Martin Ritt's Conrack, now available on Blu-ray from Twilight Time, first hit theaters in 1974. This was a time when new, brash directors were reinventing American cinema, a time when movie screens were likely spackled with vomit from demonically possessed little girls, or blood from the victims of Dirty Harry Callahan's .44 Magnum. Theaters in your neighborhood were just as likely to be playing hardcore porn as the latest Paul Newman movie. Ritt's simple tale of an optimistic white teacher in a schoolroom of dirt poor black students was a success just by squeaking through to its birth.
Looking at it 40 years later, one is struck by two things, namely, Jon Voight's relentless energy and goodwill as the big-hearted teacher, and the very realistic performances from the kids. Even while acknowledging the film's uneven tone, or what one critic deemed "a crazy quilt of naturalism, farce, and soap opera all jumbled together," one is still intrigued by Conrack. Maybe the idea that a caring soul might try to educate some people who would otherwise remain ignorant strikes a primal cord within us. Maybe there's something irresistible about sheltered folks suddenly realizing there is more to the world than their dirty little backwater. Or maybe, and this might trump all the other maybes, we all hated school so much that we wish our own lives had been enriched, even briefly, by someone like Conrack.
Pat Conroy, a young idealist, takes a teaching position on a remote island in a South Carolina river delta. He's vowed to grow his hair until the war stops (the story takes place in 1969) and the locals look at him as if they're seeing a mythical animal up close, for a towering blonde white man on an island made up almost entirely of blacks is as odd as a unicorn. The locals can't even pronounce his name, which creates the movie's title. The newly dubbed Conrack fends off their suspicions with a grin as wide as the Bible belt, and then sets about teaching "the babies," as these fifth through eighth graders are called. He's shocked to find out the level of his students' ignorance - they can't read, they know nothing about life beyond the island, they've never heard of Babe Ruth or Halloween, have never played football, and, Heaven forbid, they don't even know that coffee comes from Brazil.
Based on Pat Conroy's memoir ‘The Water Is Wide,’ the story follows Conrack's effort to help these children even as he is met by resistance from the school's principal, a middle aged black woman (Madge Sinclair) who believes the children need to beaten with a leather strap, and superintendent Skeffington (Hume Cronyn), a grinning sadist who likes to grab a kid by the thumb and twist, a punishing move he calls "milking the rat." Add to this a local drunk (Paul Winfield) who skulks around the island like Boo Radley, the talkative Mr. Quickfellow (Antonio Fargas) who stalks 13-year-old girls with promises of new dresses, plus the natural reluctance of students who have never been challenged, and it seems Conrack has entered a world that may be too much for him to conquer.
Yet, armed with nothing but his enthusiasm, Conrack gradually earns the love and respect of the classroom. The kids, as meek as church mice at the movie’s start, are soon chanting James Brown songs, and dressed up for a Halloween trip to Beaufort. Conrack's teaching methods are unorthodox - he tickles, wrestles, and teases the students, and when he learns that no one on the island knows how to swim, he promptly throws the kids, one by one, into the river. His freewheeling style gets results. He even gets the class to sit still long enough to listen to some recordings of classical music.
I like how the kids calmly pay attention to the sounds coming from the old turntable. In a more contemporary movie, they all would have picked up instruments, mastered them overnight, and would have then gone on to win a contest of some kind, for in modern America a story is only uplifting if you can crush someone and win a prize. But in Conrack, the kids merely listen; they’re quietly mystified by the music, happy that they can come close to pronouncing the names of Beethoven or Brahms. Conrack even picks up one of the younger boys and cradles him as the music plays, inviting him to close his eyes and sleep. Somehow, Conrack's good intentions get him labeled as "an outside agitator" and fired from his job. Conrack tries to fight the verdict but is no match for Skeffington’s power as superintendent. His good spirit bloodied but unbowed, Conrack leaves the island. To the children he says, "May the river be kind to you when you cross it."
As one might have expected, reactions to the movie were mixed: syndicated columnist David Sterritt dismissed it as "an audacious attempt at mythmaking." Indeed there are scenes of Conrack jogging along the beach, his class running along behind him, as if he’s some sort of golden haired pied piper, an image that probably ruffled some feathers in the super cynical ‘70s. The New York Times gave it a mostly positive review, but lamented the film's "glaze of sentimentality that sugars much of the narrative."
Voight said at the time of the film's release that he had some reservations about his own performance. "The guy comes over as sort of self-congratulatory," Voight said in an interview with Roger Ebert. "The real Pat Conroy has a certain cynical notion of himself; he didn't really think he was so terrific." Indeed, Voight is a whirlwind in the movie, spouting lines of poetry, pontificating on various subjects, even babbling in Latin, which at times feels like an exercise by the screenwriters determined to show us Conrack's intelligence and individualism. (And do the children have any idea of what Conrack is saying when he goes on these tangents?)
