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Intruder in the Dust Review

 From Oxford Town 206 (Faulkner/Yoknapatawpha Conference Issue) July 24, 1997

 Filmmakers Found Faulkner in respectful adaptation of Intruder in the Dust

"...and now he seemed to see his whole native land, his home -- the dirt, the earth which had bred his bones and those of his fathers for six generations and was still shaping him into not just a man but a specific man, not with just a man's passions and aspirations and belief but the specific passions of hopes and convictions and ways of thinking and acting of a specific kind and even race: and even more: even among a kind and race specific and unique..."

- William Faulkner, Intruder in the Dust 

When you consider the difficulties involved in trying to adapt a work of verbal, printed fiction into an equitable cinematic translation, it's a wonder the process is ever successful at all. The results of such unions are invariably disappointing, usually failing to visually distill what made the subject matter worthwhile in the first place.

When you consider the added problems of adapting a writer like William Faulkner, whose legendarily dense prose style will be the subject of scholarly study for decades to come, it would seem impossible. That is why MGM's Intruder in the Dust must be hailed as the faithful, fully successful achievement that it is, and should be required viewing (as well as reading) for anyone involved or interested in Hollywood's book-to-film conversion factory.

Shot almost entirely in Oxford in 1948, Intruder is the story of both Lucas Beauchamp, a proud black farmer falsely accused of murdering a white man in the whitest part of the county, and Chick Stevens, a young white boy redressing an old wrong by trying to prove Lucas innocent before he's lynched by the town. In the process, Chick and his uncle Gavin Stevens (named John Gavin in the film) and the audience are forced to confront their own prejudices, racial misconceptions, and long-cherished "truths."

Although Intruder never achieved the critical mass acclaim of Faulkner's earlier works, it was his first bestseller in almost 20 years (since Sanctuary). Unlike most authors and their film adaptations, Faulkner was allowed to contribute greatly to the production. He was instrumental in ensuring cooperation from the local merchants, who were concerned about how the town would be portrayed. He aided in location scouting and had a hand in a few key casting changes (as noted in the excellent book Fiction, Film, and Faulkner by Gene D. Phillips.) He was brought in for a last-minute (and uncredited) script polish, and even coached Juano Hernandez (a talented performer of Puerto Rican descent) on the dialect and mannerisms necessary for the portrayal of Lucas, the actor's first screen role.

Faulkner's contributions were welcomed and encouraged by veteran director Clarence Brown (The Yearling, National Velvet, Of Human Hearts), who as a native Southerner wanted to tackle the growing question of race and felt Intruder was the perfect vehicle. The respect for Faulkner's story is not only evidenced by Ben Maddow's unerringly faithful script, but also by Brown's gentle sense of pace and his fluid, languid visual style that clearly captures the tone and timbre of Jefferson and its environs. 

The camera of Oscar winning cinematographer Robert Surtees (Ben Hur, The Graduate, The Last Picture Show) glides through both the assembled humanity of Oxford's crowded town square and the hauntingly beautiful moonlit Lafayette County countryside (some of which is brilliantly exposed day-for-night footage) with equal aplomb. His long, beautifully continuous shots combine with the almost complete lack of incidental music to imbue the film with a quiet, incontrovertibly realistic atmosphere. Faulkner himself said "I liked the way Mr. Brown used bird calls and saddle squeaks and footsteps in place of a lot of loud music telling you what emotions you should be feeling."

 

Brown should also be credited for coaxing memorable performances from well-established character actors (particularly Porter Hall, whose startlingly emotional portrayal of Nub Gowrie would probably fetch a Best-Supporting Oscar nod today) as well as novices like Hernandez, who is the spitting image of Faulkner's Beauchamp, indefatigable, unflappable, a bastion of pride and stubbornness. 

The film's only flaw is the overly preachy final scene, a mandate from studio executives bent on one last encapsulation for those of us who had surely missed the point. But as critic Pauline Kael put it, "Fortunately the character of Lucas is so dominating that what we have witnessed cannot be reduced to such commonplaces... (We know) Lucas has won; that the sheepish, guilty townspeople will now have to accept him on his own terms."

Although fairly moderate by today's standards, the film's tone bothered quite a few folks in its day, including one Faulkner family member who didn't want to be confused with that "nigger lover" Gavin Stevens.

Faulkner felt Brown was one of the best directors he ever worked with and deflected any credit for the film's success, saying, "I myself am so pleased with the job...that I would like all the credit to stay where it is: with Brown and the cast."

Brown, who received a British Academy Award for the film, said upon his retirement from filmmaking, "That Mr. Faulkner was well pleased with (the film) has been one of the most gratifying rewards I have received in thirty-five years of making movies."

Oscar-winner Horton Foote, who scripted the Intruder-inspired To Kill a Mockingbird and later worked with Robert Duvall on Faulkner's Tomorrow, said, "I think Hollywood has so often failed with (Faulkner) because they insist on improving him -- for whatever reasons: to make him more palatable, more popular, more commercial. I think it would be well for any dramatist to give up this approach. He can be dramatized; he can't be improved."

Intruder in the Dust is an unheralded film classic, a poignant, wry jewel deserving of more attention and respect than it has achieved. It's a near-perfect example of literary-to-film conversion, as well as a work of art in its own right. 

ADDENDUM: SEPTEMBER 13, 2007 -- More than 10 years later, and this brilliant film is STILL NOT available on DVD. Way to go, Ted Turner

ADDENDUM 2: SUMMER 2011 -- This film is FINALLY available of DVD! You should see it ASAP.