IN "The Thorn Birds," the glisteningly attractive, thematically redundant ABC mini-series sat in Australia's '20s and '30s, the air is thick with woe and the sky sags under the burden of the Author's Message. Woe is eveybody in this sumptous but excessively somber adapatation of the best-selling book by Colleen McCullough. The 10-hour serial airs in four installments through Wednesday, starting tonight at 8 on Channel 7.
No one will mistake it for "Rebecca of Sunnybrook Sheep Station."
The film covers 42 years, from 1920 on, in the largely miserable lives of its principal characters, all of them wrestling with God and fate and passion and declaring their philosophical credos every waking minute of their lives. And while the first five hours and 13 years of this carrying on are fairly engrossing, beautifully photographed and well acted, the production begins to seem awfully static after that. Enduring its parade of catastrophes--heartbreak, death, guilt, sin, suffering, more sinning, yearning and burning--gets to be a little like having a huge, weepy old Irish auntie sitting in your lap and refusing to budge until you've heard all. To judge from the film adaptation written by Carmen Culver and directed by Daryl Duke, "Thorn Birds" was the kind of book they don't write anymore. And shouldn't. It comes across as a Harlequin Romance dashed off by D.H. Lawrence and then run through Thomas Hardy's typewriter, and it also brings to mind a lyric of Ira Gershwin's: "With love to lead the way, I've found more clouds of gray than any Russian play could guarantee."
To further complicate the story's derivativeness, tonight's three-hour first chapter ends with the heroine standing in front of the big old house at Drogheda--the sprawling ranch where much of the drama unfolds--proclaiming that the priest she loves and wants to defrock and deflower will come back to her someday, and it's hard not to be reminded of Scarlett O'Hara vowing never to be hungry again as she stood before Tara.
If only there were a David O. Selznick behind "Thorn Birds" to whip the actors and directors along as rapidly and forcefully as were those involved in "Gone With the Wind." But television adaptations must be prolonged in the interest of commerce, not condensed in the interest of dramatic impact.
The story begins and continues for several hours on the huge sheep ranch ruled by the iron matriarch Mary Carson, played with power and ferocity in her brawny old "Big Valley" style by the great Barbara Stanwyck. Mary Carson transplants her brother Paddy Cleary (Richard Kiley) and his family from New Zealand to run the place and, presumably, inherit it, but then she becomes obsessed with the local parish priest, Father Ralph, played by Richard Chamberlain, a pillar of virtue she wants to topple. Together they have rowdy theological wrestling matches. He says, "Sometimes, Mary, I think you're after my very soul," and she says, "I am--unless it's already been taken."
The credibility of the film depends on our accepting the idea that all feminine creatures in the world go crazy with desire for Father Ralph once they get a look at him. Even the archbishop's cat can't wait to curl up in his lap. Chamberlain certainly seems solid and thoughtful in the role, but the reactions he inspires look wackily out of proportion. When he stands naked (in profile) before Mary Carson, she rhapsodizes, "You're the most beautiful man I have ever seen," and just before retiring on the night of her death, she begs him, "Kiss me on the mouth, as if we were lovers!"
When Stanwyck disappears (though her credit remains, night after night, and the fervor in her poignant desperation lingers, too), much of the film's momentum dissipates, but the producers--Stan Margulies and David L. Wolper, who gave the world "Roots" -- have assembled an absolutely elegant cast to coax one's attention, including Jean Simmons as Fiona, Paddy Cleary's guilt-ridden wife ("To me, she's beautiful still," Kiley says of her at one point, and indeed she is, perhaps more so than ever); Christopher Plummer as the archbishop, another character fascinated to the max by Father Ralph; Mare Winningham as the saucy daughter born in a later chapter to Meggie; John Friedrich, who cuts a powerful figure as Frank Cleary, an ill-fated son (in some of his scenes, wearing a beat-up hat, he's a dead ringer for Harrison Ford in "Raiders of the Lost Ark"); Piper Laurie, still ageless, in the small role of Anne Mueller; and Bryan Brown as Luke O'Neill, the seemingly virile drifter whom Meggie reluctantly marries.