The movie occasionally feels undeveloped. For instance, Conrack is supposed to be a reformed bigot. Now, somehow, he has become a happy clown. He even befriends the local drunk and teaches him to read. How did the change in Conrack come about? And is there not a single residual ash of attitude left over from his redneck days?
The husband and wife screenwriting team of Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank adapted Conroy's memoir. The duo was known for such Southern tinged films as Hud and The Reivers, and were Ritt's favorite collaborators. Their interpretation of Conroy's story, though, was picked apart by Conroy himself, who claimed they included things that had never happened. Ritt defended this approach, saying that autobiographies aren't necessarily cinematic, and that some creative tinkering was necessary. Yet, it was this mixing of the true and fabricated that gave the movie what many critics judged a "shaky" feel.
Yet, the movie's charms outweigh its flaws. Voight, enjoying the hot streak that began with Midnight Cowboy and would last the decade, acts up a storm. It's as if he's Jimmy Stewart stepping out of a Capra film and into a Vittorio De Sica slice of life epic. Cronyn is perfect as the cold-hearted Skeffington, a man who can sweetly pet a rabbit while casually destroying a man's livelihood. The 21 kids in the classroom, locals chosen by Ritt for the movie, provide the quiet heart and soul of the picture. I can't imagine a more realistic group of children. The film is also intriguing in that it upends practically every cinematic convention: a picture that could be considered family viewing occasionally erupts in vulgar language; the gradual uplift of the story ends on a bum note; there is absolutely not one ounce of romance; and in perhaps the most audacious flaunting of an American storytelling staple, the heroic underdog gets his ass stomped by the bad guys.
Audiences didn't find the movie immediately. Conrack needed time to develop an appreciative following of viewers who caught it on television over the years. The movie has endured heavy criticism, though, particularly from those put off by what they saw as the image of a benevolent white man bestowing his knowledge on blacks. "I got a lot of flak on Conrack," Ritt said during an AFI interview in the 1980s. "A lot of flak. It pissed me off, frankly." He added that the black community didn't "want to know about white people who are doing good work," but that he wasn't going to change his film to suit someone's political agenda. Ritt, unrelenting in his defense of Conrack, invited those who didn't like it to make their own movie. A victim of the McCarthy era communist witch-hunt, Ritt may have seen Conrack’s dismissal from the school as a handy metaphor for the time he was blackballed from Hollywood.
Conrack remains polarizing. Praise it, and you're accused of being mawkish. Dismiss it, and you're accused of missing out on what is a very warm story, what Ritt saw as “a love story between a white man and 21 black children."
Even the film's ending comes under fire. The children have gathered at the dock to bid Conrack goodbye. Seeing that they're upset, Conrack starts firing questions at them. Who was the first president? What state do we live in? The children answer in unison. Maybe it's not a great example of education, maybe it's just a sort of dog trick, with the kids responding to certain commands, but Conrack has achieved something. He has cracked open the minds of these children, perhaps just enough to let some light in. He continues to fire questions, creating the atmosphere of his schoolroom right there on the creaky old dock. When a boat's engine can be heard in the distance, we know his time is running out. When he gets onboard, one of the children reveals the portable record player that was used in the classroom. She has cued up one of the records Conrack would play for them: Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. The bombastic music echoes across the river as Conrack fades away.
Many have complained about the scene, or scratched their head in puzzlement. But I find it absolutely touching on two levels. The kids know very little about music. They aren't aware of the bombast associated with Beethoven. To them, this recording is just a “song” that Conrack likes, so they play it as a kind of parting gift. Their innocence is palpable. Yet, there's another level. Earlier in the movie, Conrack explained to the children that Beethoven was thinking about death at the time he wrote his fifth symphony. The opening cords of the piece, Beethoven imagined, was what death would sound like when it came bashing at your door. When the children play this recording, they could well be lamenting another sort of death, the death of their education, the death of the 1960s, the death of Conrack's dream of a new society. They'd remembered something Conrack had told them about Beethoven and death. In the midst of poverty and hopelessness, this seemingly unimportant sharing of knowledge feels like a small, glowing victory. That's why the final moments of Conrack are as moving as anything else that made it into theaters that year.
Or, for that matter, this year.
(The Twilight Time Blu-ray of Conrack was produced as a limited edition of 3,000 units. Extras include a pamphlet about the movie with an essay by Julie Kirgo , an audio commentary from film historians Paul Seydor and Nick Redman, an isolated music and effects track, and the original trailer.)