By Richard Winters
My Rating: 5 out of 10
4-Word Review: Aiding a pregnant woman.
Jackson Fentry (Robert Duvall) is a lonely farm-hand who has never married and lives in a tiny shack on the grounds of the farm that he’s been hired to maintain. One day he comes across a pregnant woman named Sarah Eubancks (Olga Bellin) near the property who’s been abandoned by both her husband and his family. He brings her back to his modest shed to warm her up and since she has nowhere to go he eventually agrees, with the help of a local midwife (Sudie Bond), to assist through the birth of her child. Sarah though dies soon after the baby is born, but not before Jackson agrees that he’ll raise the child. For several years Jackson is able to do just that until the brother’s of the boy’s father arrive and take the child away. Then many years later Jackson is called-in for jury duty on a trial that, known only to him, has a connection to the boy he lost contact with.
There’s been many movies that have tried to recreate the rural 1800’s, but many for the sake of drama, or to make it more relatable to modern audiences, tend to cheat things. They may make it authentic in some areas, possibly even painstakingly so, but then compromise in others due to the entertainment factor. This though is one film that could genuinely be described as being about as minimalistic as any director could possibly make it. Filmed on a farm in rural Mississippi that was owned by the grandfather of Tammy Wynette the movie gives one an authentic taste of life back then with little to no music and no sense of any staging. The bare-bones shack that Jackson must reside in gives the viewer a stark sense of the grim, no frills existence that many dealt with back then. The slow pacing aptly reflects the slower ways of life and having the camera virtually trapped in the shed, or at most the nearby property, symbolized how people of that era had to learn to endure and expect little.
While those qualities hit-the-mark I felt that black-and-white photography detracted from it. By the 70’s most films were shot in color and only a few like The Last Picture Show, Young Frankenstein, and Eraserhead just to name some, were not, but this was more for mood, or style. Here though with everything already at an intentionally drab level the color could’ve at least brought out the beauty of the outdoor scenery of a southern winter and offered some brief striking visuals and a cinematic presence that was still needed, but missing and kind of hurts the movie.
Surprisingly I had issues with the acting. One might say with Robert Duvall present that couldn’t be the case, but his overly affected accent, he got it from a man he met once in the foothills of the Ozarks, was from my perspective overdone and even borderline annoying. Bellin is alright though behind-the-scenes she created problems by refusing to take any advice from director Joseph Anthony. She had done mostly stage work up until then and was used to having leverage about how she approached her character once she was onstage and considered that once the camera was shooting meant the same thing. It was okay, like with a play production, for the director to give advice during rehearsals, but when the actual filming started she should have free rein over her craft and having Anthony repeatedly reshoot scenes, like in typical film production, or suggest she do things differently as the filming was going on, was all new to her and not to her liking, which caused numerous arguments not only with Anthony, but Duvall as well making them both later admit that they regretted casting her and she never performed in another movie again. Out of the entire cast it was Sudie Bond as the lady who helps with the birthing that I found to be the most memorable.
While the story has many commendable moments it gets stretched pretty thin especially since it was based on a short story by William Faulkner and then adapted first as a play and then to the big screen by Horton Foote (the first of two collaborations that he did with Duvall with the second one being Tender Mercies 10 years later). Almost the entire third of the film gets spent on Jackson’s conversations with the woman while his relationship with the son takes-up less than 10 giving the pacing and flow a disjointed feel. It’s also a shame that, like with The Owl and the Pussycat, which came out 2 years earlier, the producers compromised on the elements of the original piece as in Faulkner’s story the pregnant woman was black, but here she gets changed to being Caucasian. Had the character remained black then what Jackson does for her would’ve been more profound as he would’ve been taking great personal risk in helping her in an era and region of the country where racism was high and by no longer being a colored woman it lessens the drama and is not as impactful as it could’ve been.
My Rating: 5 out of 10
Released: March 19, 1972
Runtime: 1 Hour 43 Minutes
Director: Joseph Anthony
Studio: Filmgroup Productions
Available: DVD, Blu-ray, Plex, Tubi, Amazon Video