Growing up in rural Mississippi one idyllic summer in 1905, eleven year old Lucius McCaslin (Mitch Vogel) marvels at the first automobile in town. A bright yellow Winton Flyer purchased by Lucius' stern but caring grandfather known by all as Boss (Will Geer). Equally taken with the car is plantation handyman and lovable rascal Boon Hoggenbeck (Steve McQueen) who also happens to be Lucius' closest friend and idol. Before long Boon 'borrows' the car, bringing Lucius along and joined by their mixed-race friend Ned (Rupert Crosse) for what proves to be a wild, eventful, eye-opening road trip for the young boy.
To the surprise of many in 1969, Steve McQueen, then the biggest movie star in the world, chose to follow up the one-two punch of Bullitt (1968) and The Thomas Crown Affair (1968) with The Reivers. Adapted from a prize-winning novel by the great William Faulkner, this comparatively low key and elegiac coming of age period charmer showcased the other side of McQueen. Instead of the iconic, laconic, cool action hero here he plays a lovably mischievous man-child. Huck Finn to Lucius' wide-eyed Tom Sawyer, full of boyish exuberance and charm even whilst leading the kid astray. It was this often overlooked facet of McQueen's persona that spurred Steven Spielberg to pursue him for the lead role in Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977). Sadly to no avail. Interestingly though the influence of The Reivers is very apparent in Spielberg's first-produced screenplay: the inferior Ace Eli and Rodger of the Skies (1973) with its similar 'charming'-rogue-leads-kid-astray-through-period-Americana.
With stunning, luminously photographed scenery (by D.P. Richard Moore), heartwarming score by John Williams (there is that Spielberg connection again) and avuncular narration from Burgess Meredith (as the older Lucius), The Reivers certainly evokes the warmth of nostalgia in its recreation of the American South at the turn of the century. Yet befitting Faulkner's source material the portrait is much more textured and nuanced than that description might suggest. Judging from the almost goofy exuberant look that lights up Boon's face when he first lays eyes on the Winton Flyer, notorious gear-head McQueen likely signed on to the project in part for the thrill of messing around with a vintage automobile. On the studio's dime no less. However, on closer inspection, the parallels between Lucius' maturing grasp of a much grubbier, more complex world and McQueen's own famously troubled childhood, may have been a more potent motivator. Particular the midsection wherein Boon brings Lucius to a brothel hoping to reconnect with on-off flame Corrie (Sharon Farrell). The strained but ultimately loving relationship between emotionally adolescent Boon and maternal prostitute Corrie proves the catalyst by which Lucius develops a more mature grasp of the world around him. How grownups are more than just one thing, both saints and sinners.
Ironically for a former Hollywood screenwriter, Faulkner's literary output was notoriously difficult to translate for the screen. Here actor-turned-acclaimed-director Mark Rydell assembles a lively picaresque that foregrounds character and verisimilitude over a driving plot. Warmhearted but sober-minded, The Reivers strikes a unique tone for a honey-hued period coming of age yarn, halfway between the rose-tinted innocence of Disney's Pollyanna (1960) and the bawdy frankness of Pretty Baby (1978). Especially interesting is the subtle manner in which screenwriters Harriet Frank Jr. and Irving Ravetch go against the established view of an American South dominated by privileged white bigots to emphasize the fortitude and solidarity between those on the lowest rung of the social order: prostitutes, the white working class and African-Americans. In a role that made him the first African-American to be nominated for an Oscar as Best Supporting Actor, Rupert Crosse (who sadly passed away far too young at the age of forty-five) portrays Ned as someone with far more sense and guile than ostensible hero Boon. In fact his ingenuity has far more effect on the plot. The film echoes Faulkner with its intriguing playful grasp of race-relations in turn-of-the-century Mississippi, illustrating how certain black voices carried weight even in the midst of a fundamentally racist social structure. Like McQueen's Boon, The Reivers is guilty of a few lapses in taste but redeemed by its self-effacing honesty and heart.