Echo Bridge Home Entertainment // 1995 // 106 Minutes // Rated PG
Reviewed by Judge Roy Hrab (Retired) // January 14th, 2012
"He's the only man I've ever met, black or white, who saw me for what I am. What I really am."
"Cry, the beloved country, for the unborn child that is the inheritor of our fear. Let him not love the earth too deeply. Let him not laugh too gladly when the water runs through his fingers, nor stand too silent when the setting sun makes red the veld with fire. Let him not be too moved when the birds of his land are singing, nor give too much of his heart to a mountain or a valley. For fear will rob him of all if he gives too much."
It is 1946. In a small South African village lives Stephen Kumalo (James Earl Jones, Field Of Dreams), a black priest. Also living in the same area is James Jarvis (Richard Harris, This Sporting Life), a white landowner with a large estate. The two men are vaguely aware of the other's existence, but have never met. This all changes when Stephen heads to Johannesburg to find his sister and his son, Absolom (Eric Miyeni, Bopha!). Not long after arriving, Stephen learns that Absolom has been arrested for murdering James's son during a botched burglary. If he is found guilty of murder, Absolom will be executed.
Cry, The Beloved Country is based on the 1948 novel by South African author and anti-apartheid activist Alan Paton. The novel was published shortly before apartheid legislation was introduced by the National Party government.
Having not read the novel, I can't speak to the film's fidelity to its source material. However, I can say the film fails to deliver a believable message, possibly because the story itself has not aged well. The main theme is the mistreatment of blacks by the ruling whites, and how such an unfair and unjust system leads to numerous social ills, such as poverty and crime. The secondary theme is that these problems can be overcome if we open our hearts and minds.
The themes are valid, but the presentation lacks realism. The most striking example of this is the film's ending. James starts off as a racist, but by the end he overcomes his prejudices through reading the writings of his deceased son, who promoted social justice. This leads James to forgiveness and a pledge to pay for repairs to Stephen's dilapidated church. In one of the final images of the film, Stephen is seen praying for his son on a glorious hilltop with a panoramic view of green fields. It's stirring stuff and is clearly intended to provide an uplifting feeling, but it rings hollow.
The problem is that full-blown apartheid is on the horizon as the final credits role. Things are going to get a much worse, but no hint of this is given. Further, the film presents many blacks living in ghettos in Johannesburg, but it does so with little commentary or explanation. The issue of race doesn't really come up during Absolom's trial. The closest the film gets to real social commentary are a couple of scenes involving blacks boycotting a bus fare increase. As a result, the film does not communicate a realistic picture of the social divide at the time, the destructive impacts apartheid will bring, and how difficult it will be to overturn it. This is a huge disconnect that cannot be ignored.
The performances by the leads are solid. Jones and Harris are well cast in their respective roles. The supporting cast provides able assistance.
The standard definition 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer is disappointing. It is clear that no restorative work was attempted. There is grain and other imperfections throughout. The colors are soft and detail is not particularly strong, especially in scenes taking place at night. The Dolby 2.0 stereo mix is solid with all dialogue and sound effects coming through clear, but there's nothing impressive about it.
There are no extras.
Cry, The Beloved Country is one of those classic well-intentioned films that seems to trivialize the serious problems it seeks to explore, by presenting them in a manner for too tame.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Echo Bridge Home Entertainment
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 106 Minutes
Release Year: 1995
MPAA Rating: Rated PG