It’s perhaps not the best thing to watch such an aspiring feature as John Ford’s The Sun Shines Bright on the day your country’s own premier minister apologises for lying to his nation during the pandemic. A film website may not be the most foremost place to decide whether Boris Johnson did venture out to a boozy party while many of his constituents were trapped in covid lockdown. The problem lies in that The Sun Shines Bright delivers such an aspirational view of a politician, real-life simply pales in comparison. Billy Priest shows his governance through his generosity and charity. England’s Prime Minister, among other things, once labelled people of the commonwealth “flag-waving piccaninnies”. Cheers, mate.
A film set in an idyllic, post-reconstruction Kentucky, The Sun Shines Bright is John Ford’s adaptation of three Irvin S Cobb short stories centred around one Judge Priest (Charles Winninger). The film is orientated around Priest’s upcoming re-election bid, in which the town now seems far more enraptured with the slick progressive democrat candidate. While Priest wishes to be re-elected, he will not turn his back on his good-natured manner to get ahead in the polls. Throughout the film’s well-mannered 100 minutes, Priest finds himself pitted against a heap of small-town social conundrums which, dependant on his decisions, could have him booted out of office for good.
It is said that Ford considered this to be the favourite of all the films he made. While championed by the likes of writers Jonathan Rosenbaum, The Sun Shines Bright appears less talked about than the heavy hitters of the American director’s oeuvre. It’s difficult to see why. While I must admit, I found the film’s beginning to be more than a slight struggle. Watching African American actor Stepin Fetchit (real name Lincoln Perry) performing his anachronic “Laziest Man in the world” character doesn’t sit well when watching Ford’s film with a contemporary vision. Opening scenes have characters sound off about the upcoming election, while Priest saunters around his civil war adversaries wishing to talk to them about trivial matters while not talking “politics”. The opening gambit is a bit of a trudge, with Ford’s straight-arrow directing doing very little to excite. And then a switch is flipped.
Once the characters are established and Priest sets about his doing his duty, The Sun Shines Bright becomes a different animal. One that highlights a lost vision of how one could see politics or politicians for that matter. A young black boy is a target for an attempted lynching. An act of violence that Priest looks to sway. One of the film’s most potent images stems from these scenes. A calm yet defiant Priest standing opposite a mob determined to commit a deluded sense of justice. Priest’s condemning of the mob’s behaviour and his incessant demand for fairness to any person no matter their creed, class or colour is enough to bring out the inner Atticus Finch.
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It is rather interesting that this film predates the novel To Kill a Mockingbird (1960). The scene made even more poignant for two reasons. The studio (Republic Pictures) originally cut the scene against Ford’s wishes and in turn butchers a point in which the narrative is trying to place across. The second, more unsettling aspect is the infamous, real-life lynching of Emmett Till, which occurs two years after this film is made. The scene was re-discovered inadvertently in the 90s and is now reinstated, but its original disappearance is a small reminder of how easily studios can snuff out what they deem undesirable, all the while art still manages to be imitated by real life. Yet this isn’t even the strongest scene in the movie.
Arguably the film’s most compelling scene involves a funeral procession for a character whose occupation is largely mocked and looked down upon. It’s a sequence shot with such simple elegance that the film’s uneven pacing, racial stereotypes and overt earnestness almost fades away. The strength of Ford’s intentions helps pull through the film’s more laboured aspects. Perhaps the idealism that rings throughout the film may feel a little cloying to the modern eye. And the film doesn’t hold the same splendour of Ford’s more celebrated masterworks. However, a film that still manages on more than one occasion to utilise its craft to spit in the face of intolerance is still something to be welcomed.
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The Sun Shines Bright is light on extras, only having an audio commentary from Joseph McBride and a short video essay from Tag Gallagher, as well as a collector’s booklet that includes two essays, and Judge Priest short story ‘The Lord Provides’. The video essay gives a fine argument on the case of Stepin Fetchit’s Jeff Pointdexter character. Finding more depth in the character than this writer is perhaps willing to give. However, as conversations about things such as Race feel so superficial these days one wonders if Gallagher’s arguments would be taken on board.
The Sun Shines Bright is out now on Blu-ray from Eureka Entertainment.