Despite travel warnings, I needed to see our grandsons and daughter and sisters during the holidays, visits which entailed driving to Virginia during which I encountered a snow shower that in some areas created a Currier and Ives prettiness. Both my stay in Fairfax and in Gloucester involved seeing two new films, “The Last Vermeer” and “News of the World,” the latter of which offered much to think about for our current times.
Before the showing in Fairfax, an appeal to “Save Our Cinema” flashed upon the screen. For some minutes, the announcer pointed out the economic impact a movie theater brings with it — employment, other businesses that grow up around a theater, the boost for communities near the theater. That plea for support echoed in the next film about newspapers and the role they play to bring people together. Tom Hanks portrays Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd, who travels among western towns, five years after the Civil War has ended, presenting a “compendium” of the news of the world for his audiences, who pay a dime to hear him.
Kidd is 71 in the novel by Pauline Jiles from which the film is derived, a weary and war-torn former military man and printer whose wife has died, leaving him adrift until he creates the job for himself of reading the news. Kidd pulls stories from the London Daily News, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Chicago Tribune, the New York Herald, the Dallas Weekly Courier, and others he buys to glean his material. Then he has fliers printed advertising his reading, rents a public meeting hall, dresses formally, and then reads the news accounts in a strong, clear voice that dramatizes the events, eliciting responses from the crowds who gather who hear him. He is a storyteller the people are hungry to hear, a brightness in their bleak, difficult lives on the western frontier just after the Civil War when racial prejudice still pervades against blacks, Indians, and immigrants and when the country is recovering from the horrible losses of that war.
Meeting JohannaHis life changes abruptly en route to his next stop when he encounters an overturned wagon and a lynched black man. Kidd discovers papers which indicate the dead man was traveling to return 10-year-old Johanna Leonberger to her relatives after Kiowa Indians had captured her six years earlier after killing her parents and younger sister. Kidd finds her cowering underneath the wagon. Communication between them is limited as Johanna speaks only Kiowa. Nonetheless, Kidd takes her to the military authorities to ask if they can escort her to Castroville near San Antonio. The military officer makes clear that Kidd must deliver Johanna himself.
MissionThus begins a journey filled with danger — from men who want to buy Johanna, from a group of lawless renegades, from the child herself who knows only Kiowan culture and tries repeatedly to run away until she and Kidd bond during a gunfight when she provides ammunition better than birdshot to shoot their enemies. Subtitles translate her songs and words so that we know her admiration for Captain Kidd’s courage.
Kidd and Johanna are stopped in their journey another time when they meet men from the Erath settlement which an evil man named Farley controls. He insists that Kidd give a reading from The Erath Journal. Instead, Kidd reads about miners who after an accident protest their working conditions and the big bosses who profit from their labor, evoking unrest among the workers in the crowd as they recognize parallels in their own lives. Kidd and Johanna secretly escape the turmoil Kidd has unleashed. One reviewer notes that “Kidd’s mission to bring life from the outside world to isolated, suffering people is in part a role of atonement, of judgment ‘for all I had seen and all I had done’ as a soldier in three wars.”
DestinationFinally, they reach Castroville where Kidd finds Johanna’s aunt and uncle working the fields. They see the child as an extra, needed hand. Though he is dubious about the treatment Johanna might receive from these relatives, Kidd continues to San Antonio where he visits his wife’s grave. During the Civil War, he received a letter informing him of her death from cholera, and this visit implies a kind of closure and an awareness that Kidd needs Johanna in his life. He returns to Castroville to find her roped to a stake because she kept running away. The film ends with Kidd at a reading where Johanna provides sounds effects. He introduces her to the crowd as Johanna Kidd.
As with most Westerns, the scenery is a character, too, and this film, Tom Hanks’ first Western, abounds in acres of cropland, barren land, grazing fields, and mountains. One scene of slaughtered buffalo makes vivid the desperation of people reliant on the animals’ skins and meat for survival. Jiles says that she researched the North Texas landscape for an earlier novel, “The Color of Lightning.”
Kidd misses his former occupation as a printer in San Antonio where he had to sell his business to pay debts. In the novel, he goes to Thurber’s News and Printing Establishment to have his fliers printed: “... he was greeted and seduced by the smell of ink and the noise of the press coming from the rear.” A sign on the wall reads, “THIS IS A PRINTING OFFICE, CROSSROADS OF CIVILIZATION, Refuge of all the arts against the ravages of time, ARMOURY OF FEARLESS TRUTH AGAINST WHISPERING RUMOR, INCESSANT TRUMPET OF TRADE, From this place words may fly abroad NOT TO PERISH ON WAVES OF SOUND, NOT TO VARY WITH THE WRITER’S HAND, BUT FIXED IN TIME HAVING BEEN VERIFIED IN PROOF. Friend you stand on sacred ground.”
These two entities — theaters and newspapers — face threats of extinction from technology, from corruption, and from lack of audience. The first offers an escape from the isolation Covid has brought (“News of the World” is currently playing at our local theater), and the second, the newspaper, brings truth. We must preserve both.
Liz Meador is a retired English instructor from Wayne Community College and an adjunct at North Carolina Wesleyan College.