Director: Servando Gonzales
Starring: Anthony Perkins, Dana Elcar, Henry Hull
Release Date: 28th April 1965 (US)
The history books tell us the American Civil War ended in 1865, but when did it end for those who survived the conflict and for the families to which they returned? Long after the battlefields fell silent, America was haunted by people traumatized by a war remarkable for the high proportion of fatalities per head of population; the New York Times reported in 2012 a revised estimated death toll of around 750,000 and suggests the total could have been as high as 850,000. If we take the former figure, according to a BBC story on the same subject, this is the equivalent of 7.5 million Americans dying between 2012 and the present day. The BBC reported quoted a Civil War expert at Yale as saying “The Civil War left a culture of death, a culture of mourning, beyond anything Americans had ever experienced or imagined…It left a degree of family and social devastation unprecedented for any Western society.”
We forget the sufferings of peacetime and fools ourselves into thinking people of those days were tougher, less prone to the neuroses common to the twenty-first century. I’ve never believed this; yes, times were harsher, but this didn’t confer immunity from mental illness. The mass slaughters of the Civil War- as many perished at Gettysburg as at Waterloo- would push many over the edge, be it through mourning loved ones or from witnessing the horrors of war. Yet we sentimentalize the past, and hanker for times when men were men, women were women, and the children…well, what of the children?
The Fool Killer is one of those films which shines a little reality upon the Reconstruction Era, filtered through the American love of individualism. An orphan is an individual by definition, but perhaps there is more than one definition of the word ‘orphan’. A childless, lonely old man for example, or a mentally disturbed person who has no recollection of family, all lost and alone in a country whose population was again split, not by North and South, but between those who could live with themselves, and those who could not.
One boy who must decide where he belongs is George Mellish (Eddie Albert in his film debut) a twelve-year-old whose parents “just died”, possibly of illness, a fate that also befell young Jim Burden’s parents in Willa Cather’s novel My Antonia (1918), to which The Fool Killer bears a vague resemblance. George’s foster parents are old-fashioned even for the 1860s and we see George get a thrashing for an accident resulting in the sad and needless demise of a milk churn. As butt meets birch, George’s foster father reads from The Bible though I don’t think it eases the pain much.
Young George is a reflective fellow, as only children often are, and his thoughts act as our narration. “It aint the hurt of it,” he thinks of the beating, “it’s the shame of it.” Full of hate for the couple who took him in for free farm labor, George runs away at night, taking a ride on a steam train by laying on a bogey. Mention this to someone in Britain and they’ll laugh, and the angrier you get, they more they’ll laugh, and if you ask why, they’ll just tap the side of their nose.
Riding the rails, George falls asleep and wakes up still balanced atop a bogie (tee hee). As the train stops to take on water, George wanders off to relieve himself of the same, returning only to see the train depart, taking his swagbag with it. Rule one of life on the road, George: never take your eyes off your swag. Bereft of worldly goods, George walks along the railroad, bound for he knows not where.
After a time, George spots a house in an advanced state of disrepair. Looking around, George sees no signs of life aside from chickens, and takes a drink from a water-pump. “Howdy boy!” comes the cry from a nearby hut. Therein, George finds a fuzzy-faced old man whose appearance matches his derelict surroundings, reading a book upside-down as he believes God put his eyes in the wrong way. Rather than run for the hills, George chats to the old-timer, who introduces himself as ‘Dirty’ Jim Jelliman (played to the cottonpickin’ hilt by Henry Hull).
Jim, somehow convincing George he’s not going to end up in a cooking pot, takes him into the house, which looks like it’s undergone feng shui conducted by a raccoon. “Aint it gorgeous?” declares Jim. “It used to look like paint and smell like soap.” Once, there was a Mrs Jelliman, a strict woman obsessed with cleanliness, or at least basic standards of hygiene. Jim explains their lopsided union produced no children, which he believes would have “softened” her personality. TFK is a film about the relationships between adults and children, and the completeness one can bring the other. This mutual need is sentimentalized in TFK however, as almost everyone George meets wants to adopt him, yet we must remember the film is set in a time when child mortality rates were high, and many couples remained unhappily childless.
George explains his family background, or rather the lack of it, and of how his good intentions always go awry. “You is a fool,” Jim tells him good-naturedly, “it’s as plain on you as a cut nose on a hog.” Suddenly, a wild cat appears! Despite George’s shock, the cat sits beside him all friendly like. “That’s a sign!” cries Jim. “You and he are gonna be good friends.” (As regular readers are aware, a film which likes cats tends to blind your reviewer to its faults, but I shall endeavor to remain impartial). George looks uncertain: “I hadn’t figured on staying.” If it’s one thing all old folk know how to do, it’s some Sanford and Son style emotional blackmail, and Jim cranks it up to the maximum: “You ah, you…wouldn’t leave an old man on his own…would you?” George guesses not and agrees to stay awhile.
