Monday, February 15, 2010

The Andersonville Trial - a toupological analysis.

The Andersonville Trial is a television play, which dramatizes the 1865 trial of Henry Wirz, commander of the notorious American Civil War Confederate-run prisoner-of-war camp known as Camp Sumter or Andersonville Prison. In that camp, amidst appalling conditions, thousands of captured Union soldiers perished during the war - upon the war's end, many of those that survived were found malnourished, diseased and distressed from the conditions there.

William Shatner's character interrogates a witness at Henry Wirz's trial.

Following the defeat of the secessionist Confederate army and the Union's liberation of the prison in May 1865, Wirz was arrested and tried by a military commission in Washington D.C.'s Capitol building on charges of conspiracy and murder. Wirz argued that he was simply following orders and that he had tried his best to keep conditions at the prison as favorable as possible.

Richard Basehart as Henry Wirz.

Nonetheless, he was found guilty and executed in November 1865. The trial was controversial for a number of reasons, with some echoing Wirz's own defense and others accusing the Union of vengeance, not only for the war, but also for the recent assassination of President Abraham Lincoln.

William Shatner as prosecutor Norton P. Chipman.

This trial was dramatized in 1970 with an award-winning 150 minute PBS production that starred William Shatner as Norton P. Chipman, the Union soldier and prosecutor of Wirz.

Jack Cassidy (left).

Also starring in the television play were Richard Basehart as Wirz, Jack Cassidy as Wirz's defense council (Cassidy is perhaps best remembered as one of the all-time best recurring Columbo villains) and a host of other names, including a very young Martin Sheen.

Martin Sheen.

There's little question that this is one of the most meaningful, prestigious and forceful roles that Bill Shatner has ever had. The production was filmed (on video) in three, pretty much "as-live" acts. Bill Shatner's copious experience in theater as well as live television with productions such as Studio One meant that he was perfectly prepared for the challenges presented by The Andersonville Trial.

Much like The Tenth Level, this television play deals with questions surrounding morality, obedience to authority, personal responsibility and free will. As the proceedings unfold, Shatner's character tries to prove Wirz's guilt by presenting a succession of witnesses. The trial ends with a dramatic interrogation of Wirz himself, who demands to take the stand, insistent on his innocence.

Bill Shatner is on fire in this production - anyone who has seen him passionately talking a computer to death in Star Trek, will recognize the performance given here by the actor.

Here's a clip from near the end:

If only more similar roles had been available to Shats at this time. But, alas, The Andersonville Trial was a rare prestigious high in a post-Star Trek nightmare era during the early-to-mid 1970s that was only just beginning when this production was mounted. One side-effect of this slump already visible in this production is Bill Shatner's weight - he is chubbier here than he had ever been up to this point in his entire on-screen career.

Despite running at two hours and thirty minutes, The Andersonville Trial feels neither overlong nor padded out. The drama presented is engrossing, compelling and thoroughly entertaining.

Now, to the hair...

Interestingly, Bill Shatner's hair makes an entrance before we see his face, perhaps a concession to the toup in light of the fact that it has so little to do during the rest of the production:

The style here has echoes of the recently-ditched "Jim Kirk lace" - except that the top piece is no longer attached via an old-style lace "skin". This makes the hair here more of a transition (or hybrid) toupee, representing a key step in the shift away from the laces of old towards the easier-to-apply, but not as good-looking basic hairpieces of the 70s era, which were simply glued to the scalp. Add to that the sideburns - our guess is that they aren't real either.

At one point, we see a mysterious rear patch - one that we have spotted before. Could this be a permanent scar of some kind as it's almost certainly too low to be male pattern baldness?:

We should also add that this is an extremely sweaty production - a deliberate choice by the producers to underline the hot, stuffy atmosphere of the court. All of the actors perspire profusely throughout, and in Bill Shatner's case, his toup picks up a little of that sweat too:

Indeed, a variety of toupees and hairpieces are on display in this production - but of course, none manages to upstage the king of the toupee himself: William Shatner.

The Andersonville Trial
is a great piece of drama and we highly recommend it. It is available to purchase on DVD.


  1. Bill truly is in top form here ... a must-see for Shat fans and classic TV fans. If I'm not mistaken, this is the production during which Bill met Marcy, his second wife.

    [Side note for editor: Although the picture of Richard Basehart is correctly credited, he is incorrectly credited in the plot description as William Basehart.]

  2. Should have gotten an emmy nomination

  3. crosby stills and shatFebruary 15, 2010 at 7:45 PM

    did jack cassidy wear a rugpiece on this show?
    Shatner overacted, but it was better quality overacting than he had ever done before. His toupee should have won an award, too.

  4. Nice play, but bad wig. Too shaggy, and the tail of it is too obvious, showing how fake it is. It was the beggining of a decade of hairy mistakes for Bill Shatner.

  5. There're just too many toops on show there. It is overwhelming.

    1. Exactly, Hairy Palmer, and that is why we need to especially salute Mr Shatner for his superb acting on this occasion. With the sheer abundance of toups on display here, it is testament to Bill's incredible acting ability that he is able to rise above the weight of visual faux hair distractions and give one of the finest performances of his career. Definitely worth of an Emmy.

  6. It´s a period piece, and there's lot of wigs. But Shatner gets noticed, anyway.

  7. star trek scrapbook has a feature from sept 1974

  8. Explains many a hair raising experience encountered by the Enterprise, where men have baldly gone before.