Southern novelist Pat Conroy has enjoyed a productive relationship with Hollywood; of the four theatrical features adapted from Conroy’s books, one is a glossy, Oscar-nominated melodrama (1991’s The Prince of Tides), one is a respected character study that also received Oscar-nomination love (1979’s The Great Santini), and only one is middling (1983’s The Lords of Discipline). The other Conroy adaptation (which was, chronologically, the first cinematic translation of his work) is a small-scale charmer drawn from a vivid episode in the author’s early life. Before embarking on his literary career, Conroy worked as a teacher in an impoverished and mostly African-American community located on a tiny island in South Carolina. Adopting a hip, humanistic approach that rubbed conservative administrators the wrong way, Conroy made friends among students and their families but was fired for refusing to treat his charges with the cynicism that was previously the norm. Translating his struggles into art, Conroy wrote an autobiographical book called The Water Is Wide, which formed the basis of this film.
Adapted by the reliable team of Martin Ritt (director) and Harriet Frank Jr. and Irving Ravetch (screenwriters), Conrack stars Jon Voight as Pat Conroy, who is portrayed as the quintessential rebel with a cause. Pat drifts into his new job filled with bold educational aspirations and a deep desire to treat the people he encounters as human beings, rather than statistics or stereotypes. Continuing the long tradition of heroic-teacher movies that stretches all the way from Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939) to Mr. Holland’s Opus (1995) and beyond, Conrack focuses equally on the noble sacrifices of a dedicated educator and the way students’ lives are elevated by the nurturing qualities of a supportive classroom environment. In lesser hands, this material could have been saccharine, especially given the way racial divisions in the story create opportunities for cheap moralizing. Yet because Ritt and his collaborators approach the story with such realism and taste, shooting the film on real locations and eschewing cheap sentiment, Conrack feels like a believable sketch of a difficult challenge faced by a principled man. (Make what you will of the self-aggrandizement inherent to autobiographical material that positions the author as a saintly figure.)
Ritt’s conscientious approach is supported beautifully by Voight’s warm and funny performance in the leading role. Whereas Voight sometimes slid into show-boating tearfulness in later dramas, he’s spot-on here, channeling the indignation of a decent man faced with a stubborn system—and the genuine joy of a born leader who finds just the right followers. Marching behind Voight is an eclectic supporting cast (including Hume Cronyn, Antonio Fargas, Paul Winfield, and Madge Sinclair) all of whom hit their respective notes of guilelessness and inflexibility in credible ways. FYI, Conroy’s source material was revisited for a 2006 TV movie, which bore the book’s original title, The Water Is Wide. And, in case you’re wondering, the title Conrack comes from a persistent mispronunciation of his Conroy’s surname that he encountered on the job in South Carolina.