George Wallace (1997)




Director:    John Frankenheimer.

Starring:    Gary Sinise (George C. Wallace), Mare Winningham (Lurleen Wallace), Clarence Williams III (Archie), Joe Don Baker (Big Jim Folsom), Angelina Jolie (Cornelia Wallace).

racist governor of Alabama and presidential candidate who was the spokesman for all the rednecks around the country


Spoiler Warning.  below is a summary of the entire film.


Part I. 

George Wallace shouts out to Archie, a black prisoner who works for Wallace, to make sure he comes back from going to the funeral of his mother. A white racist cop puts the cuffs on Archie, even though Wallace had expressly asked that the cuffs not be placed on Archie.  Wallace yells at the cop from his window, but cannot be heard.  Cornelia, Wallace's second wife, helps George put on his tie.  She then wants to have sex with him. Her husband says it's hard just keeping up with her.  George starts to fool around with his wife, but he cuts it short saying that he has got to get up there to Maryland for his speech. 

He puts his coat on and goes downstairs.  He looks at the portrait of his first wife, Lurleen Wallace (1926-1968).  In the kitchen his staff talk about the speech taking place in a place called Laurels, Maryland in a big shopping center there.  Wallace comes in and gets after Jamison for letting the policeman put the cuffs on Archie.  He says Archie has been trustee of this place since the 1950s.  The Chicago Dispatch newspaper says that Wallace could be a frontrunner for the presidency among the Democrats after the primaries tomorrow.  Wallace puts ketchup over everything on his breakfast platter.

Wallace gets after his brother for spending campaign funds like he was an Arab sheik.  Odum tries to remember back to what he calls the virtual guerrilla raids up into the north back in 1964.  The people would say things like:  "Uh-oh.  Them yahoos are loose again."   If Wallace wins Michigan and Maryland tomorrow, he will be leading both McGovern and Humphrey. 

The racist cop drives Archie out to the Sunrise Baptist Church.  Along the way he tells Archie that as long as Wallace is the governor, everything is going to stay as it is.  At the church, Archie motions that he wants the cuffs taken off, but the policeman refuses.   He says:  "Just because you're a trustee, don't mean you ain't still a convicted murderer."  Archie goes into the church. 

Cornelia sings along with a band on the stand where Wallace will speak.  Policemen have their pictures taken with Wallace.  Cornelia does the introduction for her husband.  Wallace says extremist things like:  "The court's are now turning loose people who shoot and steal and kill.  People are getting sick of it."   In the audience, a blonde hair man watches Wallace intently. 

Archie places his flowers and a cross next to his mother's body.  His brother is there with him.  Their daddy was killed by Klan night riders because he tried to register to vote.  Their mother was worked to death by white folks.  The brother rides Archie asking him isn't he grateful to Gov. Wallace for letting him come to the funeral?  His brother also says:  "You can strike the blow."  Archie says he knows.

Wallace takes off his jacket and goes into the crowd to shake hands.  He is warned not to do this.  The blonde haired man moves to the front.  Wallace becomes completely surrounded by his adoring supporters.  All of a sudden, the blonde man sticks his arm out between two people and fires a pistol numerous times at George.  Down goes George.  Cornelia runs to him and kneels over him.  George is taken to the local hospital.  Wallace remembers back to his early political career.

Flashback.  1955.  17 years earlier.  Wallace remembers back to Governor Jim Folsom's Inaugural Ball.  He and Lurleen join others walking to the ball.  Archie is there working at the ball.  A pretty young woman named Velma comes up to say hi to Judge Wallace.  George introduces her to his wife.  George gives Odum a high sign to get rid of the girl.  He complies.  Lurleen asks George about the woman and he says that she is just some secretary in the highway department.  They go over to greet Billy Watson, an influential power broker in Alabama.   Wallace wants just a coke so he contacts Archie and Archie says he will get him a coke right away.  Wallace talks about the pretty women at the bash to Billy Watson, who asks George if he's got gland trouble or something? 

Out comes the very tall, Big Jim Folsom.  On his shoulders he carries his young niece, Cornelia.  Billy tells Wallace that Jim is just too liberal for Alabama.  One of the first things Folsom does is to bring up his campaign manager, George Wallace.  George goes up.  Folsom was a bit of a populist and was better than most in his attitude to blacks.  Jim goes into the crowd and shakes hands with Billy, who he calls the political bishop of Barbour County.  He also introduces Cornelia to George Wallace, telling her not to forget his name. 

