BR: Conrack (1974)

April 15, 2015 | By

 

Conrack_BRFilm: Excellent

Transfer:  Excellent

Extras: Very Good

Label: Twilight Time

Region: All

Released:  March 11, 2014

Genre:  Drama / Teachers

Synopsis: An idealistic teacher attempts to bring a class of kids out from the dark ages of their isolated island world to the modern age in this vivid adaptation of Pat Conroy’s autobiographical novel “The Water is Wide.”

Special Features:  Audio Commentary Track with producer Nick Redman and film historian & film editor Paul Seydor / Isolated Stereo Music Track / Theatrical Trailer / 8-page colour booklet with liner notes by film historian Julie Kirgo / Limited to 3000 copies / Available exclusively from Screen Archives Entertainment.

 


 

Review:

The first film version of Pat Conroy’s autobiographical novel The Water is Wide is very much a reflection of the late sixties / early seventies, where a new crop of freshly minted teachers were keen on changing the world, bucking a conservative regime, and improving the lives of disenfranchised, marginalized kids, and empowering them with knowledge so they could save their community from withering into a wan culture.

Conroy’s hero bears his own name, but due to the isolated nature of the people living in the fictional island community of Yamacraw, Georgia, their mispronunciation results in the corruption “Conrack” (although the school’s principal, perhaps out of a certain disdain, always refers to him as “Pat Roy”).

As Nick Redman and film editor / historian Paul Seydor discuss in the disc’s superb commentary track, the kids’ inability to grasp his name probably stems from their own Gullah dialect, a distillation from their roots as former slaves brought to the isle from colonies like the Bahamas, Jamaica, and Barbados.

Pat ‘Conrack’ (Jon Voight) arrives with blazing optimism, but he’s soon shocked by the corporal punishment meted out by principal Scott (Trapper John M.D.’s Madge Sinclair, in a potent career-launching performance) and school superintendent Skeffington (Hume Cronyn).

Kids of varying ages are treated as permanently arrested wastrels. Conrack’s determination to advance their lives through music, art, history, nature, and role-playing, game-styled lessons in class and outside in the environs of their native isle does pay off, but at the cost of his own job – which could be regarded as too steep a price, or perhaps a necessary sacrifice for the kids’ evolution; ready to be more critical of further instructors, and perhaps more open towards similar liberal-minded teachers.

Twilight Time’s snagging Seydor for the commentary is highly fortuitous – he taught the book in a course designed to explain select works of modern American literature with their filmic counterparts – so viewers will find a wealth of insight into the differences between Conroy’s book and the screen adaptation by Harriet Frank Jr. and Irving Ravetch. Besides name changes and the creation of the teenage character Mary (played by future writer / director Tina Andrews), there are a few new scenes meant to enhance what’s clearly an adaptation that reflects the year 1974. It’s a film that also wears its liberal values on its sleeves in blazing Technicolor, but the central focus is on Conrack’s relationship with the kids, and their gradual edification.

If Pat Conrack is a faithful representation of author Conroy, his teaching style is pure positive reinforcement: he doesn’t ridicule, chastise, embarrass, nor berate any kid when there’s an incorrect answer; confusion is spun off into a tangential discussion that benefits the class as a whole. Class outings to the forest force the kids to examine the finer details of their environment, and in some cases, a trip to the beach breaks their stark fear of the water, given the encircling waterways have a dark history of claiming lives young and old.

The benevolent teacher genre has its share of immutable tropes, such as the inevitable head-butting with staid, creaky authority figures. One risky venture ultimately endangers the hero: a verboten a trip to the mainland so the kids can experience a classic American Halloween.

Ravetch and Frank’s script does have a few scenes easily deemed contrived and / or just plain weird: Skeffington recognizing a protestor on the local TV news as his son is a cheap chuckle; and near the finale, Conrack’s sudden rental of a truck with a loudspeaker system, clacking to suburban citizens about getting fired for doin’ good should’ve been snipped from the film entirely.

Director Martin Ritt, however, mines his cast of stars, character actors, and non-actors for very natural performances, and the location of Daufuskie Island, South Caolina, is amazing. John A. Alonzo’s cinematography is absolutely stunning – his compositions are truly artful, with snaking roads, marshes, and walkways evoking the island’s surrounding waterways.

The sets are finely detailed with wear, tear, and odd nick-knacks, and John Williams’ score (isolated in stereo on a separate track) is quite discrete, appearing only when absolutely necessary, and stepping away when performance and dialogue are more than sufficient to deliver a scene’s dramatic punch.

Still unavailable on DVD, Twilight Time’s Blu-ray fills in a necessary void, rescuing this lost gem for fans of the benevolent teacher genre, and the lively discussion track – because that’s really what it is – contextualizes the film and Conroy’s interest in human psychology.

The trailer is a real curio, and shows studio Fox had no idea how to market Ritt’s film, given it’s not a feel-good drama, nor an adventure-comedy, nor a period piece. (One could even regard Conrack’s journey as time-travelling, since he ventures from his suburban environs to a depressed world, and makes repeated efforts to explain the present day world to the island’s blindered kids, ultimately planning a trip to the mainland to show what has existed for decades just a few miles near the island’s shores.)

Julie Kirgo’s booklet essay rightly praises Ritt, and it is peculiar that’s he’s perceived (by some) as a marginal director, given his gift for extracting strong performances from actors, his ability to mine a location’s flavours, and just make a solid, unpretentious drama.

Other works by Pat Conroy adapted into feature films include The Great Santini (1979), The Lords of Discipline (1983), and The Prince of Tides (1991).

The Water is Wide was remade in 2006 as a Hallmark TV movie, and while more compact and offering some material directly from the novel (retaining the characters’ original names, Conroy’s fiancée, his trips back & forth to the mainland, and the community refusing to send their kids to school until Conroy’s job is restored), its treacly genetics make it a lesser effort, lacking the realism of Ritt’s more gritty approach, and Voight’s appropriately lively performance.

There’s also the teleplay’s wrap-up in which Conroy’s literary alter ego tells the community ‘they’ve won’, whereas in the film Ritt opts for a simpler, less obvious scene: Ritt boldly holds on a wide shot as Conrack is ferried away by boat to the sounds Beethoven’s 5th Symphony – a classical piece he introduced to the kids, and one they chose to play on the dock to express their new-found confidence.

Martin Ritt’s other films include The Long Hot Summer (1958), The Sound and the Fury (1959), The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1965), and The Front (1976).

 

 

© 2015 Mark R. Hasan

 


 

External References:
Editor’s BlogIMDB  —  Soundtrack Album — Composer Filmography
 
Vendor Search Links:
Amazon.ca —  Amazon.com —  Amazon.co.uk

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Category: Blu-ray / DVD Film Review

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