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As one of the top male stars of the late 1960s, Steve McQueen was in the position to choose any role he wanted, including Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), which he turned down reportedly over a billing dispute with the actor he considered one of his principal rivals, Paul Newman. He certainly could have played it safe by sticking to the action roles that had placed him among the top ten box office performers. Instead, he chose The Reivers (1969), a comic, nostalgic tale based on William Faulkner's final novel, which earned the author his second Pulitzer Prize.
The story, set in 1905, centers around a wealthy rural Mississippi family, the McCaslins, and their prized possession, a brand new, bright yellow Winton Flyer automobile, the first car owned by anyone in the community. While the family patriarch is away, the Winton is spirited off for a carefree road trip by hired hand Boon Hogganbeck (McQueen), grandson Lucius, and alleged distant cousin Ned, a mixed-race young man found on the property as a child and taken into the family. The trio take the car to Memphis, where the young Lucius has some wild adventures with his adult companions and learns important lessons about racism and vice but also about honor, redemption and love.
Although boldly working against type, McQueen was nervous about The Reivers's prospects for his career. "So now I'm gonna play a hayseed," he told a friend. "After this I'll probably never work again." Always insecure about his career, the star worried that the role might not appeal to his fan base, but he was convinced that, as an actor of loftier ambitions, he should take chances and stretch outside his comfort zone of action film roles. At least he had the assurance of being behind the wheel of a car onscreen again, which had worked well for him in his previous picture, the blockbuster hit Bullitt (1968). So, accompanied by his friend, martial arts star Bruce Lee, he headed off to the filming location (Carrollton, Mississippi) with a high sense of anticipation.
The good vibe didn't last long for the always moody and volatile McQueen. He quickly found himself at odds with director Mark Rydell, a former actor who had once dated McQueen's wife Neile, a fact the fiercely competitive star could not overlook (especially when there was a reputed rivalry between them over a female on the set). The two first clashed openly over McQueen's stock car racing at the local speedway which was in flagrant violation of his contract. The animosity was heightened when McQueen demanded to see the rushes, judged Rydell's work to be "lousy" (using a few other unprintable words), and demanded the director be replaced. When the producers refused, McQueen withdrew from work, and a group of executives (including some from his own company, Solar) had to fly to Mississippi to cajole the star back to the set. When he finally returned, another loud angry volley of words ensued between him and the director. Unhappy with the working situation, McQueen consoled himself with the favors of female fans who pursued him by the scores even in remote Carrollton. Rydell swore never to work with him again, and kept his word.
Although not a major commercial success like his earlier projects, The Reivers did respectable enough box office and earned two Academy Award nominations. Composer John Williams received the second of (to-date) 45 nominations of his career for music scoring. He would go on to win five Oscars®: Fiddler on the Roof (1971), Jaws (1975), Star Wars (1977), E.T.: The Extraterrestrial (1982), and Schindler's List (1993). Rupert Crosse earned a Best Supporting Actor nomination for his role as cousin Ned, although it didn't significantly advance his film career. The promising, talented actor did television work for the next few years. His old friend Jack Nicholson wanted to cast him in a role in The Last Detail (1973), but by the time of production, Crosse was seriously ill with the cancer that would soon take his life at the age of 45.
McQueen's performance in The Reivers wasn't entirely overlooked. He received a Golden Globe nomination as Best Actor in a Musical or Comedy, and a supporting actor nod went to Mitch Vogel, the actor who played young Lucius. The film also received a Writers Guild of America nomination in the category of Best Comedy Adapted from Another Medium for screenwriters Harriet Frank, Jr. and Irving Ravetch. The husband and wife team had by this time established themselves as Faulkner experts, having done the screenplays for the Faulkner-based The Long, Hot Summer (1958) and The Sound and the Fury (1959).
The Reivers also features Juano Hernandez, the distinguished Puerto Rican actor of African descent who appeared in an earlier Faulkner adaptation, Intruder in the Dust (1949).
Director: Mark Rydell
Producers: Irving Ravetch, Robert E. Relyea, Rick Rosenberg
Screenplay: Harriet Frank, Jr., Irving Ravetch, based on the novel by William Faulkner
Cinematography: Richard Moore
Editing: Thomas Stanford
Production Design: Charles Bailey, Joel Schiller
Original Music: John Williams
Cast: Steve McQueen (Boon Hogganbeck), Sharon Farrell (Corrie), Ruth White (Miss Reba), Will Geer (Boss McCaslin), Mitch Vogel (Lucius), Rupert Crosse (Ned).
by Rob Nixon