Reviewer: Charity Bishop
Often older productions suffer from stagey acting and limited backdrops. Much to my surprise, this miniseries (the second ever produced by NBC) is quite a remarkable accomplishment.
Life is hard for Irish immigrants, and none more so than for young Joseph Armagh. Left an orphan and to care for his two younger siblings after his mother dies just within sight of New York's shoreline, Joseph places his brother and sister in the care of a local nun and promises to return for them when he is financially able. Ruthless in his ambition and determined to make a fortune, Joseph takes a job making Sunday wagon runs for a local businessman. Years later, as an adult (Richard Jordan) he is a valued employee with even greater ambitions. Having befriended the wife of an aspiring politician and taught himself to read and write, Joseph is offended when an offer is made by them both to adopt the children. He refuses, but inspired by the man's wealth, travels to the oil fields in the hope of making money much more quickly.
He is met and befriended along the way by Harry Zieff (Harvey Jason), an Albanian who latches onto him because he knows Joseph is strong and believes they can make it together. But a tragic accident on the railway lands them in the home of Ed Healy (Charles Durning). A man accustomed to "owning" things (including local law enforcement and various women), Ed is fascinated with Joseph and wants to bring him into the business. Resentful of anyone who tries to help or take advantage of him, Joseph turns him down and instead takes a job transporting explosives. It is extremely dangerous but financially productive and together with Harry, he begins to buy up the oil property no one wants -- because it's too deep to tap into it. It's only a matter of time until they figure out a way, he theorizes... and he proves to be right. But his determination to succeed lead him into questionable business ventures that ultimately threaten his relationship with the women in his life -- Martinique (Barbara Perkins), Bernadette (Patty Duke), and Elizabeth (Blair Brown).
Two things can be said about this miniseries: it's immoral... and it's good from a writing, acting, and presentation point of view. You can tell it is based on a book because it is so well thought out and plotted, the characters all being memorable. A wonderful cast (that later includes newcomer Jane Seymour) bring them to life with passion, mystery, even a touch of the sinister. The series takes a semi-unlikable main character and makes the audience fond of him while at the same time feeling shocked at his lack of scruples. His determination is to make money whatever the cost and he really doesn't care who may die because of it. The cast includes a number of well-known television, movie, and stage actors and Patty Duke won an Emmy for her stirring depiction of his long-suffering wife. But in spite of that, the miniseries is not perfect. The constant reminders of the month and year that flashes across the screen instead of proper time transitions is annoying. We don't get to spend enough time with the women and as such, don't really know any of them.
Because of when this was made, the content is not as graphic as it would be now, but they could also get away with an awful lot. The camera is fond of lingering on the curvaceous backs of beautiful women, sometimes with a little peek at the side (they take it as far as they can without showing too much); this happens a half dozen times. Joseph has an affair with Martinique, then later falls in love with Elizabeth, but marries Bernadette -- and continues to keep Elizabeth as his mistress. Ed Healy keeps a pretty little blonde whore in his house, who forms an attachment to Harry. He is awkward and shy around her, but it does imply they sleep together, with disastrous consequences (a man is killed in the resulting scuffle). There is some heavy breathing heard as the camera pans through a private compartment on a train, and conversation revolves around a girl "seducing" an older man. Some innuendo and blatant conversation transpire (such as a man telling a woman to remove all her clothes). Much of the plot revolves around an illegitimate child, extramarital affairs, and the scandal that transpires when a young couple in love finds out they are related by blood -- much closer than they thought. (Fortunately, it has never progressed beyond kissing.) Joseph's son continues on the tradition of adultery -- after his first marriage is annulled (which is not what he or the bride wanted), he continues to sleep with his first wife when he runs into her years later. Violence includes some brutal fist fights and a man being shot and killed; there is a scattering of mild language and abuses of deity.
I was a little disappointed that this miniseries took such care to reveal the immorality of its main characters but then failed to really establish the moral of the story at the ending -- it does hint that all his choices and quest for riches have brought Joseph only unhappiness, and it also touches on the fact that we should treasure the people we love, but it was such a mess of ruined lives and unfortunate choices that I did not love it. In purely cinematic terms, it is not a bad way to spend a weekend but it's not a miniseries I will probably watch more than once or twice. I will also say that it is at times a not-so-subtle take off on the Kennedy family.