Inspirational teachers: we’ve all undoubtedly had them somewhere along the way; men and women who pique our curiosity, inspire us to delve deeper into things that interest us, and guide us toward accomplishing something that’s meaningful for our lives. The movies have sometimes done a masterful job in portraying those who are drawn to instructing others; whether it be Mr. Chips, Miss Dove, Sylvia Barrett, or Mr. Holland, the movies have occasionally offered us memorable examples of dedicated individuals for whom imparting knowledge or offering a helping hand to those who crave it is as necessary as breathing. Martin Ritt’s Conrack offers us a look at another such driven individual.
Distributed By: Twilight Time
Video Resolution and Encode: 1080P/AVC
Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1
Audio: English 2.0 DTS-HDMA
Subtitles: English SDH
Run Time: 1 Hr. 46 Min.
Package Includes: Blu-raykeep case
Disc Type: BD50 (dual layer)
Release Date: 03/11/2014
Pat Conroy (Jon Voight) comes to the isolated island of Yamacraw off the South Carolina coast to teach in a two-room schoolhouse handling children in grades five through eight. What he finds, however, is a classroom full of children who can’t count, read, or write, know nothing of the world in which they live, and who have been beaten down by their former teacher and school principal Mrs. Scott (Madge Sinclair) to think they’re really not worthy of the time it takes to master such things. Conroy thinks anything is possible and gets down and dirty with his kids to teach them rudimentary facts as well as opening up the world to them as something filled with wonders to be explored. Of course, his unconventional teaching methods don’t go over well with Mrs. Scott or the school superintendent Mr. Skeffington (Hume Cronyn) who simply will not abide the personable Conroy’s unorthodox ideas about what constitutes meaningful education.
The Production Rating: 4.5/5
The script by Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank, Jr. is based on Pat Conroy’s memoir The Water Is Wide, a slightly fictionalized account of his year teaching the almost alien-like children of this Gullah island community. He makes the entire world his classroom as he takes his children beyond the four walls of the school to help them explore life in all its variety. He introduces them to the music of Beethoven and Brahms, he teaches them football and swimming (after he learns the surrounding river and ocean take a few lives each year of residents who simply fear the water so much they’ve never learned to swim), and he gives them instruction on the basics of counting, reading, and writing, enough so that when he’s being threatened with contract termination, his students can actually write testimonials in his behalf.
Director Martin Ritt makes each of these field trips into small triumphs as the children begin to have natural curiosity about things, and he keeps his camera on their faces as they listen raptly to their teacher’s chats, hanging on every word as their minds and souls are given much needed intellectual nourishment. We go with them on their first-ever Halloween excursion to Beaufort (quite a contrast to the moody Halloween sequence in Meet Me in St. Louis but in some ways equally as stirring) and watch them seeing their first movie (The Black Rose, a swashbuckler). Sure, the writers and director have stacked the deck in the “us versus them” conflict of the movie. Only stubborn, selfish fools determined to keep these people backward could object to this kind of alternative instruction as the children begin to blossom for the first time, but the unfairness and outrageousness of their actions against the teacher are undoubtedly suitable for the nihilistic era in which the film first appeared (all the ugliness of the Vietnam War protests, the Nixon administration and its scandals were a very negative time). What happens seems typical and unsurprising for the era though there is an ill-advised late scene of Conroy protesting his dismissal around the streets of Beaufort in a campaign truck which emphasizes the movie’s themes a bit too self-consciously.
Jon Voight has an actor’s field day with the title role (the children’s Gullah dialects won’t let their mouths form his correct name; even Mrs. Scott calls him “Patroy” through the entire film). His earnestness, determination, and sense of play, joy, and delight as he sees his charges begin to flower are all on display, and he never stops his relentless pursuit for the children’s well-being from beginning to end. Madge Sinclair gives an interesting performance as the demanding but (in her own mind) reasonable Mrs. Scott. Hume Cronyn’s conservative superintendent Mr. Skeffington (an amalgamation of two characters in the book) may be a touch too smug and sure for some, but it’s an effective performance that never quite goes overboard. Tina Andrews as one of the children Pat is the most interested in helping better her life is very successful in her first movie role. Excellent actors like Paul Winfield as the moonshiner Mad Billy and especially Antonio Fargas as local eccentric Mr. Quickfellow must establish themselves with precious little screen time.
The film’s theatrical Panavision aspect ratio of 2.35:1 is faithfully reproduced in this 1080p transfer using the AVC codec. Though contrast is sometimes a bit irregular and long shots sometimes lack depth, clarity, and sharpness, the image quality and detail for the most part is very good. Color is stable and flesh tones are believable. Black levels vary from only fair to very good (during the Halloween sequence), and the image is free from any age-related specks or debris. The film has been divided into 12 chapters.
Video Rating: 4/5 3D Rating: NA
The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono sound mix (the cover art identifies it as DTS-HD MA 1.0, but my receiver said something different) doesn’t offer the greatest fidelity, but the dialogue, music, and sound effects all reside comfortably together without any one element outpacing the others. It’s a mix very typical of its era and without any age-related artifacts like hiss or flutter to mar the listening experience.
Audio Rating: 4/5
Audio Commentary: film historians Nick Redman and Paul Seydor compare and contrast the book and the film, praising the movie for its achievements and pointing out its flaws and missteps professionally. It’s an interesting listen.
Special Features Rating: 3/5
Isolated Score and Effects Track: John Williams’ music and the audio effects are presented in DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 stereo.
Theatrical Trailer (2:41, SD)
Six-Page Booklet: contains a series of color stills, poster art on the back cover, and film historian Julie Kirgo’s illuminating take on the movie.
Conrack is a superbly heartrending and affecting gem, an overlooked film from an era when violence and ugliness in movies often not only was the center of attention but often the only thing getting any kind of attention. This is a film that deserves a rediscovery. There are only 3,000 copies of this Blu-ray available. Those interested should go to www.screenarchives.com to see if product is still in stock. Information about the movie can also be found via Facebook at www.facebook.com/twilighttimemovies.
Overall Rating: 4/5
Reviewed By: Matt Hough
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