From the Film and Media column in the January 1998 Perspectives

Fact, Fiction, and Film: Frankenheimer's George Wallace

Dan T. Carter, January 1998

When Ted Turner first approached John Frankenheimer about directing the Wallace docudrama for Turner Network Television, it seemed an odd choice. Frankenheimer, who began his career directing live television drama on Playhouse 90 and later gave us such films as Seven Days in May and The Manchurian Candidate, remains an unreconstructed liberal who often recounts his role as media adviser to Robert Kennedy in 1968 as one of the highlights of his career. Not surprisingly, he was initially uninterested.

"But when I read the script," Frankenheimer told a National Public Radio interviewer last August," I became passionate about doing the movie." He concluded that Wallace was one of the most important, and neglected, figures in modern American history, a figure who could be compared to Richard III, Henry V, and King Lear. "I mean, I think he is a modern-day tragic hero."

If it is a bit difficult to imagine the pugnacious southern politician as an American King Lear, the story of his rise to prominence and his tragic downfall does have many of the elements of classical tragedy. And Frankenheimer is certainly correct in concluding that Wallace's critical role in American politics has been slighted.

George Wallace began his career as a follower of Alabama's Governor James E. "Big Jim" Folsom, one of the South's most liberal politicians in the post--World War II era, but when he lost his first bid for the governorship in 1958 at the hands of a Klan-backed candidate, he embraced the dark side of racism ("I'll never be out-niggered again"). After his fiery 1963 inaugural address ("I say segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever") and his nationally televised "Stand in the Schoolhouse Door" confrontation with the Kennedys, he seized the leadership of white segregationists and racists in his own state and throughout the region. He also began speaking to audiences outside the South, where he often hinted that he would run for president in 1964.

Most political observers were initially amused at Wallace's presumptuousness; no one was laughing after he took 31 to 44 percent of the vote in the 1964 Wisconsin, Indiana, and Maryland Democratic primaries. In 1968, as a third-party presidential candidate, he faded in the last weeks of the campaign, but as late as October of that year, one of every four voters told pollsters that Wallace was their first choice for president. And, to Richard Nixon's frustration, Wallace came within an eyelash of throwing the election into the House of Representatives.

Four years later, he charged through the Democratic primaries, defeating his Democratic rivals in most of the first wave of primaries. But Wallace's magic finally abandoned him on May 15, 1972, when a mentally unbalanced Arthur Bremer gunned him down in Laurel, Maryland, damaging his spinal cord and sentencing him to paralysis and a life of unbroken pain. That shooting essentially removed him from the national political scene; when he ran for the presidency in 1976, Jimmy Carter easily brushed him aside. He would remain in office in Alabama well into the 1980s, but increasingly as a pathetic figure--hunched in his wheelchair, riddled with pain, his personal life a shambles.

In telling the story of Wallace, Frankenheimer was fortunate to cast Gary Sinise in the starring role. The veteran actor not only avoided the exaggerated Hollywood/hillbilly accent that has marred similar films with southern themes, but he also deftly captured Wallace's powerful blend of slashing humor and dark menace.

Wallace's second wife, Cornelia, despised the film, perhaps because the actress who portrayed her "made me look like an airhead." But she gave Sinise the ultimate accolade. "It totally threw me," she told me after she had watched the film. "I felt like he [Sinise] was playing with my mind; half the time I wasn't sure whether I was watching him or George." (Alas, the strengths of Sinise--and Mare Winningham, who plays Wallace's first wife, Lurleen--are offset by the histrionics of Joe Don Baker who is cast as Jim Folsom.)

If the dramatic results are mixed, the more fundamental problem lies in presenting the story to America's prime-time television audience, which--despite its cynical view of politicians-- is not likely to spend four hours watching a film about the man whose main accomplishment seems to have been the introduction of white backlash into American politics in the 1960s.

I learned this some years ago when I became involved in an earlier attempt by Lorimar Television to produce a Wallace docudrama. Just after I began research on my study of George Wallace in the late 1980s, one of Lorimar's producers offered me a position as chief historical adviser on the production with an additional enticement: if the docudrama was eventually produced, its release would coincide with the publication of my book with Simon and Schuster and it would be described as "based upon" The Politics of Rage. And so I began working with Lorimar producers, submitting time lines, research summaries, biographical profiles, and potential scenarios for the film.

After 18 months, however, Lorimar abandoned the project. There were modest concerns about libel and there was some uncertainty over just how much interest there might be in a Wallace film, but the main problem was the story itself. "It's such a downer," one Lorimar executive confided to me as we wrestled with the plotline. "I mean, jeez, we don't have to have an 'everyone lives happily ever after' ending, but this is just too much."

Frankenheimer faced the same dilemma. How do you get a happy ending out of this tale? What liberal wants to celebrate Wallace's success in mobilizing the right-wing backlash that played such a critical role in the triumph of the more respectable brand of Reagan conservatism?