Montage time! We see Jim and George fishing, rolling around in mud, then chasing a little black pig around the house in what I hoped was a deep South variant of tag, though as we next see a pig roasting on a spit, I suppose not. Two weeks pass and George is getting restless, though Jim would rather get drunk on Wild Turkey – and indeed get drunk with a wild turkey – than make anything close to a decision. While George has missed out on a normal childhood, Jim is intent on reliving his own. George threatens to clean up Jim’s house with a broom, and Jim counter-threatens with mention of the dreaded Fool Killer…
One night-time, with a storm tearing up the sky, George is tucked up in bed with the cat when Jim relates the story of his past encounters with the Fool Killer, a giant who culls the stupid with a razor-sharp ax. Jim’s first meeting with this terrifying figure came as a child, when Jim had the smart idea of covering himself with chicken feathers and jumping off a barn to see if he could fly, with disappointing results. The Fool Killer spared Jim on this occasion as the youngster was “too green…not ripe enough for chopping”.
The next visit came, a la Frankenstein, on Jim’s wedding night, only this time the Fool Killer reckoned the new Mrs Jelliman would make Jim suffer more than his ax, and so it proved. What becomes apparent as the film progresses is the eccentric Jim Jelliman isn’t so much relating a folk tale as giving his mistakes an anthropomorphic dimension, both distancing himself from, and reminding himself of, his past errors. During his look at the Westerns set in the aftermath of the civil war, Michael Newton in the Guardian Review of May 7th 2016 comments: “within a pristine wilderness, new disconcerting complexities became manifest. Neurosis and social disorder itself could ascend to the status of legend, the petty problems of the individual raised up into something archetypal.” Jim isn’t intelligent or aware enough of his own mental state and the way it’s influenced by his past, and so personifies his errors as someone else, only to believe his own story, and the impressionable George takes the old man at face value.
The next day, Jim and George walk to the nearest town, though the boy seems unwell. Feeling vulnerable, George makes Jim promise to never leave him, and this Jim does. And guess what happens next?
No sooner do the pair arrive in town than Jim is spotted by the formidable Mrs Fanshawe (Charlotte Jones) who berates the old man for some past misdemeanor. The sound of this verbal shellacking is too much for young George who collapses to the ground, sick with fever, conveyed effectively by Mexican director Servando Gonzalez through a simple ripple effect and muffling the soundtrack.
Coming to in a strange bedroom, George sees “that ton of woman come down on me again” as Mrs Fanshawe gives the boy medicine so nasty he passes out again. The next time George surfaces, he sees what he first guesses is a ghost, but is actually a little girl dressed in the style of the Infanta Margarita Teresa while bearing the personality of Violet Elizabeth Bott from the Just William stories. “I’m Blessing Angeline Fanshawe,” announces this little madam, and in round-rimmed spectacles and an enormous bow on her head, she’s a very odd blessing indeed. Blessing introduces George to her doll, Secret. “I tell her secrets, so when Mommy asks, I haven’t got them anymore.” In other words, Blessing tells Mommy whoppers to keep out of trouble, and she reacts furiously when George points this out. Blessing’s Pa is the town constable, and will ensure George is sent back whence he came. George at once decides to run away, and asks Blessing if she will help by finding his clothes.
Welcome George, to the concept of feminine wiles. Blessing will help, but only if George helps her with a secret – she is the only girl in fifth grade yet to be kissed. George puckers up with a peck on the cheek so swift it almost demands a slow motion replay. The dire deed done, Blessing agrees to help.
That night, bemoaning she’ll “probably go to jail for aiding a criminal”, Blessing hands over George’s clothes and points him in the right direction once they’re outside. A boy’s conscience is never so troubled as when a girl is involved, so George asks Blessing if she wants another kiss. “You’re getting mushy on me,” claims the girl. Thinking on this, George cries “goodbye, Mushy!” and runs across the fields to freedom. Blessing watches him go and laments “he didn’t even look back.” If it’s one lesson we’ve learned in these reviews (the diner scene in Plunder Road (1957) springs to mind) is a man never looks back, and George Mellish is every bit a traditional young American as Tom Sawyer. The scenes between George and Blessing have great charm, and one would like to have seen a little more of George and “the first woman I ever kissed”, but George’s desire for liberty takes precedent over romance – wise move, George.
