[30 May 2014]
Henry King’s I’d Climb the Highest Mountain ranks with Jacques Tourneur’s Stars in My Crown and Robert Duvall’s The Apostle as a remarkable film about a Southern preacher.
It’s narrated by his new bride (Susan Hayward), recalling the trials and anecdotes of the year she spent with her parson husband (Richard Lundigan) in northern Georgia, where the film was shot on location with several local non-actors as extras. That’s why you hear moments of jarringly authentic accents amid the scattered bits of Hollywood convention, like the fact that Hayward must look freshly made-up even in childbirth.
As one anecdote follows another in this period Americana (no year is mentioned but they drive buggies), this viewer was struck by how understated and intelligent was a project that could have sunk into the mawkishness typical of Hollywood reverence. Especially amazing is the Harvard-educated farmer (Alexander Knox) who articulates his atheism with polite bluntness when the preacher comes calling. If you expect his plotline to end in a thunderbolt of conversion, here’s a refreshing spoiler: it doesn’t, and yet something thoughtful happens anyway. More doubts are expressed by the dashing scamp (dreamy Rory Calhoun) from the next town, by the area doctor (Frank Tweddell), and by the bride herself, who admits to “not understanding your God” and being jealous of her husband’s devotion.
Natural he-man Lundigan’s upright and handsome man of God feels open, tolerant, and human toward everyone’s doubts and foibles even while remaining unshakeable. The one he locks horns with most is the shopkeeper (Gene Lockhart), who is as petty as all towns’ richest shopkeepers in all other movies, especially when Lockhart plays the part (e.g. The Strange Woman ). As for why there are no black folks in this corner of the mountains, I’m willing to believe they keep out of these Methodists’ way.
Much credit for the film’s intelligence belongs to writer-producer Lamar Trotti, who adapted Corra Harris’ novel. King, who contributed to the script without credit, stages everything with simplicity and restraint, placing his characters within their environment rather than isolate them with too many closeups. The camera moves with the freedom of all outdoors, and the fine actors respond. You can tell which are the local non-pro’s, but you like them just as much. Sol Kaplan saves the rustic/religious music for transitions while fraught dialogues remain unscored; he throws in a minimalist roiling when the wife waits for an elegant rival (Lynn Bari) who monopolizes her husband. The music doesn’t overpower until the final scene, when it’s forgivable.
The film is now on demand from Fox Cinema Archives in a copy that comes with a warning that it was sourced from the best available materials. Bits of damage are visible here and there in a softish print, and I noticed mild hiss on the soundtrack during Hayward’s despair, but Edward Cronjager’s Technicolor photography looks mighty rich. The gorgeous green and yellow landscape gives a sense of aesthetic consistency and community, and you can believe these folks come out of it, especially since some do. The buggy’s red wheels are eye-catching too. This film is a pleasure to watch.