In the end, Frankenheimer solved the dilemma that had baffled Lorimar producers, first by minimizing the darker side of the Wallace story. Although he offers us oblique hints of the ruthlessness with which George Wallace pursued his goal of political power, the most disturbing parts of the story remain untold in this film. Through the early years of his first term in office, the Alabama governor not only incited and encouraged the most die-hard white supremacist elements with his fiery rhetoric (as Frankenheimer shows), he quietly joined hands with men who could only be described as racial terrorists. Wallace depended on Klan leader Robert Shelton for votes and support and his handpicked choice for head of the state troopers, Al Lingo, repeatedly turned a blind eye to acts of violence against civil rights activists. Moreover, his primary speechwriter and close adviser was Asa Earl Carter, a violent Klan leader who had been involved in a half-dozen vicious attacks on black southerners. (One of Wallace's first acts as governor was to pressure the state pardon and parole board into releasing several of Carter's Klansmen who had castrated a black house painter as a "warning" to blacks to stay in their place.)

Perhaps the low point in his first year in office came in the wake of the Birmingham bombing that killed four little girls at the 16th Street Baptist Church. Wallace and Lingo deliberately sabotaged the investigation of the Klansmen who had planted the bomb.

But Frankenheimer's most important choice as a filmmaker lay in creating a powerfully affecting conclusion that offered hope in the midst of tragedy. In the final scenes from the Wallace docudrama, a wheelchair-bound and guilt-stricken Wallace impulsively orders his black driver and body-servant to take him to a night service at Martin Luther King's old church in Montgomery in 1974.

"Because this was Martin Luther King's church," Wallace told the hushed congregation, "I want to tell y'all this evening that I have learned what suffering means, learned it in a way I never would have, if I hadn't been shotŠI now understand the pain that I caused the people--the black people--of AlabamaŠ. I'm sorry. I was wrong. And knowing what I did is hard for me to bear sometimes and what I'm doing tonight is turning here to y'all and asking youŠto forgive me."

As his aide slowly rolled the wheelchair up the aisle, members of the congregation reached out to touch him, to shake his hand. And then, from out of the choir loft came the first lines of the most powerful of evangelical hymns, "Amazing Grace." By the time Wallace had reached the back of the church the congregation had joined in that hymn of forgiveness, reconciliation, and redemption.

That was the uplifting meaning in the Wallace story.

As Frankenheimer told one interviewer, after "being shot, after all this horrendous, horrible talk about racism that he does . . . after he's lost everything--he goes to the Martin Luther King church, the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, and he apologizes, says 'I was wrong. Please forgive me.'"

The problem is, it didn't happen, at least not as depicted in the film. In 1974, as the number of black voters grew, Wallace prepared for his reelection by abandoning the racial rhetoric that marked his hard-fought 1970 campaign and quietly appealed for black political support around the state. In the wake of his successful reelection, Wallace acknowledged the support of black voters by appearing at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church to welcome the Alabama Progressive Baptist State Convention to Montgomery. The audience warmly, even emotionally, greeted the wheelchair-bound Wallace. But in his remarks he made no apologies for his past actions and he defensively insisted that he had been a defender of states rights in the 1960s, not a racist. The acknowledgment that he was wrong, the pleas for forgiveness, would come much later in his life.

No wonder the scriptwriter wanted to alter events. Real history, as opposed to the Hollywood version, is a complicated business.

For historians, the willful alteration of well-documented events for dramatic purposes raises fundamental questions about the form of the docudrama itself, with its seamless blending of fact and fiction. Twenty years ago I worked as an adviser on an NBC docudrama based on my book on the Scottsboro civil rights case. I can still remember scriptwriter John McGreevey's angst over making the slightest change from the historical record. Today his concerns over factuality are a quaint reminder of an earlier era in which postmodern assumptions had not permeated our culture. As novelist Don DeLillo argued in a recent New York Times Magazine article (September 7, 1997), the language of fiction can "be so original and buoyant that it necessarily transforms the past. . . . It is stronger than the weight-bearing reality of actual people and events. It has a necessary existence, while the source material is exposed as merely contingent."

If DeLillo is completely candid about his contempt for the notion of factuality, those who produce docudramas want to have it both ways: to be able to alter the story for dramatic purposes and then to claim that they are telling an "essentially" accurate historical story.

In Frankenheimer's Wallace, dozens of documentary film clips march across the screen like an MTV version of CNN's headline news: the Montgomery bus boycott; the temporary dominance of Wallace's liberal mentor, Jim Folsom; the rising tide of segregationist fervor; the hectic events of 1963: Wallace's "Segre gation now, Segregation tomorrow, Segregation forever" inaugural speech, the Birmingham demonstrations, his "Stand in the Schoolhouse Door," and the Birmingham church bombing; the Selma March in 1965; Lurleen Wallace's race for the governorship in 1966; and George Wallace's runs for the presidency in 1968 and 1972.

