Appellate Judge Dave Ryan has some truth to tell 'bout this here Faulkner adaptation, so sit yerself a spell and listen up.
"Eleven years old—and already cut up in a whorehouse brawl."
William Faulkner's last novel—published a month before his death in 1962—got its big-screen treatment only seven years later. Faulkner's Mark Twain-esque coming-of-age tale had an unlikely producer/star in Steve McQueen. McQueen, the epitome of macho, intense cool, seemed ill-suited to play any role in a Faulkner tale. Surprisingly, McQueen delivered a charming performance perfectly suited to the material. The Reivers is a fun, entertaining, and—unfortunately—now largely forgotten cinematic slice of a Mississippi that's now long gone.
Facts of the Case
What's a "reiver"? Well—it's a Scottish word with many synonyms. Ne'er-do-well. Rogue. Troublemaker. Thief. However you define it, Boon Hogganbeck (McQueen) is one of 'em. Boon is…well, it's never actually specified what he is, but we can probably guess that he's a handyman or the like for the Priest family in Jefferson, Mississippi, circa 1906. Boon likes the ladies, and enjoys his life—but he loves what paterfamilias "Boss" Priest (Will Geer, The Waltons) has purchased and brought to the homestead: a bright yellow Winton Flyer automobile.
When Boss and his son and daughter-in-law head off for a family funeral, Boon takes it upon himself to drive the car to Memphis for a bit of an adventure. He convinces Boss's 11-year-old grandson Lucius (Mitch Vogel, Little House on the Prairie) to come with him. A few hours out of town, they discover a stowaway on board the Flyer: Lucius's black cousin Ned (Rupert Crosse), the current end result of a dalliance Lucius's great-great-grandfather had with a slave girl. Over the next four days, Lucius will learn a lot of life lessons, convince Boon's prostitute girlfriend Corrie (Sharon Farrell) to give up her line of work, get into a knife fight, meet a sleazy local sheriff, and ride a sardine-crazy thoroughbred in a stakes race. Only in the South…
Arguably, no writer is more closely identified with the American South than the late William Faulkner, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner and Nobel laureate. Best-known for his short stories and highly-regarded novels (e.g. The Sound and the Fury, As I Lay Dying, Absalom, Absalom!, Sartoris, and Light In August), all set in and around his fictional Yoknapatawpha County, Faulkner's dense, homespun, and lyrical prose is a unique and distinctive voice in the American literary canon. His novels and stories deal with serious issues—in his words, the "problems of the human heart in conflict with itself;" "love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice." He also had a strong connection to Hollywood, thanks to a friendship and working relationship with director Howard Hawkes, and a screenwriting stint at Warner Brothers in the Forties, where he adapted both Ernest Hemingway's To Have and Have Not and Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep for the screen. (John Mahoney's character in Barton Fink, W. P. Mayhew, is based on Faulkner, in case you were curious.)
The Reivers, however, is an outlier in Faulkner's body of work. Although the novel has a serious side, its core messages are concealed within a fun, humorous romp through the Mississippi countryside; the word most often used to describe the novel is "picaresque." It's really more like one of Mark Twain's Tom Sawyer/Huck Finn novels—strong social commentary masked by humor and innocence. It is nowhere near as intense and direct as the rest of Faulkner's canon—and is therefore more approachable.
This film adaptation of The Reivers manages to capture the lilting, dreamy, poetic tone of Faulkner's writing (he was a part-time poet as well as a novelist) surprisingly well. Since the novel is a retelling of the events by an adult Lucius, there are ample opportunities to insert bits and pieces of narration into the screenplay. (Think The Wonder Years.) For this film, the narration is provided by the always-reliable Burgess Meredith (Rocky), whose dulcet tones strike just the right notes of nostalgia. The film kicks off with the kind of pastoral, dream-like vision of the rural South that makes you long for simpler days—kids splashing in the swimming hole, pies cooling on windowsills, amber rays of sunlight threading their way between the tree branches. Practically the whole town comes out to the rail depot to see the arrival of the yellow Flyer, a wonder seldom seen in rural Mississippi. It's a seductive image; one tinged with the selective memories of an idyllic childhood.
