Based on a memoir by novelist Pat Conroy, the story is set in 1969 on the staggeringly isolated island of Yamacraw, located off the coast of South Carolina. This little community is populated almost entirely by African-Americans. There are no bridges to the mainland, which is exactly how some of nearby Beaufort’s residents like it. Schoolteacher Conroy (Voight) is hired to instruct the children at Yamacraw’s elementary school. Upon first reporting for duty, Conroy is informed by the school’s principal Mrs. Scott (Madge Sinclair, delivering a finely-nuanced, ambiguous performance) that the “babies” need to be stepped on in order to be kept in line.
Conroy is dumbstruck when he discovers that these children have almost no knowledge of anything. They can’t count. They can’t identify the Atlantic Ocean as anything other than “the beach.” They don’t know the name of the country in which they live. Due to peculiarities in their dialect, they can’t even pronounce Conroy’s name (hence the film’s title). The school on Yamacraw Island has apparently served as little more than a daycare center. Its administrators, including Beaufort resident and school superintendent Mr. Skeffington (Hume Cronyn), want only for the children to be disciplined. They are to learn nothing, achieve nothing, and never leave the island—just like “Mad” Billy (Paul Winfield; young, trim, and unfortunately underused), a heartbroken widower who has never set foot on the U.S. mainland.
Voight has an absolute field day, playing Conroy as an idealistic rebel. Fifteen years before Robin Williams was Oscar-nominated for a similar role in Dead Poets Society, Voight was snubbed in the Best Actor category. In fact, the movie itself was snubbed, failing at the box office. Yet it is ripe for rediscovery. The movie was sort of ahead of its time, in a way. Had it been released a decade later, I can only image it would’ve been received on par with Stand and Deliver and similar films.
Conroy immediately, instinctively throws all his energy into an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink style of hands-on education. He’s starting from scratch (“These kids don’t know crap,” he bluntly tells Mrs. Scott, who already knows). Ritt and the screenwriting team of Harriet Frank, Jr. and Irving Ravetch perhaps overreach, albeit slightly, in showing Conroy’s diverse approach. Sport, human reproduction, music, world geography—he’s shown covering it all, and without much sense of how much time has elapsed. Not without purpose, of course, but it does begin to feel a bit like a checklist being ticked off, one item at a time. We even see Conroy deliver a pep talk to a boy embarrassed by his apparently undersized member.
But as Conroy reaches the children, the film’s emotional hold on its audience becomes quite strong. Yes, this can be viewed simply as the story of a white man bestowing his self-perceived wisdom and experience on a classroom full of profoundly uneducated black youths. It’s easy to have a knee jerk reaction to this. But pay close attention to Ritt and company’s work. They’re not putting for any patronizing, condescending, pseudo-liberal ideas about a great white hope earning his sainthood by lowering himself to work with these youngsters (though in lesser hands, the film could’ve easily dissolved into that sort of thing).
The kids on Yamacraw have poor adult role models, be they white (like the unapologetic racist Mr. Skeffington) or black (like the line-towing Mrs. Scott). Clearly they needed someone to awaken them to the world around them and Conroy happens to be up to the task. Conroy, a self-admitted reformed racist, even subtly tweaks his initially Euro-centric lessons (i.e. Babe Ruth as the greatest baseball player, Beethoven as the most essential composer) to include some diversity (i.e. Jackie Robinson as the greatest ball player, James Brown as a significant musical artist).
As Conrack moves briskly toward what might be deemed an anticlimax, those familiar with modern inspirational-teacher tropes may find themselves startled by how downcast the denouement feels. But the conclusion is logical, inevitable, and entirely appropriate given the very modest scale of the film. Predictably, Conway’s arrogance clashes with Skeffington’s old-school ways (and, more significantly, the latter’s hatred of blacks), especially as it becomes clear that the students are indeed becoming self-empowered. There are a few moments of awkwardly forced comic relief tossed in along the way. The parents of the school children are largely unseen, except for supportive Grandma Edna (Ruth Attaway). But for its minor flaws, Conrack is a tremendously endearing film.
Twilight Time’s Blu-ray offers a nearly spotless image, obviously sourced from a well-preserved print. There aren’t any issues worth complaining about, truth be told. John A. Alonzo’s cinematography is presented with more than adequate levels of clarity and detail. Also excellent in a non-showy way is the DTS-HD MA 2.0 stereo mix that offers clear, undistorted fidelity. Dialogue sounds fine, as does the score by a then-relatively unknown John Williams (Jaws was a year away).
Williams’ score (quite unlike those for which he has become justly famous) is offered up as an isolated track in DTS-HD MA 2.0. The main draw is the absorbing, fascinating commentary by film historians Paul Seydor and Nick Redman. This is Seydor’s track, really, with Redman serving more or less to spur new topics for Seydor to explore. This is a great example of why well-prepared tracks by film historians are often more rewarding than those conducted by the filmmakers themselves. Seydor offers a staggering amount of background information on the film, the source book, and the real Daufuskie Island’s (Yamacraw is a fictitious name) Gullah residents. The Gullah were direct descendents of slaves. It’s fascinating to listen to all around, with both Seydor and Redman offering critical comments about certain aspects of the film as well.
If I haven’t made my hearty endorsement of Conrack clear by now, all I can do is urge you to visit Screen Archives (the exclusive distributor of Twilight Time’s Limited Edition series) and snag a copy while they’re available. Only 3,000 copies of every Twilight Time title are pressed and when supplies run out, secondary market prices tend to skyrocket. The only home video format Conrack has ever been previously available on is crappy old VHS, so this new Blu-ray is a real treat for fans of Martin Ritt, Jon Voight, or simply of superbly crafted films in general.