Back to School (2): Conrack – Setting Kids on Fire
“I want you to lead good, contributing lives,” author Pat Conroy told his poor, isolated African- American students on South Carolina’s Dafuskie Island during the year chronicled in his autobiographical novel The Water Is Wide. That goal can apply to all teachers who bring a patient but unquenchable zeal to their bedrock profession. “Our job was to grab kids and set ’em on fire,” Conroy recalled. “You can feel like this when you read books…[or] when something touches you, and if you read the rest of your life or you’re touched like this the rest of your life, you’re a free man or woman.” Next in the Twilight Time curriculum is Conrack (1974), the movie adaptation of The Water Is Wide on TT hi-def Blu-ray, starring Jon Voight in a variously appealing, prickly and finally moving performance as schoolteacher Conroy (called “Conrack” by his pupils). Directed by Martin Ritt from a screenplay by frequent collaborators Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank Jr., Conrack evokes the sense of wonder resulting when the process of schooling evolves into an exchange and a connection, rather than a burden and a drudge enforced by psychic and sometimes even corporal punishment. Indeed, Conroy wrote of his charges: “The thing I thought I had to do first was to not beat the kids but to let them know that education was fun.” Sadly, the movie also depicts the heartbreak and cruelty inflicted by bureaucracies mired in entrenched class and race attitudes that snuff out hope, characterized by Madge Sinclair’s school principal and most formidably by Hume Cronyn’s school superintendent. While it stands firmly in the tradition of movies about heroic teachers, Conrack also takes in some wide-open spaces – in this case, Georgia offshore island locations standing in for South California – and soul-piercing reality that make it unique – along with the notion that the students might open the teacher’s mind more indelibly than the other way around. It’s all in a laboring day’s work for Conrack’s masterful, open-minded tale-spinners Conroy, Ritt and Voight.