Folsom talks in private with Wallace.  In Alabama they once called George Wallace a dangerous left-wing radical. Wallace says those people were the country-club, high-hoi-polloi crowd.  Big Jim tells Wallace that he will be behind him 100% percent when Wallace runs to be governor.  But Jim just wants to make sure Wallace will help him look out for the common folk.  Wallace says: "Well,. I ain't ever gonna be forgetting none of what we been for."  Jim says he's talking about the Negroes too.  George says he always believed like Jim on the colored issue.  Jim even worries that Wallace may be too close to the common people.  He says sometimes George is going to have to risk that connection to the common people in order to do what's right. 

George gives the coke bottle back to Archie and asks his name.  He then tells Archie thanks.  Before George and Lurleen leave, Lurleen just has to go up and say good-bye to that pretty Cornelia.  George winks at Cornelia as he goes out. 

Back to the present.  George asks who shot him.  It was some fella named Bremer.  He also asks about the election primary and his aides say he won both Michigan and Maryland.  The doctor talks in private with George and Cornelia.  He tells them the results straight out.  He was shot five times.  The fifth bullet penetrated the spinal column, severing a bundle of nerves.  Wallace will not be able to walk again; he will not be able to control bodily functions (bladder and bowel); sex is out; and he will not live another day without pain.  Wallace groans. 

Flashback.  Wallace is running for the governorship.  He gives a speech to a gathered crowd in the square saying he is running to be governor.  He talks on issues such as providing free textbooks and getting more nursing homes and medical clinics.  He sees the role of government as doing for the people.  In Alabama, he sounds like a damn liberal.  The black people listening to George remain almost as if they were frozen in place.  George's brother is told that George is going to have to speak to the Klan.  They can help George a lot. 

George stays behind to speak with the Klan.  The Klan are upset because George didn't discuss the real problem in Alabama:  the nigger trouble.  And that's the acid test for any and every man running for office in Alabama.  George must let everyone know he is backing the war for white civilization.  His opponent, John Patterson, is way ahead of Wallace on the nigger issue because ss governor Patterson says he will permit no mongrel-mixing of the races in Alabama.   The Klan tells George that this is not about order and decency.  Later, Billy Watson warns Wallace that he has to listen to the Klan and he has to cut himself loose from that liberal Folsom.  After all, things have changed with the coming of Martin Luther King, Jr. 

George takes a licking in the election.  Lurleen comes in to say she's sorry, but at least they can go back home and be happy.  George just starts yelling at her.  He then has to apologize to Lurleen.  She tells her husband she is leaving him now.  George is much more ambitious than Lurleen, saying that family life will never be enough for him.  Lurleen says things have to change between them.  So George suggests she start traveling with him.  Lurleen leaves to go pick up the children. 

George admits to his staff that he was wrong about his election campaign.  They were right about this race thing.  He says:  "Niggers hate whites.  Whites hate niggers. . . . I just let myself get out-niggered, but I'm never gonna get out-niggered again." 

1963.  Four years later.  George Wallace gives a speech as governor of Alabama in which he uses the infamous line:  "And I say segregation now, segregation tomorrow and segregation forever."  He gets a huge applause of approval.  Lurleen tells George that they, as a couple, have survived and she wants to celebrate that as well as George's being the governor.  George and Lurleen are in the governor's mansion now.  They go down and stand on the stairs before an approving crowd.   

After the party George warns his staff that Martin Luther King Jr. is stirring up another insurrection in Birmingham.  And now King has got all the nigger school kids involved in it.  Wallace believes that King is testing him, personally.  Alone, George salutes the painting of Robert E. Lee.  George now talks with Archie Weathers.  He remembers the black man.  Archie says he killed a man who was messing with his wife.  Previously, Archie was a boxer.  George says he was Alabama Golden Gloves bantamweight champion.  So the governor wants to do a bit of play sparring with Archie.  Archie just lets him move around and punch the air. 

It's Wallace versus King in Birmingham, Alabama.  He sends his head of police Al Lingo up there to take care of King and his supporters.  He calls King's group a bunch of pro-communists that have instigated the demonstrations by lawless Negro mobs.  He says "I will meet our enemies face to face!  I will not surrender!"  And all the white rednecks burst out into applause for their fighting governor.  Water hoses are used to blast demonstrators, knocking people down.  Guard dogs are used to bite demonstrators.  Demonstrators are beaten with clubs by the police and Lingo tries to stop the press from filming the abuses.

