The Reivers (1969, dir. Mark Rydell) was filmed while the Civil Rights movement was still making inroads in American culture. Although important civil rights legislation had been passed, although barriers were coming down and people’s attitudes were beginning, slowly, to change, the notion of racial equality with all its implications was still fresh and even controversial in the viewing public’s mind. Yet in 1969 the strictures of political correctness had not yet taken hold, and in some ways it was easier to have open discussions about race and ethnicity than it is today. The use of the “N” word in The Reivers is an example. Some characters in the film (for example, Sheriff Butch Lovemaiden) use the term as a racist and hateful expression. Others simply use it as a common term that refers to a black person. Undoubtedly the term carried negative connotations. Although its use did not necessarily connote deliberate racism, when a white man used the word to address or refer to a black man, it clearly carried negative meanings. But it could also be used simply as a vernacular way of naming what a black man was. The use of this word today is far more sensitive and charged than it was when this film was made. To give a historically accurate depiction of life in the South in the early 1900s—a time when the “N” word was in common use, and when not every person using it was a villain deserving of castigation—is a more difficult and risky undertaking today than it would have been in 1969. At the same time, we have a more informed perspective about race and racism today, perhaps, than we had forty years ago. The Reivers as a film tends to camouflage or underemphasize issues of race in order to focus on other aspects of the story it tells, and in order to avoid the controversy that accompanies the issue.
When some characters in The Reivers use the “N” word, the film is accurately reflecting how people in Mississippi and Tennessee of 1905 might have talked. But the film is not an accurate depiction (as best I can tell) of how the white and black races in the American South of that time interacted. The Reivers makes clear that the South is a place of racism where there are clearly demarcated boundaries between black and white people. Typically in the film, blacks are shown working as servants or at menial labor or in the fields. In rare moments, white characters such as Sheriff Lovemaiden threaten black characters—as when he suggests that he if townspeople hear that Uncle Possum is alone with a white woman on his farm, there will be trouble. The character Ned McCaslin is not allowed to accompany Lucius and Boon into the white whorehouse, and he always sleeps separately from the white characters (although Uncle Possum shares a bed with Lucius when the latter spends the night at his house).
The film implies two different kinds of white Southerners. “The Bad Whites” are racist in behavior and attitude—Lovemaiden is an example. The “Good Whites” may do little to change the racial separatism of the times, but they treat black Southerners in a kind and respectful way. What’s more, the film often shows blacks and whites interacting on a more or less equal level when, for example, the train arrives in town carrying Boss McCaslin’s car—everyone rushes to the train station and exhibits a common enthusiasm for the newfangled contraption. (The absolute absence of any consciousness of race in some of these scenes is suspicious and unrealistic). Blacks do tend to group together. Ned McCaslin, who is apparently known for his outspoken and aggressive ways (though he always seems to know when to back off) speaks to Lucius and Boon on an equal basis. The film portrays Ned as a character who keeps his own counsel, who knows when to speak and to remain silent. That is, he is shown as an intelligent black man who for his own well being stays in his place, though he does push the boundaries. Part of his assertiveness, as he takes pain on two occasions to explain, is that he is descended from Lucius Carothers McCaslin, the patriarch of the white McCaslin clan, who had a child by Ned’s great grandmother.
In reality, in 1905, there would have been considerably less interaction between whites and blacks than The Reivers portrays, than even Faulkner’s 1962 novel The Reivers, portrays. In that novel, and in reality, the division in racial attitudes between “good” and “bad” Southerners was considerably less clear than the film would have it. The film wants to ensure comfort in its audience by portraying a society in which racism is not as pervasive and obvious as it in fact was. In doing so, it allows focus on the main story, that of Boon and Lucius and their illicit trip to Memphis, and of Lucius’ initiation into the complex ambiguities of adult manhood. But in doing so it also gives a historically inaccurate view of life in the South in the early 1900s—Faulkner’s novel gives a more accurate view.
When I studied Faulkner in graduate school and in later years, almost everyone dismissed The Reivers as a film. It was generally regarded as having smoothed over and simplified the nuances of Faulkner’s final novel. Undoubtedly, the film does that. It also gives Hollywood treatment to Faulkner’s characters, who are not as glamorous or as easy to pigeonhole in the novel as they are in the film. Ned McCaslin is more of a clown in the novel, while the film portrays him as a more assertive and substantial person. The film also ignores the history of Boon Hogganbeck, his mixed race ancestry and his occasional wild recklessness (the film shows us that Boon is a bad shot—an important aspect of his character in The Reivers and Go Down, Moses—but it does not dwell on the fact. In fact, Boon’s mixed ancestry helps explain his relationship with Ned). The film gives us a considerably sanitized Boon, played in uproarious mode by Steve McQueen.
The film preserves the basic outlines of the novel’s plot and the essence of its themes. Narrated by Burgess Meredith, an elderly Lucius McCaslin who tells the story of his boyhood escapade with Boon, it focuses on the grandfather, Boss McCaslin (wonderfully played by Will Geer) as a source of probity and moral rectitude. While the world portrayed in the film is more like the world of a Disney film than of a Faulkner novel, while the tone of the film is substantially different from that of the novel, the theme of a young man’s education in what it means to be a gentleman, in the ambiguity of truth and virtue, is retained.
See Jonathan Yardley’s column on Faulkner’s novel The Reivers