On the 19th of May in 1931, the Reverend Henry T. Brookshire, Pastor of the First Baptist Church in Elberton, Georgia, interceded for six black men accused of assaulting a white woman. According to the New York Times account, Rev. Brookshire almost literally spoke from the jailhouse steps as he appealed “to his fellow Georgians to abandon their cowardly and lawless plan.” (1) Assisted by the National Guard, those who still attempted to remove the accused ultimately met with a firmly opposing reception.
Reverend Brookshire, as the Times indicated, did not meet the mob alone. He did, however, appeal to a moral order that stood against a “vigilante verdict.” (2). As he spoke, Rev. Brookshire also knew that he potentially had everything to lose and nothing to gain by doing so. Serving pastorally in the Jim Crow South and particularly during the months following the arrests in Scottsboro, Alabama, Rev. Brookshire’s actions could have earned him a reputation as a meddler with the segregated racial order. (3) As such, his vocational prospects, especially in the Great Depression, might quickly have become very tenuous. At no apparent personal cost, Rev. Brookshire could have, in much the same manner as Deputy Sheriff Dink Bynum (Clarence Straight) in John Ford’s 1953 film The Sun Shines Bright, simply thrown away his badge of the right and walked away with an intact reputation. Instead, like Judge William Pittman Priest (Charles Winninger) from the same film, Rev. Brookshire took up the cross and proclaimed the necessity of a functioning moral order beyond his material or vocational self-interest.
Ford remade The Sun Shines Bright from his 1934 film Judge Priest with Will Rogers first playing the role that Charles Winninger assumed nearly twenty years later. Set during 1905 in Fairfield, Kentucky and derived from three short stories by Irvin S. Cobb, Ford’s later film explores possibilities that he also presents in his earlier post-World War II workssuch as My Darling Clementine (1946), Fort Apache (1948) and The Searchers (1956). The little-known and underappreciated The Sun Shines Bright, however, poses a striking vision of Ford’s post-war concerns. Such a vision, as Ford makes clear, does not occur beyond the context of very human ambiguities. It sheds light on complicated personal and historical relationships, the harm of local secrets, and the limits imposed by those same ambiguities on even the most well-meaning of communal desires. Even with those limitations and almost 60 years on, The Sun Shines Bright still portrays a type of open-ended concern within the American experience. Such openness, in turn, invites an American self-examination that has yet to fully occur. Extending such a call through the prism of race, certainly America’s central issue at the time of the film’s release, only heightens the power of the film’s still-existing invitation.
Having planned The Sun Shines Bright since the late 1940s, Ford wanted the film to serve as something of a personal testament. (4) Joseph McBride, in his biography of Ford, cogently argues that the film’s release in 1953 did not take place by mere coincidence. (5) Reflecting an already larger movement, of course, Brown v. Board of Education declared the unconstitutionality of public school segregation in May of the next year. (6) McBride believes that, given the film’s enviornment, The Sun Shines Bright “offers a guarded hope for the future” when one person can act for values that extend beyond convenience or conformity. (7) Through its presentation of four linked sequences, The Sun Shines Bright conveys the ambiguous nature of moral choice. In so doing, it extends what resembles an evangelically Protestant invitation that those decisions can, if only fleetingly, bring about epiphanies of personal and communal redemption. (8)
The first moral sequence occurs in Judge Priest’s courtroom. As the film develops, the Judge sends a local black teenager, U. S. Grant Woodford (Elzie Emanuel), to find work in the Tornado District, an outlying settlement near to Fairfield. Priest then focuses his judicial attention on Mrs. Mallie Cramp (Eva March). Even as he courteously refers to her as “Mrs. Cramp,” Priest chastises Prosecuting Attorney Horace K. Maydew (Milburn Stone) for pompously defaming her as nothing more than the Madame of Fairfield. By offering “Mrs. Cramp” the witness chair, even as all in court that day know her familiarity with it, Priest establishes a moral decency far greater than Maydew’s ongoing bromides about “the progress of the twentieth century.”
In a quickly subsequent scene, Mrs. Cramp asks Priest for help with the funeral arrangements of Lucy Lee’s mother (Dorothy Jordan). Lucy Lee (Arleen Whelan), a young woman reared communally by most of Fairfield’s prominent white citizens, does not initially grasp the relationship complexities among the town, her mother and herself. Priest, however, well knows the “town secret” and realizes its social implications if the dead prostitute’s connection to Lucy Lee becomes public knowledge. Mrs. Cramp understands them as well. She nevertheless expresses a deep trust that, despite Priest occasionally having to sentence her for breaking the law, he is the only white man in town to whom she can turn for assistance and that he will act in an honourable fashion.
While establishing Priest’s basic decency, Ford makes clear that its roots are grounded in his friendship with his black servant, Jeff Poindexter (Stepin Fetchit). As Ford develops their relationship, Poindexter maintains a trust similar to that of Mrs. Cramp that, if a need arises, Priest will act with unflinching moral courage. Soon enough, the film portrays such courage in starkly unambiguous terms.
