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The Pride Of Jesse Hallam
(1981)

Director: Gary Nelson
Cast:
Johnny Cash, Brenda Vaccaro, Eli Wallach


Over the years, I have certainly told the readers of this web site a lot of information about myself. I have done so for various reasons, such as that I not only feel that showing where I come from can explain my various perspectives on various kinds of movies, these stories I tell of myself help prevent my writings from getting dry. I'll probably keep telling you, dear reader, more about myself in the years to come. But that's not to say that I would tell you everything about my past. There are some experiences I have had that fill me with so much discomfort just thinking about them, I can only imagine the bad reaction that might happen if I were to tell my readers about them. I think you can probably relate to that - we all have secrets that we would rather not have everybody (or even a single person) know about them. It's interesting to look not only at all the various and possible secrets a person might have, but the circumstances that might make the particular person keep that secret. One such interesting example of this is the true story of what happened in Japan centuries ago. If you remember your junior high school history classes as I do, you will remember that in the year 1638, the Japanese government not only banned Christianity - which they felt was a threat to the government - they pretty much closed their doors to any kind of foreign contact for the next two hundred years or so. Then several years after Japan reopened its doors to foreign contacts, the Japanese government lifted its ban on Christianity. When that happened, it was revealed that a number of Japanese families had until then been practicing Christianity in secret, not daring to reveal the fact until the lifting of the ban since there was the threat of execution.

Some other kinds of secrets are more obvious than the one I just wrote about, like the fact that many ex-cons quite often keep their criminal pasts a secret, since revealing so could hurt their chances of being accepted in society from getting a place to live to getting and keeping employment. But I want to talk about another kind of secret in western society some people have that they would rather have no one know about, a problem that is more common than you might think - being illiterate. A quick search I took revealed that in the United States, 32 million adults - about 14% of the population - are unable to read even at a beginner level. Finding out that statistic kind of shocked me and left me confused, in part because I remember that I was able to read fairly well even before I entered kindergarten. Let me immediately say after that that I am in no way saying that people who are illiterate are stupid. Over the years, I have come across true stories of people who were unable to read but managed to not only graduate from high school, but managed to land and keep good jobs. (One illiterate adult I read about managed to become a successful high school math teacher.) If these people were not only able to obtain such success despite their limitation - and for years to hide their secret of illiteracy from everyone around them - they must have had some serious brains. And I feel I should mention that my ability to read in my early youth was probably because not only did I have parents who were teachers, I had access to television shows like Sesame Street and The Electric Company, which filled in any gaps I might have had otherwise.

Rereading that statistic that 32 million adults in America can't read at all - as well as subsequently reading that there are millions more adults in America who can barely read at all - well, it provokes me to ask questions that, at least at first, don't seem to have easy answers. Why all those The Pride Of Jesse Hallamyears ago in school were they apparently unable to keep up with their classmates learning to read? How on earth were they able to keep their inability a secret? For that matter, how upon reaching adulthood were they able to make a living, or even doing day to day things that literate people take for granted? As I said, there don't seem to be immediate answers - it seems to be a unique case for every adult who doesn't have the ability to read. When I came across a DVD copy of the made-for-television movie The Pride Of Jesse Hallam - which dealt with adult illiteracy - I thought I might get some insight into adult illiteracy. Though another thing about the movie that interested me was who was cast in the lead role, that person being singer Johnny Cash. He plays the person mentioned in the title of the movie, a recently widowed coal miner who at the start of the movie lives in Kentucky with his daughter Jenny (Chrystal Smith) and his teenaged son Ted (Ben Marley, Bloody Birthday). When Jenny requires an important medical operation, Jesse sells his home and moves with his children to the big city of Cincinnati in Ohio. After checking Jenny in the hospital and Ted into the neighborhood high school, Jesse starts to look for work. But as you've probably guessed, Jesse is illiterate, and that makes finding work extremely difficult. He does eventually manage to find a job with a grocer named Sal (Wallach, Don't Turn The Other Cheek!), though he doesn't inform his new boss that he can't read - and is scared of what might happen if Sal should find out. That's stressful enough, but further problems arise when the academically-struggling Ted starts to have various problems at school.

