Friday, September 30, 2011

Movie Review: Beyond the Prairie: The True Story of Laura Ingalls (1999)

Beyond the Prairie: The True Story of Laura Ingalls Wilder and Beyond the Prairie, Part II were released as TV movies in 1999 and 2002, respectively. These movies have been packaged together and released by Paramount on one DVD (2010) for Laura fans. I will be reviewing each movie separately, as they both cover several years.

Before I go any further, let me state I have one pet peeve about both movies: the title. If you are going to put the word "true" in your title, then you should follow real life events and not exercise creative license all over the place. Now, I have clients who write fictional autobiographies of historical figures, but they clearly place, "A Novel," on the cover, so we all know the book is a healthy blend of fact and fiction. I don't even mind that the writers and producers of Beyond the Prairie opted to exercise creative license. Just don't put that four-letter word in the title, and all is good.

In this first movie, the viewer is introduced to a teenage Laura, living on the Dakota prairie with her family: Ma, Pa, Mary, Carrie, and Grace. A prairie fire threatens their home, and they work together to save it. Laura and Pa saddle up to go help others who might have been threatened by the fire. On the way back, they stumble upon a claim with a house frame on it. A man's jacket is hanging over one of the beams, and a curious Laura lifts an envelope out of the pocket to discover an odd name, "Almanzo." Pa scolds her, but Laura can't get that name out of her mind. She even talks to Mary about it one evening as she is describing the setting sun to her blind sister.

We move swiftly along to where Laura leaves home for the first time for her first teaching job. Then the town of De Smet is cut off  from the rest of civilization by the Hard Winter, and Almanzo and Cap Garland travel many miles to find seed wheat to save the town from starvation.

Laura and Almanzo marry and have a daughter. Things won't be happy for long, though. Almanzo and Laura lose their first crop to a hail storm. They have no way to pay their debts. They battle diphtheria. Laura gives birth to a second child, but he soon dies. Then a fire destroys their home.

Now living with the Ingalls family, Laura and Almanzo decide to move to Mansfield, Missouri. The movie ends with a tearful goodbye.

When I first watched this movie on CBS, I truly enjoyed it. Granted, it didn't capture me the way Little House on the Prairie did in the 70's and 80's, but I'm older, and probably a lot pickier since I've learned more about Laura and Almanzo's real life. I have to admit, however, it was challenging to see new actors in roles that had been portrayed on television for so long by others.

This Ingalls family and the townsfolk of De Smet were more serious, sometimes sullen. Charles and Caroline actually have a fight in front of the children about his desire to move farther west. That said, I feel this was probably much more realistic than the romanticized version of events that we got from the classic books or the television show.

I've loved Richard Thomas in everything else I've ever seen him in, but he didn't quite make it as Charles Ingalls. Some of the lines he delivered were totally flat. I also didn't care for how certain aspects of his character were portrayed. When Laura is asked to teach school by Mr. Bouchie, she tells Pa that she won't do it. Charles pushes/guilts her into it by saying the family needs the money, especially with Mary in college. In an early scene from the movie, the devout, religious Charles said the word "damned." Granted, faith did not play a role in this movie at all--something else I have a problem with considering the time period and the people--but anyone who has studied the Ingalls family knows their faith was a big part of who they were.

Meredith Monroe, who I loved as Andy on Dawson's Creek, delivers a good performance here as Laura. I don't care for the fact that we have a blonde Laura, considering how in the books Laura was jealous of Mary's golden hair. In this movie, Mary is a red-head. It's odd. This Laura does not seem as feisty as one would expect, but she's older and that feistiness has turned into a desire to live her life as she pleases.

Laura's love of freedom is a bit warped in Beyond the Prairie. After accepting the teaching position from Mr. Bouchie, Laura tells Almanzo she feels she's been, "sold into slavery." If we consider that this takes place less than twenty years after the end of the Civil War, it's not an appropriate statement. It seems modern-day thinking has wormed it's way onto the De Smet prairie. Though in real life Wilder later admitted she didn't enjoy teaching, she felt a responsibility to her family and paying jobs for women were few. After her teaching time is over, she tells Almanzo her life is going to be her own and no one is ever going to tell her what to do. I feel the not wanting to say "obey" in her wedding vows is a bit embellished here.

Walt Goggins captures the shy, quiet Almanzo Wilder well. At moments he's a bit awkward, but out of all the main characters, I felt his was the most realistic portrayal. I also appreciate that Beyond the Prairie showed how Almanzo's illness permanently impacted his health, which is part of why they decided to leave De Smet.

Having watched Beyond the Prairie: The True Story of Laura Ingalls Wilder for the first time since it  originally aired on television, I'm not as enamored with it as I was then. Part of that is because Little House on the Prairie is now available on DVD and I can watch my beloved show whenever I wish, instead of needing a TV movie to give me my Laura fix. I do, however, believe it has its place in Laura fandom, because it portrays a more realistic view of what the pioneers endured. The historically accurate fashion is a bonus, and filming in Utah and Texas made it look more like a prairie than California, where Little House on the Prairie was shot.

In the end, you're either going to like this movie--which I do--or be bothered by the creative license that was taken with Laura's life.

Actors: Terra Allen, Alandra Bingham, J. Scott Bronson, Courtnie Bull, Lindsay Crouse
Directors: Marcus Cole
Writers: Stephen Harrigan
Producers: Dori Weiss, Robert M. Rolsky, Stephen Harrigan
Format: Color, DVD, Full Screen, Subtitled, NTSC
Language: English
Subtitles: English
Region: Region 1 (U.S. and Canada only. Read more about DVD formats.)
Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1
Number of discs: 1
Rated: NR (Not Rated)
Studio: Paramount
DVD Release Date: November 23, 2010
Run Time: 96 minutes

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