An old philosophical debate asks ‘what is the sound of one hand clapping?’ Anyone questioning the impact a single voice in the wilderness can have, would do well to reconsider Martin Ritt’s extraordinarily underrated masterpiece, Conrack (1974) – the heartrending story about that ‘power of one’ coming to bear on the aspirations of many. Based on celebrated novelist, Pat Conroy’s 1972 memoir, and set in the fictionalized backwater of Yamacraw Island, circa 1969 (actually, Daufuskie Island), Conrack is the story of a free spirit. Moreover it is the tale of one man’s latent political convictions unearthed after being sent to this picturesque – though remote and utterly backward community, off the coast of South Carolina. Pat Conroy is expected to fail; or rather, merely maintain the status quo as a replacement for another teacher having her appendix removed. This isn’t Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939) or even a To Sir With Love (1967) valentine dedicated to the nobler profession of teaching, but rather, the personal challenge one individual undertakes to buck the system already in place, using earnest persuasiveness to reach, engage, and yes – even educate - his pupils.
It’s a tough sell because those in attendance inside this stiflingly hot, cramped classroom – through no fault of their own – are about as academically vacant and socially deprived as human beings can get; cruelly denied the innate light in their eyes much too soon in life. Yamacraw Island is the land time forgot and continues to deliberately neglect, putting a warm, seemingly friendly, Cheshire grin on the face of bigotry and racism that will only continue to perpetuate long after Conroy is removed from his position by the selfsame insidious authority figures who secured his placement there in the first place. Despite his best efforts as an educator, Pat Conroy (whose name is mangled by his students as ‘Conrack’ and further bastardized as ‘Mr. Patroy’ by the school’s marginally more intelligent principal) will fail in his fervent desire to bring enlightenment to this tiny enclave of outcast innocents. This is, after all, 1969 and the Deep South, ensconced in its misguided beliefs; that black America is, and ought to remain, separate and excluded from its white brethren; allowed to exist, though utterly discouraged from aspiring to better lives beyond these marshy borders.
Martin Ritt’s movies in general, and Conrack in particular, are always passionate about exposing the dualities of humanity at its very best and worst; the two running a parallel course, destined to come into conflict with one another. Despite its downtrodden subject matter, Conrack is richly rewarding; the brainchild of Ritt’s long association with husband/wife collaborators, Harriet Frank Jr. and Irving Ravetch, who imprint the story with their inimitable brand of social conscience, true-to-life dialogue, humor and situations. As such, Conrack is an unexpectedly visceral and earthy experience that goes well beyond mere quality in its writing or even the exceptionally nuanced and sincere performance given by Jon Voight – arguably, the most fundamentally grassroots actor of his generation. A gut-wrenching profoundness permeates every frame. It is a very queer amalgam, because at once Conrack is both inspirational and unflattering - exposing the abject malice and iniquitous blight of racism; the sumptuousness in John A. Alonzo’s ravishing images and lyrical quality of John Williams’ score, counterbalanced by this more exacting reality played in foreground.
There is no escape – scholastic or otherwise – for the children of Yamacraw Island; the brief respite coming to an abrupt end when their only salvation is recalled, though hardly to a higher purpose. And life will not change afterward, even if something more penetrating has been miraculously stirred from within. At some level then, Conrack must be considered a human tragedy. And yet, it defies simple miscasting as a dismal disclosure of intolerance in America; perhaps because our central figure for instituting positive change is just about the whitest man alive; certainly the most starkly contrasted visage on Yamacraw Island. Pat Conroy makes no apology – either in life or as his alter ego in the movie - for his own past indiscretions, growing up in segregated Alabama, before having his great epiphany after the murder of Martin Luther King. Open-minded, he now embraces the call of duty to impart such nuggets of wisdom on these pupils without moralizing or prejudice; considered something of a subversive for his ‘unorthodox’ humanity.
As expertly crafted as Conrack is, it would be nothing at all without Jon Voight’s extraordinarily humane performance; just about the greatest asset the movie has and certainly one for which the actor ought to have been Oscar-nominated. Voight anchors the movie with a sort of flamboyant fortitude, his own sensitive dignity brought to bear on the responsibility his character feels; utterly violated when he quickly discovers none of his students are capable even of identifying the United States of America on a map as their country of origin. Some cannot spell their names. Most have no comprehension of history. Few even know the alphabet.
