It Can (and Did) Happen Here

Two-part docudrama traces Ku Klux Klan's rise to influence in America during the '20s. TELEVISION: PREVIEW

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

CROSS OF FIRE NBC, Sunday, 9-11 p.m. Part 2, Monday, 9-11 p.m. Docudrama based on Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan during the 1920s. Stars John Heard and Mel Harris. Screenplay by Robert Crais. Executive producer: Leonard Hill. IF it seems inconceivable that only 60 years ago the Ku Klux Klan had more than six million dues-paying members and broad-based support from Maine to Oregon, then tune in to ``Cross of Fire'' for a compelling drama and a brush-up on history.

This docudrama follows the rise and fall of the Klan's Grand Dragon, D.C. Stephenson, a charismatic leader based in Indianapolis who was responsible for strengthening the Klan's presence in Indiana, then throughout the Midwest.

The history lesson makes clear that this Klan, organized in 1915, was a more far-reaching organization than the first Klan, launched after the Civil War to oppose Reconstruction. The original group donned elaborate disguises and used rituals to terrorize and lynch blacks; the second incarnation embraced not just anti-black but anti-Catholic, anti-Semitic, and anti-immigrant sentiment.

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It thrived on the disillusionment that followed World War I, with battered veterans competing with a flood of immigrants for scarce jobs, bootleggers making millions off Prohibition, and the incredible wealth of industrial barrons like Carnegie, DuPont, and Rockefeller standing in sharp contrast to the lot of average workers. In this climate, the rhetoric of the KKK attracted nearly 10 percent of the voting electorate.

``Now should be a healing time ... when Americans band together to help stop the decline of this great nation,'' Stephenson tells the people gathered at a membership rally in this film. ``But instead we've got Teapot Dome and Al Capone - gangsters, swindlers, robber barons who would steal our rightful inheritance.''

As ``Cross of Fire'' unfolds, we see KKK membership grow fivefold in the early months of Stephenson's ascendancy. But only a year later we watch as Stephenson is arrested and tried for rape and murder in a scandal that shrunk Klan membership to just 300,000 nationwide.

While recruiting members, Stephenson (John Heard) meets Madge Oberholtzer (Mel Harris), a progressive former school teacher struggling to organize a reading program for migrant workers.

SUNDAY night's episode chronicles their developing relationship, despite the concern of Miss Oberholtzer's friend and admirer, attorney Clell Henry (David Morse). Meanwhile, Boyd Gurley (George Dzundza), editor-in-chief of the Indianapolis Star, learns of Stephenson's duplicity and subversion and decides to expose it.

Just as Stephenson assumes the title of Grand Dragon, with the hope of winning national political office just around the corner, Madge confronts him with the facts surrounding a Klan attack on a local family. Wary now, she rejects his continuing advances. Outraged, Stephenson beguiles her with the promise of support for her reading program, but kidnaps and brutally attacks her.

Monday's episode chronicles the aftermath of the attack: Madge's account of it in a bitter trial, and her subsequent death. Naturally the case against Stephenson attracts national attention. Klan leaders withdraw their support, and the organization loses its hold on many of a its members.

The show's executive producer, Leonard Hill, has stated that he hopes the drama will give ``a warning about believing in people who bring simple answers to complex issues.'' Yet with its four-hour time limit, this docudrama has no choice but to offer relatively simple characterizations of complex individuals.

That it does so convincingly reopens arguments about the dangers of fact-based fiction. ``Though some of the characters are composites of actual persons, what they stand for and what they achieved is real,'' says a disclaimer at the beginning of the show. But how does the viewer sort out the composites? What subtleties of the actor's art obscure the truth?

Screenwriter Robert Crais, whose credits include several TV series and mystery novels, maintains the voluminous documentation of the trial by local newspapers (running to nearly 300 pages), plus some 15 books on the subject offer a researcher an abundance of facts to work from. Reached by phone here in Los Angeles, Mr. Crais says the only composite character is a single prosecutor embodying characteristics of five actual prosecutors for simplicity's sake. The only fictionalization, he insists, is the one-way love interest of Clell Henry for Madge.

``Everything in the film you see about D.C. Stephenson, no matter how bizarre or far-reaching in behavior, is documented over and over in research,'' Crais adds.

The acting in ``Cross of Fire'' is first-rate. Mr. Heard portrays both the charismatic and destructive sides of Stephenson's nature with adroit understatement. Ms. Harris brings the proper presence and intelligence to a woman who startled the men of her day by her sheer initiative. Mr. Morse, as a timid prosecuting attorney who finally discovers his confidence, is effective as the nimble underdog. Lloyd Bridges, who plays the attorney defending Stephenson, is far smoother than most of TV's glib, run-of-the-mill villains.

``Cross of Fire'' moves along at a steady pace but does not reveal itself all at once. Not until flashbacks from the final trial sequence does the audience learn about the events surrounding Madge's brutal attack; visual details are kept at a discreet minimum.

``Cross of Fire'' is not only powerful drama, but an informative look at an unfortunate chapter in US history. ``If you examine the ... incident,'' says Crais, ``you will see how close this country could have come to what happened in Germany. The lesson is that [unscrupulous] people can and will manipulate the desires of all of us for their own ends'' if we're not wide awake.

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