Its really sad when someone takes a celebrated novel, casts two powerhouse actors, and royally fucks it all up. This is what the filmmakers tragically did with this 1995 film adaptation of the classic book, Cry, the Beloved Country. The film is about a rural priest (James Earl Jones – Darth Vader’s voice and the bad guy in Conan the Barbarian) who treks out to Johannesburg, South Africa in search of his son, who has killed the son of a racist white father (Richard Harris). This was the first film to be shot on location in South Africa after the lifting of Apartheid and the election of Nelson Mandela. The novel is considered seminal literature on South Africa’s historic struggle against the white rulership of Apartheid. It is a powerful book whose message exhorting the racist, hatred-fueled struggle between the whites and the blacks will resonate deeply with the reader. To faithfully adapt the novel into a film requires a filmmaker who really knows his craft. Unfortunately, the studio entrusted the material to a director who was unable to do the book justice.

You have to feel bad for James Earl Jones and Richard Harris. These are two awesome actors who were probably well familiar with the book and the significance of making the film around the same time when Apartheid was lifted I’m sure didn’t escape them. Both actors deliver very good performances, most notably and not surprisingly Richard Harris as the racist father. James Earl Jones is cast well as the priest. With a voice that is the personification of authority, Jones has a dominating presence in his scenes. This makes it especially poignant to watch him during moments of weakness and emotion as he begins to discover the tragedies his family has suffered. As for Harris, well what can be said about him that has not already been said by others? His control of his character is like watching a cat playing with a ball of yarn. Harris seems to take just about anything given to him and churns it into something unique. As the racist father, he could have easily played him as someone who was full of blinding hatred, especially after learning that his son was killed by three black youths, and who abruptly sees the light at the end. Instead, we get a more complex character who we witness his transformation step by step so that by the end of the film, we know and completely accept why he is a changed man despite his tragic loss.

The problem with Cry, the Beloved Country is the same problem that most literary adaptations suffer from. They end up being Cliff Notes versions of the literary material. The book covers a lot of ground and to tell the story in a 1 hour 48 minute movie will necessarily force you to focus on the gist of the story. The problem with this is that the audience misses out on the textures and underlying messages the book contains. You get an abbreviated version of the book instead of a movie that captures the spirit of the book.

Whats good about this movie other than the acting? It is beautifully shot. The film was shot on location in South Africa and the colors and warmth of that country absolutely pop out of the screen. When you see a country as beautiful as South Africa, its hard to believe that so much strife occurred there for so long. The film also contains a great musical score by John Barry, who with his score for Out of Africa, is the only person who should ever make music for films set on that continent. The score is everything that a classic Hollywood score should be – epic, romantic, sweeping, etc.

Cry, the Beloved Country was a squandered opportunity and I’m because of that I’m still waiting for a true adaptation of the novel. However, if you just want to see great performances from James Earl Jones and Richard Harris, then its a worthwhile film. Otherwise, stick to the book.