The news media gets after Wallace, asking him if he wants to start racial violence not only in Alabama, but throughout the South.   Wallace says he's just trying to keep the peace.  And only 22 Negroes were bitten by the police dogs.  They criticize Wallace for the police using cattle prods.  They also criticize his seeking a confrontation with the federal government over the integration of the University of Alabama.  Wallace leaves the press conference when he gets a call from the Attorney General of the United States, Bobby Kennedy.  But Wallace refuses to speak to Kennedy.  Wallace says he is going to force the federal government to bring in troops into Alabama. 

So Bobby Kennedy comes to see Wallace.  He brings along with him Deputy Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach.  Kennedy asks Wallace would it be so horrifying if a Negro were to attend the University of Alabama?  Wallace saya what would be terrible is the federal government forcing this on the people of Alabama.  Wallace talks about the government bringing federal troops into Alabama.  Kennedy tells Wallace that he seems to want the federal government to use troops.

The day of integration arrives.  Wallace is going to stand in the university doorway to prevent integration.  Katzenbach asks Wallace to step aside and permit the black students to register.  Wallace reads a prepared statement.  Katzenbach says that today James Hood and Vivian Malone will register and they will attend the university tomorrow.  Katzenbach leaves.   The Alabama National Guard is now federalized.  The commanding officer comes up to Wallace.  He says:  "It is my sad duty to ask you to step aside under orders from the president of the United States."  Wallace says this is a bitter pill to swallow.  He says:  "We shall now return to Montgomery to continue this constitutional fight."  Wallace leaves the university and the black students go into the university to register.

Kennedy gives a great speech on civil rights.  Wallace can't stand it and walks out of the television room.  Billy Watson follows him.  Wallace says the Kennedys have no idea of how the people feel about this race-mixing thing.  "They start catching this mess up north and everywhere else, it's gonna Southernize the whole country out there."  Wallace has made his decision.  He tells Billy:  "I'm going national." 


Part II. 

Harvard University.  The students are booing Wallace and shouting that he is a racist.  He makes fun of the Harvard intellectuals as they boo him.  He complains about busing, but he can't really complete many sentences.  The men running the show decide that things are getting too heated and they ask George to leave for everyone's sake.  Outside the young people are pounding the Wallace car with sticks and bats.  Some of the working class men start beating up the students.  It's a real struggle for Wallace and his aides to get into the car.   Wallace is furious with those "damn, ignorant, uncultured intellectuals!"  He says he speaks for the real people of America.

Wallace comes home to the news of the bombing of the black 16th Street Baptist Church, in which four little black girls were killed.  He finds his wife and daughters crying about what happened.  George himself doesn't know what happened.  His chief of police Al Lingo calls and Wallace asks him what the hell happened?  Wallace sends the two daughters upstairs so they won't dwell on what happened.  He says to his wife:  "You know I never wanted nothing like this." 

Archie comes to the governor and tells him that ex-Gov. Folsom is at the back door.  Wallace tells Archie to let him in.  He is both shocked and disturbed that Big Jim is here.  He tells Al Lingo that they are going to say that black sympathizers did the bombing of the church just to gain sympathy for their cause.  Wallace goes to see Folsom.  Folsom has a broken foot and has to use a crutch.  He hasn't shaved for awhile and his clothes look disheveled.  Wallace is surprised when Folsom asks him just to help him get his rightful pension from the Department of Pensions.  Big Jim says that he's just about broke.  Wallace says he will work something out for Folsom, who thanks George. 

Wallace himself brings up what happened in Birmingham, which sets Folsom off.  He says:  "Oh, now, goddamn, George.  Didn't I tell you?  You went ahead and done it anyway.  What the hell's the matter with you?  You wasn't no race bigot back then.  . . .  Me and you was populists together.  Times got ugly.  You got scared . . .  I never got so desperate to stay politically alive, I'd let . . . I mean, good God, they're four little girls in a Sunday school class!" 

Wallace is furious with Jim for balling him out in his own home and he tells Big Jim that.  Jim responds:  "That's right, let loose them old dogs of hatred and violence and sooner of later, they're gonna turn on you, hit at you.  Mad dog don't differentiate, George."  Jim gets all out of breath and says he has to go.  He then apologizes for losing his temper.  He says the doctors are going to operate on his brain.  George walks him out to his car.  Jim's new wife is waiting in the car.  She didn't want to see Wallace.  It's a sad sight to see Folsom in this condition. 

