“What you want is your town back again.”
When a young preacher (Joel McCrea) arrives in a small southern town just after the end of the Civil War, he marries a local woman (Ellen Drew) and becomes an adoptive father to Drew’s orphaned nephew John (Dean Stockwell). As an adult (Marshall Thompson), John narrates various tales from his childhood — including a racist landowner (Ed Begley) trying to force a Black farmer (Juano Hernandez) to sell his land; a young doctor (James Mitchell) romancing the local schoolteacher (Amanda Blake) while taking over the practice of his dying father (Lewis Stone); a traveling magician (Charles Kemper) arriving to give a performance; and a fatal outbreak of typhoid.
Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:
- Alan Hale Films
- Dean Stockwell Films
- Doctors and Nurses
- Jacques Tourneur Films
- Joel McCrea Films
- Juano Hernandez Films
- Lewis Stone Films
- Priests and Ministers
- Racism and Race Relations
- Small Town America
Jacques Tourneur directed a handful of westerns in his varied career — including Canyon Passage (1946), Wichita (1955), Stranger on Horseback (1955), Great Day in the Morning (1956), and this lyrical adaptation of an autobiographical novel by Joe David Brown. The storyline meanders through a young boy’s memories of his uncle’s near-miraculous impact on locals — to an extent that whitewashes and smooths over highly complex topics (i.e., deeply entrenched racism), but perhaps can be excused as part of a child’s idealized sense-making. McCrea is well-cast in the central role as Preacher Josiah Doziah Gray:
… a man so convinced of the goodness and rightness of Christian values that he attempts to persuade all townsfolk — including a former war buddy (Alan Hale) and his bustling family — to come to services regularly:
The most disturbing (and problematic) aspect of the film by far is the recurring subplot about Hernandez standing firm in his rejection of an offer to buy his land. He doesn’t back down from vile Begley and his henchmen, but must continually kowtow to local whites, and nearly sacrifices his life to murderous Klansmen for his principles:
… McCrea saves the day in a seriously unrealistic sequence that many have taken issue with. Indeed, those who rankle at seeing tales of “white saviors” should be forewarned that this is very much a story along the lines of To Kill a Mockingbird (1962); viewers wanting to see Hernandez standing up more forcefully for himself in the face of racism should check out Intruder in the Dust (1949). Meanwhile, the film’s other significant subplot — about the sudden emergence and transmission of typhoid among the town’s children — is a scary reminder about our human vulnerabilities, one that hits all too close to home these days.
Redeeming Qualities and Moments:
- Joel McCrea as Josiah Gray
- Strong performances by the supporting cast
- Atmospheric cinematography
Yes, as a fine (if somewhat troubling) feel-good film by a master director. Listed as a Sleeper and a Personal Recommendation in the back of Peary’s book.
- Good Show
- Important Director