Thursday, April 10, 2014

Conrack (1974)

      In the late 1960s, writer Pat Conroy (The Great Santini; The Prince of Tides) took a teaching job on a residential sea island off the coast of South Carolina close to Savannah, Georgia. The inhabitants of the 8 square mile enclave were descendants of slaves from South Carolina's coastal Lowcountry known as the Gullah.

Of these 250 or so Gullah, most of whom were illiterate and innumerate, all were African-American except for a Caucasian shopkeeper. The Gullah language, also known as "sea island Creole", prohibited the young children (aged 10 - 13) from pronouncing their new teachers surname correctly. Conroy came out sounding like ConRACK. Thus the title of Martin Ritt's little-seen adaptation of Conroy's 1972 memoir The Water is Wide.

The children don't even know what country they live in, or the name of the ocean that borders their shore. They've never seen a movie or heard of James Brown or Jackie Robinson before. Conroy isn't given much support from the principal of the small school or the superintendent over on the mainland. In fact, it seems he gets chastised on a daily basis for wanting to treat his students like human beings.

The principal, Mrs. Scott (played by a sterling Madge Sinclair), refers to the kids as her "babies" in a rather duplicitous way. She does consider them to be worthy of care, but she also considers them incapable of retaining knowledge and more worthy of the whip. There's the rub. Her conflicts with Conroy over his teaching methods provide some of the much needed tension that surrounds this engaging drama.

The school superintendent is another story. Skeffington, played by the tremendously effective Hume Cronyn, is a sad remnant of the unapologetically racist South. And Conroy quickly finds himself in the soup for his unconventional methods.

It is imperative that I say a word or two about Jon Voight's performance as Conroy. It's not just an effective portrayal of a man who has dedicated himself to education, it's a career best. I've seen a lot of great Voight performances (Coming Home and Table for Five immediately jump to mind) but nothing quite like his work in Conrack. What we learn about his jocular character mostly comes through lively interactions in the classroom, but it's the relationship he forms with one of the older girls on the island (played by a magnificent Tina Andrews) that establishes him as a truly humane film character.

It's a shame that this film has fallen by the wayside. It's undoubtedly one of the best American films of the 1970s as well as possibly the best film about the noble art of teaching I have ever seen. It is not without its critics though. There are some that say it's too sentimental or too idealistic for its own good. I feel compelled to cite two examples which counter that flimsy argument.

The scene when Conroy and Mad Billy (played by the late, great Paul Winfield) are jovially fishing off the pier and Conroy unknowingly hooks the body of a drowned boy (the children are taught to fear the water so none of them know how to swim). It's a horrifyingly real scene played without an ounce of melodrama. The family of the child arrive to somberly cart the body away as the two reluctant fisherman watch in near disbelief. It's a profoundly powerful moment, more so because Ritt and cinematographer John A. Alonzo (Chinatown) chose to film them both from behind, so we never see their expressions.

And when Conroy sits down at Mrs. Scott's kitchen table in an effort to make peace and call her out for humiliating the kids. It's one of those quietly moving scenes that sneak up on you and stick in your crawl. As a matter of fact, the whole film is. It also features a not-surprisingly splendid John Williams score that ranks up there with The Cowboys (1972) as one of the composers most underrated.

Twilight Time has released Conrack on Blu-ray in a stunningly gorgeous transfer. While I don't support the $30 price tag (especially considering the lack of any significant bonus features; come on guys: a short retrospective is the least this film deserves) our wallets are sometimes at the mercy of these smaller labels who continue to get away with charging collectors a premium for choice titles such as this. Don't get me wrong, I'm just grateful it's out. The real crime is that Fox didn't release the title on their own (nor has the film ever been released on DVD) at a more affordable price.

See it. Posthaste.

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