Back to the present.  In the hospital and in his wheel chair George looks out at the kids, black and white, playing on a merry-go-round.  Wallace is mad at being paralyzed from the waist down.  He is also peeved because his young wife Cornelia has been running everywhere speaking for her husband and basking in the sunlight of George Wallace.  He is so furious that he tries to walk using the parallel bars to support him with too much force.  Two handsome men ask to speak with Cornelia.  She speaks with them and then comes back in.  Wallace wants to know who they are.  He's both suspicious and jealous of Cornelia.  The guys are two state troopers who will accompany her to her speaking engagements at the Waldorf-Astoria.  George really starts pushing himself and falls down.  He is in serious pain. 

Flashback.  There is a state law officers' riot at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama.    George's brother calls George over to the window saying that it's funny because just about a block away from the capitol building is the Rev. King's church, the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church.  George says the civil rights movement started here and it's going to be stopped here in Montgomery.  Wallace watches the events on television. The police start slowly advancing then they start running forward at the marchers.  The troopers give America the impression of a bunch of crazy racists gone wild like mad dogs hitting people right and left with their batons when the demonstrators are only trying to get away from the rampaging officers.  They beat people even when they are down on the ground and begging to be spared. 

Hard-headed Wallace says that it's a victory for "us" because they turned the marchers back.  But soon King is on the television and then the president.  Johnson federalizes the Alabama National Guard and assures everyone that the demonstrators will be able to walk peaceably from Selma to Montgomery. 

Wallace can't sleep and goes to the kitchen.  There Archie is reading the Bible.  Wallace, once again, tells Archie he is sorry that some Klansmen killed his father.  He says to Archie:  "You know I don't hate colored folks, don't you, Archie?"  Archie says yes, sir.  But while Wallace goes on telling stories, Archie starts to open the drawer behind his back.  He grabs an ice pick and thinks about stabbing Wallace.  Wallace talks about his childhood and speaks very fondly about a black man named Carlton who was extremely close to the Wallace family.  Archie starts to cry with tears running down his face.  Wallace just thinks he's mourning the death of his father. 

The demonstrators march from Selma and start arriving in Montgomery.  King speaks to the crowd of demonstrators.  Wallace watches and listens to him from one of the buildings in the area.  But Wallace has another problem than King.  He is only allowed one term as governor and can't succeed himself.  Wallace says they will just have to fix that.  He knows he needs the governorship in order to launch his presidential campaign in 1968.  He calls for an emergency session of the legislature to get legislation passed to let him serve another term if elected. 

George goes to the doctor to learn that his wife has a fatal cancer.  Lurleen does not know yet.  Wallace says she's going to be okay.  The doctor tells George they have to tell her.  George asks the doctor to tell her.  The doctor agrees and goes into the next room to tell her. 

Wallace speaks to the legislature about serving another term.  But Wallace's attempt to bully the legislature fails.  So he turns to Lurleen and asks her to run for the governorship.  She agrees to run, but wants George to know that she is only doing this because she loves him.  Soon Lurleen is out making speech after speech.  She finishes a speech and then introduces her husband so he can speak.  Lurleen is so exhausted that she has to leave the podium.  Billy the governor-maker walks Lurleen to the car.  He says he is very worried about Lurleen and tells her he is going to ask George to lighten up on her a bit.  Lurleen says she promised her husband and she's going to keep that promise.  In the back seat of the car, she asks to be left alone so she can just sleep.  Billy returns to the podium. 

Lurleen gets elected.  1967.  Lurleen gives her Inaugural Address in Montgomery. 

The headline in the Montgomery Advertiser, February 9, 1968, announces that Wallace is running for the presidency.  He is fairly successful and this starts to worry Nixon that Wallace may take votes away from him.  His speeches are filled with hateful rhetoric denouncing this left-wing group or the other.  During one of the speeches, Lurleen gets up from her seat on the podium, but then falls down. 

George visits his wife in the hospital.  She ends up comforting him with her kind and supportive words.  Wallace is there at her bedside when she dies.

1970.  Mobile, Alabama.  Cornelia is the date of George's brother.  She was the runner-up to Miss Alabama, and is a country singer and a champion water-skier at Florida's Cypress Gardens.  Brother is playing match-maker to George, saying that Lurleen has been gone for a year and a half now.  George likes the way Cornelia looks.  Cornelia is a big flirt and it doesn't take much before she and George are together.  She reminds George that she was that little girl riding on Big Jim Folsom's shoulders.  George remembers her and her name. 

