An earnest coming-of-age story that wears its literary origins proudly, Red Sky at Morning offers an interesting mixture of artifice and authenticity. Produced by Hollywood veteran Hal Wallis, the picture has a gentle and old-fashioned style, even though explorations of race and sex reflect somewhat contemporary attitudes. In other words, the picture surrounds modern thought with a thick shell of Capra-esque hokum. Yet the script, adapted by Margeurite Roberts from Richard Bradford’s novel, is methodical and sensitive in its portrayal of a young man forced by circumstances to embrace a larger world than the one he’s known. That the film contains Richard Thomas’ first leading performance is significant, because for all his limitations as a young actor, Thomas demonstrated a tremendous gift for expressing the confusion of adolescence.
The picture begins in Alabama, where Frank Arnold (Richard Crenna) prepares for Naval service in World War II. A middle-aged businessman, he enlisted because of patriotism. Before shipping out, Frank escorts his fragile Southern-belle wife, Ann (Claire Bloom), and their teenaged son, Joshua (Thomas), to the family’s second residence in New Mexico, planning for them to live quietly in the Southwest until his return from the war. After Frank leaves, Joshua goes through the predictable difficulties of forming social connections at a new school. He bonds with a misfit intellectual named Marcia (Catherine Davidson) and an extroverted Greek nicknamed “Steenie” (Desi Arnaz Jr.). The trio’s extracurricular adventures include a gross-out test of nerves involving a dead cow. Concurrently, Joshua gets into a hassle with local thugs and watches with alarm as his mother’s sleazy cousin, Jimbob (John Colicos), arrives with designs on taking the absent Frank’s place.
The plot is dense and rich, sometimes to a fault, but the end result is that Red Sky at Morning takes viewers on a tonally varied journey. Although some supporting characters get such short shrift that removing them entirely would have been advisable, even the peripheral people in Red Sky at Morning generate interesting moments. Ultimately, the story is about Joshua’s growth. His experiences constitute a greatest-hits collection of adolescent milestones, from confronting a parent to losing his virginity, so Thomas gets to play an incredible spectrum of emotions. He mostly serves the material well, as do Bloom, Burns, and Crenna. Arnaz, despite earning a Golden Globe nomination for his work, is forgettable, easily overshadowed by a miscast Harry Guardino and an even-more-miscast Nehemiah Persoff. (Born in Jerusalem, he plays a Latino.) Also strong is Gregory Sierra’s lived-in performance as a local cop.
Red Sky at Morning gets lost in the wilds of its own storyline at regular intervals, so it’s an unruly piece of work. Nonetheless, the same intricate layers of backstory and characterization that contribute to murkiness give Red Sky at Morning its appealing immersiveness. The film has a strong sense of time and place, and the centrality of Thomas’ character provides a clear point of view.
Red Sky at Morning: GROOVY