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Everyone I know that has read Alan Paton's Cry, The Beloved Country has raved about the book. Sometimes bad books make good movies. Sometimes great books make bad movies. And sometimes great books make movies that don't really amount to much. It always comes down to the adaptation, for books always contain more information and story than can be transferred to the movie screen in two or so hours.
Such is the case with Cry, The Beloved Country. A story of a black priest and a white landowner; residents of the same area of South Africa and so separated by the barrier of apartheid that, even at the trial of one man's son for the murder of the other, there is no knowledge by the White man of the Black. A random meeting brings sparks a change in the landowner (Richard Harris) who is befuddled as to why his son would spend his time and money on "those people".
CTBC is the story of how this heinous crime brings the two men together and makes them change. It should pack a mother of an emotional wallop. But it doesn't.
The Fundisi -- fundisi is apparently title applicable to status of Priest, which is what James Earl Jones' character is -- travels to Johannesburg after being warned that his sister is gravely ill. He arrives and, the "country mouse" that he is, is ripped off almost immediately. Through Good Providence and Kindliness, he manages to find his way to where he is going. It is there that he learns his sister's illness is not physical. She has sold herself into prostitution to support her child. Once rescued, she vanishes from the story.
There is also the search for the son, which leads to an estranged brother, which brings us directly to the murder and a potential blockbuster of a conflict between the brothers. Both their sons are accused. One prays to God. One uses his political power to get a better lawyer.
But CTBC isn't about that either. This is all set up to get to the meeting between the Jones and Harris. That confrontation, such as it is, is incredibly polite and stilted. Jones collapses upon seeing Harris. The latter assumes the old man is having an attack.
But to get this far, where the story REALLY is supposed to begin, is a long journey.
And I didn't even mention the Civil Rights protests.....
And remember the sister? She vanishes with a simple "she ran away" as an explanation. No concern is expressed or emotion shown on Jones' face. There's more to this story, but we will never know it.
I suspect that many of the subplots that are set up and then drop away, or which appear out of nowhere in at least one case, were of such great significance in the original novel that they had to be represented in some form on screen.
And so, Cry, The Beloved Country is an unfocussed story. A bit here, a bit there. If you have read the book, your tears may flow freely, as they did in the theater around me. If you have not read the book, it is a long haul.
My gut feeling is that, given the horror stories we as Americans were told about Apartheid, the relationship between the two men, black and white, is too damned polite. It could be attributed to the fact that Jones' character is a man of the cloth, but the attitudes expressed by Harris' character are not all that racist. He is a separatist, yes, but there is no burning hatred within him as there is in other characters. As such, his transformation from racist to human carries little emotional weight.
If that surly racist element was not in the book, then I am wrong. If it was, then a conscience decision was made to soften the character and that was a mistake.
On average, a first run movie ticket will run you Eight Bucks. Were Cranky able to set his own price to Cry, the Beloved Country, he would have paid...
Fine character actors, such as James Earl Jones and Richard Harris (and Charles S. Dutton in the role of Jones' brother) cannot save a poor adaptation which, I'm sorry to say, this film is.
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