I first saw "The Shepherd of the Hills" outdoor drama when we visited Branson for the first time, in the late 1970's. My family and I were totally unfamiliar with this southwest Missouri area, and this was only a few years prior to the Branson area's "explosion" onto the entertainment scene. It expanded from 6 or 8 theaters, then, with perhaps 5,000 seats, to several times this number today, with more seats than all of Broadway. It's possible there now for someone to attend something like 50 or 60 shows for a month - one every evening and a number of breakfast or matinée performances - and never see the same one twice, with additional ones available if one wishes to begin a second month.
From earlier days, and continuing today, two of the cornerstone attractions in the Branson area are Silver Dollar City theme park (modeled after an 1880's silver mining complex, but with 21st-century New York City or Hollywood pricing) and The Shepherd of the Hills farm, the original cabin, the large outdoor amphitheater which presents a lavish production of the story, a restaurant, gift shop, etc. They also have all the information about characters upon whom the book is based, and Harold Bell Wright, that one could possibly want to know (and then some!).
This film's "version" of the book and story is well-played, the scenery well-photographed (especially since footage was done 65 years ago), and the characters interesting. However, the story here represents the book about as well as if John Wayne's film, "Red River," had been presented with this title and its characters renamed to coincide with this story.
First, the elder Mathews were not a female moonshiner and her wimpy husband. They were leading citizens, operated the mill, and were an asset to their rural community and their fellow residents.
Young Matt and Sammy, as a "couple", were more like characters from "The Waltons" than those portrayed. The "Shepherd" was also a model citizen-type, no gunfighter or ex-con, and was no relation to Young Matt whatever.
Actually, the Shepherd was the father of the young man who had fathered the mentally-challenged young Pete, the son of the Mathews' late daughter. His son had loved her, had returned East not realizing he had left her pregnant, and was prevented by his father (the Shepherd) from returning, and subsequently disappeared.
The Shepherd had come to the area to view the situation and attempt amends. During the actual book (and the drama as still presented in Branson today) the unknown "specter" character appears throughout, is shot, and dies, but before passing, is discovered to be the Shepherd's lost son, and there is a heartfelt resolution of matters towards the end.
The Shepherd also achieves rapprochement with Old Matt, who had threatened mayhem should he ever encounter the man he blamed for his daughter's broken heart and death.
Wash Gibbs is a nefarious character, with designs upon Sammy, and a rival of Matt - in both versions - but in the book he is still a "Baldnobber" and gangster. The "Baldknobbers" were vigilantes who had done worthy things for the citizenry in the post-Civil War period, with carpetbaggers and others attempting to plunder the areas - but like a lot of such groups, when there was no further need for their good works, they turned their prodigious physical strengths to illegal, self-serving ends.
Several interesting, key characters from the novel are missing from this film; e.g., Jim Lane (Sammy's father) is more of a key element than shown here. And the Marjorie Main character, with the over-the-top scene where she regains her sight, represents no key element of Wright's story. The name "Moanin' Meadow," and its representation in the movie have no part in Wright's book. While in both presentations, the characters were simple "hill folk," neither sophisticated nor educated - the film provides many with a far greater "bumpkin" image.
Again, this is an excellent film, but I would have enjoyed even more seeing the same characters presented as actually portrayed by Wright.
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