By the by, if you’re wondering what happened to old Jim, then so am I. The old man is simply dropped from the narrative and isn’t seen or mentioned again, a shocking oversight given the bond formed between Jim and George, who seems to forget about his friend.
Out in the night George, spooked by owls and wild horses, is attracted to a wooded hollow by the sound of a flute. Hearing a noise behind him, George turns around – it’s the Fool Killer! A tall, lean man just as Jim said, and the camera closes in, through quick successive jump cuts, onto the scars on his forehead. The Fool Killer grabs the terrified George: “Who sent you? Where are you from?” then drags the boy into the hollow, where he’s set up camp. Instead of murdering the poor boy with an ax and eating his gizzards however, the Fool Killer calms down and provides George with bedding and a handkerchief to dry his tears. The strange figure returns to his flute and George falls into a sleep from sheer exhaustion. Aside from the obvious Mark Twain influence, there’s also elements of Dickens in George’s adventures, especially David Copperfield (1849) and this frightening encounter brings to mind Pip’s first meeting with Magwitch in Great Expectations (1861). As a film, TFK possess a literary feel with George’s adventures coming under both the bildungsroman and picaresque genres, so it comes as no surprise to learn TFK is based on a novel with the same name, written by Helen Eustis and published in 1954.
Of course, this man isn’t The Fool Killer, but George wakes the next morning, his questions go unanswered, so he retreats to a creek to reflect – literally. In one of a number of clever pieces of direction, we see George’s reflection in the water as he narrates his thoughts, wondering if he should stay with this unusual man. The stranger appears over George’s shoulder, and the boy apologizes for his behavior. This provokes the stranger’s first words, as he too apologizes: “I aint got no business asking you questions, just because you’re a boy. I wouldn’t of a man, any more than I’d expect him to ask me.” The man names himself as Milo Bogardus (Anthony Perkins) and with that, walks off.
Hesitating for a moment, perhaps sensing a bond or fearing isolation, George catches up with Milo, who explains this isn’t his real name: “it was taken off a dead man.” Milo decides it’s time for a good old-fashioned spot of skinny-dipping, and soon the two are frolicking in the river, and not in a D H Lawrence sense.
In a nicely set-up shot, George and Milo float upon the river, at either end of a stout branch, and talk of what they want from life. The young man wants to go west to prospect for gold (good luck with that, as we’re some way past the age of the ’49ers), while Milo wants to “eat when I’m hungry, talk to folks when I want to talk to folks…I want to see the world.”
After the swim, Milo indulges his predilection for rustic profundities such as “I can feel the grass grow beneath me.” Not to be outdone, George tells Milo “I done things” (he still hasn’t forgiven himself for the dead milk churn) and relates the story of the Fool Killer, with director Gonzalez shooting Eddie Albert from the ground, to make him as tall as possible, further indicating the only Fool Killer is ourselves. Their bond established, the pair head west together.
At night, Milo tells George a little about his past – and there’s only a little to tell. “I got no history at all…it’s like I wasn’t born from woman…but straight from God’s hand.” All Milo remembers from his earliest moments is pain “like two armies pushing either side of my head.” There follows a montage showing Milo and George working various farm laboring jobs, as Milo tells the boy his story in what to George must seem an oddly fragmented manner. We learn Milo fought in the Civil War but lost his memory due to a head injury, leaving him with no recollection of his past life. The hospital staff gave him the name Milo Bogardus after the patient in the next bed who died and no longer had a use for the name. I think there’d be a certain amount of paperwork involved in such a process these days, but there was a war on and the late 1860s were a time, according to TFK, where you could adopt a child in the same way as adopting a stray cat.
The pair journey on and find themselves on a hill overlooking an unnamed town, where people are heading for church. George feels the pull of society and the need to be among other people. Milo disapproves of organized religion (“a preacher telling them all they were born in sin…we’re all as God made us”) and voices the traditional American dislike of community: “towns, fancy clothes, and railroads take us away from God.” Milo’s credo is “strange towns and strange houses and the places of my enemies.”
One reason for Milo’s dislike of others manifests itself as he endures an agonizing flashback to the war. We hear the sound of a cavalry charge, of guns and horns, as Milo runs away in desperation, falling to the ground to roll and writhe in torment, his anguish again well conveyed by Gonzalez with unusual POV shots both of Milo and the ground itself. Milo finally jams his head between two trees and the panic-stricken George aids as best he can.