Their appalling absence of even the most remedial wherewithal goes well beyond mere ignorance; something the school’s administrator, Miss Scott (played with a bone-chilling magisterial quality by Madge Sinclair) suggests is inherent in the ‘black’ makeup, unchangeable and best ‘controlled’ through various means of corporal punishment; a discipline seconded by the school’s wily superintendent, Mr. Skeffington (Hume Cronyn), who applies pressure-pointed ‘thumb screws’ to subdue any rebellious uprisings in the classroom.
Conroy’s convictions, however, run counterintuitive to this status quo. These children are not dumb – but rather grossly disadvantaged. They have been treated as little more or better than animals, senselessly scurrying about the island, expected to live in abject poverty and submission for the rest of their days, knowing nothing of the world beyond. But these are not the precepts any educator entrusted with the power and authority to disseminate higher learning should embrace, and definitely not the ideals Conroy intends to exploit in his determination to fire their collective imaginations. At some level, he will succeed in rekindling a spark of excellence. Central to Conroy’s comprehension as to what he is up against is his befriending of Mary (Tina Andrews); a lonely girl who, already at age thirteen, has assumed the great responsibility of doing most of the chores for Edna (Ruth Attaway); something of the community’s unifying and very feisty den mother.
Hiring Mary for a dollar a day as his cook is only the start. Conroy is determined Mary – along with the other children – expand their cultural repertoires, beginning with the basics; personal hygiene, a sense of proportion and sportsmanship, and, a ‘brass-tax’ reinvestment in their own innate value and sense of pride; essentials to rattle loose the collective ennui and cobwebs from their minds. The road ahead will not be smooth or straightforward; the undoing of all the negativity ingrained in their limited, but uniform cognizance, a daunted undertaking, insidiously promoted by Miss Scott, who informs Conroy her sole purpose is to keep ‘the man’ happy, so she can remain employed and thus be a little better off – financially – than the rest of the community. But Conroy is defiantly committed to change, explaining “We are off the plantation, Miss Scott…and I’ll be goddamned if you’re going to turn me into an overseer!”
In some ways, Conroy’s aspirations for his pupils blindside him to the inescapable reality only marginally affected by his presence, yet destined to remain unbothered after his departure. He encounters Quickfellow (Antonio Fargas), a sort of middle-aged slickster and Gullah-spouting sycophant, attempting to grease the wheels of their friendship, while plotting to make the underage Mary his wife. Later, Mary confides in Conroy how Quickfellow’s proposal will allow her father to get his teeth fixed and brother a new set of cloths. “What’s he going to do for you?” Conroy coolly suggests. When he is told by Mary she will be given a new dress, Conroy admonishes, telling Mary that Quickfellow is getting her ‘cheap’ and outlining – rather crudely – how her life will ultimately devolve into one of enslaved sexual servitude. It’s a pivotal moment in the movie; Conroy shifting his focus from enthusiastic disseminations to a decidedly more ‘tough love’ approach; perhaps the only language capable of penetrating Mary’s dullness and complacency.
There are, of course, prerequisite moments of progress peppered in throughout the movie; most superbly played in montage, as Conroy explores the island with his class – field trips, designed to improve their minds as well as exercise their bodies; introducing them to the natural wonders and beauty of their familiar landscape, but in decidedly unfamiliar ways, while bringing awareness to the greater social significance of world events happening beyond these idyllic – if isolated – boundaries. On one such excursion, Conroy is physically assaulted by Mad Billy (Paul Winfield); harmless enough when he’s not drinking his homemade hundred-proof moonshine, and who later asks Conroy to teach him to read in exchange for some ‘free samples’ of his ‘medicinal’ liquor. Conroy agrees, and is shocked when, on one of their routine fishing trips, he snags a child’s lifeless body drowned in these relatively shallow waters. Billy informs Conroy the children are afraid of the water and cannot swim. In response, Conroy’s next class outing is to the beach, where he literally drags – then tosses – a screaming and kicking Mary into the surf to teach by example a swimming lesson.
