Liz Montgomery struggles in the wilderness
DON'T expect "The Awakening Land. the three-part, made-for-TV movie adaptation of Conrad Richter's Pulitzer Prize-winning prairie tale that begins Sunday (8 p.m. on NBC-Ch 5). to be the usual romantic pioneer saga.
Authenticity is the key to this movie, filmed late last year in the reconstructed post-Colonial village of New Salem, III. And the story follows the late Richter's book about a family settling the Ohio River Valley after the American Revolution so closely that star Elizabeth Montgomery thinks there may be some surprises in store.
"You read about the pioneers in school, and well, okay, so there were Indians, says Montgomery, who experienced her bwn awakening while playing Sayward Luckett. the strong-willed heroine whose life story is told as she matures and changes from age 20 through 60.
"But it was the day-to-day survival that was so hard. Everything was a threat--disease, weather, a broken ax, no food, no water, even walking 20 feet away from the cabin. Women didn't have babies because they loved the little darlings so much, but because they needed help in the fields. No one ever really slept. There wasn't time. They had to survive.
As in Richter's work, "The Awakening Land" is divided into three segments: "The Trees." airing -Sunday; "The Fields. Monday at 8 p.m., and "The Town, Tuesday, 7 p.m.
The story begins in 1790 with an unmarried Sayward, alone in the wilderness and burdened with the care of her three sisters after her mother's death. In time, she meets and marries Portius Wheeler, played by Hal Holbrook, a recluse lawyer from the East. They raise four children -- a Ah child dies while playing near a fire outside the cabin --and Sayward watches her husband, with her help, become an iinportant figure in the state.
"l'm not sure that Sayward really loved Portius. It was more that she needed him," Montgomery explains. "He was well educated and could read and write. As Sayward says, 'He has the whole world in his head.' She recognized in him someone who could do for her children what her parents couldn't do for her, and you had to be married to have children. This type of bond was probably pretty typical in those days.
Starting last September, Montgomery spent a grueling 2'/2 months filming in New Salem. Producers were convinced the movie should be made there once the State of Illinois film office persuaded them to look at the village, and once the Springfield city fathers agreed to fill up a nearby lake so it would resemble the Ohio River.
A vacant Springfield gymnasium was used to house an indoor log cabin for inside shots, as well as extensive prop and wardrobe depanments. Other pans of the state got into the act with American Indians from Chicago's Uptown transported to the site to play their forefathers, and hounds, cougars, wolves, and one skunk from the Plainsman Zoo in Elgin shipped to the location to help set the scene.
Even the weather in New Salem complied with warm, summer breezes and
lush flora and fauna for filming "The Trees," brisk autumn air and changing colors for "The Fields," and dark, dismal winter cold, even with a day of snow,.for "The Town.
"The country was absolutely beautiful there, but whatever the territory offered, we got," says Montgomery, who suffered through a bad case of poison ivy "Viruses. poison oak, bees, mosquitoes, varmints. nettles. It gave us a vague idea of what it must have been like.
The 5-foot-5inch, 110-pound Montgomery found her role physically exhausting, especially on days in the fields behind oxen and plow. The most difficult part of playing Sayward, she says, was the aging process, learning how to slow down physically and psychologically.
She says she has great respect for the character she plays. "Sayward wasn't stupid, just uneducated. Her instincts were extraordinary. She didn't say much, but when she did she made a lot of sense. She had a tremendous amount of fortitude. If it wasn't for people like her, you and wouldn't be here today.
Despite that tribute, Montgomery admits that the early 1880s in the Ohio River Valley hold no attraction for her. She has no desire to be a pioneer.
"No, I definitely would not have liked to have lived then," she says. "No one in their right mind would make that choice.
By Karen Rugen Blecha (Written before the first NBC Broadcast)
Elizabeth Montgomery received an Emmy nomination for her role as Sayward.
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