O My Son Absalom
Written in Scandinavia, the UK and US by Alan Paton, who “loved [his] country too deeply,” Cry, the Beloved Country was a world bestseller in 1948. Four years later, the author scripted and advised on Zoltan Korda’s screen version (1995 saw a remake) which, like the novel, portrayed two men, black and white, who pass through fathers’ worst grief to emerge the one in disillusioned despair and the other to understanding and tolerance. In between page and screen, Maxwell Anderson wrote and Kurt Weill did the libretto for a two-act “musical tragedy” adaptation, Lost in the Stars, which twenty-five years later was filmed with that title.
Stage origins still glare through in this 1974 Daniel Mann-American Film Theatre version. The choral numbers ring false, admittedly not helped by indistinct sound recording. Pseudo-indigenous song covers opening travelogue landscapes and natives gathered on a rural railroad platform; dancers and drinkers at a low bar are right out of Broadway, as is a prison courtyard dozen, while a country bedtime lullaby for a city kid is cinema corn.
The ninety-seven minutes nevertheless work in spite of such interludes, due to the dignity and presence of Brock Peters’ by-the-Book Anglican priest Stephen Kumalo. The injustice of Apartheid and miserable lives of the country’s native people figure in both early film versions, but neither they nor the novel are at heart political or propagandistic. Rather, there is quiet insistence on the capacity for change of heart and mind within each person, even despite the bereaved apostasy of the ending and its lack of any comforting response from the heavens. The measure of man is man.
Umfúndisi or Parson or Reverend Stephen travels for the first time to Johannesburg to find son Absalom (Clifton Davis), who had gone to seek his aunt but sent no word back for a year now. In that city built on gold mining carried out by de facto slaves, the man of God’s shopkeeper brother John (Raymond St. Jacques) reveals their sister’s death and gives her son Alex (H.B. Barmum III), their nephew, to the visiting parson. No real story use is made of the boy until a contrived black-white child relationship almost at the end.
Helped by white officials, Stephen traces Absalom to South West Township slums, where the son has left pregnant Irina (Melba Moore). At first self-righteously unbending to the terrified woman, who has already had three other “husbands” without benefit of clergy, he quickly offers apologies and support.
Desperate for a better life for his woman and their unborn child, the missing country son has reluctantly been drawn into armed robbery by his city cousin, John’s son Matthew (Alan Weeks), and Johannes (Ji-Tu Cumbuka). The target is the house of Arthur Jarvis (Harvey Jason), a liberal white in patient contrast with his father James (Paul Rogers), a bigoted farmer and Natal neighbor of the Kumalos.
The robbery goes wrong, blood is shed -- white blood -- and justice and injustice demand to be served. Aside from the musical pieces, some scenes are patently artificial and others just too squeaky clean and symmetrical, e.g., the prison and the emptied courtroom, but the individual drama, the human cost laid at the doorstep of social policies, saves the film.
Justice delayed is justice denied. The two fathers cross going in opposite directions, one towards regeneration from loss, the other towards the overwhelming grief of Israel’s King David. Paton’s acknowledged “conflicting emotions” of despair and hope, against injustice and yearning for justice, end the film. It would take forty years more to outlaw Apartheid (officially instituted three months after the novel was published), though the beloved country’s severe problems continue.
(Released by the American Film Theatre; rated “PG” by MPAA.)