John Ford weaves three "Judge Priest" stories together to form a good- natured exploration of honour and small-town politics in the South around the turn of the century. Judge William ...
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John Ford weaves three "Judge Priest" stories together to form a good- natured exploration of honour and small-town politics in the South around the turn of the century. Judge William Priest is involved variously in revealing the real identity of Lucy Lake, reliving his Civil War memories, preventing the lynching of a youth and contesting the elections with Yankee Horace K. Maydew. Written by
Bernard Keane <BKeane2@email.dot.gov.au>
And there's no need to ask where it's shining from...
It would be nice to be able to discuss this film without having to refer to its politically incorrect depiction of blacks, but it's impossible to do so. The film, which is a remake of director John Ford's own Judge Priest from the 30s (in which Will Rogers played the title role), must have seemed curiously dated even when it was released, and feels like it was made in the early forties rather than the mid-fifties. Whether that's because of its outdated attitude towards blacks and the presence of slow, scratchy-voiced Stepin Fetchit is open to conjecture it could just be that the fog of nostalgia that hangs over the entire work is the reason.
Charles Winninger makes an amiable old judge whose quiet wisdom puts to shame the hypocritically puritanical attitudes of his small town's people and the racist assumptions of an unruly lynch mob out to hang a blameless teenage Negro. The storyline is kind of meandering, reflecting the apparently relaxed pace of life in the turn of the century Deep South, and you do really get a taste of Southern gentility whether accurate not. Its various sub-plots are linked together by the judge's bid for re-election, which serves to emphasise the importance of standing by one's principles no matter what the possible personal costs may be. Of course, the truth is Billy Priest is too good to be true, but I don't think anyone was out to make him a more realistic figure in this milieu than Santa Claus or God would have been.
John Ford's notorious sentimentality is in danger of becoming cloying at times, but he just about manages to rein it in at key moments. The film says as much about Hollywood's take on American social attitudes in the mid-50s as it does about the same in the Deep South at the turn of the century, which isn't in itself a bad thing. I suppose it's even possible that one day films like this will be shown in classrooms to demonstrate the gigantic positive strides made in the cause of racial equality in the latter half of the 20th Century. Better that than they are wilfully ignored in the name of political correctness.
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