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Southern Movies, Actual and Fanciful:
A Personal Survey

Among directors, Kazan probably had the most consistent track record of anyone. Three other good examples of those who took the trouble to get things right would be Clarence Brown (a Southerner himself, who directed the memorable 1949 William Faulkner adaptation Intruder in the Dust on location in Oxford, Mississippi); Phil Karlson (a Chicagoan who directed what is in my opinion the best feature ever set in Alabama, The Phenix City Story — a seedy noirish docudrama about a crime-ridden town located next to a military base, filmed on location in 1955, with some of the town’s residents used effectively in bit parts); and, rather surprisingly, Luis Buñuel — whose underrated and neglected 1960 Mexican feature, The Young One, set on an island off the coast of Georgia, is uncommonly smart and accurate in its depiction of Southern Baptists.

The most obvious negative examples would be the absurd Hollywood skim job of William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, directed by Martin Ritt on the Twentieth Century-Fox backlot in 1959 (with none other than Yul Brynner pressed into service as Jason Compson); Otto Preminger’s 1967 Hurry Sundown (set in Georgia and filmed in Louisiana, but truly taking place in some Never-Neverland derived more from other bad movies about the South than from the South itself); and John Frankenheimer’s 1970 I Walk the Line (in which Gregory Peck is supposed to incarnate a Southern sheriff). Last but not least, Alan Parker’s 1988 Mississippi Burning is wrong about everything — Jim Crow segregation practices at lunch counters, the role played by the FBI during the civil rights movement, and the way most of the people look and sound, just for starters. Yet this movie is so adept at dishing out pro-vigilante sensationalism — a trait it ironically shares with The Birth of a Nation, not to mention 1996’s A Time to Kill — that it made much more of a mark than a relatively accurate and sober as well as old-fashioned liberal account of the civil rights movement, Carl Reiner’s Ghosts of Mississippi, also released in 1996.

Robert Altman’s 1975 Nashville is a good example of a movie that’s full of fine things despite the fact that it’s pretty bogus as a depiction of where it’s supposed to be set. (If you doubt my words, try talking to people who live there.) Admittedly, it was filmed on location, but Joan Tewksbury wrote the script after spending only a few days there, leading singer Brenda Lee to call the movie a “dialectical collage of unreality.” Altman, I should add, had already done a somewhat better job in relating to rural Mississippi during the Depression when he’d made Thieves Like Us the year before Nashville; and a quarter of a century later, he would deal plausibly with that state again, this time in the present, in Cookie’s Fortune.

I’m not trying to argue that fidelity to Southern reality should necessarily supersede other criteria when it comes to adapting material related to the South. Bertrand Tavernier, who once co-directed a reputable documentary with Robert Parrish called Mississippi Blues (1983), also opted two years earlier to adapt Jim Thompson’s pulp novel about a police chief, Pop. 1280, by transposing the action from the American South to French West Africa, and according to most accounts, the resulting Coup de torchon (Clean Slate, 1981) is a plausible fit.

Furthermore, it’s worth stressing that a few irreproachable films dealing with relations between black and white characters in small-town settings that are putatively Southern manage to fulfill this agenda without emphasizing or even addressing any specifically Southern traits. I’m thinking above all of Jacques Tourneur’s sublime Stars in My Crown (1950), in which an enlightened and imaginative preacher (Joel McCrea) manages to prevent a lynching by the local Ku Klux Klan of a black man (Juano Hernandez) who has refused to sell his property. And not far behind this masterpiece are two other underrated low-budget dramas that directly address interracial issues: Leo C. Popkin and Russell Rouse’s The Well (1951), which charts the snowballing effects through which a simple accident involving a black girl slowly builds into a race riot, and Roger Corman’s The Intruder (1962), adapted by Charles Beaumont from his own novel about a rabble-rousing Yankee racist stirring up Southern whites in a town whose high school is about to become desegregated. (Inspired by the real-life exploits of John Kasper in Clinton, Tennessee, Corman’s film may have blunted the edge of its own story by planting its own events in a fictitious town in Missouri, but the loss was relatively minor.)


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