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    Georgia on Their Mind

    Posted by Mike Finnegan on

    Making note of today’s National Georgia Day observance, it’s only fitting that movie lovers should celebrate the state as the Southeastern U.S. center of film and television production it has become, with the current box-office successes Guardians of the Galaxy 2 and Baby Driver (2017) as conspicuous examples among dozens. The Twilight Time hi-def Blu-ray library boasts noteworthy examples of both the hugely invested and just-passing-through variety. Among the former, the label’s recently sold-out release of Jean Renoir’s fugitives-on-the-run melodrama Swamp Water (1941) plunged audiences into the harrowing and shadowy pitfalls of the Okefenokee swamplands, where the esteemed French filmmaker took principal cast members and a location-shoot crew to capture the region’s natural beauty and innate spookiness. The Buddy Holly Story (1978) employed the exterior of one of Atlanta’s cultural treasures, the landmark Fox Theatre, to stand in for New York’s historic Apollo Theatre, because its elaborate marquee was an easily adaptable match for that of the Apollo’s in the late 1950s, the site of a career-propelling Holly concert stand, set-dressed with a complement of vintage automobiles recruited from area aficionados to line the street-front. Director Martin Ritt, for whom geography has always been a vital cinematic storytelling element in such TT titles as The Long, Hot Summer (1958, coming August 15) and the sold-out The Sound and the Fury, both lensed in dusty, small-town Louisiana; Hombre (1967) amid rugged Arizona landscapes and hills; and the urban-set The Front (1976) and Stanley & Iris (1990), respectively in New York City and Waterbury, CT, traveled to Georgia for one of his more underrated and yet deeply felt projects. The adaptation of Pat Conroy’s celebrated autobiographical book The Water Is Wide, renamed Conrack (1974) for the big screen in screenwriters Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank Jr.’s adaptation, is largely set on Yamacraw Island off the South Carolina coast. But the real location for this tale of a novice teacher (Jon Voight) who struggles to raise the physical and spiritual circumstances of his poverty-entrapped, poorly-educated students was actually Georgia’s Brunswick Island, where the natural beauty of the sun-drenched, balmily wind-blown open environment stands as a metaphor of possibilities that regrettably butt up against the ramshackle realities of the islanders’ painfully limited, racism-constricted existence. Locally recruited youngsters from Brunswick’s C.B. Greer Elementary School played Conroy/”Conrack’s” contentious yet questioning charges, and it is through a reappraisal of their own environment, channeled by a caring outsider, that a gradual progress is made. The theme of human potential is greatly enhanced through the superb contributions of cinematographer John A. Alonzo and composer John Williams. Though the outcome of what could have been a formulaic “education-is-good” tale is ultimately blighted by a harsh bureaucratic crackdown, it is clear by film’s end that hope has been injected and dreams stimulated, clearly what Ritt, Ravetch and Frank intended via this Georgia interlude. For an atmospherically rewarding trip to the Peachtree State, sign up in Conrack’s class here: http://www.screenarchives.com/title_detail.cfm/ID/26735/CONRACK-1974/.