Although Frankenheimer's effort to include a summary of these important events may have been made with the best of intentions, it betrays his own confusion over how history should be conveyed. Thus the landmark events in the history textbooks are to be told with some attention to accuracy, but Frankenheimer and scriptwriter Paul Monash feel comfortable in casually upending private details of Wallace's life for "dramatic" purposes.

As a result, from the opening scene to the conclusion of the film there are enough alterations of the historical record to fill a scholar's composition book.

Wallace did not break with Jim Folsom after he was "out-niggered" in 1958; he had long since abandoned Folsom in an attempt to appeal to segregationists. While it is true that Wallace did not join hands with the Klan until his 1962 race for the governorship, he was closely tied to the equally racist but far more powerful and "respectable," [White] Citizens Council (not mentioned in the film) in 1958.

He never confronted the two black students in his famous "Stand in the Schoolhouse Door" in 1963; they were already registered and in their dorms when he staged his mock surrender to a small contingent of Alabama National Guardsmen (not the formidable mass of troops depicted in the film).

Frankenheimer may think that it added dramatic tension to have a screaming audience of scraggly "hippies" and student revolutionaries ignite a riot at Harvard when Wallace spoke in 1963 attacking busing, but "busing" did not become an issue until the late 1960s. Moreover, the Alabama governor actually charmed the heavily male audience, which was, for the most part, dressed in coats and ties. By conflating the 1960s into one undifferentiated decade of rebellion, Frankenheimer prevents viewers from understanding the great divide that separated the America of 1963 from that of 1968.

The film depicts Jim Folsom coming to the governor's mansion on the day of the Birmingham Church bombing to plead for an increase in his pension and then to scold Wallace for his racism. Later, the film shows a wheelchair-bound Wallace trying to meet with Folsom to beg forgiveness for his capitulation to racism. Both events are fictional inventions.

Wallace was not booed and hissed at the 1972 Democratic Convention when he spoke from his wheelchair. The delegates, dominated by McGovernites, disagreed with Wallace, but--anxious to avoid antagonizing his millions of followers--greeted him politely and listened respectfully.

Perhaps the most troubling alteration of the historical record was Frankenheimer's introduction of a composite black character into the story. "Archie," played by the superb actor Clarence Williams III, is a convicted murderer and prison trustee who works in the governor's mansion. He is meant to be a representation of both black rage (in one episode he comes close to killing Wallace with an ice pick) and black forgiveness (in the final scene he lovingly lifts Wallace into bed and turns out the light). Of course there was no "Archie" plotting the murder of Wallace in the wake of the Selma March (1965), and there was never any plot against Wallace's life by black Alabamians, in or out of the governor's mansion.

In the end, Frankenheimer's film not only distorts history, it even fails to take advantage of the strengths of the book on which the film was based, Marshall Frady's 1968 biography, Wallace. Frady had little insightful to say about the major political events of the era, but the South Carolina-born writer helped his readers understand just how this proud and insecure southerner wrestled with contradictory emotions: shame and pride, kindness and cruelty, generosity and greed. Above all, he brilliantly evoked the demons that carried his subject from a small southern town to a critical role in reshaping American politics. Instead of Frady's insights into Wallace's character, however, we are too often treated to self-conscious musings about Wallace's motivation and wooden agitprop political speeches by Jim Folsom, the political conscience of the film.

To those who care about the integrity of the historical past, the ultimate flaw lies in the form of the docudrama itself as it has evolved over the past 20 years. Robert Penn Warren, the author of All the King's Men--arguably the greatest novel ever written about southern politics--was clearly inspired by the story of Huey Long. As a novelist, however, he believed that he could best illuminate the historical drama and tragedy of Long's rise and fall by freeing himself from the factual constraints of one man's story, using his imagination to take the bits and pieces of actual history and remolding them with the imagination of the artist into a more universal tale of ambition and retribution.

The novelist and the historian had equally important roles to play in understanding our past, said Warren, but they traveled on separate roads toward the truth. The mass audience of the commercial docudrama (not to mention its financial rewards) is a tantalizing lure, but it has become--with rare exceptions--a soap opera substitute for real engagement with the past. When asked to become a part of such productions, the greatest contribution historians can make is to take the advice of a former First Lady: "Just say no."

I've taken the pledge.

—Dan Carter is William Rand Kenan Jr. University Professor at Emory University. His most recent books are The Politics of Rage: George Wallace, the Origins of the New Conservatism and the Transformation of American Politics (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1995) and From George Wallace to Newt Gingrich: The Role of Race in the Conservative Revolution, 1963--1994 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State Univ. Press, 1996).