â€¢ Norma Rae
â€¢ Won't You Come Home, Red Ryder?
â€¢ The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith
â€¢ NORMA RAE is an exceptional American filmâ€"exceptional in that it has significant intellectual content, takes ideas seriously, has a highly literate script, and articulates its ideas coherently and well. In doing all this it insults no one's intelligence; it avoids sentimentality (as opposed to expression of feeling) even when most filmmakers would find the urge to turn in that direction irresistible; it avoids going in for violence even when the occasions depicted are those in which violence could very plausibly arise. And it almost totally avoids clichÃ©s, both in characterization and in verbal expression.
Nevertheless, the same intelligence that is required to enable us to appreciate the superiority of this film will also reveal to the perceptive viewer some problems with itâ€"at least reasons why one would not be well advised to swallow its message whole.
There is little doubt that textile workers in the South have, or at least had, certain grievances against their factory owners and managers. Doubtless the reverse is true also, though this is not shown; and factory owners are (and the scene is set in the present) certainly operating under an enormous burden of government regulation, but this is never shown either. If one were to go by the film alone, one would conclude that owners have an easy time of it and that government regulations and regulators never bother them in the least. The film pinpoints the owners as the sole villains; the idea that government is the villain, hostile to the interests of both owners and workers, is never so much as hinted at. The filmmakers would undoubtedly consider this a heretical suggestion.
Let us grant that every worker has the right to join a union (or not to joinâ€"an option that the film is less happy to grant him). But does this right carry with it mandatory approval of all the provisions of the National Labor Relations Act? Is one required to applaud all the things unions do, on pain of excommunication from membership in the League of Intellectual Honesty?
This film is just as one-sided as F.I.S.T., only better done. Now, by all means let's keep Norma Rae around; but let's also have a film exposing OSHA, the EPA, and other government bureaucracies that are making life difficult for all segments of all industries and lowering our standard of living at the same time. Let such a film expose the government's wasting of resources and how it adds materially to the cost of every product sold. Whether any such film will ever be made (do you want to take bets that it will?) will be as good a test as I can think of, of Hollywood's degree of dedication to fairness and intellectual honesty.
â€¢ In the midst of the Great American Desert, miles from the nearest town, there is a dilapidated little truck stop; a gunman approaches and terrorizes the unsuspecting patrons inside. This is a tempting theme for films because, when well done, it permits high-tension action on a low-budget set, from which the camera barely has to move at all.
Such a theme was successfully exploited in the film adaptation of the stage play The Petrified Forest some years ago; and several attempts have been made since, of which the most recent is WON'T YOU COME HOME, RED RYDER? Unfortunately, the attempt is unsuccessful.
The Petrified Forest at least had first-rate actors (Bette Davis, Humphrey Bogart, Leslie Howard) and a spring-taut stageplay to work from. Red Ryder has a generally amateurish set of actors (led by Marjoe Gortner, who is about as menacing as an angleworm) and spreads itself over more than two hours with little cumulative effect. First there is a scene between A and B, then between C and D, then E and F, and we soon surmise that somehow they're all going to get together in one scene, but before this happens about a third of the film has been frittered away, its potential energy dispersed beyond recapture. Moreover, many aspects of the plot development are just plain stupid (The Petrified Forest is somewhat dated today, but never stupid). The idea that one gunman could force six able-bodied people to obey his every whim, humiliating them to the point of dehumanization, is beyond plausibility. That they should "know themselves" better after such an experience may be true, but the film does nothing to show it. To top it all, the gunman is highly articulate and even poetic in his diction, with at least the vocabulary of a graduate student; to make him also a hippie, and sadistic, and trigger-happy, all at the same time, is too improbable a combination to be credible, at least until we learn something of his past, which we never do. Whatever plausible characterization and action were intended to be there, have plainly failed to emerge. What remains is an indigestible goulash.
â€¢ Where on the earth is a fresh source of cinematic talent, thus far relatively untapped, to be found? Answer: In Australia. Many Americans were impressed a few years back by Walkabout, a bittersweet story of a contact between white and native children in the Australian outback. Today new films like Picnic at Hanging Rock, The Last Wave, The Getting of Wisdom, The Picture Show Man, and Patrick are ample testimony to a new outburst of creative energy. It is a pity that most of these films won't be shown extensively in the United States, for the new Australian films have probably a higher batting average of merit than those of any other nation, even including France.
Until a few years ago in American films the only good Indian was a dead Indian. Then, in a sudden turnabout, Indians became the good guys and the whites always the villains. Just as the American whites dispossessed and mistreated the Indians, the European whites treated the Australian aborigines in similar fashion; but THE CHANT OF JIMMIE BLACKSMITH avoids the mistake of making the natives either all good or all bad.
The film, based on an incident that actually occurred around 1900 in Australia, is the story of one such mistreatment and abuse. The mental cruelty and (usually unconscious) pious hypocrisy of the white toward the aborigine are depicted tellingly in scene after scene: the aborigine works, but is not paid; he is dismissed without reason from one job after another; he is tricked into marriage by a white girl, only to find that he is not the father. The viewer burns with anger and resentment, but even so he is not prepared for the outburst of violence that hits the screen when the patience of the aborigine reaches the sticking point. Though presented with power and artistry, the violence is so graphic that many viewers cannot bear to watch it. Even the beauty of the vast interior of Australia, in which the film was shot, recedes into insignificance compared with the raw and powerful emotionality that is here set forth.
You should see this film by all means, unless you already have heart trouble; but leave the children at home. For an adult, the language and the subject matter should provide a test of one's ability to face reality unprotected by consoling rationalizations and cant.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Movies".