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This Review Reveals Minor Details About the Plot.

Gonzo Gospel

Wise Blood (1979) on IMDb
Bible Jim

Plot Overview

To the Background strains of the “Tennessee Waltz” ex-serviceman (Private) Hazel Motes (Brad Dourif) hitch­hikes back to his native Tennessee. His family home is a wrack and ruin by now. He comes on into town, past signs saying REPENT and others listing the variety of churches they have there: Harmony Baptist Church & Friend­ship Baptist Church. He doffs his uniform and dons a store-bought suit and hat. The taxicab driver mistakes him in his new attire for a preacher, but he's not heading any­where a preacher ought to go … except perhaps to investigate sin. His grand­father (John Huston cameo) was a preacher and Hazel evidently was groomed for the ministry before Uncle Sam got hold of him. It shows through despite him looking, à la Harlan Coben, “for lack of a better term—normal. You could dress a stripper down, but you could always see the stripper. Same with the gambler, the drinker, heck, the cop” (81) etc. A blind street preacher Asa Hawks (Harry Dean Stanton) observes, “Some preacher's left his mark on you.”

communionThe Interstate Highway went in a year ago, we learn, setting the time­frame of this film in the Eisenhower era. That would put Hazel's military service in the Korean War. The store displayed a tapestry of The Last Supper suggesting the movie's religious content would lean as much towards the sacra­mental as the verbal. Hazel hides his suffering on the inside, to the extent of not even wearing his purple heart on his uniform. Having been mistaken for a preacher, though, he takes up preaching a gospel of denial of Christ. Hazel's relentless preaching against Christ puts him in the same boat as, “Methinks the lady doth protest too much”—William Shakespeare.


Novelist Flannery O'Connor injected her Catholic perspective into the novel on which this movie was based—as well as into her other novels. Here the story mimics the parable of the prodigal son. (Luke 15:11-12) “And he said, A certain man had two sons: And the younger of them said to his father, Father, give me the portion of goods that falleth to me. And he divided unto them his living.” Having fulfilled his patriotic duty, Hazel strikes out on his own with his military stipend. (Luke 15:13-16):

And not many days after the younger son gathered all together, and took his journey into a far country, and there wasted his substance with riotous living. And when he had spent all, there arose a mighty famine in that land; and he began to be in want. And he went and joined himself to a citizen of that country; and he sent him into his fields to feed swine. And he would fain have filled his belly with the husks that the swine did eat: and no man gave unto him.

Hazel traveled into town and consorted with a prostitute (“the friendliest bed in town.”) Then he joined up with preacher Hawks's seven­teen-year-old “real trash” daughter Sabbath Lily (Amy Wright.) Her claim to fame was being a “real bastard” and that “A bastard shall not enter heaven.” That was evidently a bowd­leri­zation of the Old Testament verse, (Deut. 23:2) “A bastard shall not enter into the congregation of the LORD.” Its adjacent verse would belong to Hazel, they being two peas in a pod, (Deut. 23:1) “He that is wounded in the stones … shall not enter into the congregation of the LORD.”This latter from earlier discussions:

Old man storekeeper: “Was ya' wounded, Haze?”

Hazel: “Yes, I was.”

Old man storekeeper: “How come you wasn't wearin' no Purple Heart?”

Hazel: “Well, I got one, but I didn't want people to know where ... I was wounded.”

He'd asked for “the usual” service from the whore as if he weren't sure he was fully functioning. Per the biblical parable it was feeding swine—an unclean beast to a Jew—that brought the prodigal son to his come-to-Jesus moment. Here in this film it's the girl Sabbath playing with a non-viable baby doll that brings Hazel up short. (Luke 15:17-20)

And when he came to himself, he said, How many hired servants of my father's have bread enough and to spare, and I perish with hunger! I will arise and go to my father, and will say unto him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and before thee, And am no more worthy to be called thy son: make me as one of thy hired servants. And he arose, and came to his father. But when he was yet a great way off, his father saw him, and had compassion, and ran, and fell on his neck, and kissed him.

This dialogue seems to be internalized in the movie rendition. Hazel's Church of Jesus Christ With­out Christ [sic] was so far out there that it's hard to tell when he entered the Christian orbit, how­ever far off, but the father welcomes him from afar and gives him a princely treatment: (Luke 15:21-24)

And the son said unto him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and in thy sight, and am no more worthy to be called thy son. But the father said to his servants, Bring forth the best robe, and put it on him; and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet: And bring hither the fatted calf, and kill it; and let us eat, and be merry: For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found. And they began to be merry.
stand-up believer

The robe in the movie rendition is the white bandage on Hazel's head. The ring on the prodigal's finger becomes a torture wire wrapped round Hazel's torso. The shoes on his feet are shoes filled with pebbles and glass. Hazel is into old time mortification of his body, reflecting his inability to have children. The fatted calf feast is the gratuitous meals his land­lady (Mary Nell Santacroce) serves him. His hidden inner reconciliation is shown only by the music of the Shaker song, “Simple Gifts,” a dance tune about humility shown by bending & bowing in dance, and spinning around. Hazel was humbled by lying in a gutter and by turning around to go back where he belonged.

Heated preaching There's also a big brother episode to that parable. (Luke 15:25-28) The solid Christian inhabitants of the town were, some of them, displeased with this renegade's journey and wanted no part of it, except for the radio preacher (William Hickey) who hijacked his church. (Luke 15:29-30) The land­lady had second thoughts about cooking for him. (Luke 15:31-32) But it was good to end the movie on some upbeat music.

Production Values

This artsy gem, “” (1979) was directed by John Huston. The screen­play was written by Benedict Fitzgerald, adapted from Flannery O'Connor's novel, Wise Blood. It stars Brad Dourif, Harry Dean Stanton, Amy Wright, Dan Shor and Ned Beatty. Dourif's performance was great as he propelled the plot forward, and the others held up their parts well. The film was made on a budget, so they had to conscript local denizens for minor parts. The police were the local con­stabu­lary, the bums in the alley were bums in the alley, and the “niggers” were African-Americans.

The film was rated PG. The preacher's hot spot was located at the Confederate Monument, Macon, Georgia. Misspelled credits were deliberate from the use of children to produce a child­like script. The whole movie being off-kilter, the director just left them in. The film was equal-oppor­tun­ity, the towns­folk objecting to Catholics, “niggers”, and foreigners with equal vigor.

Review Conclusion w/ Christian Recommendation

I've heard a lot of sermons on the prodigal son over the years, but I've never seen any­thing like what this movie does to it. Regard­less, it works as a comedy though not so much as an application. It is what it is, and what you see is what you get. The film was technically well made.

Movie Ratings

Action Factor: Weak action scenes Suitability for children: Suitable for children with guidance. Special effects: Average special effects Video Occasion: Better than watching TV Suspense: Don't watch this movie alone Overall movie rating: Four stars out of five.

Works Cited

Scripture quoted from the King James Version. Pub. 1611, rev. 1769. Software.

Coben, Harlan. Stay Close. New York: Penguin Group. 2012. Print.