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STUDIO: Koch Vision
RUNNING TIME: 494 minutes
• Interviews w/ Blair Brown
“What if Charles Foster Kane… had children?”
Richard Jordan, Perry King, Patty Duke, Blair Brown, Henry Fonda, Charles Durning, Jane Seymore.
In 1857, young Joseph Armagh arrives in America newly orphaned along with his brother and sister. Fearing for their safety, Armagh cloisters his siblings in an orphanage while he goes out into America to make his fortune, so that he can provide his family somewhere to live and thrive.
Eventually, he does make his fortune and begins to erect a dynasty. Then America, symbolized by his son, kicks him in the junk.
Flat-bottomed and full of seamen?
America: The Bootstrap Land! Only here, in the country of the interest-free mortgage, could a young lad, of means so few they might as well be negative, claw his way to the top of the heap by sheer determined effort. We love our rags-to-riches stories around these parts. We didn’t invent them, by any means, but we sure do like to base our opinions on tax policy on the assumption that our own rags might someday become riches. Hell, the American Dream is a synonym for the imagined rewards of free market entrepreneurship. We’re dreamers, not realists.
Unfortunately, this makes American fiction — by which I mean fiction hopelessly devoted to capturing a vision of America — necessarily depressing. Either that, or it has to overflow with the false sweetness of realized dreams. When dreams come true, conflict keels over. If you want compelling fiction, the dreams need to fall apart. It’s not something I could write a thesis on, but I’m comfortable saying that my favorite American fiction depends in some way upon the failure of the American Dream.
“I now call this meeting of the *hic* Temperance League to order.”
The pursuit of such a dream occupies the center of Captains and the Kings. The title evokes a majestic, royal texture, but it’s intentionally misleading. This is a series concerned with captains of industry, kings of finance, and the paupers they used to be. Armagh, the Pip of this epic, happens upon wish fulfillment seemingly by pure dint of circumstance. He’s almost unbearably lucky, a man tossed about by fate, but always ending up higher than he started. Such success without conflict makes for poor drama, so eventually the happy accidents stop. He reaches his pinnacle, but finds that there are still more dreams he would like to see fulfilled. These ones, however, never become realized.
I don’t know about you, but I always get the feeling that characters such as Armagh exist not for the audience’s sympathy, but as a charismatic anchor for their ire. When someone succeeds despite all odds and without effort, it makes me feel uncharitable. I want to see the guy get his comeuppance. Not as strongly as if the character made his dreams come through by way of evil, inhuman machinations, but the feeling is definitely there.
Sorry for the motion blur. Education montage, y’know.
I thought about comparing Armagh to Daniel Plainview from There Will Be Blood, but I don’t think there are enough parallels there to draw. The more I consider the arc of Armagh’s life, the more he reminds me of the Biblical King David. I wanted to see him get his, too. I mean, look at the guy: anointed by God, handed a military victory before his first growth spurt, delivered to kinghood, and then… Then with all accomplished, he found more he wanted. Bathsheba isn’t even the half of it.
Captains and the Kings doesn’t contain analogs for all of the events or characters of King David’s life, but there is a key similarity between the twilight years of their lives: their sons wreck shit up pretty good. The primary disconnect between fathers and sons — as portrayed in Captains, the Bible, or many a Southern Gothic drama — is that dreams are not hereditary. It’s good, if uninspiring, drama watching a man build a foundation for the future on the back of a child who has no intention of staying put.
“And you get the, uh, ‘guest house.'”
Armagh’s son isn’t sketched with rebellion alone, though; his motivations follow a selfish line, sometimes needlessly and sometimes necessarily. The excrciating pace at which the relationship between father and son develops — added to the already extreme length building up Armagh to his position as a captain of industry — does little to distinguish this schism story from others. Even with the son character built up as more than a lifeless foil, the pace at which the drama crystllizes is agonizingly slow. The well-executed conflict that drives the second half drags.
Such is the risk when adapting a novel into a mini-series. It can be avoided, though, and for Captains and the Kings I would have suggested trimming the details of Armagh’s rise to prestige. For a good chunk of the first half, it feels as though the audience is being asked to spend time with Armagh just so that he will become familiar. Further, it seems the producers were gambling on that familiarity to allow a greater resonance with the conclusion of the man’s life.
Only now considering the tremendous effect of his mutton chops.
I’ve often enjoyed stories that allow characters to live and breathe, but it doesn’t work when the arc and destination of the plot are more important, in the long run, than the nature of the character. Armagh is too much of a cipher to allow the audience to occupy his interior, and, as I mentioned, his nature doesn’t allow for much sympathy, either. Armagh, and his compatriots in the story, gather experiences, memories, and emotional occurrences a-plenty; instead of making them seem human, they feel like automata, soulless.
Despite a failure to connect on the personal level, this is one of those epics you might go ahead and call “personal.” Its breadth of time is expansive; its breadth of POVs, not so much. With a tight focus on Armagh, expanding ever so slightly to accomodate his retinue, Captains and the Kings offers little in the way of variety to spice up its familiar story. By choosing to follow a Dickensian portrait of a life, the producers broadcast mixed signals to the audience: Is this a Great American Story? If so, where is America the character? the tapestry and texture of the country? Otherwise, is this a personal epic? If so, where are the characters with depth?
“How smooth am I?”
“Very smooth, sir.”
“How goddamn smooth am I?”
“Sir. Very smooth.”
As a result of these confusions, Captains and the Kings winds up feeling far more dated than its thirty-odd years, like a relic of an era of entertainment gone by. Its arc of plot is charted deliberately; its destination is satisfying, and grand in a tragic sense. But the particulars of the story are derivative. You have seen or read this before, and it was better then.
Very slim pickings in the way of bonuses, here. All you get are a series of interviews with Blair Brown, covering the production, the history, and the source material. Interesting as a historical curiosity, but it fails to add much in the way of context or interest to the series.