Based on a true story, Savannah, directed by Annette Haywood-Carter, recounts the exploits of Ward Allen (James Caviezel), the eccentric scion of a wealthy family who spurns the comforts of his inherited fortune in order to live the simple life of a duck hunter on the Savannah River in the early 1900s. “I believe if we have grown as a species,” Allen opines, “it has been because of the test of wildness, and if we succeed in remaking wildness into mildness, then we will begin to diminish.” Allen, who received a nineteenth-century southern gentleman’s education in manners and letters, can quote Shakespeare freely and is able to use his upper crust charm to persuade judges and woo women. Yet, fearing he will “diminish,” he prefers the rough life of a river man to the life of a bon vivant.
It becomes clear as the story unfolds that, above all else in life, Ward Allen is determined to preserve his independence. This must be the real reason that he has rejected his family’s fortune: it is something that can control him. For the same reason, he rejects society’s strictures in various ways. He lives as much as possible outside of town, on the river, which, he says, is like “a cathedral no hands of man could ever build. This is as close as a sinner like me will ever come to the face of God.” Allen does not attend an actual church, for organized religion is simply another form of social control that saps one’s independence.
Allen also breaks convention by choosing as his constant companion Christmas Moultrie (Chiwetel Ejiofor), an ex-slave. “Although one to the manor born and the other born to slavery,” the narrator tells us, “they were kindred spirits.” Aside from a shared love of duck hunting, however, the viewer is not sure what binds the two men together. Allen’s father had hired the young Moultrie to do work for him, but we are not told how the younger Allen came to be this black man’s friend. One possibility is that Allen simply seeks to thumb his nose at local society by purposely crossing the color line in this way. When a visiting dandy casually remarks upon Allen’s strange association with Moultrie, Allen angrily chases the man off, but we the audience are left to wonder whether Allen is truly angry at the man’s apparently racist views or whether Allen simply seizes the opportunity to bring more attention to his unconventional friendship.
An expert marksman, Allen often runs afoul of the state’s gaming laws, exceeding the limits set on the number of ducks that can be killed at one time. There appears to be no need for Allen to break the law in this way, yet here again he seems to enjoy defying society as a means of asserting his own independence. Law-breaking also gives him an opportunity to use his aristocratic charm and his wits in court; repeatedly he succeeds in getting the local judge (Hal Holbrook) to let him and Moultrie go free.
Allen refuses to be tamed even when he falls for a wealthy woman, Lucy Stubbs (Jaimie Alexander), who is mesmerized by the fiery, brilliant, and charming Allen. “What is reason next to yearning?” Allen asks Lucy upon their first meeting. Lucy swoons. They marry, but Allen soon seeks to show his wife that she too will not have power over him. He thus adjusts to married life by adopting a three-pronged plan, which involves first getting drunk nightly, then raising all kinds of hell about town, and finally stumbling home to Lucy so that she is fully aware of the first two phases of the routine. When one night she tries to put her foot down, an inebriated Allen shoots out the eyes of her portrait, the bullets narrowly missing Lucy herself, to make his point unmistakably clear: No one will control him, not even his own wife, even if it means he must use violence, or the threat of violence.
This last scene nearly makes the film’s central character unlikable, and yet, just as we are ready to distance ourselves emotionally from Allen, tragedy befalls him and Lucy. In the last part of the story, we see that Allen indeed loves his wife, though even in extremis he is not able to act the part of the good husband. The choice Allen makes at the end of the film leaves us feeling conflicted, at once sympathizing with the despairing Allen and yet . . . .
Savannah wants us to see Ward Allen as a larger-than-life figure whose misanthropic lifestyle is grounded in a love of tradition and a resistance to modernity. And indeed the entire movie, with its stunning cinematography and haunting music (by Gil Talmi), broods with nostalgia. The imaginative conservative will rightly revel in its broad and beautiful cinematic brushstrokes: its scene painting of the joys of the bucolic way of life, its depiction of the formative power of the past, its idealization of the thoroughly non-modern man. “Maybe we are here to remake everything, reshape everything, create our own new idea of perfection and leave God’s idea to the dim shades of history,” Allen declares during one courtroom appearance. “And maybe I, having fought against that new idea, rejected that idea, found that idea abhorrent, maybe I was wrong. But I do not think so.” A beautiful sentiment, and one that rightly warms the heart of the Kirkian. But in the end we are left to wonder whether Ward Allen cloaks his innate contrarianism in high-minded principle for greater ends, or for his own purposes.
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