I saw Jean Renoir’s The Southerner (1945) described so beautifully on 4 Star Film Fan, that I had to get it. I was curious about how a French director would portray the Old West.
The Southerner begins with Sam Tucker’s old uncle dying in the cotton fields where he’s picking cotton along with Sam, his wife Nona, and Granny. The uncle’s dying words to Sam are that he should get his own land and not work for someone else. This convinces Sam to buy a plot of good land that’s been neglected for years. His boss lays out all the risks inherent in farming on your own and promises Sam, he can always return to work for him. The boss isn’t a villain; he does seem to care about Sam and his family and someone needed to give him a head’s up, because contrary to what I’d learned and seen in films farming is not a sure thing.
Sam packs up his family and belongings on an old jalopy. When they get to the land, they see that the house is a shack that’s one windstorm away from destruction. Sam admits that he should have checked out the house before buying the land, which was when I knew that the outcome for Sam sure wasn’t certain. Sam’s a nice guy and strong. Both he had his wife work hard, but Sam held some romantic notions about farming that gave me pause. He’d forgotten to check on the condition of the well.
The well wasn’t usable so Sam had to beg an ornery neighbor for water. As time goes on, the skinflint neighbor resents Sam more and more. As mean as the neighbor was, he did have a point. Sam and other pioneers should thought out their plans more.
The tensions build as bad luck and naive pelt the Tuckers throughout the film.
Hardworking and always cheerful, Nona is the perfect wife. She soon makes the shack homey and repairs what she can. She keeps the kids clean and happy and usually puts up with Granny’s constant complaints.
Sam’s friend Tim has moved on to the city where he works in a factory and makes a fortune, $7 per day. He offers Sam a job, but Sam envisions the life of a small farmer as his vocation. Often I thought Sam should take his family to the city.
A major threat in these parts is Spring Sickness. Granny’s a Cassandra always harping on about it because several of her children died of it. Caused by poor diet, lacking dairy and produce, Spring Sickness can be lethal. Just as you can’t see a gun on a set in Act One and not have it go off in Act Two, someone was bound to get Spring Sickness because the Tuckers’ diet was mainly fish, coffee and corn mush. Sure enough, Jot, the son who’s about 4, comes down with Spring Sickness and has a massive open sore on his face. The boy is lethargic and may not make it. The kindness of the doctor and a friend of Sam’s helps the Tucker’s obtain milk and veggies. The idea that one can make it on his own in the West is simply not true. It probably ain’t true anywhere. I did think that Renoir would have the boy die. I wasn’t long into the film before I expected disaster and I think sparing us the worse was a shortcoming of The Southerner (both the novel and the film).
Hard times hit repeatedly. Storms beat down the house and the fields, the final one sets the family back to square one.
One of the best lines in the film comes from Tim:
All you farmers is just the same. Gamblers! That’s what you all are, to a man. Year after year you starve yourself to death and hope that some fine day – well, I think you’re loco.
I’d never considered how true this line is. Farmers, especially in the past, were in some cases just as reckless as the people who raced to San Francisco or Australia during the Gold Rushes.
The Southerners is an earnest film that showed me a different side of Western Expansion from what I’m used to. There’s no language that would be a problem for children. There’s a scene with a “lady of easy virtue” in a saloon, but she comes across pretty tame and the banter veils the non-family friendly subject matter.