Movie Review: The Thorn Birds (1983)

1980s series works via great performances _ 8/10

The Thorn BirdsRalph de Bricassart: [telling the legend of the thorn bird to Meggie] There’s a story… a legend, about a bird that sings just once in its life. From the moment it leaves its nest, it searches for a thorn tree… and never rests until it’s found one. And then it sings… more sweetly than any other creature on the face of the earth. And singing, it impales itself on the longest, sharpest thorn. But, as it dies, it rises above its own agony, to outsing the lark and the nightingale. The thorn bird pays its life for just one song, but the whole world stills to listen, and God in his heaven smiles.
Young Meggie Cleary: What does it mean, Father?
Ralph de Bricassart: That the best… is bought only at the cost of great pain.

Directed by Daryl Duke
Book by Colleen McCullough
Screenplay Lee Stanley

Richard Chamberlain … Ralph de Bricassart
Rachel Ward … Meggie Cleary
Christopher Plummer … AB Contini-Verchese
Stephanie Faracy … Judy
Barry Corbin … Pete
John de Lancie … Alastair MacQueen
Barbara Stanwyck … Mary Carson
Jean Simmons … Fiona ‘Fee’ Cleary
Bryan Brown … Luke O’Neill
Brett Cullen … Bob Cleary
Bill Morey … Angus MacQueen
Holly Palance … Miss Carmichael
Richard Kiley … Paddy Cleary
Piper Laurie … Anne Mueller
Earl Holliman … Luddie Mueller
Mare Winningham… Justine O’Neill

The above legend provides an excellent condensation of the theme of The Thorn Birds: a love affair for the ages. I recall watching The Thorn Birds in real time, on the telly, and being captivated by Rachel Ward, naturally, who plays the adult Meggie. No need for a spoiler alert here as I convey what everyone knows: Father Ralph de Bricassart (Richard Chamberlain) falls in lifelong love (and vice versa) with Meggie, the granddaughter of a vast-ranch owner in Australia—Mary Carson (Barbara Stanwyck). The timeframe for the story is roughly 1920-1960.

According to one summary I read, The Thorn Birds is the second most-watched miniseries in history after Roots. I can believe it. Because the romance is classic, a lifelong conflict between the spirit and the flesh, with Father Ralph occupying about every other frame agonizing “whether to serve God or take the love of a woman.” And I must say on the God side the filmmakers do a decent job of presenting all the accouterments of the Roman Catholic hierarchy… with Archbishop Contini-Verchese (Christopher Plummer) performing the majority of work in trying to humanize that arcane, bizarre world.

On the love side Chamberlain and Ward do a decent job keeping the ball in play, and the writing is okay. But I must say when a male actor is gay—per Wikipedia, “Chamberlain was outed by the French women’s magazine Nous Deux in December 1989 but it was not until 2003, at the age of 69, that he came out in his autobiography, Shattered Loveit’s almost impossible to convey the necessary passion for a role like that across from Meggie. That’s my humble opinion, anyway. On Rachel Ward’s side, the acting gets better and better; until some ending work with Mare Winningham as Meggie’s daughter, Justine, puts Rachel in good company.

Plummer is terrific as the archbishop. But, as far as I’m concerned, Barbara Stanwyck’s performance makes the miniseries: she’s irresistible to watch as the domineering woman who wants back all those passions of her own youth, but must watch their fulfillment fade as she ages. Clearly she’s in love and lust with Father Ralph, too, who is shown with this buff Adonis body in one scene that drives her crazy. The emotional and intellectual conflict between Mary Carson and Ralph de Bricassart also comes through, and some of Carson’s later passages ring the rafters of acting heaven. [Stanwyck won an Emmy.]

An in-the-ballpark second to Barbara Stanwyck’s performance are those of Richard Kiley and Jean Simmons. Kiley and Simmons play Paddy and Mary Cleary, who are Mary Carson’s blue collar brother and aristocratically born daughter-in-law. The Clearys have four sons and Meggie, who is probably 20 years younger than the oldest boy; they come to Drogheda early in the story at the behest of Ms. Carson. The background and experiences of the Cleary family deliver enough drama for a miniseries of its own, and serve to anchor the life force of all the characters to the rugged Australian landscape.

In a way, I’m just being picky about how well the actors portray the relationship between Ralph and Meggie; truth is when I first watched the series at the age of 34 (when I did not know Chamberlain was gay), I was completely convinced of their agonies and ecstasies. Being at that age, I could readily fantasize about how love with such an ‘ideal woman’ could answer any man’s prayers. And yes I could feel the torment of desire faced by Father Ralph; oddly enough I could also suspend disbelief enough to find the trappings of the Church believable and not comic. So much has changed for me in 28 years time.

Father Ralph is an incredibly ambitious man who has known he wanted to be a priest—a high one—since he was a boy. Back in the 1980s—I only knew the life of the cloth as a Protestant teenager turned to Ayn Rand atheism and from a couple of formal God debates with Catholic priests—my ignorance of the Catholic religion led me to give it more of the benefit of the doubt. I realized their cosmology was wholly illogical, but I didn’t give much attention to all the ‘pagan’ rites of the Church: the crosses, the icons, the robes and dresses, the pointy hats, the chalices, the chants, the rites, the rings and ostentatious jewelry in general. My goodness, what a demented little menagerie of pretend-men under vaulted ceilings! You mean people actually give money—lots of money—to set up and maintain such a twisted troop of pontificating, supplicating hosers at the Vatican?!

In the 1980s I could listen to Father Ralph tell Meggie Cleary with a grimace: “I do love you, but I… love… God… more.” And it had the ring of truth to it. Today, after these 28 years additional adult life, I find Ralph’s statement silly and offensive. Not solely because by serving God he means taking part in that meaningless, glittering menagerie in the centers of power, but because by serving God he means something wholly apart from genuine spiritual enlightenment. Jesus’ words, “Thou shall have no false gods,” come to mind. I feel Ralph’s view of serving God is a sad and pedantic diminishment of anything worthwhile in the concept of God.

Let’s move on to some of the other aspects of the epic. I like the work of virtually all the actors, which means the director does a fabulous job as well. The photography and action scenes are well executed, especially in Australia: you actually feel you’re on a sheep ranch the size of Texas, or at least Oklahoma… with about as many prospects for the average bloke. None of the key scenes are rushed or hurried, which is why so many of the actors were nominated and/or won Emmys. The miniseries won the Emmy for makeup in 1983, and I’m sure broke new ground there.

The writing is solid, the characters have an enduring quality, and you hate to let go of them when the series ends. [If possible, try not to think about the machinations of the Church of Rome; if you can go with the flow on watching a couple of halfway normal men (Ralph and the Archbishop) discussing issues halfway intelligently in the context of a gold-plated fruit house, it will be easier to accept Thorn Birds in its entirety.]


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2 thoughts on “Movie Review: The Thorn Birds (1983)

  1. You know, you’re probably right. It’s a background fact of the actor that I just can’t keep from creeping in, particularly in that movie. It’s not in my way in terms of appreciating his performance only the natural authenticity of it.

  2. But I must say when a male actor is gay—per Wikipedia, “Chamberlain was outed by the French women’s magazine Nous Deux in December 1989 but it was not until 2003, at the age of 69, that he came out in his autobiography, Shattered Love“—it’s almost impossible to convey the necessary passion for a role like that across from Meggie. That’s my humble opinion, anyway.

    It’s a pity that you have allowed this to get in your way in regard to Richard Chamberlain’s romantic scenes.

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