp near Andersonville, Georgia. More than 40,000 Union prisoners were crowded into an area meant to hold less than half that, and were not provided adequate food, water, shelter or medical care. Prisoners were forced to drink from the same swampy stream that their bodily waste was emptied into. They slept year round on bare ground without a roof over their heads. Food was so scarce that some of the men resorted to cannibalism.

William Shatner, one year after STAR TREK left the air, has the plum role of Lt. Col. Chipman, the prosecutor obsessed with making Wirz pay for his alleged abuse. Jack Cassidy, who was nominated for an Emmy (ANDERSONVILLE won three, including Levitt's teleplay and for Outstanding Single Program), is equally good as Wirz' defense attorney, who alleges that his client was merely following the orders of his superiors and cannot be held responsible for the thousands of deaths that occurred as a result of them.

While much of the dialogue is taken directly from the transcripts of the real Wirz' trial, Levitt takes a few dramatic liberties, putting Wirz on the stand to tell his story and adding an extra theme of moral responsibility into the mix. More specifically, should Wirz have done the "right" thing and disobeyed his orders at the risk of a possible court martial and even death?

At nearly 140 minutes, Scott takes his time telling his story and gives his marvelous cast plenty of opportunity to wrap themselves around their meaty roles. Like Scott, none of the cast is known for being particularly subtle (Cameron Mitchell, taking a welcome respite from exploitation movies, portrays General Wallace, the presiding judge), but their theatrical backgrounds are entirely appropriate for this talky drama set entirely within the courtroom. Those who consider Shatner a "bad" actor because of his flair for the dramatic may be surprised to learn how good he can be under the right circumstances, as his unique performing style is perfectly massaged by director Scott to carry the show.

THE ANDERSONVILLE TRIAL was produced on videotape under PBS' HOLLYWOOD TELEVISION THEATRE banner. The wonderful supporting cast includes Buddy Ebsen as the Andersonville camp's country doctor, Albert Salmi, John Anderson, Whit Bissell, Martin Sheen, Harry Townes, Lou Frizzell (who acted with Scott in the original Broadway production) and Michael Burns. Many of the actors appear only in wordless cameos, but manage to give the production some extra dramatic weight: Ford Rainey, Kenneth Tobey, Bert Freed, Alan Hale, Ian Wolfe, Woodrow Parfrey, and Dick Miller. Mundell Lowe provides the sparse musical score.


Todd Mason said...

Both versions of HOLLYWOOD TELEVISION THEATER offered a slew of interesting episodes, and I'm always happy to see some trickle out onto home video...since producing station KCET Los Angeles has disaffiliated from the network, they really should be dusting off more of their old properties for home video and syndication, both for the enrichment of the culture and their own coffers.

Yvette said...

I saw this on television years ago. It is a powerful piece of theater, as you say, as relevant today as yesterday.

I wonder why they don't do more theater of this sort on TV these days. I'm thinking of PLAYHOUSE 90 and its ilk. Those were the days.

Garth , formerly of Izar said...

I think it is William Shatner's finest performance.