Unlike a lot of other singers who tried their hand at acting, Cash actually managed in his lifetime to build up a respectable number of acting credits, though most of these credits came from television productions. I have to confess that as of this writing, I can only recall seeing one of these performances before watching The Pride Of Jesse Hallam, which was a 1974 episode of Columbo. And I recall Cash was pretty mediocre in that particular role. But I had hope that Cash might have learned a few things in the seven years that followed up to this movie, and as it turned out, he apparently did. Now, I am not saying that Cash's performance here is akin to that of a master thespian. Watching him, you do see that he does have a somewhat limited range, for one thing not showing any intense emotion at any point. But Cash takes what he can do and does it pretty well. He makes Jesse Hallam a somewhat quiet and easygoing person, one who just wants to get along with everyone that he encounters. There are definitely people in real life who have that kind of personality, where they don't want to fight the powers that be. And with this sedate tone, Cash comes across as very agreeable. I feel I should also point out that Cash manages many times in the movie to use little to no words to convey what Jesse Hallam is thinking or feeling. In the opening scene of the movie, where he is at his wife's grave, you can see real sadness in his face. Several times later on in the movie, when his secret of being illiterate is in danger of being found out by others, the look in his eyes is one of genuine panic. And during his job search, when he comes across one obstacle after another, his frustration is clearly illustrated without saying a word. This is real acting, and Cash clearly deserves kudos for these subtle touches.

Cash's performance gels well with the writing of his character. While I'm sure that Suzanne Clauser's teleplay was written with Cash's limited acting range in mind, that is not to say that the character of Jesse Hallam doesn't have some interesting touches. Although Jesse Hallam may not be able to read and has been working the coal mines until recently since he was twelve years old, he is not a stupid man. He knows how to fake it for a number of situations, like memorizing how to sign his name on documents. But despite that skill, he is never boastful or a know-it-all. He realizes his limitations, though he does try to save some face at the same by telling his children things like, "Surely there's someone who will accept your daddy's style" when he is having difficulty finding work that doesn't involve reading. And when he does start to make the effort to learn how to read at a class for illiterate adults, while he quits even before the first class is done because he's impatient, you can sort of sympathize with him because the task of learning to read seems like a Herculean task. This is a well-rounded character, sympathetic despite having some flaws. However, there was one thing about the character of Jesse Hallam that I thought should have been brought up at some point, that being why he never learned to read way back as a child. This could have been done with just a few lines of dialogue, with the cause being anything from a learning disability to not being able to attend school enough before going to work at those coal mines. Instead, this nagging question is simply not answered at all, which I think is a significant flaw because it could have given some explanation as to why some adults in real life have not learned how to read.

The teleplay for The Pride Of Jesse Hallam has a few other flaws to be found in it. One notable problem is that the story doesn't press the character of Jesse Hallam too hard. Maybe he can't read, but he has a job with the understanding grocer, and he can always take his driver's license test orally if he wants. If learning to read was really necessary for the character to avoid some sort of serious hardship, I think his odyssey would have had more bite. Since there is a severe lack of conflict, the screenplay stretches things out considerably, which leads to the problem that the movie ends up being too long for its own good; it might have worked better twenty or so minutes shorter. Curiously, while the movie is too long, at the same time it often forgets about Jesse Hallam's children for long periods of time, with them becoming almost an afterthought. But while the teleplay has these flaws, director Gary Nelson (The Black Hole) does manage to present any written weaknesses in a way that makes them all the same fairly easy to swallow and digest. The whole package is directed in an easygoing and amiable manner. Except for a few minor people (like a prejudiced cop who pulls Jesse over), every character comes across as likable and sympathetic despite any flaws that they might have. And while the movie is too long in the end, Nelson does not make any scene drag on longer than it should. The story moves from one setting to another fairly quickly, so things never get monotonous. Hopefully by now I have convinced you to finish reading this review and give The Pride Of Jesse Hallam a spin in your DVD player. Sadly, though, the movie is now in the public domain and I had to watch a very inferior looking print on DVD. To me, that's a shame, unlike how I feel about anyone who is illiterate.

(Posted May 29, 2021)

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See also: Ash Wednesday, Paper Mask, Streets

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