AFI Catalog of Feature Films
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Director: Martin Ritt (Dir)
Release Date:   1974
Premiere Information:   Los Angeles opening: 15 Mar 1974; New York opening: 27 Mar 1974
Production Date:   8 May--23 Jul 1973
Duration (in mins):   105-107
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Cast:   Jon Voight (Pat Conroy)  
  also starring Paul Winfield (Mad Billy)  
  co-starring Madge Sinclair (Mrs. Scott)  
  co-starring Tina Andrews (Mary)  
  co-starring Antonio Fargas (Quickfellow)  
  with Ruth Attaway (Edna)  
  with James O'Reare (Messenger)  
  and Hume Cronyn (Skeffington) as
    Gracia Lee (Mrs. Sellers)  
    C. P. MacDonald (Mr. Ryder)  
    Jane Moreland (Mrs. Webster)  
    Thomas Horton (Judge)  
    Nancy Butler (Mrs. Ryder)  
    Robert W. Page (Mr. Spaulding)  
  The Class: Mac Arthur Nelson (Mac)  
    William Hunter III (William)  
    Kathy Turner (Kathy)  
    LaCrisia Hardee (LaCrisia)  
    Freida Williams (Freida)  
    Johnny Bell (Johnny)  
    Margaret Perry (Margaret)  
    Cathy Wilson (Cathy)  
    Rosemary Miller (Rosemary)  
    Ronnie Leggett (Ronnie)  
    Veola Clements (Veola)  
    Ronny Harris (Ronny)  
    Rickey Walker (Rickey)  
    Rebecca Cobbs (Rebecca)  
    Anthony Demery (Anthony)  
    Dennis Williams (Dennis)  
    Kevin Perry (Kevin)  
    Ellis Lamar Cash (Top Cat)  
    Deborah Jones (Deborah)  
    Carlos Chambliss (Carlos)  
    John Kennedy (John)  

