Reconstruction movie review: Stars in My Crown, or Joel McCrea stares down the Klan

Fewer ads. Lots of American Civil War content!


Feb 7, 2014
New York
This 1950 MGM release was based on the novel of the same name and also adapted for the screen by its author, journalist Joe David Brown and directed by Jacques Tourneur. The story is narrated by an older man remembering an eventful summer during his youth in a small, fictional Southern town, called Walesburg. The boy, Johnny, played by a young Dean Stockwell, is an orphan living in the home of his aunt and her husband, Pastor Josiah Gray, played by Joel McCrea. Because of McCrea's casting, viewers may have assumed that this movie was a Western. True, the state is never named and the script does not play up Southern stereotypes common to mid-20th century Hollywood, but wikipedia tells us that Brown, the author, grew up in Alabama, and that the pastor figure was inspired by the author's grandfather, which makes sense of the movie's setting and its nostalgic tone. McCrea's character makes several references to his service in the Confederate army which suggests that the movie takes place in the 1880s. Maybe all this background is more explicit in the book which is long out of print and not available in any libraries in my area. There also appears to be an article about Brown and this book in this past summer's Alabama Heritage magazine, which unfortunately is not available online. For our purposes, this movie is worthwhile as an intriguing document of Reconstruction "memory" more so than for its depiction of any specific time or place.

Imbued with the narrator's nostalgia for his small town youth, the prominence of the pastor, and a long, sentimental plot digression involving the protagonist's childhood illness, the movie suggests an Americanized How Green Was My Valley, but with some distinguishing exceptions. One recurrent theme is the presentation of Pastor Gray as a frontier hero: McCrea's character is a pacifist, but several references to his Confederate army service (from "Fort Donelson to Missionary Ridge"), and the heroic poses and commanding presence the movie affords McCrea, reaffirm the pastor's manliness and imply that he is capable of violence. McCrea establishes the pastor's readiness to use force in an early flashback where he enters the town bar, gun in hand, to announce his arrival in town, and in a bizarre scene where he stops one of the town's "good ole boy" layabouts from tormenting another white man with his whip for no particular reason when McCrea seizes the offender's whip and lashes him a few times. The scene seems intended to give McCrea an opportunity to expressly demonstrate the pastor's gunslinger like presence and establish the brutality of the young white thugs who surround the film's villain, shopkeeper - and aspiring mica mining boss - Lon Backett.

Stars is distinguished by a framing narrative involving an African American character named Uncle Famous played by Juano Hernandez. Uncle Famous is a stock, Uncle Remus character - a grey-haired black man who associates primarily with white children whom he teaches to fish and hunt. Famous is given no family and has no backstory other than a few statements that he was a former slave, "given his freedom" by his master (apparently Lincoln, the Union army and the XIII Amendment didn't have much to do with his emancipation). Only a couple of other black characters are shown briefly in the film and I don't think any had speaking roles. While Famous is a pivotal character and the focus of the movie's most dramatic plotline, Hernandez only appears in a few scenes and doesn't have many lines other than Uncle Remus-type musings consistent with Song of the South's depiction of older black men.

While the Uncle Famous character doesn't have much to offer the viewer other than an opportunity for patronizing sympathy, author Brown effectively employs Famous to frame the movie's most interesting narrative. In an early scene, Famous is fishing with Johnny when he is accosted by the town's unctuous unappealing merchant, Lon Backett who explains that his mica mining operations are pushing toward Famous's property. Backett tries to pressure Famous into selling his land - at what is implied to be an absurdly low price - but Famous refuses because he is "too old to make a change." Backett raises the price - although half of his offer takes the form of credit at his store, and Famous continues to refuse to sell, saying he has everything he needs already. Backet then threateningly informs Famous that his workers will be very upset if the mica mining and their good wages will stop because he can't get Famous's land. After Backett drives off, McCrea stops by and Famous repeats that the land is his place, he's "never had no other" and will not sell. McCrea affirms that Famous doesn't have to sell as he's a free man. In a striking exchange, Johnny affirms that Famous doesn't have to sell as he is free "'cause the law says so," but Famous adds that "just saying a good thing don't make it so." As later events show, Famous' "freedom" (i.e., his rights to property and life itself) is indeed tenuous and subject to the whims of white men.

