Horizon at Sandy Point

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Tom Dooley: hard luck or tragedy?

The movies my husband calls "hard luck stories" another person calls tragedies. Anna Karenina was definitely a tragedy. The stories in which everyone lived happily ever after were comedies. Sleeping Beauty (even the modern version Maleficent) a comedy. The exceptions would be the epic lives of the great religions, where life and death become two sides of the same coin. Death the doorway to life everlasting! But let's for today, stick to stories of mortals. And in particular, Tom Dooley the confederate soldier who learned too late that the American civil war had ended.

There are different versions of the Tom Dooley legend. The earliest - after the 1868 trial and hanging for the murder of Laura Foster - suggest that he was convicted, but may not have been guilty. The 1959 film coincided with the song made popular by the Kingston Trio:

Hang down your head, Tom Dooley. Hang down your head and cry.
Hang down your head, Tom Dooley. Poor boy, you're bound to die.
I met her on the mountain. There I took her life. Met her on the mountain. Stabbed her with my knife.
This time tomorrow. Reckon where I'll be. Hadn't-a been for Grayson, I'd-a been in Tennessee.
This time tomorrow. Reckon where I'll be. Down in some lonesome valley hangin' from a white oak tree.
(- Kingston Trio 1958)

The Legend of Tom Dooley, the film made by Ted Post with the 21 year old Michael Landon in the title role, is tragedy. You know the song. You know the ending. It was early days in the film industry; the movie is black and white. In the style of the western, it is played without pathos, without self pity, with rough justice a certainty.

It does bear watching for the simplicity of plot, and early but efficient use of film technology. In the mid 1950s you could still believe in the wide open spaces of the 1866 American west where men on horses were larger than life; swift enough to outstrip news of a war's end.

For just under 80 minutes, the downbeat in the ballad echoes the footfalls of galloping horses as Dooley's fate plays out. We see the camaraderie of three friends, Tom, Country Boy and Abel; Tom's love for Laura and the unrelenting approach of justice. The time ahead of the news is taken back for the doctor's visit, for finding and marrying Laura, and fending off those who would bring him to that old oak tree in a lonesome valley.

Inexorable fate is the nature of tragedy; as is unequivocal unwavering justice. And The Legend of Tom Dooley a reminder that we also appreciate stories (movies, books, plays) even if the ending is certain.

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