Summary: In Beaufort, South Carolina, Pat Conroy wakes up to classical music and feeds his fish, bird, and plants. He hitches a ride on the back of a pickup truck and boards a small ferry boat. Landing on nearby Yamacraw Island, Pat spots a sign pointing him toward a small school. There, Mrs. Scott, the principal, appears in the doorway of Pat’s classroom, warns him about the students, and suggests that he use strict disciplinary measures to keep them in line. Scott asks Pat if he minds working for her because she is black, and he tells her no. As black children of various ages arrive to the school, they stare at their new teacher. Scott calls the children “babies” and accuses them of being unintelligent and unmotivated. After she leaves, Pat asks the students to say his name and several of them pronounce it incorrectly as “Conrack.” He asks what country they live in, and the students cannot give him the answer. Once he discovers they cannot count or recite the alphabet, he confronts Scott about the inexcusable state of education they have received. Scott reiterates that black children are slow and he needs to use physical force to discipline them. Pat rejects her old-fashioned beliefs. One afternoon, Pat talks to some locals at a dock, and a woman introduces herself as the town midwife. She tells Pat that she delivered all the children he teaches now, and encourages him to treat them well. One day, as the kids arrive in class, Pat shoves several of them, and one boy responds by pushing him to the ground. Scott shows up and orders the boy to stop. She hands Pat a belt and instructs him to whip the child. After the principal leaves, Pat hits the table with the belt and moves on. He tells the kids his horseplay was intended to get their blood going because they have a long day ahead. He recounts his personal history and admits to being racist at a younger age. Pat later finds Mary, a thirteen-year-old girl who doesn’t attend school, fishing on a dock. He hires her to cook and clean for him, agreeing to pay one dollar per day. Sometime later, Scott visits Pat’s classroom to announce that a boy urinated on one of the chairs the day before and demands that the child reveal himself. Pat takes the blame, infuriating the principal. During one lesson, Pat uses a horn to keep the students awake while he teaches geography. Outside, he introduces them to a yoga pose, climbs a tree to teach gravity, and shows them how to brush their teeth. At his house, Mary serves Pat bad biscuits. To resolve the situation, he shows her a biscuit recipe and begins teaching her to read. Later, Scott finds Pat at the beach and forbids him from swimming in his underwear. She worries that he will sleep with one of the young girls, but Pat tells her that he has a girlfriend in nearby Beaufort. One day outside the school, Pat introduces the children to the names of different plants and incorporates various poems into the lesson. Mad Billy, a local bootlegger, appears behind Pat and orders him off the land, insisting that no white people are allowed there. Mary shows up to school one day but runs away after Pat encourages her to join the class. He chases her outside, where she explains that she avoids school because Scott was cruel to her in the past. Some time later, Mary returns to school but attempts to leave again, realizing she is the only person without shoes. However, Pat instructs everyone to remove their shoes, and Mary, now comfortable, decides to stay. The school superintendent, Skeffington, visits Pat’s class one day as the teacher quizzes his students. When two boys start to fight, Skeffington stops the commotion by pushing hard on one of the student’s thumbnails, causing him to cry out in pain. After school, Pat takes his visitor for a beer at the local grocery store. News footage of a political protest plays on a television at the store, and Skeffington watches. Disgusted, he denounces hippies and laments that his son is at the protest. One day, Pat visits Mad Billy at home, and the man gives him a taste of his moonshine. When Billy offers to trade alchohol in exchange for reading and writing lessons, Pat agrees. The teacher returns home later to find Skeffington on his porch. The superintendent confronts Pat, having heard from an anonymous source that he is late for class, sometimes wears no shoes, and has drawn human genitalia on the chalkboard. On his way out, Skeffington urges Pat to obey the rules. During a reading lesson on a dock with Mad Billy, Pat confesses his need to befriend black people after committing racist crimes as a younger person. Checking his fishing line, Pat realizes he has caught a man’s dead body. Billy tells Pat that locals often drown in the river, which inspires Pat to teach his students to swim. At the beach, the children reluctantly follow Pat into the water, but they eventually have fun as they learn basic swimming techniques. As the school year comes to an end, Pat tells the class that summer school begins soon and he expects them all to attend. One day, Scott interrupts the class during a movie screening to tell the students they do not smell good. The children complain about Scott’s insensitivity after she leaves. That night, when Pat visits the principal at home, she claims that she is preparing the students for a harsh world. One day, Mary finds Pat at his house and tells him that an older man named Quickfellow wants her to live with him, and in exchange he’s offered to buy things for her father and brother. Pat discourages the girl from accepting the offer, saying it will be the end of her education. Later, when Pat finds out the children have never gone trick-or-treating, he promises to take them to Beaufort on Halloween. He then visits the town to arrange overnight lodgings for the class. Many people turn him down when they hear the children are black, but he manages to find a place for all of them. Aware of Pat’s plans to bring the children to Beaufort, Skeffington calls him to his office and forbids the teacher from taking the students off the island. Returning to school, Pat hears that the children’s parents have forbidden the trip as well, so he goes to ask permission himself. On Halloween, Pat and the students ride the ferry to Beaufort. In town for the first time, the children are curious when they see lines painted on the street. Pat takes them to a diner to drink milkshakes, then to a public library. That evening, the children change into costumes in a large home owned by Mrs. Sellers, a friend of Pat’s who has agreed to house them. That night, the children trick-or-treat at Skeffington’s house. Pat becomes suspicious of the superintendent when he kindly hands out candy. Soon after, Pat receives a letter informing that he has been fired. Edna, the grandmother of two students, leads a town meeting, instructing families to boycott the school until Pat is re-hired. The teacher visits Skeffington at home, delivers testimonials he has received from his supporters, and begs for his job back. The superintendent refuses. At a court hearing, Skeffington defends his decision to fire Pat and the judge upholds it. Pat reacts by driving around in a van and announcing his situation over a loudspeaker. Later, carrying only a suitcase, Pat leaves his house on the island. Mary runs after him to tell him she refused Quickfellow. He commends her, and they walk to the dock together where the rest of the students await him. Pat quizzes the kids and they proudly answer his questions. The ferry arrives and Pat boards, telling the students it is hard to leave and wishing them well. The children watch as the ferry pulls away. 

