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The Awakening Land
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Unschooled homesteader Sayward Luckett couldn't read her name if you showed it to her, yet she fell in love with and married agnostic, book-learned frontier lawyer Portius Wheeler. Now it's time to make a life with him in wild, wooded 1790s Ohio Territory.
There will be children, seven in all; joy and hardships aplenty; inconstancies of heart; and the enduring legacy of settling a new land. Based on Conrad Richter's trilogy of novels (he received a Pulitzer Prize for the third), this miniseries nominated for 6 Emmy Awards(r) celebrates the pioneering spirit as it chronicles Sayward's heroic, unadorned life. Elizabeth Montgomery and Hal Holbrook (earning two of those six Emmy nominations) lead a strong cast that includes Jane Seymour and W.H. Macy (his first screen credit).
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1. Sayward Luckett, the main female protagonist in the series, is ALWAYS portrayed by Montgomery with dignity and honor, in a time where real-
life colonial women were often treated as little better than chattel property. The costumes and sets are elaborate and authentic. Montgomery
was in her 40's when she took this role, and she plays a gradually aging Sayward to perfection.
2. The supporting cast, led by Jane Seymour, Hall Holbrook, and Tony Mockus, is equal to their task, and the chemistry between them and
Montgomery is evident throughout the film.
3. The DVD transfer of the miniseries is clear, sharp, and eminently watchable. While some individuals may not like the fact that each successive
episode does a short "recap" of the previous ones, this was commonplace in 1978 and is still rather effective today.
4. The whole family can watch this miniseries. Although the subject of conjugal relations is dealt with frankly, there is no obvious nudity, offensive
language, or openly explicit sexual situations throughout the entire mini-series.
Buy the mini-series and enjoy it. The price is right and the quality is there. Even if you're not a history buff, you'll be captivated by the honesty of Elizabeth Montgomery's portrayal of Sayward Luckett and perhaps even sympathize with the controversial character of scholarly Portius Wheeler (The Solitary, as played by Hal Holbrook, who becomes Sayward's husband.)
The story is an amazing recount of how life WAS as we moved west. Conrad Richter (original author) was a naturalist, worried about the sanctity of the land. It comes through wonderfully, not preachy until the end but it is so appropriate you only feel in agreement.
Today we hear the words "pioneering woman" and we tend to think of "off-grid" living. But the journey this brave, fairly smart but "un-educated" woman takes is PURE. It may surprise you to see how scarce and unpolished people were; how somethings were greatly different but human interaction so much the same. The splendor and brutality of Nature revealed: un-developed and just life in general, played out in a time long ago and not often revealed to our "modern minds".
When it did become available -- through the Warner Brothers site and vendors here -- I jumped at the chance to purchase it and did a little happy dance. I told my husband about it, and cautioned him that it might be slightly cheesy. I said this because that happens sometimes with older shows -- you remember them one way and then cringe when you see them now. I really didn't want to be embarrassed and so I gave a preemptive, "I could be imagining how good it was, but it's really special to me and so humor me. 'K? Thanks."
The story follows Sayward Luckett for several decades, beginning in the late 1700s as her family comes to and settles land in the Ohio Valley. We see her fight to keep her family together and we see her marry a man because she's attracted to him, but also because he can provide an education for her future children. We see her go from a poor woman with little influence to the accidental founder of a town.
Here's the thing: there ARE cheesy moments. The third part is noticeably weaker than the two proceeding parts too, but I'd still very much recommend this. This is worth a willing suspension of disbelief in pretending the very much middle-aged Elizabeth Montgomery is a young girl at the beginning. She does a terrific job playing Sayward, a very admirable and strong character, and I can't imagine a more age-appropriate actress doing better. You care about this woman and you ache for her when tragedy strikes.
Hal Holbrook also does a terrific job at the educated Portius Wheeler. Of course, the actor has made a career out of playing smart people, but this role allows him to also play a man who does some unlikable things, but remains likable. He has terrific chemistry with Elizabeth Montgomery.
Also, look for a young and gorgeous Jane Seymour. The accent is a little iffy though. :) Oh, and a baby-faced William H. Macy.
While all three parts are worth watching, much of the third episode is vaguely like the TV series of Little House on The Prairie (as opposed to the Little House books.) Hey, I love LHOTP as much as the next person, more, but in this case it didn't meet the quality of the previous parts or focus on the characters we'd invested in; instead, much of the time over to the young son of Sayward and Portius. When I was a kid, I actually loved this part. Still, the ending brings it back to the solid writing and acting of the first two parts.
I'm very glad I got the opportunity to see this once again and I hope that -- now that it's available on DVD -- it will find a new, appreciative audience. Even with somewhat dated production values, this makes me long for the days of the miniseries and having several hours to follow a really good story. (Don't forget that the books are terrific, too!)
This is 5 stars from me, because it was powerful enough to stay with me for decades, because it showcases the talents of Elizabeth Montgomery -- who left us too soon -- and because it tells a terrific story, and because they really don't make 'em like that anymore.