Judge Clark Douglas' little-read autobiography is much less inspiring.
One beautiful man. His story is true.
"How many fingers am I holding up? Count 'em."
Facts of the Case
Pat Conroy (Jon Voight, Midnight Cowboy) is a good-natured schoolteacher who has just accepted a job at a small school on Daufuskie Island (which is located in a South Carolina river delta). The island is almost entirely populated by African-Americans, and is almost entirely removed from modern culture. Most of the children don't know how to count or recite the alphabet, much less read or write. Making matters worse is the overbearing school principal Mrs. Scott (Madge Sinclair, Coming to America), who demands that Conroy rule over his students with an iron fist and discipline them harshly every time they step out of line. Conroy ignores her orders and opts for a friendlier, more accessible approach, searching for new ways to connect with his under-educated students. Progress is understandably slow, but there is indeed progress, which makes Conroy a target of certain bigoted board of education members.
Movies about hard-working, effortlessly likable teachers who inspire their struggling students to surprising heights have fared pretty well over the years. From Goodbye, Mr. Chips to Lean on Me to Freedom Writers, audiences have embraced tales of independent-minded educators who put the lives of their students ahead of the rigid standards of the villainous principals/school boards/PTA members/whatever. Most of these flicks are well-intentioned, feature a solid performance from the actor blessed with the role of Saintly-But-Fun Teacher and ultimately prove thoroughly predictable. At a first glance, Martin Ritt's Conrack (based on the real Pat Conroy's memoir) appears to be just another product from the same assembly line, but after a while it begins to temper its conventions with a welcome dose of realism.
Conrack gets off to a somewhat clunky start, beginning with the scene which provides the film with its title. Conroy is attempting to get his students to say his last name, but none of them are able to do so (all of them say "Conrack" instead). This is a true story, as the residents of Daufuskie Island spoke an unusual dialect which made certain words difficult for them to pronounce. However, the film doesn't actually bother to explain this, and nobody on the island seems to have trouble pronouncing anything else. As a result, the scene just feels like a very odd, awkward way of demonstrating how far these students have to go in terms of learning basic social abilities. Additionally, the film certainly falls into the category of "white savior" flicks, in which a noble white character is required to come in and save a bunch of minorities who would otherwise be incapable of helping themselves. Certain topical scenes feel painfully dated, such a scene in which an angry, conservative school superintendent (a vigorous Hume Cronyn, Cocoon) rails against hippies in a manner which makes him seem cartoonish (the scene isn't helped by the contrived personal twist it delivers, either).
Even so, the film is (thankfully) about something more than Conroy's nobility, serving less as a glowing tribute to his selflessness than as an angry examination of a broken system which is kept broken thanks to the actions of bigoted authority figures. The good ol' boys in South Carolina circa 1969 certainly have no interest in helping impoverished black kids receive the education they need to improve their lives. You can feel the film's outrage during its strongest moments, and the conclusion refuses to indulge phony sentiment. For all of the conventional scenes of Voight inspiring the kids with his "throw-out-the-rulebook" methods, there are strong (if unsubtle) scenes which ensure that the potentially innocuous movie has a little bite. While I'm not sure that I concur with the booklet's assessment that the film might offer Voight's finest performance (I mean, who can forget Anaconda?), it's a solid, appealing turn from an actor at the peak of his powers. Plus, there's a fresh-faced warmth to Voight which permits him to play the role more convincingly than many of his talented peers (say, Dustin Hoffman or Gene Hackman) might have been able to.
Conrack (Blu-ray) has received a decent 1080p/2.35:1 transfer which preserves the natural grain structure and offers moderately satisfying detail. While the image looks a little dingy at times (so many films from this era do), flesh tones are generally warm and colors have some pop during brighter scenes. The DTS HD 2.0 Master Audio score is stellar, highlighting a folksy, appealing early score from John Williams (penned just before Jaws made him one of cinema's most popular composers). Dialogue is clean and clear, too. Supplements include a commentary with Paul Seydour and Nick Redman, an isolated score track, a trailer, and a booklet featuring an essay by Julie Kirgo.
I have to admit, I rolled my eyes during some of Conrack's incredibly earnest early scenes, but the film's genuine desire for social change and matter-of-fact realism ultimately proved potent enough to overcome the more conventional elements. Not a great film, but an impressively sincere and fiery one.
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Scales of Justice
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