Production Company: Twentieth Century-Fox Corporation  
Production Text: A Martin Ritt/Irving Ravetch Production
Distribution Company: Twentieth Century-Fox Corporation  
Director: Martin Ritt (Dir)
  Richard Kobritz (Unit prod mgr)
  Irby Smith (Asst dir)
  Anthony Brand (2d asst dir)
  Stephen Lim (Asst dir [trainee])
Producer: Martin Ritt (Prod)
  Harriet Frank Jr. (Prod)
  Richard Kobritz (Assoc prod)
Writer: Irving Ravetch (Scr)
  Harriet Frank Jr. (Scr)
Photography: John A. Alonzo (Dir of photog)
  Arnold Rich (Cam op)
  Jesus "Chuey" Elizondo (Asst cam)
  Gary Dodd (Key grip)
  Lou Pazzelli (2d company grip)
  Bernie Schwartz (Crab dolly)
  Dick Hart (Gaffer)
  Randy Glass (Best boy)
  Mike Marlett (Elec)
  Adger Cowans (Still photog)
Art Direction: Walter Scott Herndon (Prod des)
  Jim Spencer (Asst art dir)
Film Editor: Frank Bracht (Film ed)
  Chris Kaeslau (Asst ed)
Set Decoration: John McCarthy (Set dec)
  Bob Steffensen (Prop master)
  Richard Goddard (Asst prop master)
  Frank Hafemann (Const coord)
  Richard Reseigne (Carpenter foreman)
  Ernie Phillips (Painter/decorator)
Costumes: Margo Baxley (Ward)
Music: John Williams [composer] (Mus)
Sound: David Ronne (Rec mixer)
  Theodore Soderberg (Re-rec mixer)
  Robert Crosby (Boom man)
Make Up: Mike Maggi (Makeup)
Production Misc: Lynn Stalmaster (Casting)
  Marvin Weldon (Scr supv)
  Beth Voiku (Prod secy)
  Carl Skelton (Auditor)
  Leroy McDonald (Dialog coach)
  Jim Davis (Transportation capt)
  Tom Coulter (Van driver)
  Norm Walke (Crane driver)
  David Jernigan (Honeywagon driver)
  Dalibar Raos (Cinemobile driver)
  Dominic Santarone (Caterer)
  Scott McDonough (Unit pub)
  Golda David (Secy)
MPAA Rating: PG
Country: United States
Language: English

Music: Beethoven's "5th Symphony," by Ludwig van Beethoven, performed by the New York Philharmonic, with Leonard Bernstein, and used by courtesy of Columbia Records; Rimsky-Korsakov's "Flight of the Bumblebee," by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, played by Isaac Stern, and used by courtesy of Columbia Records.
Composer: Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov
  Ludwig Van Beethoven
Source Text: Based on the novel The Water Is Wide by Pat Conroy (Boston, 1972).
Authors: Pat Conroy

Copyright Claimant Copyright Date Copyright Number
Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation 5/3/1974 dd/mm/yyyy LP43373

Physical Properties: Sd:
  col: De Luxe
  Lenses: Lenses and Panaflex® Camera by Panavision®
  Widescreen/ratio: 2.35:1

Genre: Drama
Subjects (Major): Children
  Class distinction
Subjects (Minor): African Americans
  Atlantic Ocean
  Classical music
  Discrimination in education
  School superintendents and principals
  South Carolina

