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    The Comeback of Conrack

    Posted by Mike Finnegan on

    When Conrack (1974), the first film adaptation of Pat Conroy’s 1972 memoir The Water Is Wide, opened theatrically 43 years ago today, critical and audience reaction was muted, despite the best efforts of director Martin Ritt (who’d had a recent triumph with Sounder) and screenwriters Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank Jr., joining Ritt for the fifth of eight movies spanning 42 years of collaboration. There was general agreement that emerging star Jon Voight as the title character Conroy (his name endearingly mangled by his young charges) brought a charismatic dynamism to the tale of a teacher who spends the greater part of a year trying to awaken the intellectual and imaginative capacities of the nearly illiterate African-American children on an island off the South Carolina coast. Its production was aided by a future President. In The Films of Martin Ritt: Fanfare for the Common Man, author Gabriel Miller notes: “Jimmy Carter, embarrassed by the racist resistance Ritt had encountered while trying to film Sounder in Georgia, had invited him to give the state another chance, and Ritt took the governor up on his offer. Once the decision was made to film on St. Simon Island, just off the coast of Brunswick, [which became the film’s Yamacraw Island, standing in for the book’s actual Dafuskie Island, SC, location] Carter made sure that all state agencies cooperated with Ritt and later attended the film’s premiere.” Through the spring of 1974, Conrack had a couple of strong critical champions, Pauline Kael of The New Yorker and Michael Sragow of The Harvard Crimson but major outlets like The New York Times, Newsweek, Time and The Village Voice didn’t buy in. Also, Miller documented, “the film was attacked by some black leaders as exploitative in its glorification of the white teacher at the expense of the black children. This attitude was effectively articulated by Ted Lange at an American Film Institute Seminar conducted by Ritt: ‘I think this is a white exploitation film for white people, to come see and feel very good about a white man who goes into the South to educate some black kids out of the kindness of his heart.’ He goes on to say that the audience never sees the white Conroy learn from the island community; the relationship is completely one-sided. Ritt respected this criticism, but he also refuted it, telling Lange that the recommended point of view was fine but it was not the approach he took. Referring to Conroy, he argued: ‘He gave them love and he gave them understanding. And taught them that they could be loved by a white man, that a white man could commit himself to their cause,…aware all the time that there was an incipient paternalism in the relationship. I was aware of that. And yet, I decided to do the film, because I think it was better than not doing it.” Miller also noted that Conroy himself cast aspersions on the film that didn’t help the PR effort, telling Los Angeles Times interviewer Jim Stingley he saw it as “a syrupy, fact-lacking affair that thrills pie-in-the-sky liberals with its fairy tale fight against bigotry.” “He went on to say that he took the job on the island not out of any sense of idealism but because he ‘was feeling a draft.’ Conroy soon sent an apologetic telegram to Ritt, calling himself ‘Conjerk.’ He also wrote a lengthy letter claiming that he had been quoted out of context and blaming the incident in part on people’s being ‘confused by his sense of humor.’” What the steadily growing base of admirers of this stirring and heartfelt movie (which was remade as a Hallmark Hall of Fame telefilm in 2006) aren’t confused by are the strong affirmation of the transformative powers of education and empathy, the strong supporting cast (Madge Sinclair, Hume Cronyn, Paul Winfield, Antonio Fargas, Tina Andrews), its elegiac score by the great John Williams and its glowing cinematography by the gifted John A. Alonzo, who also worked with Ritt on Sounder, Pete ’n’ Tillie, Casey’s Shadow, Norma Rae, Back Roads and Cross Creek and was an Oscar® nominee the same year as Conrack for another invaluable American film called Chinatown). Twilight Time’s hi-def Blu-ray, featuring a deeply analytical Audio Commentary by film historians Nick Redman and Paul Seydor, is available for your affirmation or dissension here: