Watching the Bob Jones University production, “Mill Town Pride”, (2011) allegedly a baseball movie about faith, I was reminded, perhaps ironically, of the Marxist-Leninist statement quoted below:
“There is no ‘pure art’, no art for art’s sake, nor can there be any. The accessibility, the great power of conviction and emotional influence of art make it an important weapon of class struggle.”
Simply substitute the word “class” with the word “theological”, and you have your religious excuse for this movie.
Unfortunately, as with much of Soviet Art, “Mill Town Pride” falls far short of glorifying its patron, in this case God, because it is just so relentlessly awful.
The story-line goes something like this: Young Will Wright (played by B.J.U. grad student Thomas Sneed) dreams of someday becoming a Major League baseball player. In late 1920’s South Carolina, one of the quickest routes to a big league tryout is through the mill teams that were ubiquitous throughout the South.
But this is the Prohibition era, and evil alcohol in the form of moonshine, has apparently slithered its way (remember that metaphor for later) into the subculture of mill-team baseball. Our naive young Christian boy, Will, is scolded by his upper class father who, upon hearing the news from Will that he intends to go to work in a mill so as to qualify to play for their baseball team, responds with blustery moral authority, “you just can’t do whatever comes to your mind.”
For all practical purposes, here endeth the lesson.
Mill Town Pride, at its core, is about the moral imperative of obedience. Obedience to God, to one’s family, and, implicit as well, obedience to one’s social class, trumps personal freedom every time. The individual only realizes personal happiness and meaningful existence through submission to an omniscient, omnipotent force. The lesson is ancient, dating back at least to Odysseus’ run-in with Poseidon. Seldom, however, has it been illustrated less effectively in film.
Predictably, however, demon alcohol seduces Will into her evil grasp, creating conflict between Will, his girl-friend (the hyphen is intentional; he chastely introduces his obvious love interest, “Ginny,” repeatedly as his “friend”), his family, and his best friend on the team, a pitcher who has recently become a born-again Christian.
Remember the metaphor about the snake I asked you to remember a few paragraphs ago? Well, apparently, what specifically set Will to a drinkin’ was an unintentionally hilarious incident during which Will’s rival on the team, mill-hand Pike Spangler, decides to ambush Will one late-afternoon by literally throwing a live copperhead snake at Will.
Will actually catches the serpent without getting bitten, then tosses it back at Pike, who is bitten, although not mortally. Pike is an ignorant wretch who hates without purpose, drinks lots of alcohol, and is inexplicably tolerated by all those around him.
After the snake incident, Will apparently gets depressed, is offered alcohol, and improbably announces, “I’ll never know what the fuss is all about if I don’t at least try it.”
Get it? Snake? Temptation? Alcohol? Clever, huh?
In fact, the script, penned by B.J.U. faculty member David Burke (who also plays evangelist Billy Sunday in this film) is peppered throughout with trite, embarrassingly unoriginal lines like, “Hey rookie, show us what you got,” and “You got the makings of a natural hitter,” and “Shut-up, chickenhead.” There are many aw-shucks moments, the boys all wear overalls, and the girls are relegated to lines like, “Would you like some more lemonade?”
“Mill Town Pride” is “The Natural’ combined with “Little House on the Prairie.”
There are wrap-around front porches, lots of picnics, mills in which no one seems to actually work, and goofy grins. The idyllic Southern myth of a better, purer time now long forgotten permeates this film like the real-life lint dust that used to slowly choke the life out of the young women and underage children who were the backbone of the post-slavery, newly industrializing South. Damn, those pesky child-labor laws!
Noticeably entirely absent from this film as well are any members of the African-American race. Considering the demographics of South Carolina, a film set in the Greenville area of the 1920’s sans black people is either a remarkable oversight or an implicit wink at the audience that to include African-Americans would be to undermine the moral tone of the film. After all, how does one create a film whose primary purpose is moral guidance without undermining that moral tone with the uncomfortable truths about race relations in the South during that era?
But what about the baseball aspect of this movie?
Well, for starters, our hero, Will, has one of the most awkward swings ever filmed. At first, that’s how it is played for the film. But later, after a kind of guardian angel of sorts (think Clarence in “It’s a Wonderful Life” but with a southern accent and no sense of mirth) helps Will with his swing using a questionable homemade device, Will’s swing actually still sucks (although in the movie, of course, he starts to hit like a young Joe Jackson.)
Speaking of Shoeless Joe, the loyal citizens of the upstate here in South Carolina where old Shoeless Joe is from (Pickens County) will happily inform you that Joe Jackson was innocent of all charges against him that emerged from the 1919 Black Sox scandal. And they will cite “evidence” (as they do at one point in this film, and that I’ve been personally confronted with a couple of times since I moved down here) that Jackson’s .375 batting average and 12 hits in that Series are all the evidence you need to know to prove his innocence.
But Jackson actually never returned the tainted five-thousand dollars left in his possession during the 1919 World Series.
While there is no evidence that he ever spent the money on himself, and while his performance in that World Series can only be regarded as inconclusive evidence of either his innocence or his guilt (he actually made several important outs with runners in scoring position), what we do know is that here in Greenville, home of Bob Jones University in which this film was produced, one can either be castigated for his moral shortcomings, as Will Wright is in this movie, or he can be put on a pedestal regardless of his moral shortcomings, as Shoeless Joe is in downtown Greenville.
The important point is that the arbitrary nature of certain kinds of authority create fear, and, therefore, compel conformity and obedience. And woe to thee who fails to abide by this truth.
Allow me an interesting and ironic digression to illustrate my point, which has to do specifically with the making of this film.
I happen to work with a young lady whose father, Tim Rogers, was the director of “Mill Town Pride.” I learned from her a few weeks ago that her dad, an employee at Bob Jones University for many years, was actually fired by B.J.U. during the making of this film allegedly because he questioned the plausibility of the script from which he was working.
Although he was fired, he agreed to finish making this film, which he’d already invested so much of himself up to at that point.
Mr. Rogers, like the character Will Wright he was directing, felt the full wrath of angered, arbitrary power. His disobedience was punished forcefully, and without mercy. Will Wright, as it turns out, is given a new lease on life, and walks off with his girl-friend into the sunlight of a second chance, a chance the director himself will apparently never get.
“Mill Town Pride” is apparently just too important in the spiritual struggle for men’s souls to be “art for art’s sake.”
Thus we have come full circle.
“Mill Town Pride” is a movie, but it is not art.
It is a sermon whose implicit purpose is to get you to heaven by revealing to you a small, banal taste of hell. If that’s all you require from a film, then this is your movie. If, on the other hand, you believe that true art is the honest, unfettered expression of the soul, then you will benefit enormously by avoiding this film.