Friday, March 25, 2016

The Conflict Episode of The Waltons


Today, I'm writing about my favorite episode of the classic seventies TV show, The Waltons.

This article is part of the Favourite TV Show Episode Blogathon hosted by A Shroud of Thoughts.

The Waltons creator Earl Hamner Jr. passed away Thursday (March 24) at age 92. Although his death is sad news for fans of the classic TV series, Hamner's talent will always be alive through the long-running saga about three generations of a rural Virginia family living during the Great Depression and World War II. 

Everyone who has enjoyed The Waltons through the years has a favorite character, whether it's the earnest John-Boy (Richard Thomas), who longs to become a famous writer, or  wily Grandpa (Will Geer), who likes to tell tall tales and take a nip of moonshine when Grandma's back is turned. My favorite character on The Waltons only appeared in three episodes. The great character actress Beulah Bondi played mountain matriarch Martha Corinne Walton in a role that would win her a much-deserved Emmy Award. 

Today, I'm looking at The Conflict: Parts I and II, which are the first two episodes that feature Bondi as Martha Corinne. The episode begins with the Walton clan packing into their 1928 Model AA Ford Truck for a picnic. Along the way, they find government construction crews bulldozing through the rural wilderness to create the Blue Ridge Parkway. 

Ralph Waite as John Walton, Richard Thomas as John-Boy Walton, and Michael Learned as Olivia Walton.
As it happens, the Parkway's path goes right through property owned by a branch of the Walton family headed by elderly matriarch Martha Corinne. Martha Corrine, her son, Boone (Morgan Woodward), her great-grandson, Wade (Richard Hatch), and his wife, Vera (Lindsay V. Jones), have been ordered to leave their homes by Virginia officials, but the proud and self-sufficient octogenarian and her kin have no intention of  vacating what has been Walton land for several generations. Their war of words with government officials soon turns into a shooting fight with a frustrated John-Boy and a fired-up Grandpa caught in the middle.

The Conflict, which was a special two-part show, was the first episode of season three. The Waltons was the based on Hamner's memories of growing up in the rural Virginia community of Schuyler as one of eight siblings during the 1930's. Hamner, who had worked as a journalist and a writer for The Twilight Zone, had already found success writing about a fictionalized version of his family in the novel Spencer's Mountain, which was made into a 1963 movie starring Henry Fonda and Maureen O'Hara.

Ellen Corby and Richard Thomas in a 1976 episode of The Waltons.
In 1971, CBS, which was looking to put more "quality" programs on its schedule, made a TV movie based on  Hamner's holiday memories called The Homecoming: A Christmas Story that turned out to be a surprise hit. Network officials then greenlit The Waltons, which was based on characters in The Homecoming, and the show began airing in the fall of 1972. The first season was not a ratings success -- it aired on Thursday nights opposite the popular The Flip Wilson Show -- but it won several Emmys, including best actor for Thomas and best actress for Michael Learned, who played Olivia. 

The Waltons steadily grew in popularity during season two, and by the beginning of season three Hamner and his team had enough clout to attract Bondi and to get the budget for the extensive location shooting that the episode required (It was filmed in Frazier Park, Calif., which is 90 miles north of Los Angeles). 

Grandpa (Will Geer) and Grandma Walton (Ellen Corby) and a porcine pal in 1974.
Today, The Conflict still holds up as one of the best episodes of The Waltons. It features many of the strengths that made the series so great -- exceptional writing, fine acting, and attention to detail -- with an intriguing plot that is drawn from American history. The construction of the Blue Ridge Parkway was part of the President Franklin D. Roosevelt's plan to stimulate the economy through government projects, and many Blue Ridge families, like Martha Corinne and her kin, were displaced from their land by eminent domain laws. 

The Conflict also treats Appalachian people with dignity and respect, which was always one of the great strengths of The Waltons. TV shows had previously ignored rural people or treated them like running jokes for their supposedly backward ways, but Hamner and his team did not stoop to this level in The Conflict. Although Martha Corinne doesn't have indoor plumbing and Boone is known to make moonshine on occasion, they are still portrayed as intelligent people with complex emotions. Martha Corinne wants to read John-Boy's college textbooks so she can learn more about the world and Boone, although somewhat feckless, is actually much more self-sufficient than most modern Americans.

The cast and crew of The Waltons celebrate the show's 40th anniversary in 2012.
According to Ralph Senensky, who directed The Conflict and several other great The Waltons episodes, much of the praise for the success of this episode is due to Bondi's performance and Hamner's eloquent writing. Bondi, who is familiar to old Hollywood fans for her performances in many iconic films like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) and It's a Wonderful Life (1946), is simply brilliant here. Senensky marveled at how Bondi, who was an elegant, fashionable woman, could turn herself into an iron-willed octogenarian just through her facial expressions and body language.

Indeed, Bondi has many outstanding moments in The Conflict. It is truly her episode, while the rest of the Walton clan, except for John-Boy and Grandpa, mostly fade into the background. She has great moments sparring with John-Boy and a state senator played by The Rifleman's Paul Fix, but her best scene, which was written by Hamner himself, comes in the episode's last few minutes.

Bondi would appear again as Martha Corinne in the season five episode, The Pony Cart, for which she won an Emmy for outstanding guest performance. I'll leave you with the final scene from The Conflict, which is a fine tribute to the genius of both Bondi and Hamner.


Senensky has a wonderful blog about his work as a TV director. You can read about his experiences directing The Conflict here


For articles from past blogathons I have participated in, go here.


9 comments :

  1. Beulah Bondi's depth and range as an actress never fails to enthrall me. Generations will appreciate her work, as well as that of Earl Hamner.

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    1. She was great in so many movies, but my favorite performance of hers was in Make Way for Tomorrow.

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  2. I remember watching The Waltons because my father and mother enjoyed it. I never really got into it, but one episode has stuck with me since I was a kid. Don't remember much, but the town, reacting to book burnings in Nazi Germany begins burning German books. John Boy stops them when he realizes that one of the books they were buring was a German language version of the Holy Bible.

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  3. I remember watching The Waltons because my father and mother enjoyed it. I never really got into it, but one episode has stuck with me since I was a kid. Don't remember much, but the town, reacting to book burnings in Nazi Germany begins burning German books. John Boy stops them when he realizes that one of the books they were buring was a German language version of the Holy Bible.

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  4. Great review! When I visit my folks next week, I'll see if they have season 3 (IIRC they do) and watch this ep, because I haven't seen it yet!

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    1. I got addicted to The Waltons when I had surgery a few years ago, and my Mom got the DVDs from the library

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  5. Although I can't be certain, I think "The Conflict" was the first thing I ever saw Beulah Bondi on. It was a very good introduction to her and it is one of the episodes I can remember watching as a kid. You did a great write up on it! Thank you for participating in the blogathon!

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