And that's Faulkner's point. This is a perception of the world; not reality. Lucius does more than travel to Memphis and back over the course of these four days—he begins to realize that the adult world is more complex than he imagined. Bit by bit, Faulkner peels away the shiny veneer that covers up the ugly realities of the turn-of-the-century South. To Lucius, Ned is just his friendly "colored" cousin; but to the fat, sleazy Sheriff Butch (Clifton James, Eight Men Out) he's a "nigger" who'd better know his place if he didn't want trouble (in the form of a rope) to befall his Uncle Possum (Juano Hernandez, Intruder in the Dust). He doesn't want to believe Corrie is a whore, and almost gets himself killed fighting for her honor—but he has to confront the truth that she is what she is. He also has to deal with the consequences of his lies, and the mistrust and disappointment they've generated within his family, which is itself more punishment than any strap or belt could deliver. In the end, he realizes that although he's seen new sides of his world that he hadn't thought about before, it's not the world that has changed—he's changed. But along the way, it's been a mighty fun ride, for the most part.
Normally, when confronted with movie adaptations of great literature, I'd recommend reading the book. But in this case, The Reivers captures the essence of Faulkner's novel so well that I have to admit that the film is a pretty good substitute. (Faulkner's writing is…shall we say…a bit dense at times; this cinematic version is more accessible.) It's fun, has a lot of good, gentle humor, and doesn't browbeat you with its coming-of-age messages. At time it's almost vaudevillian in its humor, but everything works well within the context of the material. Sure, the acting isn't the greatest I've ever seen—but it's pretty darned good (Crosse earned an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor), and everyone seems to having a great time. (Especially McQueen, whose wink-and-a-nod roguishness here is as far removed from his last role—Bullitt—as you can get.) Completing the package is a terrific (but often overlooked) score by John Williams, which earned the film another Academy Award nomination, in which Williams lets his inherent Aaron Copland tendencies run wild, then mixes in hints of ragtime and Southern folk music. (Williams also cleverly punctuates the score with silent-film-like musical cues, adding even more nostalgia to the proceedings.)
So how does this film fit into the greater Steve McQueen body of work? Well—it really doesn't. McQueen had never played the country bumpkin role before, and never would again. (Unless you count Tom Horn—but he was a Western bumpkin, not a Southern bumpkin. Big difference.) It suits him well, although he plays up the comedy to the point of overacting at times. It's an enjoyable turn by Steve, but his full range of talent isn't on display here by any means. And he can never truly escape his Essence of Cool aura—even as you're watching this, you can picture him donning a turtleneck and blazer after the shoot to spirit Farrell off in his Shelby Cobra for some martinis and whatever they may lead to. It's definitely not a role that you'd consider tailor-made for McQueen. But hey—everyone deserves to have a little fun now and then.
Besides McQueen, the film gets good performances from the aforementioned Oscar nominee Crosse, who plays Ned a bit like a slightly more serious version of Cleavon Little's sheriff in Blazing Saddles, James as the nasty sheriff (can a human being really sweat that much???), Michael Constantine (My Big Fat Greek Wedding) as the ill-mannered proprietor of the whorehouse, and young Mitch Vogel as Lucius. Although he's not in the film for a great deal of time, Will Geer (who bears a passing resemblance to Faulkner himself) makes what time he gets memorable, exceeding anything he ever did as Grandpa Walton. Finally, the film is kept crackling along at a good pace by director Mark Rydell, who later hit his paydirt with The Rose and On Golden Pond. All in all, this is a highly entertaining film that's almost suitable for the whole family. (I'd say it's probably appropriate for anyone older than Lucius.)
Paramount delivers a bare-bones version of the film on disc, with nary an extra to be found. However, the transfer is crisp and clean, and the 5.1 surround audio track brings out the richness of the score.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
There are a couple of instances in the film where some very bad cuts are patently obvious. I'm not sure whether this was due to frames removed from a damaged master print, or just poor editing, but it was a distraction.
The Reivers is Faulkner Lite. Faulkner's final novel is nowhere near as dense, complex, and intense as most of his work. But it is this very lightness that makes for a better—and ultimately more accurate—cinematic translation of the book. A motion picture can never really capture the nuances of something like The Sound and the Fury, which relies so heavily on stylized stream-of-consciousness narrative. Here Faulkner tells a different kind of tale, one far more conducive to film treatment. The resulting adaptation is a fine piece of cinema—not classic, but highly entertaining and eminently rewatchable.
Y'all ain't guilty none.
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