Many directors have gone out with a whimper instead of a bang. Last films by filmmakers have been notoriously bad or mediocre. Now this is not a hard and set fast rule but it seems a filmmaker’s best work is not toward the end of their careers. Don Siegel ended his directing career with “Jinxed,” Sam Peckinpah with “The Osterman Weekend,” Robert Aldrich with “All the Marbles,” and Billy Wilder with “Buddy, Buddy.” Even the great Chaplin laid an egg with “A Countess from Hong Kong.” Other directors have fared somewhat better yet few will claim Hitchcock’s “Family Plot,” Howard Hawks “Rio Lobo” and John Ford’s “7 Women” are among their best. Overall, last films by directors are generally a mixed and disappointing bag. Are they just too tired? Too old? Did they lose their creative spark or maybe just a bad choice?
Now, don’t get me wrong, being old or older does not automatically mean you are over the hill. Far from it. Returning to Hitchcock for a moment, let’s remember he was 72 or 73 when he made “Frenzy,” his next to last film. More recently, Martin Scorsese turned 71 in November and has “The Wolf of Wall Street” due later this year…and he shows no signs of slowing down. And then there is Woody Allen who recently turned 78 and is still turning out fine works like his most recent, “Blue Jasmine.” It may not be at the level of “Hannah and Her Sisters,” “Annie Hall” or “Crimes and Misdeameanors” but the film is a remarkable, complex tale of one woman’s fall from grace and now trying her place in a new world.
This brings us to William Wyler, one of the great Hollywood studio filmmakers, who was only 68 when he made his final film. By 1970, the times they were a changin’. Studios were paranoid on what to make. For every counterculture youth market favorite like “Bonnie and Clyde,” “Easy Rider” and “Midnight Cowboy” the studios kept producing works like “Star!” and “Hello Dolly.” Two “war” films released by Twentieth Century Fox in 1970 highlight the paranoid atmosphere. Both the anti-war “M.A.S.H.” and the war glorifying “Patton” were released within a month of each other.
Though both films were released the same year, “Patton” had a longer history in development including Wyler being originally signed on to direct the film which would have been his next project after the flaccid “How to Steal a Million.” As often happens, films are delayed, scripts are not up to snuff, the right actor is not available and so on. While waiting for a final script, Wyler received an offer from Columbia to direct “Funny Girl,” which he did.
Following the completion of “Funny Girl,” Wyler was still scheduled to direct “Patton,” but heath problems got in the way. He knew the war film was going to be a tough shoot including eight months location shooting in Spain. Two other important factors were also in place. First, George C. Scott was signed to star after a series of other actors turned down the role. Years earlier, Scott was scheduled to play a role in “Ben-Hur” but was eventually fired for unprofessional behavior. At this point in his career, Wyler did not want to go through another experience working with the difficult if talented actor. Additionally, Wyler’s wife did not want to pick up their roots and live in Spain for eight months. Wyler’s asked to be relieved from directing “Patton” and was replaced by Franklin Schaffner.
Wyler became interested in an explosive bestselling novel called “The Liberation of Lord Bryon Jones” written by Jesse Lee Ford in 1965 (1). The story is based on real life events that happened in the author’s small Southern hometown of Humboldt, Tenn. The screenplay was written by Ford and Stirling Silliphant. Silliphant, one of Hollywood’s most respected screenwriters, had a long career including writing the Oscar winning “In the Heat of the Night” a few years earlier. However, unlike the earlier film this one had little in the way of congeniality between races, it had no big movie star like Sidney Poitier to ease the tensions, no sense of we can work it out together as there was in “Heat.” Wyler’s last film was a bleak dark vision that gives the audience little hope.
Lord Byron Jones (Roscoe Lee Brown) was a rarity in Somerset, Tenn., a rich black man. He has a beautiful young wife (Lola Falana), an air conditioned Cadillac and as the town’s undertaker he offers a variety of prices to his community. The white community of Somerset liked Jones, he dressed exquisitely, he speaks well and “knows his place.” All is well until his sexy, sassy wife Emma, who has been having an affair with a white beer bellied redneck police officer name Willie Joe Worth, portrayed by Anthony Zerbe, refuses her husband’s wish to agree to a quiet divorce. Jones convinces the most influential white man, and lawyer, in town Oman Hedgepath (Lee J. Cobb) to handle the divorce case. Oman reluctantly agrees since a court case involving a mixed racial affair, especially with the man being a police officer with a family, would blow the lid off the town. He discreetly talks to Willie Joe, convincing him that a public trial would not be in the best interest for him or anyone. Oman tells Willie Joe he needs to “fix this” without having it all end up in court. Stop the affair and get Emma to agree to an uncontested divorce.
