Historical dramas shed light on our times

Television trades mostly in contemporary stories, but it likes its grandiose costume dramas, too. Three new TV movies delve into important historical periods to shed light on former times while reflecting on our own.

"The Virginian" (TNT, Sunday, Jan. 9, 8-10 p.m., repeats throughout the month), based on the novel by Owen Wister, takes a fresh if traditional glance at the Old West and the knightly cowboy. "The Crossing" (A&E, Monday, Jan. 10, 8-10 p.m., repeats in January) focuses on George Washington crossing the Delaware and the Battle of Trenton. And "The Britannic" (Fox Family, Sunday, Jan. 9, 8-10 p.m., repeats at 10 p.m.) visits the Titanic's sister ship, which was sunk during World War II by a German saboteur.

Actor Bill Pullman stars in and makes his directorial debut with The Virginian. In this film, a western hero must adapt to the new era of law and order after living in the rough justice of the frontier.

The foreman of a large ranch, he falls for the new schoolmarm. But there's no aw-shucks-ma'am about this cowboy; he tells her straight out, "You're gonna love me." He knows what he wants, and he knows how to win the lady.

Their course to true love is bumpy, even so. Like most western heroines, Miss Molly (Diane Lane) is a force for civilization (see the heroines in "High Noon" or "Shane," for two famous examples in westerns): She can't abide the customs of the country - like hanging cattle rustlers without trial and shootouts at the local saloon. And she's just not understanding when it comes to her beloved's gunplay.

Like many another western hero, the Virginian believes that a "man's gotta do what a man's gotta do" - at least until the frontier is civilized by the law. Until that day arrives, he goes after the bad guys, against Molly's wishes, and fights the inevitable duel.

Pullman chooses a more meditative pace than either the Gary Cooper (1929) or Joel McCrea (1946) versions of Wister's book (both called "The Virginian" as well). He uses, instead, language that's in keeping with the novel, published in 1902, and a restrained style that emphasizes subtext over plot.

This approach doesn't always work - the camera lingering on a character's steady gaze can seem overburdened, and sometimes the pace is ponderous. And there are leaps in action that are not always easily bridged - we sometimes need more narrative explication.

But the pace of this film, its dark tone, and particularly its quiet intensity make it a western for our time. Without sacrificing the mythos of the Western hero (the Virginian is, above all, a man of integrity), it explains the economic impulses that would result in a man being hanged for stealing a calf.

In a recent telephone interview, actor-director Pullman says, "I felt that the language [of the book] is very revealing of the psychology of the period in a way a lot of westerns [fail to] capture today. Owen Wister was there. He took good notes and recounted a lot of tales verbatim.

"The novel is more philosophical: What are the consequences of duty and responsibility? What does it mean to be part of a community, to betray a friend in favor of a [principle]? There's a lot of ambiguity about motives in the book. And there is a great sense of loss."

That's because in 1885, when the story takes place, cowboy culture was soon to decline. "The old ways were on their way out, and the new ways were going to be more complicated," Pullman says. "We're on the brink of a new millennium, and things are not going to get simpler."

When Washington crossed the Delaware River on Christmas night in 1776, his world was complicated, too.

Washington had lost every battle in the six months since the Colonies had declared independence. Most of his army had been lost as well. Hessian soldiers, hired by the British, were encamped across the river, just waiting for it to freeze over so they could cross and slaughter the rest of his troops. Washington's brilliant surprise attack cost him not one man, and turned the tide of the American Revolution.

Jeff Daniels stars (somewhat stiffly) in The Crossing, a flawed-but-fascinating account of this battle, one of the most influential moments in United States history.

True to contemporary sensibilities, "The Crossing" also reminds us of the economic motives behind warfare. These same motives surface again in The Britannic - a strange, but involving, mix of romance, antiwar sentiment, and political conspiracy.

A female British agent and a German spy fall in love aboard the ship before either discovers the other's identity. The special effects are a tad cheesy and the fictionalized plot is convoluted, but the dialogue is lively, and the acting by a fine, mostly British, cast is always intriguing.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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