Upon following Judge Priest’s counsel to find work, the young and black Woodford happens upon the wrong circumstance in a very dangerous place at the worst possible time. Barely escaping the Tornado District lynch mob’s attempt to scapegoat him for the rape a white girl, Woodford is placed in Fairfield’s jail while awaiting trial. Even as he sends Woodford to Fairfield’s prison, Priest nevertheless indicates that any defendant, black or white, will receive a proper hearing “in my courtroom.” As the sequence continues, however, the “Tornado Boys” state that they have no interest in either legal or moral niceties. Ford heightens the attempted lynching by bluntly contrasting the terror of Fairfield’s black citizens as they flee inside their homes while the Tornado Boys mindlessly march towards the jail. Tension rises still further when Deputy Sheriff Bynum abandons Woodford and his Uncle Pleasant (Ernest Whitman) to the whims of the ever-approaching mob.
Poindexter, in the meantime, has rushed to Priest’s home to relate these unfolding events. Once again, Ford brings Priest to a moment of moral choice. By staying safely at home, the Judge could allow the Tornado Boys to have their will. Even by choosing to confront them, Priest might have arrived at the jailhouse only to note how he is overwhelmingly outnumbered and, like Deputy Sherriff Bynum, simply flee for his life. Still later, when Buck Ramsey (Grant Withers), a local of the Tornado District who, as Priest puts it, “seems to be the head” of the mob, starts to cross the Judge’s Alamo-like line literally drawn in the sand, he need only have feigned opposition and let matters proceed apace. Such pyrrhic decisions would have permitted Judge Priest both to save face in the “respectable” white community and, not coincidentally, win re-election the next day. If the Judge had chosen any of these alternatives, he also knew that Poindexter was powerless to stop him.
With blunt understatement, however, Judge Priest, chooses another alternative. He simply and clearly tells young Woodward, “I’m not going away, son.” By doing so, the scene verifies Poindexter’s faith that Priest would choose to act from an unshakeable moral compass. Despite the Judge’s paternalistic and racist demeanor, Poindexter knew that his friend exemplifies values that honour every resident of Fairfield. Poindexter further realized that Priest’s personal and moral courage transcends the Judge’s electoral ambition and a desire to remain respectable. Each man grasped, at the same time that even with everything to lose and nothing to gain, William Pittman Priest would defend his ground, if necessary, against “[his] own brother.”
Given his 1953 portrayal of a white man’s intercession for a black “boy” accused of raping a white woman during 1905, Ford presents a film of something well beyond easy sentimentality. While The Sun Shines Bright employed sentimentality, of course, it did not do so primarily as an escape mechanism. Ford, as he does in My Darling Clementine, Stagecoach (1939), and They Were Expendable (1945), uses sentimentality as a technique to convey an invitation towards an ongoing moral order in the midst of a world that seemingly is without one. In the context of the nascent post-world War II Civil Rights movement, The Sun Shines Bright uses race as a means to express how that order might, however ambiguously, come to be understood. The film proceeds then to present the nature of how that understanding becomes, almost literally, an incarnated Word made flesh. Using neither humour nor sentimentality in The Sun Shines Bright’s penultimate sequence, Ford turns the funeral procession for Lucy Lee’s mother into a “tour de force” of cinematic angles and dawning communal repentance. (9) Winding through Fairfield’s streets as he simultaneously seeks re-election, Judge Priest first walks alone behind the funeral hearse. No one, be it a film audience, town resident, nor academic critic, can consequently doubt that if it becomes necessary, the Judge will also conduct the service by himself. By shaming his fellow white citizens toward a vision of moral order beyond social respectability, however, Priest soon leads a communal march that, quite deliberately, arrives for worship at Fairfield’s black church.
The Judge’s sermon that day almost literally extends an evangelical Protestant type of invitation that leads the town’s epicenters of political and economic power toward an experience of redemption. As historian Donald Mathews describes it, such redemption or “conversion” is an emotionally-based encounter with Christ and “the Holy Spirit” that leads to a dramatic change in a person’s (or town’s) forms of relationship. (10) While speaking, Judge Priest references the story in which, as the King James Bible puts it in italicized verse, “Christ delivereth the woman taken in adultery.” (11) While not a surprising Scripture reference at a prostitute’s funeral, Priest substitutes “sin” for “adultery” in his retelling of the Gospel story. Beyond the altering, however, as Priest recounts the story, he stops at the half verse “[n]either do I condemn thee” (8:11a). As his biblically-aware and evangelical congregation knew quite well, the words given to Jesus actually end the story with his admonition that the woman “go, and sin no more” (8: 11b). By changing both the text and, more importantly, the perception of its emphasis, the Judge without doubt wants first to ease whatever social awkwardness he perhaps senses within the congregation. Pastorally, that type of inference seems reasonable. It soon becomes quite obvious, however, that as Priest reads the Scripture, he has taken more specific reasons with him into the pulpit.