Back to the present.  Democratic National Convention 1972.  Cornelia is interviewed by the press.  George speaks before the convention.  He gives his usual rhetoric and gets booed by some.  A lot of civil rights supporters walk out on him.   As usual, Cornelia is flirting with some fellows.  George doesn't like it.  He feels down over the poor reception for his speech at the convention.  Cornelia tries to cheer him up.  She dances with him while he is in the wheel chair, spinning him around.  George is not so sure this is a good idea.  She then tries to have sex with him.  He tries to comply, but he has another attack of pain like the one he had when trying to walk too fast using the parallel bars.  Cornelia starts crying and apologizing to George. 

1974 two years later.  Cornelia arrives home in a limousine with a police escort.  George watches her flirt with the troopers once again.  She immediately goes up to see George.  Cornelia is just so happy over her new, important career.  She says a New York publisher even wants her to write a book.   George says bitterly:  "You got your own starring role now."  She says it's all just to help him.  Cornelia says he has recently been elected governor and will run for the presidency in 1976.  And, in fact, his getting shot may prove to be a political blessing.  George is furious at her for this statement and yells at her for suggesting that his paralysis was a blessing in disguise.  He shows her tapes of his telephone calls that she had made.  He tells her:  ""I want you out from here."   She pleads with him, but it does no good. 

Wallace tells Archie he had nothing to do with the Birmingham church bombing.  He says he grieved about it just like others did.  George tries to see Jim Folsom.  His wife asks him what he wants to talk to her husband about.  George just says he needs to see Jim.  The wife goes in and when she comes back, she tells George that Jim doesn't want to see him.  George asks her to go back in and tell Jim that he ain't the same any more.  Finally, she says:  "You broke his heart, you bastard."  She shuts the door.

Wallace has Archie take him home.  On the way back, Wallace has Archie stop so he can speak to the congregation of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church.  Archie slowly walks Wallace in his chair down the aisle.  Some people recognize him and are shocked that the governor has come here.  Wallace asks for permission to speak from the pastor and gets it.  He tells the congregation that he has learned what suffering means.  He says:  "I think I now understand the pain that I caused the people, the black people of Alabama.  And the black people of the nation.  I'm sorry.  I was wrong.  And knowing that is hard for me to bear sometimes."  He asks the people of the congregation to forgive him. 

Archie slowly walks the governor back down the aisle.  One man thanks the governor for coming.  Another man says:  "Bless you."  A woman says:  "God bless you."  The congregation sings "Amazing Grace" as the governor goes out.  Back at home, Wallace thanks Archie for his help over the years.  Archie just says:  "Sure. . . . You get some sleep now."   

"In his last campaign for governor, George Wallace won by receiving, for the first time in his career, a substantial portion of the black vote". 

"In 1991 the Reverend Jesse Jackson joined George Wallace in prayer at the Governor's home." 

"In 1996 George Wallace presented the Lurleen B. Wallace Award of Courage to Vivian Malone, the African-American student against who he had stood in the doorway at the University of Alabama."

"In 1995 Wallace apologizes to the Selma marchers."

"In 1996 he apologized to James Hood."

"George Wallace is now largely confined to his bed and lives in Montgomery, Alabama." 

George C. Wallace was born August 25, 1919 and died September 13, 1998.

To understand the presidency of Richard Nixon and the set-in of a very conservative period following the Civil Rights Movement, one has to understand this man from Alabama.  George Wallace was the Governor of Alabama who stood in front of the steps of the University of Alabama to refuse to allow the integration of that university.   Wallace was a very scary politician in his day.  He gained a lot of support for his third party based on racism.  He scared the liberals who thought everywhere they looked rednecks were coming out of the woodwork.  Wallace was shot and put in a wheel chair by a mentally marginal person on a campaign visit to a shopping center in Maryland. Wallace later was to repudiate his previous racist history and political stands, but while he was active, he was certainly a champion of reactionary thinking.  

In the Special Features material, the film director spoke of Wallace's Faustian deal with the devil of racism.  He became governor by becoming the worst racist of all the candidates for that position.  He sold his soul for fame and glory.  My wife and I were a bit disappointed to learn that the character of Archie was just a composite of many black men who worked for the governor.  We had grown quite fond of Archie.  We both liked the film very much and it brought back a lot of memories for us.  Neither of us ever cared for Wallace until his redemption from evil. 

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.


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