When Robert Sheffey was a lad,
He didn’t think himself that bad,
But a revival made him see
The sins he didn’t know he had.
He asks forgiveness offered free
And tells his household happily.
His aunt feels shamed at this report,
And he departs in enmity.
Both Sheffey and his horse cavort
Through mountain views of every sort.
He meets some folks who offer then
A teaching job with full support.
He takes it but is frightened when
He’s urged to preach in front of men.
It takes tough love to help him start,
But soon he’s worthy of “Amen!”
He prays a still be torn apart
And makes the old bootlegger smart.
He later learns his aunt is dead,
But she had had a change of heart.
Years pass, and, while he treks ahead,
Forever by the Spirit led,
He spreads the Gospel of the Lord,
His territory now widespread.
He always comes on room and board,
And by most folks he is adored,
Although official preachers deem
Him too peculiar to reward.
He likes camp meetings with the theme
Of drawing hundreds to redeem.
While Sheffey wants them to endure,
Some heads hold them in low esteem.
A girl from one preferred detour
Becomes his wife when they are sure.
Eliza helps his constant care
Of spreading God’s most perfect cure.
They have a son, although the pair
Love from afar, as they’re aware.
Yet they stay close, although his treks
Take Sheffey almost everywhere.
An injury serves to perplex
Since he can’t stick to his projects.
He cannot ride because of age
But stays engaged in most respects.
He still loves the revival stage,
And so its closure sparks his rage.
He works to bring it back for years,
At last succeeding to assuage.
The meet goes well when it premieres,
But soon he views his greatest fears.
A smoker sets the camp on fire,
And, in flames, it disappears.
As he’s distracted by the pyre,
Eliza, hoping he’ll retire,
Chases him but has a fall
And joins the Lord’s eternal choir.
Sheffey, having lost it all,
Is heartbroken and feels so small.
Eventually, he finds God’s peace
And settles down where friends can call.
A young man comes to seek release
For burning the camp on some caprice,
So Sheffey offers grace before
He sees the Heav’n he helped increase.

Most have probably never heard of Sheffey, and that’s quite understandable. It was a college film produced by the students and staff of Bob Jones University; thus, it is highly evangelical, particularly in the beginning. My early education was from fundamentalist Protestants, and I was shown this film as part of the lesson plan one day. While my denomination has changed, I still find the film a marvelous and underappreciated period piece. It made me cry the first time I saw it (around the age of 10), and, as you’ll see from the rest of my list, I’m very partial to films that have brought me to tears, even if they don’t anymore.

I will say that the second half is better than the first. The beginning has the usual Christian motif of a directionless sinner seeing the error of his ways and coming to the Lord. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with this, but it’s overused in Christian films, and Dwight Anderson, who plays the young Sheffey, isn’t really a skilled-enough actor to make it convincing. Much of the acting is rather unprofessional, sometimes obviously contrived, but the older Sheffey, played by Harold Kilpatrick, is the most believable character, and he’s the one that matters most. It also is a little irritating that some of the characters (the aunt, the elder that refuses Sheffey a preaching license) disapprove of Sheffey’s actions for no well-explained reason. Their vague complaints seem to make them unnecessarily at fault and Sheffey the obviously right saint.

All this aside, the film has some truly wonderful elements. The somewhat feigned acting, the hymn-inspired score, and the way it is shot might have made the film seem like some low-budget affair. Instead, though it was made in 1977, it just feels like an older film, perhaps from the ‘40s or ‘50s. As with such films of yesteryear, much effort obviously went into the costumes and period details, and the script is nicely woven together with characters coming and going or being mentioned having repented years later. These conversions may be predictable but are nonetheless touching, particularly the final one standing above Sheffey’s grave.

If you don’t like movies that preach at you (as I usually don’t), you may not like Sheffey, but I find it a very impressive film for such a small college effort. Though it embellishes Sheffey’s life a bit (he had six unmentioned kids with his first wife, and he did actually get a preaching license in real life), it presents a little-shown piece of history that shouldn’t be forgotten: the circuit riders of the 1800s. Between the gorgeous Appalachian scenery and the poignant character moments, Sheffey is well worth seeing, in my book.

Best line: (Robert Sheffey) “When I get to heaven, I’m going to ask the Lord why He made a woman’s head so hard.” (Eliza) “And He’ll tell you it’s to make up for your soft one.”

Artistry: 5
Characters/Actors: 5
Entertainment: 6
Visual Effects: 5
Originality: 7
Watchability: 5
Other (spiritual value, plus it made me cry): +4
TOTAL: 37 out of 60

Next: #243 – The Girl Who Leapt through Time (2006)

© 2014 S. G. Liput

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