A Gathering of Old Men
To some extent, Volker Schlöndorff's well-received Death of a Salesman may have been something of a “calling card” picture, a work designed to prove to American producers that Schlöndorff could work in English and make a film acceptable to a mass American market. For much of the late 1980s, Schlöndorff worked from a New York base, and his next project, an adaptation of black American novelist Ernest Gaines's A Gathering of Old Men, was a fully American-made work.
A Gathering of Old Men (1987) was realized for CBS television and shown in the United States as a Sunday night movie before a subsequent video release as Murder on the Bayou. Coproduced with Hessischer Rundfunk, the film was shown at the 1987 Cannes film festival, had a theatrical release in Europe, and was therefore more characteristically “amphibious” on the other side of the ocean. The result is filled with tantalizing contradictions, as the work simultaneously meets requirements of cinematic genre, of the made-for-TV movie, of serious literary adaptation, and of calculated political statement. Let us consider it from two general perspectives—first, as genre film, specifically a variant on the Western; and second, as literary adaptation of a major work of African American literature, one that examines significant issues of race, culture, and civil rights in the United States and experiments with the use of multiple points of view.
In A Gathering of Old Men, Schlöndorff returns to the theme of collective rebellion that he explored in Michael Kohlhaas and The Sudden Wealth of the Poor People of Kombach. The film is set in rural Louisiana in 1972 and shows how a group of African American men successfully avoid a lynching after the shooting in self-defense of a white man by a black. The story harks back to Kohlhaas and