This was an interesting movie to watch at this point in time.
That’s more in part due to the times, however. The movie itself is hokey as heck – soapy and melodramatic, with characters prone to earnest speeches or moustache-twirling cruelty. Two of the only three African-American characters exist solely to stop other characters from killing someone in revenge; in one instance, he even blubbers “The Bible says ‘Thou Shalt Not Kill’!” while doing so. The third African-American character is a child, who is there only to be killed by the Bad Guys and dumped on the lawn of our hero as a sort of warning. (To add insult to injury, the actual shot where the Bad Guys are throwing the body out of the car features a very obvious dummy standing in for the corpse.)
The story told here, however, does lend itself to some histrionics. It’s based on a true story about political corruption in a small town in Alabama, the “Phenix City” of the title. Phenix City lies very near Fort Benning, and over the years a series of bars, bordellos, and casinos sprang up catering to the soldiers. None of them were exactly legal, mind you, but the local crime boss supporting them was strong and wealthy, and able to pay off local police to look the other way. By the 40s and 50s Phenix City had gotten hopelessly corrupt, prompting local lawyer Albert Patterson to run for the office of State Attorney General, making “cleaning up Phenix City” a major part of his platform. He handily won the Democratic candidacy – but was killed just outside his office one evening a few days later.
The outcry over Patterson’s murder was so huge that Alabama Governor Gordon Persons declared martial law, sending in the National Guard and the FBI to both investigate Patterson’s murder and ferret out the corruption. Over the next two weeks they closed down all the casinos, clamped down on illegal bars, and arrested nearly the entire police force and the mayor for dereliction of duties. After overseeing elections for a new mayor and chief of police, the martial law was withdrawn and Phenix City left in peace. Patterson’s son John took up the candidacy for State Attorney General, largely out of sympathy for his father’s memory, and went on to win the seat.
All of this was very, very recent history at the time of the film’s release; the equivalent would be if today (summer of 2020), a Hollywood studio released a biopic of UK Prime Minister Theresa May’s last few months in office. In many theaters, screenings were preceded with a 13-minute newsreel featuring reporter Clete Roberts interviewing several Phenix City locals, some of whom were depicted in our story. The film itself, however, apparently plays a little fast and loose with the truth. It covers the period starting just before Albert Patterson (John MacIntire) decides to run for office, to the period when the National Guard is rolling in to Set Things Right; but it also suggests that his son John (Richard Kiley) was a major crusading force behind the ultimate declaration of martial law, and he very narrowly killed his father’s murderer, crime boss Rhett Tanner (Edward Andrews), with his bare hands. ….John is the one stopped from murder by Zeke Ward (James Edwards) reciting a Bible Quote, as I mention above, and Zeke’s daughter is the one who is killed and dumped on the Patterson lawn – two incidents which apparently never actually happened.
So, again, the film itself is hokey in places. But – I was watching it on August 17th in the year 2020. That same night, the Democratic Party began its national convention, holding it as a virtual event; the reason it was a virtual event was because our nation has been (mostly) trying to shelter itself in the face of a pandemic, one which the current president has grossly mismanaged and from which over 170,000 Americans have died so far. I personally know two people who have had this virus, and a person I once worked with died of his own case. This same president has blatantly said that he is opposed to providing much-needed funding to our postal system because he doesn’t voters who wish to avoid the pandemic to have access to mail-in voting. This same president almost certainly conspired with other nations to gain his presidency, and almost certainly attempted to conspire with other nations to pre-emptively smear this year’s Democratic Candidate for president. This same president has routinely fired any of his staff or cabinet members who disagree with him, and has routinely granted high-placed offices to his family members or his donors. This president has also said that if he loses this upcoming election, he would consider the election to have been “rigged”.
In short, I was watching the film after three years of living under a president who was acting an awful lot like Rhett Tanner.
That same night I watched, former First Lady Michelle Obama was the keynote speaker for the first day of the Democratic Convention. Some of her remarks:
“…right now, kids in this country are seeing what happens when we stop requiring empathy of one another. […] They see people shouting in grocery stores, unwilling to wear a mask to keep us all safe. They see people calling the police on folks minding their own business just because of the color of their skin. They see an entitlement that says only certain people belong here, that greed is good, and winning is everything because as long as you come out on top, it doesn’t matter what happens to everyone else. They see our leaders labeling fellow citizens enemies of the state while emboldening torch-bearing white supremacists. They watch in horror as children are torn from their families and thrown into cages, and pepper spray and rubber bullets are used on peaceful protestors for a photo-op.
“Sadly, this is the America that is on display for the next generation. A nation that’s underperforming not simply on matters of policy but on matters of character. And that’s not just disappointing; it’s downright infuriating, because I know the goodness and the grace that is out there in households and neighborhoods all across this nation. And I know that regardless of our race, age, religion, or politics, when we close out the noise and the fear and truly open our hearts, we know that what’s going on in this country is just not right. This is not who we want to be.”
Compare that with a speech John Patterson makes in the film, as part of a campaign event for his father.
“I’m glad to see some of you had the guts to come out here tonight and listen to me…Now I chose this place because I wanted you to face the cesspool that has given your city the name of Sin Town, U.S.A. […] On more than one election day, you could have cleaned it up by voting against the candidates that were sponsored by the mob. But you wouldn’t take the trouble to vote. So now you can blame yourselves for gambling, prostitution, dope peddling, rape. Men, women and children murdered. Offices burned and homes bombed. And where does this happen? In some dictatorship across the sea? No. It’s right here, in your town. In our Alabama, our America. Did I say your town? Well, that’s a laugh. Phenix City is owned, body and soul by Tanner, Jenkins, Drew, and the rest of the mob. They hold the power of life and death over you and your families. Many of ’em are here tonight. […] They’re here to find out who’s against them. So now’s your chance to speak out. And let them know where you stand.”
The Phenix City Story is hokey and histrionic. But the times are such that it is also, perhaps, the film we need.
…It is also strangely fitting that this film marks my quarterly completion point on the list of films for this project. Several months ago, I had hoped to mark this milestone with small viewing party with friends, where I would screen a goofy bad movie and we would collectively review it. The pandemic has cancelled those plans; all the more reason I find myself clinging to what John Patterson said in fiction, and Michelle Obama said in reality, in hopes that they are inspiration enough to the rest of us to course-correct and select a leader that will start to guide us out of the tailspin in which we’ve found ourselves.