Rebel Pedagogues, Part 2: Jon Voight is Conrack

April 15, 2015 | By

How do you sell a movie that doesn’t fit into any easy mold? Big Actor Head + plain text and minimal mention of its best-selling source novel, that’s how!


In Part 1 of Rebel Pedagogues, I looked at two entries in the Benevolent Teacher genre / sub-genre where teachers with essentially good hearts are thwarted by a rigid system, or singled out and put on trial for being progressive.

Part 2’s focus is Martin Ritt’s Conrack, the 1974 film version of Pat Conroy’s auto-biographical novel / memoir “The Water is Wide” in which an idealistic teacher sent to an isolated island tries his damndest to educate marginalized kids when they’ve been written off as useless and lazy by their own principal.

It’s not a stretch to call this one of Jon Voight’s best performances, and Twilight Time’s commentators point out how the actor’s career sort of flipped from leading roles to character parts in meh studio productions. He’s still the most interesting thing in Luis Llosa’s Anaconda (1997), but the film is a qualified piece of crap made by a hack with a phony snake and bad dialogue. It’s a rare case where Voight knew he’d signed on to make crap, but thought he’d have fun making a character whose ethnic origins are kind of nowhere; Euro-Central American Nordic maybe, with Bronx bravado and stubbornness, perhaps.

Conrack’s virtues lie in its cast, location shooting, sharp dialogue, and gorgeous locations, and while a benevolent teacher film packed with most of the genre’s clichés, its finale is rather unexpected, especially to audiences reared on TV airings of rebel teachers who buck the system and win. There is a small victory – really a seed of hope – but no pop song to sell an album, nor happy finale where the hero walks away after snubbing his nose at his rigid superiors.

Ritt and his screenwriters went for realism, because when you’ve lost the big battle, it may be nice to think you can get away with a loud flipped bird to the overlords that stymied your earnest efforts, but often you’re escorted out of the premises with a box, and a firm request to stay away.

A film more influential to the benevolent teacher genre is To Sir, With Love (1967), which Twilight Time also released with marvelous extras, and of which a review will follow soon.



Mark R. Hasan, Editor

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