Sommersby Promotional Movie Poster
|Directed by||Jon Amiel|
Natalie Zemon Davis
Anthony Shaffer Screenplay:
Richard Gere |
James Earl Jones
|Music by||Danny Elfman|
|Editing by||Peter Boyle|
Le Studio Canal+|
|Distributed by||Warner Bros.|
|Release date(s)||February 5, 1993|
|Running time||114 minutes|
Set in the Reconstruction period following the U.S. Civil War, the story is adapted from the historical account of 16th century French peasant Martin Guerre (previously filmed by Daniel Vigne as The Return of Martin Guerre in 1982).
Plot[edit | edit source]
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John "Jack" Sommersby left his farm to fight in the American Civil War but has not returned home afterward, and is presumed dead. Despite the hardship of working their farm without him, his apparent widow Laurel (played by Foster) is quite content in his absence, as Jack was an unpleasant and abusive husband. She even makes remarriage plans with one of her neighbors, Orin Meacham (Pullman), who despite his own hardships (such as a wooden foot, which he wears to replace one that was lost in the war) has been helping her and her young son with the farmwork.
One day, Jack (Gere) seemingly returns with a complete change of heart. He is now kind and loving to Laurel and their young son. In the evenings, he reads to them from Homer's Iliad, which the old Jack never would have done. He claims that the book was given to him by a man he met in prison, and that "War changes you; makes you appreciate things". Jack and Laurel rekindle their intimacy and Laurel soon becomes pregnant.
Displaced from his courtship of Laurel, Meacham immediately suspects this "new" Sommersby as an impostor. The town shoemaker also finds that this man's foot is two sizes smaller than the shoe template which had been made for Sommersby before the war.
In order to revive the local economy, Sommersby suggests Burley tobacco as a cash crop. He raises the seed money by selling parts of his own farm to people who will then work the land to grow tobacco. This raises further doubts in his old neighbors who believe that the "old" Jack would not be so hasty to give away his beloved father's land, as well as resentment among Confederate veterans about the inclusion of former slaves.
One black freedman living on Sommersby's land is brutally attacked and dropped at Sommersby's door, by men proclaiming themselves the Knights of the White Camellia (one of them is Meacham, distinguished by his wooden foot). Jack is threatened in an attempt to force him to exclude Black people from the landowning but he refuses, saying that they can "own what they pay for".
Upon taking the townspeople's money, he sets off to buy the tobacco seed claiming that the crops will raise enough funds to rebuild the town church. Great suspicion and skepticism falls upon him (and by association, Laurel and their son) when he does not return at the expected time. He does, however, return. All those that bought in on the deal set to work, transforming the dull and lifeless plantation into a breeding ground of promise and prosperity. Laurel gives birth to a daughter, Rachel.
Shortly after Rachel's baptism, two U.S. Marshals appear in town to arrest Jack Sommersby. He is charged with murder, which carries the death penalty if convicted. Once the trial begins, Laurel's attempts to save her husband quickly focus on the question of his identity: whether this "Jack" is who he claims to be, or a look-a-like who met the real Sommersby whilst in prison for deserting the Confederate Army.
Laurel and Jack's lawyer agree to argue that her husband is an impostor, not the same man who left Laurel to fight in the war. This would save her husband (or supposed husband) from hanging for murder, although he would still be imprisoned for several years for fraud and desertion. Meacham devises this plan in exchange for Laurel promising to marry him upon "Sommersby's" imprisonment.
Jack fires the lawyer and sets about re-establishing himself as the real Sommersby. Several witnesses are brought up to discredit this Sommersby as a fraud, and show that he is in fact Horace Townsend, an English teacher from Virginia.
One witness says that the man currently posing as Jack defrauded his township of several thousand dollars after claiming he wanted to help rebuild the schoolhouse there. Sommersby quickly dismisses the man's testimony by identifying him as one of the Klansmen who had threatened him earlier. Jack also points out that Orin Meacham was another of those men, and that this is all a set-up to try and rob the new black farmers of the land they have bought. When the black judge confronts the witness on this charge, the witness snaps, "When the Yankees have all gone you'll be back in the field where you belong!" The judge silences him and sentences him to 30 days for contempt, increased to 60 days upon the man's protest.
As the drama unfolds, Jack asks Laurel to give the reason she knows he is not the "real" Jack Sommersby; she replies (after some berating) "…because I never loved him the way I love you!" With this her charade ends and she says that she believes the Jack before her to be her real husband.
The judge calls Jack to his bench to ask whether he wishes to be tried as Jack Sommersby even if it will certainly mean death by hanging. Jack glances at the freed blacks who have been farming his land, and then he glances at his wife and his daughter, who would be respectively condemned as an adulteress and a bastard child if he claimed the identity of Horace Townsend. He calmly states that he wants to be tried as John "Jack" Sommersby.
Jack is convicted of first degree murder and is sentenced to death by hanging. While awaiting death, he is asked by Laurel to tell the truth. She asks, "Are you John Sommersby?" Laurel mentions the book on Homer's works that he holds. Jack tells her the story of how he met a man who looked like him whilst in a prison and how he gave him this book. They traveled together until his friend died. He claims that he buried him under a pile of rocks on a hill top in Virginia. Laurel asks, "You mean you buried Jack?", to which Jack replies, "I mean I buried Horace."
Just then the jailers enter to transport Jack to the gallows. He asks Laurel to be amongst the crowds as he cannot "hang alone". She neither agrees nor disagrees to do this for him. As Jack Sommersby is fastened up ready to hang, Laurel makes her way to the front of the crowd. Jack calls for her, claiming to the executioner that he "isn't ready". She then calls back and the two see each other. The hood is pulled over and a trap door can be heard opening.
The closing scenes show Laurel walking up a hill with flowers. She then kneels by the grave of "Jack Sommersby" and lays the flowers down for him. It is revealed that work is being done on the steeple of the village church, as Jack had wished.
Cast[edit | edit source]
- Richard Gere - John "Jack" Sommersby
- Jodie Foster - Laurel Sommersby
- Brett Kelley - Rob Sommersby, son
- Bill Pullman - Orin Meecham
- James Earl Jones - Judge Barry Conrad Isaacs
- Lanny Flaherty - Buck
- William Windom - Reverend Powell
- Wendell Wellman - Travis
- Clarice Taylor - Esther
- Frankie Faison - Joseph
- R. Lee Ermey - Dick Mead
- Caileb Ryder/Caitlen Ryder - Baby Rachel
Reaction[edit | edit source]
See also[edit | edit source]
References[edit | edit source]
Footnotes[edit | edit source]
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