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Testimony of Two Men

Release Year:    1977
Studio:    Acorn Media
Format:    Box set; Colour; NTSC
Rated:    Not Rated; Contains violence and sexual situations
# of Discs/Episodes:    3 / 3
Running Time:    287 minutes
DVD Release Date:    February 5, 2013
Creator:    Taylor Caldwell
Screenwriters:    James M. Miller, William Hanley, Jennifer Miller
Directors:    Larry Yust , Leo Penn
Actors:    David Birney, Barbara Parkins, Steve Forrest
DVD Features:    SDH subtitles
E:Top Picks Rating:    9/10

Acorn Media Write-up:
Based on the bestselling historical novel by Taylor Caldwell (“Captains and the Kings”), this star-studded series follows the decades-long saga of Dr. Jonathan Ferrier (David Birney, “St. Elsewhere”); his mother, Marjorie (Barbara Parkins, “Peyton Place”); and her former lover, Dr. Martin Eaton (Steve Forrest, “Mommie Dearest”).

In post-Civil War Pennsylvania, young surgeon Jonathan Ferrier relentlessly campaigns to improve the antiquated medical practices in his hometown. He faces vehement opposition from the town’s old guard, who will stop at nothing to destroy his career, and becomes engulfed in a series of doomed romances and family disputes. This tumultuous, Emmy-nominated drama also stars William Shatner (“Star Trek”), Linda Purl (“The Office”), Ralph Bellamy (“Rosemary’s Baby”), Tom Bosley (“Happy Days”), and Joan Van Ark (“Knots Landing”).

Original broadcast promos and episode recap (5 min.)

Jon Ted Wynne Review:
Author Taylor Caldwell, who wrote the sprawling historical novel that is the basis of this miniseries, was prolific, popular and, surprisingly, female. Caldwell also wrote under the pen names Marcus Holland and Max Reiner, and by her married name of J. Miriam Reback. Of course her gender is really irrelevant, though at the time she wrote it may have been easier to succeed as a novelist if the general public thought you were a man. This way of thinking is not without precedent. One might remember the stir caused by the Bronte sisters meeting their London publisher for the first time and encountering his initial disbelief that young ladies could write so well! Times have changed. (For a wonderful dramatic presentation of the lives of the Bronte family, see “The Brontes of Haworth”, a first-rate miniseries available from Acorn Media).

Historical novels fall into two categories in this reviewer’s opinion: soap opera and saga. The former is shallow, the latter has depth. While there are shades of soap opera in TESTIMONY OF TWO MEN (the television adaptation, not the novel), this entertaining and engrossing miniseries is mostly a saga.

The story is the stuff of most miniseries: love, lust, conflict, war, misunderstandings, good guys, bad guys, good girls and verrrrrry bad girls. A recap of the plot, which spans 36 years in the lives of the protagonists, is easily found elsewhere. Outlining why TESTIMONY OF TWO MEN is worth your viewing time is a much better use of this space.

First, the acting. While the performances cannot compare to the vast majority of performances found in virtually any British-made program, TESTIMONY OF TWO MEN boasts some first-rate actors. At the forefront is David Birney. Handsome, articulate, strong but still vulnerable, Birney is a well-seasoned actor whose stage experience (including many roles in Shakespeare) give him a depth that many leading men simply do not possess. He is remarkable as Jonathan Ferrier, the crusading doctor whose character flaws threaten to undermine his idealism. Birney’s performance is fully-rounded and complex. His powerful sequence of redemption during a climactic thunderstorm is acting of the highest calibre, at least in this genre. He is the spine of the series and is likeable without being cloying, something not easily achieved when one is as traditionally tall, dark and handsome as is Birney.

Another stalwart performance is achieved by Steve Forrest, who began his career in motion pictures and should have had a more successful tenure on the big screen. The younger brother of the great Dana Andrews, Forrest was often cast in heroic roles but here is allowed to play much more, including a stroke victim into old age. We even get to hear him sing, albeit briefly, which is a talent he came by honestly. His older brother Dana was a trained baritone, something the powers that be in Hollywood were unaware of when they cast him in Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “State Fair” in 1945. A singer was hired to dub Andrews, who didn’t say anything because he knew the singer needed a job!

Forrest is an outstanding actor and it is nice to see him given the chance to show a broader range. His performance, along with Birney’s, anchor TESTIMONY OF TWO MEN’s acting, even helping actors like Tom Bosley (who is not usually very convincing in period roles) achieve credibility.

On the ladies’ side, Barbara Parkins and Linda Purl are the standouts, bringing beauty, tempestuousness and fireworks into the mix. Purl’s death scene in revelatory flashback is especially good, a scene she shares with Steve Forrest, whose tears are genuine and his emotion heart-rending.

A few of the lesser performances are just that: lesser, with some being downright awful. J.D. Cannon, familiar as Dennis Weaver’s superior on the popular series “McCloud”, is somewhere in the middle on the acting scale here. William Shatner tones down the ham and registers nicely in his relatively brief role in the first segment. It’s nice to see Dan Dailey, the popular song and dance man from so many great musicals, in a small role. This was his second-last appearance before his death in 1978.

And Kario Salem, an interesting young actor from this period, who has gone on to find success as a writer, makes a strong impression as J.D. Cannon’s son, who grows from paternal-worshipping offspring to mature young man of principle.

Second in the reasons why TESTIMONY OF TWO MEN is worth your time are the production values and art direction. There isn’t a false note in the look and feel of the production, apart, maybe from some facial hair that looks like, well, fake facial hair. This is easily forgotten as one is swept up in the drama.

Third is the direction. While this is still 1970s TV, before television usurped motion pictures in terms of visual mastery and epic storytelling, there is a real effort made, in key scenes, to eschew the flat “TV lighting” of the time with a moody, atmospheric and highly symbolic, even metaphorical look that befits the frenzied emotions on display. Two examples are particularly impressive.

When Birney’s Dr. Ferrier marries Linda Purl’s Mavis, he quickly becomes aware that he has made a mistake. The montage of scenes that show the deterioration of their marriage is reminiscent of Orson Welles’ “Citizen Kane” in its inventiveness, brevity and tone. Also, the penultimate sequence, a cathartic pulling together of all the plot threads, in particular Birney’s breakdown and spiritual/emotional rebirth, is played against a thunderstorm of Biblical proportions, suggesting that the hand of God is at work. This spiritual element is a recurring theme in Caldwell’s novels and is wholly appropriate here. The element of Divine Intervention even trumps the potential corniness of learning that one of the “bad guys” met his end when his munitions factory exploded during the storm. It just seems right, somehow.

Last, the themes of TESTIMONY OF TWO MEN, despite the familiar types and stereotypes of some of the characters (characters who, it must be admitted, might come off more rounded in the novel), are deserving of a six hour miniseries. Caldwell’s themes throughout her canon included rags-to-riches stories, religion, social justice and the immutable nature of human beings. She was a writer of conscience and purpose. She once wrote, rebukingly (of society), “It is a stern fact of history that no nation that rushed to the abyss ever turned back. Not ever, in the long history of the world. We are now on the edge of the abyss. Can we, for the first time in history, turn back? It is up to you.” Was she, along with everything else, a prophet?

TESTIMONY OF TWO MEN captures some of the importance of Caldwell’s literary intent, enough to render it excellent television viewing. Far superior to programming like “The Kent Chronicles”, made around the same time, TESTIMONY OF TWO MEN is worthy of a restored DVD release (thank you, Acorn Media!) and worthy of your viewing time.