Unfortunately, Willie Joe’s approach with Emma, who refuses to give in to an uncontested divorce, quickly leads to his beating her up. He soon after approaches Jones asking him to drop the divorce case which L.B. refuses to do. Panicking, like a cornered rat, a night or so later, Willie Joe along with his partner Bumpas (Arch Johnson) drag Jones from his car “asking” him one more time to drop the divorce case. He again refuses and Willie Joe, in a frustrated fit of anger, begins to beat Jones. L.B. manages to escape only to be chased and caught in a local junk yard where Willie Joe eventually shoots Jones in the head, execution style. Bumpas goes one step further mutilating the corpse and hanging the already dead body. (2) Eventually, Willie Joe confesses, telling Oman, “Well, you told me to fix things!” This was not what Oman meant by fixing it but the lawyer unexpectedly could find himself involved in the murder. After the confession, they tell Willie Joe to take the day off.
A parallel storyline that at first seems unrelated but eventually ties in involves the return to Somerset of Sonny Boy Mosby (Yaphet Kotto) who has come back to town to settle an old score…kill Bumpas. Years earlier Sonny Boy witnessed Bumpas brutally kill a black 13 year boy. He is now back for revenge. After L.B.’s death, Sonny Boy finds Bumpas out in the fields working a baling tractor. Sonny Boy approaches him quickly and unceremoniously pushes him into the twisting blades. The film ends with Bumpas leaving town on the same train he came in at the beginning of the film.
Two minor characters, portrayed by Lee Majors and Barbara Hershey represent Wyler’s liberal whites in a sea of bigoted trash. Majors’ Steve Mundine is Oman’s nephew, Hershey, in a wasted part, is his wife. They came to visit Oman with Steve joining his uncle’s law firm. Steve admired his uncle as a man of decency who believed in equality. But he soon discovers Oman has long ago compromised his principles.
The film has some fine performances from Yaphet Kotto, Roscoe Lee Brown, Anthony Zerbe and newcomer Lola Falana as the slutty wife. On the minus side we have Lee J. Cobb who is a bit too predictable in the unsympathetic role of the Southern white lawyer. According to Jan Herman in her autobiography of Wyler, Henry Fonda, who Wyler felt could have given the role a more sympathetic feel, was his first choice for the role of Oman. Scheduling conflicts forced Wyler to look elsewhere. As I mentioned earlier, the cast also included Lee Majors and Barbara Hershey. Both were still in the early stages of their careers and are of little consequence in the film. Hershey, a fine actress, is completely wasted. But hey, she got work with William Wyler!
When “The Liberation of L.B. Jones” opened in 1970 it was met with mixed reviews from the critics: Andrew Sarris liked it, Vincent Canby had mixed feelings and some other critics thought Wyler went too far by presenting the South in a negative and what they felt was an outdated way. Perhaps those same critics forgot Martin Luther King was assassinated only a couple of years earlier. The public was mostly indifferent and did not go to see it. White audiences were probably uncomfortable with the images portrayed and did not go. Black audiences filled most of the seats, and like the soon to be forthcoming blaxploitation genre of the 70’s, may have found satisfaction in seeing black characters, specifically Sonny Boy seeking revenge and winning against the man. I am not saying Wyler created the blaxploitation genre, but at the time it was one of the few films to seriously deal with the subject of race in America. William Wyler in his last film gave us an uneven, yet a tough, uncompromising, unsettling film as he had done so many times in the past. (3)
(1) Jesse Lee Ford based his novel on a real incident that occurred in his hometown in Humboldt, Tenn. The book was a critical and commercial success. However, after its release, Ford found himself criticized for “exploiting” his hometown’s dirty laundry. Back home in Humboldt Ford received death threats. Both the white and black communities were unhappy. One evening, waiting for his son to return home, Ford saw an unfamiliar automobile approach and park on his private road. He called the police and simultaneously grabbed his rifle. Outside the house he yelled out that the police were on their way. The driver started the car and began to speed forward. Ford took a shot killing the driver who turned out to a black Marine on leave. He had just returned from Vietnam. Also in the car were a woman and a baby. The couple had innocently parked somewhere quiet to make out. The town of Humboldt, ready to prove to the world they were not racist, quickly arrested Ford and charged him with murder. After a long trial, he was acquitted. In 1996, a depressed Jesse Lee Ford committed suicide.
(2) From what I have read, though this scene is strong and hard to take, the real life killing was even more cruel and gruesome.
(3) Even today this film gets little respect. For example, the website, ‘They Shoot Pictures Don’t They?’ does not even list the film in their lowest rated category, “Approach with Caution.” Yet the fluffy, lightweight “How to Steal a Million” gets a ‘Worth a Look’ vote and even the overblown, more about Barbra Streisand than Fanny Brice musical, “Funny Girl” is noted in the ‘Approach with Caution’ category.
This article is my contribution to Shadowplay’s The Late Show: THe Late Movies Blogathon. You can find other great offerings by just clicking here.