By substituting “sin” for “adultery” and eliminating the acknowledgement that the woman had, in fact, sinned, Judge Priest deftly moves the issue from the actions of Lucy Lee’s mother to the attitudes of the white Christians of Fairfield. The basic human problem, heard the seated congregation, does not rest in aberrant behaviour. Both John’s Gospel text, as told from the version of the Good News that begins with God becoming the Incarnate Word, and the funeral at hand, originate from an understanding that the nature of sin is separation rather than behaviour. (12) Fairfield’s white powers may be remembering Lucy Lee’s mother, but Judge Priest’s biblical shifting squarely confronts them with the arrogance of their own judgment and condemnation of her behaviour. That the sermon’s setting takes place in Fairfield’s black church in full view of its congregation standing outside their own church door, Priest (through the camera of John Ford and the pen of Irvin S. Cobb) presents his fellow white citizens with an even more stark picture of themselves. Even as Ford may not have known Paul Tillich’s 1951 theological perspective of “sin as separation,” the funeral sequence in The Sun Shines Bright magnificently incarnates that distinction. (13) Given the proximity between the first volume to Tillich’s Systematic Theology and Ford’s 1953 film, however, the similarities between the outlooks of theologian and filmmaker cannot necessarily be dismissed as happenstance or coincidence. Priest’s sermon stipulates that the town’s racial and class separation resembles the attitude of the Pharisees to whom the Judge makes reference in the Gospel text. By linking Fairfield’s whites with the first century Pharisees, the Judge proclaims that none among the seated congregation stands able to cast any stones.
As Tag Gallagher describes the scene, the white congregation undergoes “a ceremony of … penance.” (14) Prior to the Judge’s sermon, Fairfield’s Pharisees had conspired to deny Lucy Lee the knowledge and love of her mother. The Judge, of course, includes himself among the conspirators. With both evangelical confession and cinematic irony, Judge Priest all but bluntly acknowledges his culpability in allowing the town to sinfully separate Lucy Lee from her heritage. Such a confession, however, helps the Judge to speak a measure of truth to Fairfield’s principalities and powers. Receiving such an invitation and redemption within the literal as well as theological sanctuary of black Christendom, however, creates an exceptionally powerful sequence that connects the 1953 cinematic audience to its 1905 evangelical congregation. Those same principalities and powers, exemplified by the entrance of General Fairfield (James Kirkwood), seem to accept Priest’s invitation as they finally acknowledge their “rightful place” in affirming Lucy Lee’s relationship to her mother and, by extension, themselves.
The film concludes by continuing to reinforce its contention that sin is separation. As Jonathan Rosenbaum suggests, The Sun Shines Bright presents Fairfield as divided into factions held together by little more than the force of Judge’s moral example. (15) On the same night of the Judge’s one-vote re-election victory, the white celebrants of Fairfield march past his home in a right to left direction. In contrast, the black community follows by entering from left to right. Priest watches both sets of marchers by standing in his front yard in the literal middle between his separated marching communities. Ford’s not-too-subtle picture of separation emphasizes the reality of his fellow white townspeople as they continue to participate in sin. The poignant combination of Fairfield’s black Christians, as they gave sanctuary for a prostitute’s funeral, combined with Judge Priest’s courage and decency, however, conveys Ford’s invitation to embrace a functioning moral order, based not on propriety, but in the keeping of one’s brothers and sisters.
Such irony augments The Sun Shines Bright’s ongoing invitation. By expressing basic compassion, be it rooted in a theological faith or something more secular, Ford juxtaposes the alternate Word of Judge Priest and Fairfield’s black citizens with the nihilism that he felt slithering through post-war American society. Fifty-nine years later and even as that same nihilism continues to weave its way through a postmodern world, Ford’s vision of the possibility of a society rooted in moral decency shines ever more brightly and yet urgently. At the last, The Sun Shines Bright extends an invitation that can, as the Tornado Boys’ banner of words made flesh proclaims, “save us from ourselves.”
This article has been peer reviewed.
Author’s note: This article originated from a class by Dr. Tony Williams on the films of John Ford. I thank Dr. Williams for his support of my work, both here and elsewhere.
- New York Times 24 May 1931 E7; see also Grant, Donald L. The Way It Was in the South: the Black Experience in Georgia. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2001, 331.
- New York Times 24 May 1931 E7.
- Van West, Carroll. “Scottsboro Case.” Encyclopedia of Southern Culture. Ed. Charles Reagan Wilson and William Ferris. Chapel Hill and London: University of North Carolina Press, 1989. 831. See also Wecter, Dixon. The Age of the Great Depression, 1929-1941. New York: MacMillan, 1948, 164 n.
- Eyman, Scott. Print the Legend: The Life and Times of John Ford. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1999, 22.
- McBride, Joseph. Searching for John Ford: A Life. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2001, 520.
- Gallagher, Tag. John Ford: The Man and His Films. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1986, 286.
- McBride, 525.
- Mathews, Donald. Religion of the Old South. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1977, xvi.
- Gallagher, 295-296.
- Mathews, xvi-xvii.
- King James Version, John 8:1-11.
- Ibid, John 1:14-18.
- Tillich, Paul. Systematic Theology. 3 volumes. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1951, 1.218.
- Gallagher, 295-296.
- Rosenbaum, Jonathan. “The Doddering Relics of a Lost Cause: John Ford’s The Sun Shines Bright http://www.rouge.com.au/7/sun_shines_bright.html.