Let’s say you’re a filmmaker, and you’re given the opportunity to tell the true life story of two people: Ward Allen, an Oxford-educated Southerner, who defies expectations and makes a career as hunter, rabble-rouser and good ol’ boy, and Christmas Moultrie, a man born into slavery, who becomes a free man and enters a business partnership with Ward. Whose life do you think would serve as the most interesting prism though which to tell a dramatic narrative? Whose life would offer the greatest perspective on the changing mores not just of the South but the nation as a whole? If you picked Ward Allen, then you must be co-writer and director Annette Haywood-Carter. “Savannah” does attempt to tell the story of the friendship of those two accomplished men, but does so in a manner that is so astonishingly tone deaf, confused and narrowly focused that it leaves you almost amazed at the lack of vision behind the entire enterprise.
Problems with the movie arise from the very first moment, where we’re introduced to the rather confused structure that the movie will utilize to tell its tale. Based on the memoir, “Ward Allen: Savannah River Market Hunter,” the first misstep is in establishing a flashback structure whereby we see a 95-year-old Christmas (Chiwetel Ejiofor in some truly awful old age make-up) relate the stories of Ward to lawyer/friend Jack Cay (Bradley Whitford), who wrote the book the movie is based on. It’s not clear why this format is used other than to include the author as a character in the adaptation of his own work. But this already speaks to the level of ambition (or lack of it) that the filmmakers have in regards to the material. There doesn’t seem to be any effort at all to move beyond the memoir or use it as a starting off point—the picture seems to be merely a collection of anecdotes about Ward strung together into a two hour running time.
It’s this episodic approach which creates a two-fold issue of “Savannah” lacking any narrative drive and bouncing jarringly from “My Cousin Vinny“-esque courtroom comedy to romantic drama to love letter to the traditions of the South. Ward (a committed Jim Caviezel) is one of those affable knock-abouts, who is so eloquent and charming that he can’t help but make Judge Harden (Hal Holbrook) smile every time he comes into his court to face yet another charge of hunting beyond quotas. And oddly, this issue of hunting is largely the central issue for a good chunk of the movie, presumably as a device to allow Haywood-Carter to celebrate Allen and a lifestyle that was already fading in the early 1900s, but it’s all presented without any context at all. There is nothing provided in terms of how Savannah might have been changing at the time, or why Ward was so insistent on living this particular lifestyle when he had so many other gifts and talents (later in the movie, he randomly becomes a newspaper columnist, but again, it’s not clear how or why he suddenly shifted into this profession).
Perhaps this specific view could be forgiven had “Savannah” simply told the story of one man, and his inability to step into a more modern era, championing in his own boozy way the values of an era being ushered out. But when it’s decided that Christmas would be telling the story, the film can’t justify not fleshing out his background. Certainly, no matter what the profession in the early 1900s, two men—one white, one black—as equal business partners in a strongly divided South must have raised some eyebrows or even outright hostility. But aside from one token scene where Christmas is nearly murdered and Ward tries to shove off the incident where he was also shot at as the result of a misunderstanding, Haywood-Carter’s “Savannah” is distinctly white. Did Christmas have other friends? What challenges did he face as a result of his partnership with Ward, both in the white and black communities? Don’t ask, because those questions won’t be answered. Instead, the film simply positions Christmas as reactive force, who watches Ward rise and fall, tumble and fight, while retaining a steady resolve by his side. Why you would get someone of Ejiofor’s talent to play such a passive character (and one who is absent for large chunks of the movie) is beyond us. Even his abilities can’t add anything to a character that barely exists on the page.
And the same could be asked of rounding up Sam Shepard to play an even more secondary character in the perma-frowning Mr. Stubbs, the father of Southern belle Lucy (Jaimie Alexander) who he hopes to marry into a moneyed, respectable family. But her heart yearns for the free-thinking, scruffy handsomeness of Ward, and it isn’t long before they’re married (with the empty church signifying disapproval from all sides). But their marriage is a rocky one, with Ward unable to quell his wild side and Lucy frustrated to be a living a fraction of her dream of married life. And it’s this relationship that carries much of the second half of the movie, but their rather unexceptional domestic squabbles (complete with a scene in which Lucy has to drag Ward back from the bar) doesn’t make for compelling or unique drama.
“Savannah” strives to celebrate and pay homage to a once quaint way of Southern living, where men hunted, drank and quoted Shakespeare (or at least, Ward did anyway). But it glaringly leaves the most fascinating aspect of Ward’s life under-explored—namely, his relationship with Christmas. His partner is only valued for consideration because he knew Ward, and can share stories about his friend. But what solidified that friendship, and what made it work—beyond easy banter—is cast aside for the easier job of simply basking in the charming bad boy mystique of Ward. But as Lucy finds, it’s an aura that doesn’t shine for long, and unfortunately for Annette Haywood-Carter, that’s true of the film also, which sidesteps its most interesting story for something much blander, safer and more familiar. [D]