Spellbound (2003), Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison (1957) and The Ox-Bow Incident (1943)

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by Steven Greydanus | Source:
Spellbound (2003)
It’s a moment of breathtaking irony and suspense: In the audience at the National Spelling Bee in Washington, DC, a proud East Indian father bows his head while onstage his son, who’s been tutored in French, German, and Latin, hesitates and asks for the derivation of “Darjeeling.”

Spellbound, Jeffrey Blitz’s endearing, heartbreaking, deeply rewarding documentary about eight brainy middle-school kids competing with nearly 250 other spellers in front of the ESPN-watching world, is full of such unforgettable moments and insights. Not just a documentary of a contest, Spellbound is a behind-the-scenes look at the lives of contestants of various regional and socioeconomic backgrounds whose only common bond is a facility with putting words together.

From Angela of Texas, the daughter of an illegal Mexican immigrant who doesn’t speak English, to Harry of Glen Ridge, NJ, with his gawky sense of humor and socially maladroit volubility, Spellbound brims with humanity and insight. Many of these kids are loners or outcasts, yet their shared passion brings them together, despite their rivalry.

The film is a tribute to old-fashioned virtues of hard work, education, competition—and good spelling in a spellchecker age (note misspelled signs congratulating local kids!). Homeschoolers, watch for the late appearance of Georgie, a homeschooled prodigy from an Evangelical background who encourages his peers to “twust in Jesus” and “hono’ yoah pawents.”

Content advisory: Nothing objectionable.


Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison (1957)
Not your typical movie about a man and a woman stranded on a deserted island, Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison is an engaging character study about a novice nun-to-be (Deborah Kerr) and a rough-hewn Marine corporal (Robert Mitchum) on a South Pacific island during World War II. Like director John Huston’s similarly themed The African Queen, the film finds conflict mixed with romantic tension in a tale of a demure religious woman thrown together with a rugged male loner. Here, though, the complicating factor is not the religious woman’s fastidiousness, but her vocation.

The film parallels the two contrasting sets of commitments, hers to her order, his to the Marine Corps. Like Allison himself, the film is respectfully curious about the exotic phenomenon of religious commitment, but has less insight into why a woman would join a religious order than why a man would join the Marines. The film is honest about the questions bound to come up, especially if they wind up stranded there indefinitely.

Though essentially a character study, the film also provides some suspense and thrills, notably a squirm-inducing sequence in which Allison makes a daring foray into a Japanese camp and winds up pinned in a tight hiding place with an uncomfortably large rat.

Content advisory: Brief wartime violence; mild inebriation; challenges to an incipient religious vocation.


The Ox-Bow Incident (1943)
In contrast to the familiar Western device of the hero obliged to take the law into his own hands, The Ox-Bow Incident is a grim, messy cautionary tale, almost an anti-Western, about the dangers of vigilante justice and mob rule.

The brief story is as simple as it is tragic. Recent incidents of cattle rustling have a small Nevada town jumpy, and news that a popular local rancher has been murdered has the townsfolk up in arms. In the absence of the sheriff, a self-appointed posse forms under the leadership of an ambiguously disreputable ex-Confederate officer, despite the ineffectual protests of some, including the town judge.

Illegally deputized by the duputy sheriff, the mob rides in pursuit of the perpetrators, and soon finds the rancher’s cattle being driven by a trio of strangers who claim the herd was legitimately purchased but can produce no bill of sale.

Henry Fonda stars as a ragged cowboy who, like his later character in 12 Angry Men, is uncomfortable with the angry rush to judgment of those around him, but is far less noble or outspoken here. Leigh Whipper plays an unassuming black preacher brought along for a veneer of religiosity, and provides a voice of conscience that is tragically ignored. The climax, a letter from a dead man, is devastating.

Content advisory: Brief frontier violence; vigilante justice; offscreen suicide.

Steven Greydanus is a film critic for the National Catholic Register.

To read more of his movie reviews please visit his website at DecentFilms.com.

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