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    Conrack's Lessons

    Posted by Mike Finnegan on

    When it opened in theatres 42 years ago yesterday, the film version of Pat Conroy’s The Water Is Wide, in keeping with the rhythm of its off-coastal South Carolina island setting, churned up ripples of enthusiasm but no great wave of audience appreciation. But thoroughly in keeping with the times in which it was made, Conrack (1974) is about personal and spiritual awakenings, a subject rendered here with care, concision and little bombast, and with its dynamic central performance by Jon Voight as the idealistic Conroy (who died just weeks ago), gorgeous Panavision location photography by John A. Alonzo, and soulful score by the great John Williams, this collaboration of director Martin Ritt and screenwriters Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank, Jr. (their fifth of eight teamings) has grown in estimation over the years. Conroy is a naïve novice teacher who tries to bring a dedicated pedagogic inspiration toward knowledge to the illiterate black children in his care on a poverty-stricken island community. Like most teachers, he faces bureaucratic interference from a set-in-her-ways school principal (portrayed with dignified reservation by Madge Sinclair) and a racist school superintendent (played with precise condescension by Hume Cronyn), but his idealism, imagination and blossoming knack for improvisation that turns the backward curriculum into a launching pad for curious minds just might change lives. Some reviews of the time referred to the film’s liberal point of view and its sentimental depiction of an idealized white “savior” of disenfranchised blacks. Conroy himself told an interviewer at the time: "Conrack is certainly not a 'now' movie...The film is not a Super Fly." Michael Sragow’s pointed May 15, 1974 analysis of Conrack’s reception for The Harvard Crimson, though written while the film was still in theatres, presaged the way to the movie’s reevaluation: http://www.thecrimson.com/article/1974/5/15/conrack-and-its-critics-piyou-can/. As with many movies across the decades not singled out in their time in the harried theatrical marketplace, the learning process is an ongoing one, whether in regards to audience acceptance or critical approbation. Also starring Paul Winfield and Antonio Fargas and featuring Williams’ score on an Isolated Track, the gemlike Conrack is one such movie, in session to school your mind on Twilight Time hi-def Blu-ray.