Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
This overlooked gem played a couple of times on PBS television and then mostly disappeared: it's a
slice of Americana from some of the country's darkest days, when hundreds of thousands succumbed to
Spanish Fever just as the First World War was coming to an end.
Horton Foote adapted his play and the action is kept to a fairly small scale. Yet the tasteful
opening up of the story paints an indelible picture of a small southern town at a particular moment
in time. If it took place in Iowa, and the people had different accents, I think it would seem like
a lost moment from my ancestral past. 1918 is a superior drama. It has no stars, except for
a pre-Ferris Bueller Matthew Broderick. He's in fine form and the attention given
to detail and the emotions of people painfully rooted in their time and place makes this an
Image's DVD also looks far better than what I saw on TV back in the 1980s.
War fever has swept a small Southern town where dry cleaner-tailor Horace Robedaux
(William Converse-Roberts) feels the pressure from his wealthy father-in-law Mr. Thatcher (L.T. Felty)
to enlist in the army, even though he has a tiny baby at home. His wife Elizabeth (Hallie Foote) is
calm and understanding, but resents her father's overbearing opinions. She also shows a remarkable
tolerance for her brother "Brother" (Matthew Broderick), a know-it-all who goads Horace into joining
up while spreading malicious gossip about draft dodgers and German-American citizens.
But a much
frightening and immediate threat has also arrived in the form of the fever that is causing deaths
all over the country. The Robedaux neighborhood is hit hard, and Horace suddenly comes down with
the fever and delirium as well. The loving and gentle husband and father is the center of the
extended family - a dark cloud seems to have descended over the small-town world.
Horton Foote has the ability to make ordinary lives seem important and touching. The people of
1918 are caught up in events they don't understand, and Foote grasps their innocence and
weaknesses. His characters are basically good, but they are products of their time. What we now
call "innocence" about those times really seems to be a lack of the constant analysis that now
permeates our culture. The family members express their frustration with one another and events, but
neither question the reasons behind anything, nor suggest to one another (especially the troublemaking
Brother) what their problems might be. Human natures are taken as unchanging, and larger social
issues are presumed to be governed by simplistic morality and God's will.
The leading player
is Elizabeth, an old-style passive belle. She has an exceedingly kind heart but can be prey to her
own fears and superstitions, worrying about things like the consequences of naming a child after
another that died. Her husband Horace is practically a saint, a loving husband always trying to do
the right thing and deeply concerned about the Great War. Together they resist the push and pull of
the other family members, insecure types that somehow need for others to believe as they do. Bratty
Brother is an emotional child and an irresponsible gambler, yet he takes upon himself the task of
condemning his neighbors and goading Horace into enlisting. Horace's father-in-law unconsciously
resents that he
can't completely control Horace, who refuses to take his gifts. But Horace feels the tension -
worrying that he'll have to enlist because Dad has boasted about it. He's pledged a large sum to
War Bonds out of an irrational and unnecessary guilt that he hasn't served in uniform personally.
When the Spanish Influenza comes it's like a biblical curse, an unreasoning and invisible negation of family
bonds. Horace is concerned with the placing of graves in a cemetery plot, unaware how close
he will come to occupying one of his own. With talk of the Flu spreading like wildfire, we shrink back
every time somebody shakes hands or
exchanges kisses, and when Horace holds his baby soon before coming down with symptoms,
the Robedaux family seems destined for total doom. The effect is gripping, but not morbid.
Director Ken Harrison successfully opens up the play with street scenes and exteriors but he
keeps Foote's original structure that ellipses big gaps in time between acts. We flash to white
along as the ailing Horace passes out, and when "we" awaken together, like Dorothy Gale come home
from Oz, the world has been irretrievably altered. The Armistice is something for other people to
celebrate, while we look for courage in that part of the family that has survived.
The War that took up everyone's thoughts is now old news. Early homecoming parades for boys who
never crossed the Atlantic are big events, but when the real doughboys come marching home much later,
they're broken and blinded and nobody lines the streets for them. At the Robedaux house, the promise
life is met with uncertainty and uneasy fears. Mother Thatcher stands by a window and says that the
new baby will at least never have to go away to fight, as they're calling WW1 "the war to end all
wars." We know that the new Robedaux boy will be 23 in 1941.
This is practically a Foote production, as he adapted his own stage play and his daughter plays the
wonderfully- realized Elizabeth. William Converse-Roberts is the soul of ethics as the husband, and
his delirium scenes are underplayed perfectly - he goes nuts but hardly ever raises his voice. Young
Matthew Broderick is winning as an unconciously offensive jerk, hip to the fads of the time and
oblivious to the petty grief he spreads wherever he goes. Amusingly, he's still doing the same thing
by long distance telephone in the last scene. There's also an interesting minor role, an exceedingly
shy or partly retarded neighborhood girl named Bessie who is a dear friend and sounding board for
Elizabeth. She seems forever in fear of life and ready to panic. Many of the others are simply too
set in their convictions (or petty prejudices) to lose hold of decorum.
This is a fascinating show. One gets a feeling of nostalgia from the period character conception,
not from the art direction or a set of external signifiers. What 1918 resembles most is a
less stylized, less hysterical
Our Town set in a specific time and
place instead of a shadowy eternity-scape.
I've only seen three or four Foote adaptations and I'm already becoming hooked to his Faulkner-like
world. Baby, the Rain Must Fall is
about a young man (Steve McQueen) raised by a cruel stepmother who seems to have adopted him for
the purpose of having a servant permanently captive to her will. In 1918there is a woman who
does the same thing after losing her husband to the Spanish Flu, and she introduces her unhappy
step-son as an undeserving boy of lower-class origin.
I'm given to understand that 1918 is actually half of a longer piece collectively called
Story of a Marriage. The other half. On Valentine's Day came out a year later and
features several of the same key cast members; I just discovered that it too has come out on Image
DVD and I'm going to ask to review it right away.
Image's DVD of 1918 is beautifully mastered in enhanced 16:9, is framed much better than
the old American Playhouse broadcasts and has excellent color. The subtle soundtrack thrives
on atmospheres, with the rustle of leaves in the graveyard and the sound of band music
drifing from several blocks away. I'd like to learn more about the show but there are no extras; the
package text doesn't even mention the companion feature. I found out about it on the indispensable
Internet Movie Database
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: July 18, 2004
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2004 Glenn Erickson
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