Later, Milo tells George “I seen God…a big cloud of light…it was a regular glory.” During The Exorcist (1973), Father Damian Karras (Jason Miller) tells Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn) what was once called demonic possession is now known as mental illness, as an explanation for her daughter’s strange behavior. It’s just as likely visions of God or angels were also caused by mental ill health; in Milo’s case, it’s obvious to us in 2016 he’s suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, and Milo interprets his convulsions Milo suffers are to him a kind of spiritual occurrence. The former soldier shies away from company as he associates crowds with war, and perhaps as a way of protecting others from himself, although he also tells George he has the ability to take pain away from others, like a faith healer, or Jesus curing the sick.
More time passes and Milo and George come across a large marque with wagons parked by and people milling around the entrance. This is a revivalist meeting held by a preacher, a big event for country folks before TV and cinemas came along. Again the gregarious George wants the company of his own kind and Milo relents, with reluctance.
Inside the tent, we see Reverend Spotts (Arnold Moss) launch into a good old-fashioned fire and brimstone sermon; if religion is the opiate of the masses, then this guy is crystal meth. “Darkness is gathering,” Spotts tells the rapt audience of lumpy yokels, “creatures of the night – creeping after you! Fools! Sinners!” (George, spellbound by this oration, now associates the Fool Killer with Satan). Spotts castigates the congregation for their love of “mansions, silver coins, drinkin’ liquor, smokin’ tobaccah!” and everyone’s favorite, “the pleasures of the flesh.” We are reminded, in forceful terms, that while we’re busy swilling booze and beating our wives, Jesus is/was “gasping, crying, grieving, dying” upon the cross, so you’d all better buck your ideas up. Women especially, you seducers with your “burning kisses” and “painted cheeks”, dragging innocent men down to hell! I don’t know if Reverend Spotts has looked closely at his audience, but the women present are a rather homely collection, and the only way their kisses could burn would be if they had scarlet fever.
Milo grows increasingly concerned by George who, more used to the tranquil company of prairie dogs, is hooked by the sermon, and once the preacher commands “come forward, come forward! Repent!” breaks free of Milo’s grip to get his soul saved, (by contrast, there’s a pertinent shot of the preacher from Milo’s perspective, his body blocked by a beam of wood, with only his outstretched arms visible). George blacks out as the preachers compels him to “say glory! Say glory! Say GLORY!” A powerful scene, and perhaps the most effective in the entire film.
Once more George wakes from unconsciousness to find life has changed somewhat, though not as much as the Reverend Spotts who’s woken up to find himself dead with an ax in his back. Milo – a killer of fools? – is nowhere around.
Leaving the scene of dismay behind him, George talks to us: “I don’t feel born again or saved…I think I’ve done another fool thing.” Searching the countryside for Milo, George tells us “I know I’ll go to hell for saying this, but I’d rather Milo were dead than he didn’t say goodbye.” So far, we’ve seen George with a substitute grandfather figure, and now a substitute older brother. Will he find a replacement for his dead parents?
Funny you should ask. Arriving in another new town, the hungry George eats what I hope is a cookie dropped on the ground outside a general goods store and is invited in by shopkeeper Mrs Dodds (Salome Jens, who we met in Seconds (1966)). George explains he’s looking for work, but as Mrs Dodd leaves to talk to her husband, George remembers Milo’s words about the places of his enemies. Before George can leave however, he’s persuaded to stay for supper by Mr Dodds (Dana Eclar).
Praise the Lord for the gift of the montage, as we see George settle into a new life of working for the Dodds, a childless couple affectionate towards the youngster. Life’s not all sweetness and light though, and it’s a sweet tooth that gets George into trouble, when he’s caught with his hand in the candy jar. Mr Dodds tells George to get over his knee; the boy attempts the Hamlet defense (“you’re not my Pa!”), but Mr Dodds will have none of it. Later, at bedtime, Mrs Dodds tells George he “took a licking a boy can be proud of,” and confides that she and Mr Dodds once had a baby, only for the child to die in infancy. “No more came…I know it aint sensible, but it’s like God sent us to you.” George, perhaps developing a swollen head to match his swollen butt, agrees with his new mom’s theory of divine intervention.
One day, George is up to his usual folksy bucolic boyhood larks in a stream (I’ll be honest, I was a touch bored of George by this stage, despite Eddie Albert’s wonderful performance), when he sees a familiar tall figure at the end of a covered bridge – Milo has returned. A happy reunion sees George sensibly refrain from asking Milo why he split Reverend Spotts in twain. Instead, the boy tells Milo “I’ve been taken in by folks!” In a nice moment of understated acting, Perkins removes his arm from Albert’s. “It ain’t like you think,” George says, “please come back with me.”
