The Keeper of Our Conscience

The Dixon Gallery and Gardens presents "Filmed Faulkner."

| January 14, 2005
There really aren't that many adaptations of Faulkner, considering his body of work and considering he was such an important 20th-century writer," says Preston Johnson. Johnson is a former curator for the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art specializing in film and performance studies. He is working with the Dixon Gallery and Gardens and Indie Memphis to present a film series focusing on adaptations of works by William Faulkner.

"Faulkner refused to adapt his own novels and did most of his films, like To Have and Have Not, with [director] Howard Hawks," Johnson says. "So what was interesting to me was to bring other filmmaker's visions of Faulkner to a film series, and I think we picked three of the best: Intruder in the Dust, The Reivers with Steve McQueen, and a tremendous Horton Foote adaptation of Tomorrow starring a young Robert Duvall."

The film series, "Filmed Faulkner," begins on Thursday, January 20th, in conjunction with the Dixon's exhibit "Strokes of Genius: Master Works from the New Britain Museum of American Art" and continues on the third Thursdays of February and March. The opening film is Intruder in the Dust, a seldom-seen classic from 1949 that was shot almost entirely in and around Oxford, Mississippi.

Intruder in the Dust represents one of Hollywood's finest attempts to explore racism in the rural South and was made during the brief postwar period when the film industry developed a rather keen social conscience. This period ended abruptly in the 1950s when Senator Joseph McCarthy's paranoid and deceitful conservatism gripped the country, and any work of art depicting class struggles -- accurate or not -- was branded as Communist propaganda.

"Ben Maddow, who wrote the screenplay for Intruder in the Dust, was eventually blacklisted and had to continue his work using fronts," Johnson says. "He'd been involved in a number of leftist causes in the 1930s, and it really shows in this film. You see tremendous sensitivity to the racial problems in the South. He roots for the underdog, and you can get a real feeling for his sense of social justice."

The film opens with a muddied and battered police car rolling into Oxford. Its cargo: Lucas Beauchamp, a black landowner toting a recently fired pistol. There's no need for a trial, and rednecks pour into town by the busload in anticipation of a fiery lynching. Only a teenage boy, an elderly woman, and a reluctant lawyer stand between the innocent accused and the angry mob.

As the film draws to a close, Beauchamp -- now a free man -- makes his way through the crowded town square entirely unnoticed. The lawyer and the boy who helped save him watch from a distance and declare this ghostly presence to be "the keeper of our conscience." It's one of the most potent statements to ever come out of Hollywood, and as resonant today as it must have been 56 years ago.

Certain technical aspects of Intruder in the Dust may seem naive to modern audiences who, from Quincy to CSI, have been tele-schooled in forensic science as it applies to police investigations. Others may be surprised at how directly the film takes on both the most obvious and the subtlest aspects of racism.

"Another thing I think people will find interesting is the fact that all of these films were filmed in the region, mostly in Mississippi," Johnson says. "Intruder in the Dust is worth watching just for the panoramic shots of the square in Oxford. It also shows that films have been made in and around Memphis for a long time. It didn't all start with John Grisham."

For more information on "Filmed Faulkner," check the Dixon's Web site, Dixon.org.

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