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Laramie Movie Scope: Brother John

Sidney Poitier's apocalyptic prophesy

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by Robert Roten, Film Critic
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January 9, 2022 – When the commentaries came flooding in after the death of Sidney Poitier, on January 6, 2022, most critics cited the obvious examples of his outstanding career, including “Lilies of the Field,” “In the Heat of the Night,” “Guess Who's Coming to Dinner,” etc. Rottentomatoes listed his top 20 movies without mentioning this one, “Brother John” (1971).

To me, this is the one Sidney Poitier film that haunts me most. I watched it again last night, and now, 50 years later, it seems even more prescient and prophetic than it did then. Much like “The Day the Earth Stood Still” (1951) it serves as a warning that humanity's greed, hatred, thirst for power and tribalism will lead to our collective doom.

Poitier plays John Kane, the enigmatic brother of a dying woman who shows up out of nowhere just minutes before his sister dies. He says he just happened to be passing through this dusty southern town where he was born in the nick of time to visit her on her death bed, but old doc Thomas (Will Geer of “Jeremiah Johnson”) isn't buying that explanation. He knows there is something otherworldly about John Kane.

Doc Thomas tells his county prosecutor son, Lloyd Thomas (Bradford Dillman of “Sudden Impact”) and others, that John will show up in town just hours before he does. Doc Thomas predicted this because John had done the same thing twice before, inexplicably showing up just in time to visit two other members of his family just before they died.

When John Kane shows up in town, just as Doc Thomas predicted, his son decides to try to solve the mystery of Brother John. He and the local sheriff get into Kane's hotel room and rifle through his things. They find that John, leaving town years ago as a youngster, had somehow managed to travel all over the world, even to countries closed to westerners. It also turns out that John, while lacking a formal education, can fluently speak multiple languages.

Intrigued, Lloyd Thomas is determined to find a reason to lock up John so he can question him. The Sheriff orders his deputies to put John under surveillance. When a deputy tries to strong arm John, he quickly finds that John can defend himself with amazing ease, using mysterious martial arts techniques to render the deputy helpless. Later, some local toughs try to beat up John, and he quickly dispatches them. The same deputy, coming to the scene of the fight, tells the would be attackers, “You have no idea.”

John spends some time with school teacher Louisa MacGill (Beverly Todd of “Lean On Me”) making him an enemy of a local tough guy who wants her for himself, Henry Birkardt (Paul Winfield of “The Terminator”). When John is finally arrested on an old warrant, Doc Thomas visits him in his cell. He suspects that John has been traveling the world, documenting various crimes of humanity for some higher purpose. John, while being very cagey and hard to pin down, confirms this.

When Doc Thomas asks what he has seen in his travels, John talks of the suffering and death of the poor: “I've seen death and starvation and cruelty ... and the fat and sleek oiling their bodies in the sun ... and I have smelled flesh burning and the stink of excrement when a man is killed and his gut squeezes out the last of life. I have seen people, swarming all over the world like maggots on a rotten apple, getting ready to leap off the earth, first to the moon, then to the stars.”

Without being specific, the movie drops hints of space aliens who don't want human beings to get to the stars. This is very similar to the message of the movie I mentioned earlier, “The Day the Earth Stood Still.” There are hints of an apocalyptic end of the world. Doc Thomas asks, “Will it be by fire?” John won't, or can't, say what will happen. But he does indicate that his final report is done, that he must leave immediately, and that time is running out fast, for everyone.

In the 50 years since this movie was made it has become clear that aliens are not going to destroy us, or save us from ourselves. It also seems increasingly unlikely that humans will reach the stars. Such lofty scientific advancements now seem less likely than a widespread descent into superstition and barbarism.

What has become clear is that fire, floods, droughts, pestilence, disease, rising tides, rising dictatorships, failing democracies, the proliferation of nuclear weapons and the militarization of space are all rapidly increasing. We have befouled our own home. At the same time, cooperation among people, taking care of each other, and cooperation among nations is declining at the very time it is most needed.

The look on Sidney Poitier's face when he speaks of human cruelty is just as relevant now as it was then. In his face you can see the injustice of racism, something Poitier experienced in a way most white people don't. Sadly, the injustice of racism is still with us, 50 years later. Now, as then, Brother John's observations about greed, cruelty and injustice are still valid. His warning that time is running out seems just as true now, perhaps even more so.

What is different now is that the enemy at the gates is not “the other,” space aliens, or supernatural beings — it is ourselves, specifically, our greed, our selfishness, our shortsightedness and our inability to resist the temptation to blame others for the mess we have made for ourselves.

Sitting in a jail cell, on a trumped-up charge, levied by white supremacists, the pain and sorrow on the face of Brother John still haunts us, along with his sad judgement, that we are our own worst enemies, and that our time is running out. This film rates a B.

Click here for links to places to buy or rent this movie in digital formats, or to buy the soundtrack, posters, books, even used videos, games, electronics and lots of other stuff (no extra charges apply). I suggest you shop at least two of these places before buying anything. Prices seem to vary continuously. For more information on this film, click on this link to The Internet Movie Database. Type in the name of the movie in the search box and press enter. You will be able to find background information on the film, the actors, and links to much more information.

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Copyright © 2022 Robert Roten. All rights reserved.
Reproduced with the permission of the copyright holder.
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Robert Roten can be reached via e-mail at dalek three zero one nine at gmail dot com [Mailer button: image of letter and envelope]