Conroy also promises to take the class to the mainland to experience their first Halloween; a holiday none of them has even heard of. Encountering resistance from the moneyed inhabitants at first, Conroy is aided in his endeavor by the kindly Mrs. Webster (Jane Moreland) who puts the class up for the night in her large mansion. Despite Mr. Skeffington’s stern objection, Conroy defies the board’s decision to restrict their entry to the mainland. He takes his kids around to ‘trick or treat’, inadvertently stopping at Skeffington’s home. Skeffington is deceptively coy; Conroy’s notice of dismissal mailed to his tiny shack on Yamacraw Island a short while later. It’s the end of the journey. Although Conroy will make a valiant attempt to challenge the board’s decision, as the Judge (Thomas Horton) astutely explains, the law is on Skeffington’s side.
Humbling himself before Skeffington, Conroy is denied reinstatement. The shoe is on the other foot now; the authority to make or break this young upstart, residing with Skeffington’s miserly desire to keep the residents of Yamacraw Island simple and unrefined. Conroy will never return to Yamacraw. It is a bitter pill to swallow, made all the more poignant when Mary brings the gramophone to the docks, playing Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony as their parting song. Much earlier, Conroy had explained to his students how the Fifth was Beethoven’s musicological response to the ominous specter of death, come to call. And in many ways, replaying its iconic strains as the modest tugboat departs, carrying Conroy back to the mainland, is representative of an even greater fatality; the loss of his position palling to the sacrificing of these children’s livelihood, doomed to regress into the mire without his champion around to continue their intellectual illuminations and build upon the foundation already begun in their momentous friendships.
Like the yellowing corners of an aged photograph long since misplaced somewhere in an upstairs attic, Conrack is a very bittersweet snapshot of America at one of its most divisive cultural crossroads. It is deserving of our renewed viewing, admiration and respect; bypassed in the movie goers’ memory by time itself, yet satisfyingly not dated by the passage of time ever since. Jon Voight’s peerless performance and Martin Ritt’s superior direction call out the apparition of unspoken racism in subtler ways; far more affecting and educational than any of the more ‘in your face’ like-mindedly themed, though decidedly more pulpy, visual treatises put forth in the movies since. The Frank/Ravetch screenplay makes its points without ever becoming preachy. Like the students who call Yamacraw their home, the audience is imbued with resounding empathy; the seminar given as affecting theater. We are entertained and thus, we learn. There endeth the lesson, perhaps, though arguably, not the lasting appeal of the movie itself. Anchored by Pat Conroy’s heavy-duty source material and Jon Voight’s indelibly determined teacher-hero, Conrack is a triumph; a type of movie Hollywood doesn’t make anymore: character-driven, wholehearted and true to life. It has superbly weathered the changing times and tastes, proving a vintage of exquisite nobility; as forthcoming today as it was forty years ago.
Fox’s new anamorphic 1080p transfer via Twilight Time is cause for celebration. Despite some residual softness and the occasional flicker, Conrack looks fairly solid. Amazingly, Conrack never made the leap to DVD; hence, the Blu-ray is our first opportunity to revisit the film in quite some time. We get good color saturation that effectively captures the naturalism in John A. Alonzo’s cinematography. Contrast is solid and age-related artifacts are a non-issue. But it appears film grain has been moderately tempered via the application of DNR. Also, there are trace elements of edge enhancement; all negligible. The DTS 2.0 audio is at the mercy of its source material. Primarily dialogue-driven, Conrack’s sound mix is competently rendered herein, though unremarkable. John Williams’ score lacks dynamic range; a sin rectified on Twilight Time’s isolated stereo track.
Herein, I think I’ll simply pause a moment to give hearty thanks and kudos to TT for their perennial dedication in providing us with isolated scores on virtually all their Blu-ray releases. No other company manufacturing physical media today does as much. TT is to be commended for putting in the effort. So thanks again, Nick Redman and Brian Jamieson. You guys are the best! Conrack also comes with another fascinating audio commentary, this one featuring TT’s Nick Redman and Paul Seydor. Great stuff and definitely worth a listen. Bottom line: very highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)