It might well have been called "The Good, The Bad, and the Lovely." Instead they called it "North and South" and populated it with an engaging band of nice guys and meanies, beautiful women and witches, packing them all into a 12- hour miniseries set against the gathering storm of Civil War.

When it was over, the series' two best men, James Read, playing a northern ironworks owner, and Patrick Swayze, a southern planter, parted at a railhead, each driven in different directions by the firing on Fort Sumter.

It was not a cliff-hanger ending, the sort that leaves you wondering what happens next. (The North wins.) But it was a melancholy conclusion to a series that introduced some endearing, if not compelling, characters. A number of critics trashed the series, but regular folks loved it. "North and South" was the most heavily watched of last season's miniseries, and it left many viewers ready for more. So here it comes: "North and South, Book II."

"The main character in 'Book II' is the war itself," said Read. "It's about how it effects everyone's individual lives. There are not many Main-Hazard reunions," he said, referring to the saga's two primary families, whose split along North-South lines was often the subject of bittersweet family dinners in "Book I."

But there is more of the George Hazard (Read) and Orry Main (Swayze) friendship, an attachment that gave "Book I" a resonance amid the suds of what is essentially a night-time soap opera.

"If there's been an overriding reaction to the first series it's been that people were touched by the relationship between George and Orry," said Read. "I took a great deal of pride in that. We both saw that friendship as a cornerstone of the story and took time to get to know each other before shooting."

The pair spent get-acquainted time at Swayze's ranch, laying a foundation for portraying a comradeship that Read described as Napoleonic. "It's hard to experience that kind of relationship today," said Read. "It operated under the Napoleonic code . . . built on honor, chivalry, an emotional honesty that today is not in tune with the macho code. It's borne of the battlefield and the military code of behavior that brought them together, closer to each other than they were to their wives."

"Book II" is taken from the John Jakes novel "Love and War," a sequel to his "North and South," the basis for the first miniseries. It was produced by David L. Wolper ("Roots" "Thorn Birds" and opening/closing Olympic ceremonies) and airs at 9 each night, tonight through Thursday and again next Sunday.

It opens with the Civil War under way and, in addition to the continued tensions -- social, sexual and political -- among the collection of characters, it promises some large-scale battle scenes.

To help stage them, the call went out to groups around the country who maintain the memories and accoutrements of Civil War-era military units and who periodically reenact key battles. About 1,500 answered the call.

"They came fully dressed, with their own horses, cannon and tents," said Read. They also brought with them, in dress and practiced manner, a living idea of what it was like to be a soldier in the Civil War. "They intensified my interest and desire to tell a good story," said Read.

Read's Hazard character, disenchanted with his experience in the Mexican War, begins "Book II" as something of a pacifist. When the Civil War breaks out he joins Abraham Lincoln's staff. Soon he finds himself feeling that a soldier's place is on the front line. Read said "Book II" has five battle scenes, some using all 1,500 of the play-soldiers. He's in three of them.

"Leading the Civil War reenactors across a battle field was a thrill," said Read. "It couldn't have been much different than it was during the war."

Amid wartime there is less of Orry and George together on screen than there was the first time out, Read said, but the theme of friendship nevertheless plays through "Book II." "Many who read the books said they found our work remained faithful to the strength of the friendship," said Read.

Bringing the alternate warmth and tension of that friendship to the screen generated similar feelings in the players, said Read. "Like the characters, we experienced moments of real camaraderie and times of impatience with each other," said Read. "We were on location four months . . .We ran the gamut, as might be expected when you're dealing with people honestly . . . If you know you've got a scene coming up where you see black and he sees white, it's hard to prepare for that sitting in your chairs talking about the NBA playoffs."

By the end of the two series' 24 hours, the friendship with all its trials is left intact. "The emotional note is strong once again at the end," said Read. "One is left with the feeling that the bond is even stronger at the end than it was at the beginning."

And what of Read and Swayze themselves? "It's much more difficult to maintain that intensity (of friendship) when you live across town from each other rather than across the hall" during production, said Read. "It's not the same intensity. I expect we'll stay in touch."