A Gathering of Old Men (1987)
If you’ve followed the trajectory of Richard Widmark’s film career you may find it hard not to pause and recall his portrait of a terrifying bigot from the 1950 film, No Way Out, opposite Sidney Poitier when you see him here years later as a Louisiana sheriff who looks down upon the black community in his county. He freely uses language I won’t repeat here in reference to Louis Gossett Jr. and others in the cast including Woody Strode as he does his best to prevent a lynching when a white man is killed in front of Lou’s run down shack he calls home.
Holly Hunter is a wealthy landowner who as a child inherited the property when her parents were killed in an accident. The wise Lou had a hand in her upbringing and she looks upon him as a father figure. When it looks as if Lou is the suspected killer of a violent white land owner, Hunter comes to his aid by sending word to the many black workers throughout the community. Lou is joined by the senior citizens of the community who recall too many lynch mobs from their younger days and refuse to see another one take place when news of the killing reaches the dead man’s family of racists. Each of them come carrying the same shotgun and shells that Lou uses. Each one fires theirs as well. Each one will admit to Widmark that they pulled the trigger. Think Spartacus and you’ll get the picture.
“I killed him!”
Widmark will freely lay a hand upon them when each one confesses to the killing. Included along with Lou and Woody are Joe Seneca and Julius Harris whom most film fans will recall from the Bond film Live and Let Die. Each of these actors will get an opportunity to speak of past injustices dealt to them and their families by the bigots who own the lands and pay them so little they live below the poverty line. Harris gets a fine scene where he talks of going off to fight proudly in WW1 only to return to his racially charged home where his war record means nothing and he should once again mind his place in the community.
Widmark? He just wants to go fishing and isn’t happy with the day’s development. This may be a TV production but when he belts Strode and the others, it’s impactful and hard to watch.
“There ain’t no black man supposed to win around here.”
That may be but Hunter is holding Widmark to police procedure and wants justice administered honestly with a fair minded hand. Her fiancé, Will Patton, wants her out of harm’s way before the lynch mob arrives. If they do it’s going to turn violent as the old men of the title are firm in their convictions. There’ll be no lynching. Hunter will get an emotionally charged scene when she’s kept on the outside of a meeting between Lou and his old pals. It’s a telling scene when even Hunter attempts to pull rank due to the color of her skin before Patton pulls her away.
There’s still a mystery to unravel in this telefilm from director Volker Schlondorff. By this time Mr. Gossett was an Academy Award winning actor and easily one of the more recognizable names in both TV and film. His casting is a good one as are the many who join him in the standoff giving this a very authentic feel. Gossett is actually made up to look far older than he really is. At this time he was just 51 years old when the film was released. Richard Widmark who was nearing retirement in 1991 plays one final son of a bitch in a career that had him playing a number of them to great acclaim. Joining Widmark on camera for the first time since 1961’s Two Rode Together is Woody Strode. Strode only had three more film appearances ahead of him before passing away in 1994.
With this being made for the television market, it’s no Mississippi Burning and for that matter it’s not the television event that Roots was either. Wasn’t Lou in Roots? I believe he was. What it is though is a worthwhile film that allows many fine actors a moment or two to shine with a meaningful topic as a backdrop.