Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Carbine Williams

TCM's Summer Under the Stars honoree for tomorrow, August 7, is James Stewart. One of his movies that I don't think I've ever mentioned before is Carbine Williams, which is on at 4:15 PM.

Stewart, unsurprisingly, gets the title role, as David Marshall Williams, who lived in a rural area of North Carolina, as we learn from an establishing scene that eventually has the movie told in flashback. It's the early 1920s, which means the Prohibition era, and the economic prospects aren't all that great in places like that part of North Carolina. So naturally, a lot of the people turn to building stills and distilling alcohol in defiance of a law they consider immoral. Of course, the authorities don't like these stills, so they send agents in to destroy the stills. In one of those skirmishes involving Williams and a bunch of his associates, a federal agent gets shot dead. Williams is by far the best shot, so he's assumed to be the murderer even though it's not quite certain who did the deed.

There's a trial, and eventually Williams gets convicted and sentenced to thirty years in the penitentiary. This being the 1920s, he's put on the chain gang, but he's not suited for such labor at all and rebels. Not that it's going to do him any good, but eventually he does get sent to the machine shop, where he shows that he's got a great mechanical aptitude. In fact, his aptitude is with guns, which should be a problem for a prisoner in that you have to ask yourself what sort of prison is going to let the prisoners get anywhere close to guns? But the warden, HT Peoples (Wendell Corey) notices Williams' aptitude and takes a risk on him.

Williams then starts working on his designs for better guns, which ultimately results in the invention of several design advancements for semi-automatic guns, which would eventually be used by the US military in the M1 carbine, a standard-issue rifle that was used from World War II to the Vietnam War. Williams tests his advancements at a public exhibition at the prison (as amazing as this seems), and ultimately gets paroled after serving eight years of his sentence, going back to live with his faithful wife Maggie (Jean Hagen).

Carbine Williams is a biopic, so I don't think I'm giving too much away with the plot summary above. From what I've read on Wikipedia, the story is not terribly inaccurate, although the details of the murder that gets Williams sent to prison are quite a bit different. The victim was a local deputy sheriff, not a federal agent, and Williams' men may have ambushed the authorities raiding the stills. Hollywood probably felt they needed to make Williams a bit more sympathetic, although I personally think the true story seems interesting enough on its own. That having been said, the script was apparently based on Williams' own relating of events to the folks in Hollywood. James Stewart, after World War II, became excellent at playing characters who have a dark edge to them. He does fine here, even though he's about 20 years too old for the part. Corey and Hagen are good too, although this is Stewart's movie all the way. The final result is a very solid movie about an interesting and relatively lesser-known figure from American history.

1 comment:

Tom said...

Interesting. I've never seen this one, but will set my DVR. Due to the subject matter it doesn't sound like the movie could be made today