The Thorn Birds (Miniseries, 1983)

This miniseries is being reviewed for the Barbara Stanwyck Filmography Project.

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The Thorn Birds is a miniseries that ran on ABC in March of 1983. Adapted from the eponymous 1977 novel by Colleen McCullough, the story spans many decades in the lives of the Clearys, a family living in Australia. The series aired in four episodes and was nominated for ten Emmy awards, taking home five of them. The series also won four Golden Globe awards, out of eight nominations.

Paddy Cleary (Richard Kiley) has decided to move his wife (Jean Simmons) and children to the Drogheda ranch, owned by his sister Mary (Barbara Stanwyck).

(Image via Karen Knows Best)
(Image via Karen Knows Best)

Paddy has a daughter named Meggie (played by Rachel Ward and Sydney Penny, at different ages). From the family’s arrival in Australia, Meggie forms a close friendship with Father Ralph de Bricassart (Richard Chamberlain), the local priest. As she grows older, Meggie falls in love with Ralph, but tries to forget him by marrying another man (Bryan Brown).

Drama ensues as the lives of Meggie and Ralph intersect throughout the passing of decades.

The Thorn Birds was directed by Daryl Duke. Its four episodes add up to about eight hours of viewing. A follow-up series titled The Thorn Birds: The Missing Years aired in 1996, with Richard Chamberlain reprising his role of Father Ralph, though this second series wasn’t nearly as well-received.

Stanwyck’s Performance

Since I’m reviewing this series for the Barbara Stanwyck Filmography Project, I paid special attention to her role and performance while watching. Her role is substantial in the 2.5-hour first episode, though Mary is not the series’ central character.

(Spoiler alert: Mary dies at the end of Part I. Stanwyck is credited on all four episodes, but only appears in Part I.)

Stanwyck calls on her experience in Western films for this role, as well as her experience playing the femme fatale in noir and even her experience with comedy (for the delivery of some great, snarky dialogue in her conversations with Ralph). She even gets to deliver a Florence Fallon-esque rant near the end of Part I.

(Screen capture by Lindsey for TMP)
(Screen capture by Lindsey for TMP)

According to IMDb, Audrey Hepburn was originally wanted for the role of Mary, and I think she would have handled the part well. However, I’m glad Stanwyck was given the role. It’s a great chance for her to show off her enduring talents in a multi-faceted character. Mary owns a ranch and governs it with a stern hand, seemingly having little sympathy or caring for anything but herself, her land and Father Ralph, who she is infatuated with but also seems to harbor some hatred for. As time passes, complexities of Mary’s personality are revealed, giving her more dimension than the “conniving woman” stereotype she fits into early on.

Series Review

I have one major complaint about this series that I’ll share right off the bat: it isn’t concerned with creating a sense of authenticity to its setting at all. Though taking place in Australia, it was filmed in the United States and doesn’t exactly strive to provide a realistic portrait of its setting. If you took out any mention of Australia, viewers would assume the series to be a romantic drama of the North American frontier rather than of the outback.

The accents can be bothersome as well. It seems that zero effort was given to matching the voices to the backgrounds of the characters. Some of them are meant to be Irish-born, some New Zealand-born, some Australia-born… but very few of them actually sound like they’re from those places. They seem to be using their natural accents.

(Image via Evelina Rustem)
(Image via Evelina Rustem)

Authenticity issues aside, The Thorn Birds is a pretty great miniseries. The story has a little bit of everything: comedy, drama, romance, historical fiction. The performances are generally quite good. I was particularly impressed by Jean Simmons, who I hadn’t realized was a part of this series until I began watching it.

Though Meggie is the central focus of the story, I’m glad that her relationship with Father Ralph is balanced by scenes of the rest of the family’s trials and tribulations. (Frank’s subplot was my favorite to watch.)

While the Meggie/Ralph storyline is interesting, particularly in its exploration of Ralph’s role in the church and how money influences his standing, I had trouble buying into their romance due to the fact that they met when she was a child. There is enough else going on that the focus on this central pair didn’t ruin the series at all for me.

(Screen capture by Lindsey for TMP)
(Screen capture by Lindsey for TMP)

I haven’t read the source material, so I can’t speak to how close of an adaptation this is,* but I can say that I found the series to be quite well-constructed. The story moves along smoothly and there are some incredibly striking scenes — the opening of Part III is a favorite of mine, alternating between the marriage of Meggie and the induction of Father Ralph as a Cardinal.

*Soon after drafting this post I actually found a used copy of the book for free at a library sale! So, I may revisit the series after reading the book for a Book vs. Film post. Let me know if you would be interested in seeing this!

The Thorn Birds comes near the end of Stanwyck’s filmography, with only roles in Dynasty and The Colbys following her performance as Mary. While fans of the actress will take the most interest in Part I, in which her role is a dominant one, the whole series is worth watching, with quite a few surprising moments and a whole lot of drama. It is an epic family saga which is worth a look by fans of miniseries or of multi-generational stories.

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3 thoughts on “The Thorn Birds (Miniseries, 1983)

  1. totally agree! “If you took out any mention of Australia, viewers would assume the series to be a romantic drama of the North American frontier rather than of the outback.” My grandmother, who resembled Stanwyck, LOVED this mini-series. As third grade boy (or whatever I was at the time), its appeal eluded me! :)

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    1. The appeal of the Father Ralph/Meggie romance continues to elude me, and probably always will haha. I was surprised to read that so many people love the series just because of that pairing! I do think it’s a series worth watching, though, for the side-plots… and Stanwyck gives a powerhouse performance in that first episode.

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