Milo has dinner with the Dodds, with all the ease of an aviophobic strapped into the co-pilot’s seat of a Boeing 747. Mrs Dodds asks Milo about his travels and hears the familiar words about “strange towns and strange places”; husband and wife realize how large an influence Milo has had on George.
After dinner, Mrs Dodds reiterates her desire to travel to Chicago to see Jack Benny’s birthplace, but is informed by her guest “folks up there aint got what you’ve got down here.” Mrs Dodds wishes for a little more excitement in town, though as give she gives Reverend Spott’s violent murder as the last exciting local event, you wonder at what the housewife calls fun. Mention of the late preacher does nothing for Milo’s nerves as we learn a certain Whisky Pete, who I like the sound of, was charged for the murder but later released.
George confesses to the murder of the Reverend Spotts – confesses it was the Fool Killer, that is. The Dodds dismiss this idea; George observes they’ve never seen God, yet believe in Him, so why not the Fool Killer. In the Dodds’ defence, I’d say the latter isn’t at the center of one of the great world religions, and is instead the product of a stinky old man who drinks moonshine made out of corn husks and dead squirrels. Milo, now all but whittling his own hands with nerves, takes his leave of the Dodds.
Outside, Milo asks George when he intends to tell the Dodds he’s leaving with him. George, now used to namby-pamby fancy Dan stuff like fresh water and a roof over his head, wants to stay put. “You’re not leaving with me?’ asks Milo, adding “you’ve got the mark of people and cities and houses on you,” as if George were domesticated, like a pet dog. Milo walks off in silence.
Night, and George watches in terror from his bed as a shadowy figure passes by holding an ax. By now laboring the point somewhat, George cries “the fool killer”, but instead Milo (for it is he) breaks into the Dodds’ bedroom and menaces Mrs Dodds while her husband fetches his rifle. George places himself between the two and Milo retreats outside. The Dodds and George follow and discover Milo standing on top of the chimney. Milo raises his ax and falls to the ground, killing himself. How’d you like them apples, George?
“Was it for me, or had he come to the end?” wonders George as we see him at some future point, racing towards a steam train. “When things get too peaceful, they get downright uninteresting.” George reaches the rails, but he isn’t moving on – not yet, anyway. There’s a whole world to see and a whole life ahead to explore. Remembering the words of Jim as the train recedes into the distance, George vows wherever he will go, he’ll never play the fool.
As American a film as your Mom’s apple pie, if your Mom used her late Aunt Mabel’s recipe, and you know how Mabel always put a little too much sugar in everything, and that’s how she passed like she did. TFK would have benefited from more shading, and greater character development for Milo, though Anthony Perkins works hard to lend the shattered war veteran an air of strangeness. A little more motivation, and a deeper feel for the effects of Milo’s instability would have worked wonders for TFK, a film which aches for a writer like Earl Hamner Jnr to give it more edge. As it is, TFK sets itself up for scares it’s too frightened to see through, like someone reading a ghost story who’s too frightened to finish the tale. As with George, TFK settles for domesticity when it could have taken a few more risks to ensure its own hero doesn’t end the film hankering for more excitement from life. Instead, a safe compromise is made between the two American traditions of family life and the open road.
What TFK does well is showing how the stories America likes to tell of itself often straddle the line between love of the wilderness and mistrust of city life and the temptations of society. Man is a social creature however, and as George walks through the American country, he is torn between his connection to nature and his longing for greater human company, a theme of American culture almost since its beginning. Ignorance and uncertainty are breeding grounds for monsters and so George carries the Fool Killer wherever he goes, as if in self-punishment for his doubts and longings. The boy’s continued belief in the Fool Killer does strain credibility, but I guess it’s no different to a modern twelve-year-old’s boy’s belief in ghosts or UFOs.
Some films deserve obscurity; others have obscurity thrust upon them. TFK is a pleasant enough film, with some fine set-pieces, such as the revivalist meeting and George’s first encounters with Milo, though there are a few puzzling directorial choices, such as the spiraling high shot of Blessing and George as they talk in his sickroom. Jim tells us the Fool Killer “killed lots of fools in the war,” and the peacetime role of veterans is one worth exploring, but TFK doesn’t go far enough in this direction. Ultimately, TFK is a satisfying matinee movie rather than the gothic Southern thriller one suspects it wanted to be from the start.