The film is based on the true ruminations of writer Earl Hamner Jr, growing up in the Depression in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, a location so legendary at that time, that it was also featured in Spencer’s Mountain starring Henry Fonda. Although, for whatever reason, the latter film was based in Wyoming, which, you know, ain’t exactly right next to Virginia on the old maparoo. Check that film out, too, while you’re at it. Just don’t bitch to me about some of the tragic events that take place. Hey, it was the 1930s.
The Homecoming would become the platform for the popular 1970s television series called The Waltons. Don’t blame the original film for its little mundane episodic trivialities as showcased in the T.V. program. Directed by Fielder Cook, and starring the underrated Richard Thomas (he was recently at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre in New York with James Spader under the direction of David Mamet), Edgar Bergen, and the wonderfully talented Cleavon Little, who departed this planet much too soon.
The film’s premise is simple, and therein lies some of the hidden magic of its appeal. Depression. Walton’s Mountain in a valley near the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia. Large extended family. Holiday season. They are upstanding Christians waiting for the day that celebrates the birth of their messiah. Alas, the patriarchal figure, John Walton, is missing, and nowhere to be found. Walton should have returned from his job already, and in the days before cell phones, or any technology that would have helped give his family information about his whereabouts, the family sits and ponder their options, while continuing to find a way to keep their spirits light and uplifted.
The story’s hook is also helped along by a truly memorable conclusion that is emotionally satisfying on all levels because of the way that each character is written, the manner in which each actor brings believability and a profound reality to their roles, and the dynamic charisma of Patricia Neal who towers over her family with an iron fist and a massive heart of gold. Her scenes with her son, John-Boy, played by Richard Thomas, are landmark sequences of subtle familial politics. Indeed, he excels in the complicated role of a young man who must take on great responsibility when his father is nowhere to be found, and there are several people who are counting on his miraculous reappearance.
Let that be your lesson for the holidays—sometimes, miracles happen in life’s alleged small moments, when just the presence of a loved one is far more important than any silly story passed around like a spiritual camp fire tale from some long forgotten era.