Note: A 3 Jul 1972 Publishers Weekly news brief announced that screenwriter Irving Ravetch bought the film rights to Pat Conroy’s novel The Water Is Wide “for $7,500 down against $50,000 plus 5% of the total producer’s share.” A 5 Feb 1973 HR item announced that actor Jon Voight would play the lead role and filming would begin in May 1973.
       According to a 14 Mar 1973 Var article, Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter traveled to Los Angeles, CA, in Nov 1972 to promote a commission set up to aid film productions shooting in the state. In a 21 Feb 1973 Var news item, director Martin Ritt was quoted as saying he had encountered a racist motel owner in Georgia, who refused to house black cast members during the filming of his 1972 film Sounder (see entry). To avoid any trouble on Conrack , Ritt spoke directly with Carter, and the Governor “made all the state’s facilities available” to the filmmakers. A 6 Aug 1973 Box news item reported that filming took place entirely in Georgia, and the following areas provided locations: Brunswick, St. Simons Island, and Sea Island. Photography wrapped one week ahead of the planned nine-week schedule, on a budget of $2 million according to the 14 Mar 1973 Var .
       A 2 Mar 1973 DV brief announced that AFI student Leroy McDonald would work as an intern on the film. Though McDonald did not receive an onscreen credit, a 17 May 1973 HR “Film Assignments” report identified McDonald as a “dialog coach.”
       A 25 Feb 1974 Box news item announced the film would premiere in Atlanta, GA, on 14 Mar 1974. Expected to attend were Governor Carter, Pat Conroy, the director, the screenwriters, and the cast of children.
       Critical reception was generally positive. A 28 Feb 1974 DV report stated that the Congress of Racial Equality gave the film a rating of “very good” and urged black audiences to see it. According to a 12 Apr 1974 LAT article, Conroy felt the film was an unrealistic, “syrupy” version of his story. The novelist later apologized in a 28 Apr 1974 letter to LAT , saying that he had reacted to his instant popularity in a pompous manner and, in fact, “love[d] the movie.”
       Actress Madge Sinclair made her feature film debut in Conrack , as noted in a 10 May 1973 DV news item.
       According to a 2 Jan 2006 Var article, after purchasing TV rights to Conroy’s novel, The Water Is Wide , Hallmark Hall of Fame Productions planned to air their filmed remake of the novel on 29 Jan 2006 on the CBS television network. In a “presskit” for the telepic, the company pointed to other film adaptations of Conroy’s novels, such as The Great Santini (1980, see entry) and The Prince of Tides (1991, see entry), but failed to acknowledge Conrack as its predecessor.

Bibliographic Sources:   Date   Page
Box Office   6 Aug 1973.   
Box Office   25 Feb 1974   p. 4665.
Daily Variety   2 Mar 1973.   
Daily Variety   10 May 1973.   
Daily Variety   17 May 1973.   
Daily Variety   14 Feb 1974.   
Daily Variety   28 Feb 1974.   
Hollywood Reporter   5 Feb 1973.   
Hollywood Reporter   11 May 1973   p. 18.
Hollywood Reporter   17 May 1973.   
Hollywood Reporter   26 Jul 1973.   
Hollywood Reporter   17 Aug 1973   p. 8.
Hollywood Reporter   15 Feb 1974   p. 3, 24.
LAHExam   13 Mar 1974.   
Los Angeles Times   12 Apr 1974   Sec E, p. 1, 10.
Los Angeles Times   28 Apr 1974   Sec J, p. 15.
Los Angeles Times   10 Mar 1974   Calendar, p. 1.
Motion Picture Herald Product Digest   13 Mar 1974   p. 32.
New York Times   28 Mar 1974   p. 33.
Newsweek   8 Apr 1974   p. 90.
Publishers Weekly   3 Jul 1972.   
Time   8 Apr 1974   p. 64.
Variety   21 Feb 1973.   
Variety   14 Mar 1973   p. 4, 34.
Variety   20 Feb 1974   p. 14.
Variety   2 Jan 2006.   

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The American Film Institute is grateful to Sir Paul Getty KBE and the Sir Paul Getty KBE Estate for their dedication to the art of the moving image and their support for the AFI Catalog of Feature Films and without whose support AFI would not have been able to achieve this historical landmark in this epic scholarly endeavor.
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