The Rose and the Jackal is an interesting Civil War drama, albeit a little misleading


Have you ever felt something so passionately within your being that you were willing to die for your beliefs? The made-for-TV movie ‘The Rose and the Jackal’ presents such a moral dilemma in today’s Throwback Thursday.


The old adage “Never judge a book by its cover” is a particularly wise one. And yet creating a first impression from a fleeting glance is very much a part of human nature. It happens often with people and books, but have you ever been deceived by a film cover? It happened to me when I selected The Rose and the Jackal for review from the Warner Archive Collection.

I didn’t really read the plot synopsis – that was my mistake. 

On the cover, one sees a smiling portrait of Christopher Reeve and Madolyn Smith Osborne in a cozy position that suggests a happy Civil War-era romance. I didn’t really read the plot synopsis – that was my mistake. I just assumed I was correct and that seemed like a win-win-win combination (romance, Civil War era and Christopher Reeve looking dashing) all in one package. It’s not that it’s a bad film, and it’s not that I didn’t like it. It just wasn’t quite what I had envisioned. Perhaps the cover reminded me of Somewhere in Time. While that story didn’t exactly have a happy ending, I enjoyed it more overall.

A 1990 made-for-TV movie produced by Turner Network Television (TNT), The Rose and the Jackal is the story of Union agent Allan Pinkerton (of the famed detective agency) falling in love with the female spy Rose O’Neal Greenhow. There are romantic elements to be sure, but it’s more the story of a martyr facing arrest, prosecution and the death penalty for being unwavering in her beliefs. Rose O’Neal was an aristocrat accused of spying for the Confederacy. A man very much bound by a sense of duty, Pinkerton is forced to apprehend her, interrogate her and ultimately sign her death warrant as part of his government job description. Somewhere along the way, he finds himself falling in love with her and her ideals despite the fact that he has a wife and two sons waiting for him back home.

If she feels she was never loyal to the Union, how can she be accused of betraying it? 

I’m not sure about the historical accuracy of this film (I suspect little to none, as is often the case with Hollywood productions), but it did a good job of presenting an aspect of the Civil War that I don’t think about often. Rose brings up some pretty solid arguments while “on trial.” How can a person be accused and tried of treason against a government that they don’t officially recognize? If she feels she was never loyal to the Union, how can she be accused of betraying it? When it comes to a nation divided against itself in times of a civil war, how does one side have the right to execute the war criminals from the other side without an impartial trial? Rose wasn’t exactly getting a fair deal.

The Rose and the Jackal made me squirm in my seat at times, as it presented moral question after moral question. Have I or anyone I’ve known ever had to stand up for justice? Have I ever felt so passionately about something that I was willing to die for my beliefs? The answer is a resounding no. It was admirable and inspiring in a way. One can’t help but see how Pinkerton could fall in love with such a woman. She was more concerned about setting a good example for her daughter than anything else. I find that level of parenting somewhat lacking in this day and age. Not many parents are put in a position facing death in order to teach a principle. My heart ached for Rose when her daughter came to visit her in the prison cell. That was probably the most moving scene in the entire film when she sang a lullaby to her child that stilled the chanting and rioting outside the prison.

If you’re a fan of Civil War-era pieces or made-for-TV dramas, the acting in The Rose and the Jackal is pretty decent. In addition to the two main leads, the cast is rounded out with performances by Granville Van Dusen, Carrie Snodgress, Kevin McCarthy and Haynes Brooke. I think my main problem with this film is it began sleepily for me. I didn’t really care about the characters or the plot until things started turning sour for Rose. While I wouldn’t go out on a limb and declare this as my favorite film, it had its moments and it did make me think. I believe it’s worth a look if you’ve never seen it. Just don’t expect a grand, sweeping love story or any bonus features on the DVD.


Photo Credit: Turner Network Television (TNT)

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