There were also unfortunate or even ruinous casting choices, including Ken Howard, in the later chapters, tottering around foolishly with a remotely German accent and playing a character who has no clear function in the scenario; and, more pivotally, Rachel Ward as the supposedly fiery and obsessed Meggie Cleary, Father Ralph's undoing. Ward impressed moviegoers in "Sharkey's Machine" with Burt Reynolds and "Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid" with Steve Martin, but she seems totally out of place in the period settings here, she has a blankly vapid British-accented delivery like Jacqueline Bisset's, and when called upon to render histrionics (to the priest: "Why must the church have all of you, even that part of you she has no use for--your manhood?") she brings to mind, embarrassingly enough, poor Susan Alexander, the world's worst soprano, laboring through "Salammbo " in Orson Welles' "Citizen Kane."
Ward's inadequacy is particularly painful because Meggie as a little girl is played by a captivating child actress, Sydney Penny. You hate to see her grow up into this fashion model thing. In a scene that sounds like it wouldn't work but does, Father Ralph takes it upon himself to explain menstruation to the young girl, then suffering the first shocks of womanhood. Earlier, he dutifully explains the movie's title, its "Raintree County": a legend about a bird that impales itself upon warbling an exalted few toots. "The thorn bird pays its life for just one song, but the whole world stills to listen and God in His heaven smiles," he tells her. Does it take much experience at reading or movie watching to predict the legend will be recalled again in the film's long-delayed closing frames? No, it does not.
It is refreshing to come across a TV movie that does indeed kick around a few ideas and themes and isn't just a marathon of protracted exposition. As filmmaking, as craftsmanship, "Thorn Birds" stands miles taller than that plodding pageant of the ages, "The Winds of War." The trouble with "Thorn Birds" is that a viewer risks being themed to bits after five or six hours of its tribulations over God and fate and destiny.
Misery lurks around every corner. It isn't enough that in Part 2, much of Drogheda burns to the ground and poor old Paddy is clobbered and killed by a falling blazing tree. In the severity of McCullough's world, that does not suffice. And so, in addition, one of the Cleary's young sons is gored and killed by a deranged wild boar just as he discovers his father's barbecued remains. And there's tons o' sufferin' still to come. At the very moment Meggie's daughter is losing her virginity in a house by the sea, her saintly brother (Philip Anglim) is mere yards away drowning in the undertow as he tries to save two endangered bathing beauties.
The film's dark themes about the conflicts between our spiritual and earthly natures are restated and restated; it's the earthly, and earthy, side that may keep people watching. There is substantial tension surrounding the pivotal element of Father Ralph's battle, eventually unsuccessful, to maintain his vow of celibacy. He is smitten at first sight with Meggie, a mere child when the two of them meet, a grown woman after about two hours of Part 1.
Finally, in the final hour of Part 3, after what seem like dozens of near-misses, the consummation of the romance between Father Ralph and Meggie occurs in grand profane-romantic fashion, on a tropical isle, and with Henry Mancini's melodious background score crudely interrupted for a clunky ballad, "Anywhere the Heart Goes." Not only has the priest violated his vows, but he is also committing adultery, since Meggie has already married Luke, the sweaty workhorse who, it develops, prefers wrestling with fellow barechested sugar cane croppers to wrestling with the wife.
Unquestionably, the film has a magnificent physical texture, rare in TV movies. Bill Butler's cinematography gives it the rosy-gold look of old photographs brought back to life, although in some interior scenes, the haze is poured on so thick that it looks as if Drogheda is burning even before the fire arrives. These are surface pleasures, however, and they lose their charm after a while, as does the impact of the calamities that befall the Cleary family. One expects the locusts from "The Good Earth" to show up at any moment and pick off the remains.
There are powerful scenes, striking shots, forceful performances particularly in the midrange roles, and a brooding sensuality that really is--for a change, on television, anyway--broodingly sensual. But the author keeps her characters in the Cuisinart until they are practically spun senseless, and the high-blown talk about why we're here, and what we have a right to expect, and what it all means, turns into the dramatic equivalent of "Row, Row, Row Your Boat." Apparently McCullough feels that God has a plan for each of us, and while He gives us free will, it's only for the purpose of figuring that plan out. And if we don't figure it out, well then, POW!, right in the kisser. An intriguing interpretation of Catholicism, perhaps--but rather slim reward for sitting out 10 hours of tempest, even if they do occur in a gorgeously bejeweled teapot.