The next time we encounter Famous, his small farm is being trampled, fences torn down and livestock let loose by night riders. Backett stops by the next morning to inform Famous, standing among the ruins of his property, that his mine workers won't stand by while their livelihood is being taken away. Backett repeats his offer to buy and Famous again refuses to sell even though, as Backett points out, his stock is gone, and his crops ruined. Standing close-by, Jed Isbell orders his sons to get to work on restoring Famous's farm and to get corn and chickens from their own farm. Isbell had been introduced earlier as Pastor Grey's good friend from their Confederate army days. Isbell is rough-hewn but cheerful blacksmith living out on his farm with his large family of sons. Isbell and his family are presented as admirable, pure salt-of-the-earth types in contrast with the "urbanized" merchant Backett and his young, followers (apparently being a miner isn't honorable enough in this narrative). Although Isbell refuses to attend Pastor Gray's church, Famous (and the movie) commends him as "a real Christian."

Famous then disappears for almost forty minutes as we suffer through narratives about a typhoid outbreak and the conflict between faith, represented by the pastor, and science, represented by a young doctor. With twelve minutes left, we seem to enter an entirely different film as director Tourneur breaks out the horror movie style he is known for. In a startling break in tone and mood, Famous is dragged from his home by hooded men (in 20s Klan style robes) and forced to his knees before a burning cross with a note pinned to his chest warning him to leave his land in 24 hours or he'll get lynched, signed by "The Nightriders". The next morning, Famous brings the note McCrea and is dumbfounded by the threat as he asserts he is friendly with everyone in the area. McCrea's character raises the possibility of Famous selling the land, giving Hernandez the opportunity for one last emotive speech about his attachment to his land and his determination that he'll die there. It probably would have been effective if the script had given us some background on how Famous, a local freedman, had worked to purchase his land.

After the scene with Famous, McCrea proceeds to Backett's store which is filled with his thuggish henchmen (presumably the miners). The pastor tells Backet this has gone on far enough. We know that we are in mid-20th century Hollywood because justice for blacks is not the issue here. Instead, Pastor Grey warns that the threats to murder Famous and steal his property "won't end there" and will spread "poison" (an allusion to the typhoid outbreak) until there isn't a "whole soul or healthy conscience" left in town setting us up for a showdown between McCrea and Backett's crew. Is Pastor Grey fighting Communism, Fascism or the Klan? Maybe all three?

In the movie's dramatic climax, Tourner strikingly films the approach of torch-bearing Klansmen. Our hero, Joel McCrea faces down Backett's hooded Klansmen in a calculated speech - awfully recited by McCrea in a Joel Chander Harris-type jargon - which reminds each would-be lyncher of their personal ties to Famous. Shamefacedly, the Klanmen withdraw and law, justice, democracy and capitalism prevail. In a final reminder to the audience of our American mid-century values, the movie ends with everyone (except Famous) together in McCrea's church singing the hymn, Stars in My Crown.

Some thoughts: it's not clear what Klan is being depicted here. The setting is the 1880s or early 90s, but the author was born in Alabama in 1915. Tourneur's Klan scenes allude to Birth of a Nation, but this Klan wears burlap hoods roughly cut eye holes and sacks tied with ropes, not sleek, clean white robes. Ed Begley's heavyset Backett is clearly recognizable beneath his disguise. 35 years after Birth, Hollywood is no longer glamorizing the Klan - quite the opposite. Is this the first explicitly negative depiction of the Klan in Hollywood film? This leads me to wonder if this movie was shown in Southern theaters in 1950.

It's fascinating that the two heroes most dismissive of the Klan - Pastor Grey and Jed Isbell - are expressly represented as Confederate army veterans. Confederate service is not ascribed to Backett or any of his Klan henchmen. It is a common Lost Cause theme to identify Confederate service with honor, but in a departure from Birth of a Nation that honor is not extended to Klansmen. On the other hand, I suppose that an argument can be made that Backett is cynically employing the tropes of the Klan and night riding for dishonest ends and, therefore, the movie isn't challenging armed resistance to Reconstruction but only challenging defiance of law and order.

I have no idea how this movie was marketed, but clearly, audiences were willing to tolerate its message evidenced by its respectable profit numbers.

Among the movie's virtues, clocking in at 89 minutes is not the least.
Fewer ads. Lots of American Civil War content!
Fewer ads. Lots of American Civil War content!
Fewer ads. Lots of American Civil War content!