Remarks on William Bradford Huie by Don Noble

Introduction to William Bradford Huie and showing of Wild River,
November 10, 2010 at the Bama Theater
Dr. Don Noble, Professor emeritus of English

Good evening.

Thank you for coming.

We are here tonight celebrating William Bradford Huie, as we have been doing now for several days with lectures, exhibits, panel discussions and Billy Field’s remarkable play, because the 13th of November is Bill Huie’s birthday.

The 13th marks, in fact,  the centennial of the birth of Bill Huie and for those of us involved with the arts in any fashion a couple of lessons make themselves apparent.

Young writers think if they can only publish their book they will be rich and famous forever. Bill Huie certainly thought that when he published Mud on the Stars and it brought in $123,000  in 1942 dollars.

Huie went on to publish a total of 21 books but at the time of his death on Nov. 20, 1986, not one of those books was in print and Huie was, essentially, broke.

Sometimes a big talent and hard work are not quite enough.

What a writer needs, even while alive and certainly after his death, is people who care about his work and in one way or another, by writing about it, talking about it, dramatizing it or the writer’s life, or screening the work, keep that  writer’s work alive.

Bill Huie is, in this respect, a lucky man, having Martha Huie, Billy Field, Jessica Lacher-Feldman, Brent Davis, Jeremy Butler, Wayne Greenhaw and a host of others on his team, now, celebrating the man and his work.

And there was a monumental amount of work. Of Huie’s 21 books, 14 became best sellers. Huie also at one time held the record for most copies sold on three different national magazines.

One might say Huie was fortunate to have been living in interesting times.

He writes of the Depression in Mud on the Stars. True.

But Huie would go on to serve in the US Navy and write a number of books about WWII: including The Americanization of Emily, The Revolt of Mamie Stover, The Hiroshima Pilot, The Hero of Iwo Jima, and two books on the Seabees.

Then he realized that the central American drama had become the civil rights movement, and Huie produced Wolf Whistle: The Story of Emmett Till, Ruby McCollum: The Woman in the Sewanee County Jail, Three Lives for Mississippi, and He Slew the Dreamer, his investigation of James Earl Ray and the Assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Of his 21 books, 6 were made into Hollywood movies—some good—some not so good. The Execution of Private Slovik, starring  Martin Sheen and Ned  Beatty,  held the record as  the most-watched made-for-TV movie  of its time and for years afterwards.

Slovik was first-rate.

Huie’s book on the Marine Ira Hayes, Pima Indian Congressional Medal of Honor winner, was made into The Outsider, starring Tony Curtis as a Native American. Enough said.

His novel The Klansman was put on the screen to no applause, although it starred O.J. Simpson who, in a more just world, would have been arrested for that performance, Richard Burton with an accent only to be considered Southern if you equate intoxicated with Southern, and Lee Marvin.

His novel of the harlot of Honolulu, The Revolt of Mamie Stover, is fun to watch, but it distorted Mamie the prostitute into a professional dime-a-dance girl and that is not exactly the same thing.

Of all the films excepting Wild River, The Americanization of Emily is certainly the best. The performances of Julie Andrews, Melvin Douglas and James Garner are superb and with a screenplay by Paddy Chayefsky it is an emotionally moving,  subtle, wartime/anti-war film.

“Bestness” is a hard thing to prove. The Americanization of Emily may be the best Huie movie.

It seems to me most likely, however, that the film that MEANT the most to Bill Huie was Wild River, because this movie was made from Huie’s first novel and that first novel, like many another first novel, was made largely from the author’s own life.

Hartselle is not on the Tennessee River, exactly, and the Huies were not planters, but the Tennessee Valley, north Alabama, was the home place and he knew it well.

Huie knew the rich and the poor, the blacks and the whites of his home place. He knew how people spoke and what they ate and, most importantly, how they thought.

He was one of them and as a boy thought the same way they did. He believed, as valedictorian of Hartselle High, that the world was a fair and level playing field, the race went to the swift, and the government that governs at a great distance, and governs least and, ideally, governs not at all, governs best. The worst government of all then, is the one that seizes your property by eminent domain, builds a dam, and floods your ancestral home.

But Huie and his hero, Peter Garth Lafavor of Garth Island—there really is a Garth Slough in the Tennessee River north of Decatur—are both intelligent men. They observe closely; they learn; they are flexible.

Huie and his hero realize that sometimes the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few and the dam must be built and Garth Island flooded to provide electric power and a better, safer life for millions of ordinary people.

Huie himself was Phi Beta Kappa at the University of Alabama and, not surprisingly, his protagonists are highly intelligent, highly educable creatures and capable of changing their minds when change is warranted.

This film about his home place, and tangentially about his childhood, was not only the movie that probably meant the most to Huie, it is the film with which he was most closely associated. Wayne Greenhaw tells the story of visiting the Huies in Hartselle and Bill’s telling him that the last person to sleep in the guest bedroom had been Elia Kazan, scouting locations. As Jeremy Butler will tell you, Huie and Kazan had a good relationship and big plans, and Huie was present on the set for some of the filming in Tennessee.

As readers of Mud on the Stars know perfectly well, Wild River makes use of only the first section of that long autobiographical novel, and the romance between the local girl and the government man is not in the novel.

On the other hand, the sections of Mud on the Stars depicting life here at the University in the 30’s, with the special football party trains and the Jewish and radical Yankee students, the scenes at Bryce Hospital, the violent labor/management wars in Birmingham and other sections of that novel should be, and perhaps one day will be, made into a film, and the title will be Mud on the Stars.

In the meanwhile, tonight, we have this to enjoy.

Wild River.