Thursday, June 2, 2011

Review – The Trail of the Lonesome Pine

June 2, 2011

The Trail of the Lonesome Pine – US, 1936

Henry Hathaway’s fascinating 1936 film The Trail of the Lonesome Pine takes place in a mountainous area of the United States that has seen little change for generations. The two families that call this area home still farm for their livelihood, and the dreams they hold are not very ambitious ones – a place to live, a family of their own, and if they’re lucky, perhaps even a small piece of land to grow crops on. The two families that reside in the area known as the Blue Ridge Mountains are the Tollivers and the Falins, and they – much like Shakespeare’s Capulets and Montagues – have been at war for so long that neither side remembers just how hostilities between the two began. They only know that the other side is their enemy, and it doesn’t take much for violence to break out between them. During the film’s opening scene, the two sides, members of which include very young children, exchange gunfire. The bullets prevent a man named Judd Tolliver (Fred Stone) from being by his wife’s side when she gives birth, and while the battle rages outside, Melissa Tolliver (Beulah Bondi) cradles her newborn baby in her arms and says a prayer that her newborn will grow up to be against hate and anger. “Why has it got to be [this way]?” she wonders aloud.

The years pass. The conflict continues. Each side suffers casualties, and each side instills hated for the other side in the younger generation. Judd and Melissa now have two children, June (Sylvia Sidney) and the much younger Buddie (George “Spanky” McFarland). June is being pursued by Dave Tolliver (Henry Fonda), a relative of the family whom Judd and Melissa have watched over since the death of his family some years back. Early in the film, Dave informs June that her father has consented to their engagement. However, the news does not fill her with the feelings that she thinks it should, and therefore she seek reassurances from her mother that she does indeed love Dave. She isn’t convinced. This is not a good sign, and it is one that a naively optimistic Dave completely misses.

The modern world soon comes to the Blue Ridge Mountains. A man named Jack Hale (Fred MacMurray) arrives with a deal that offers to bring wealth to both warring families. All they have to do is to allow the railroad to be built along the mountains. It’s easier said than done. However, Hale quickly sizes up the situation, sees how important the feud is to them, and gives them no reason to believe that signing the contract ends it. It would be nice if it did, but Hale is not a miracle worker, and as a wise character remarks later in the film, “Peace has got to come from within.” Both sides sign the contract, and construction begins.

The effects on the Tolliver’s are most noticeable in the film. June soon finds herself falling for Hale, and Buddie becomes fascinated with engineering. At one point, Hale has a mini steam shovel built so that Buddie can practice removing dirt and rocks at home. As the film progresses, the two of them form a rather strong bond. This becomes important later. As for June, Hale seems uncomfortable with the effect he is having on her, and on occasion he brings up her marriage, perhaps as a means of putting some emotional distance between them. After all, according to long-held notions of chivalry (at that time at least), a gentleman does not steal another man’s girlfriend.

The film also reminds us of the disparity that sometimes exists in the city and the countryside when it comes to education. When the Tolliver’s first check arrives, at first they don’t even know what it is, yet after staring at it for a while, Melissa is eventually able to read the number on the check, 5,000. June recognizes the railroad company’s logo, and together, they figure out that the family is now rich. It’s clear that none of them can read. Hale later tells June that there will be more checks and more paperwork in the future and that someone in her family will have to be able to read them. He implores June to go to the city and get an education. The next day, she is standing along the dirt road that leads to the city waiting for him to approach in his buggy. Perhaps she is more interested in him than an education, but the result is the same. Later in one of the film’s sweetest moments, June tells Hale all of the things she is learning in school. She even makes an attempt to speak more formally, replacing ain’t with haven’t. It’s all too much for Dave to take, and his actions lead to direct conflict with both Hale and the Falins.

The Trail of the Lonesome Pine is a beautiful film to look at. Filmed on location, it was one of the first Technicolor films to be shot outdoors, and Hathaway makes the most of the location. Some of my favorite parts of the film involve images of nature – a lush blue lake, green trees that seem to stretch to the stars, amazing views of surrounding mountain ranges. In addition, the film’s melodramatic elements are very believable. Sometimes something new and daring seems more appealing than something traditional and predictable. In pursuing a marriage with June, Dave reveals himself to be a rather conventional man, valuing what seems safe and comfortable over something unpredictable and therefore frightening. Perhaps that is why he clings so tightly to his hatred of the Falins. For some, it’s much easier to continue to hate than it is to pursue peace. With hate, you don’t have to question anything; to achieve peace, you are forced to question yourself, and you may not like the answers you find.

As I continue to watch classic films, my esteem for Fred MacMurray continues to grow. This is an actor with immense talent, a man completely convincing in dramatic films such as Double Indemnity and The Caine Mutiny and comedies such as Flubber. His performance in The Trail of the Lonesome Pine only added to my appreciation of him. In the role of Hale, he exudes an air of professionalism and humanity that has an impact on everyone he comes in contact with. He has a way of looking at the world that brings to mind all of those famous men from history who believed that nothing was impossible and that the future would be better than the present. However, he’s also not above throwing the first punch if he knows a fight is coming. Sylvia Sidney matches him in a very challenging role, and Henry Fonda gives the kind of performance that we are accustomed to seeing from him. Yes, that’s a compliment.

The Trail of the Lonesome Pine reminds us that tragedy extends to two sides of a conflict and that throughout history hatred has too often been passed on to successive generations. In addition, the film presents what may be an answer to conflicts such as the one plaguing the two families in the film - modernity, the chance to see the future as better than the present, and self-reflection, that is, the ability to see yourself as others see you. And society does not reflect kindly upon age-old conflicts that produce nothing but freshly-built coffins for children who have scarcely had the chance to live. (on DVD)

4 stars

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