Narrator: Randy Quaid.

The political career of a notorious conservative icon is persuasively rendered as a classically Faustian but uniquely American tragedy in “George Wallace: Settin’ the Woods on Fire.” Technically polished docu skillfully entwines archival material, TV news footage and new interviews with friends, foes and fascinated observers, while actor Randy Quaid provides lucid, nonjudgmental narration. Slated to air in two parts April 23 and 24 on PBS after fleeting fest exposure, this “American Experience” production seems especially timely in an election year when, even more blatantly than usual, candidates have been eager to re-invent themselves while appealing to the widest possible segment of the voting public.

Exhaustively researched by co-directors Daniel McCabe and Paul Stekler, “George Wallace” contains much that will surprise and confound both critics and supporters of the feisty Alabama politician who came to symbolize Deep South resistance to the civil rights movement. Perhaps the most startling revelation: While establishing himself as a public figure in the post-WWII era, Wallace gained a reputation for being a progressive on racial matters.

He contrived to have himself named to the board of directors for the all-black Tuskegee University. And while serving as a judge, he repeatedly insisted on dispensing color-blind justice. A black lawyer recalls that Wallace “was the first judge to call me ‘mister’ in a courtroom.”

In 1958, however, Wallace gave himself over to the other side after suffering a humiliating loss in his first gubernatorial bid. The winning candidate, docu explains, was John Patterson, a race-baiting reactionary who managed to define Wallace as something dangerously close to a liberal. After that, a former confidant recalls, Wallace vowed he would never be “out-niggered” in another election. And, sure enough, in 1962, he was elected governor of Alabama largely due to his promise of “segregation now, segregation tomorrow and segregation forever.”

McCabe and Stekler play fairly, but cut deeply. At one point, they take great pains to plausibly argue that, for all his animosity toward NAACP activists and “outside agitators,” Wallace had little direct involvement in the despicably brutal 1965 police attack on civil rights marchers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma. Docu claims the governor — always a shrewd politician — was genuinely enraged by the violence, if only because he suspected the bad publicity would inevitably spark a backlash against the segregationist cause.

Ironically, even as the violence against protesters in Alabama generated Congressional action on federal civil rights legislation, Wallace’s pugnacious support of segregation and “states’ rights” elevated the governor’s national profile. As early as 1964, Wallace tried to exploit his celebrity by running in a few presidential primaries. In 1968, he took advantage of the prevailing political winds by running as a “law and order” third party candidate. He garnered 46 electoral votes, and nearly caused the presidential election to be decided by the House of Representatives.

Wallace’s appeal in the ’60s and ’70s, docu emphasizes, extended far beyond his base of die-hard segregationists. The governor’s staunchly conservative positions struck responsive chords among mainstream Democratic and Republican voters. Film suggests that Wallace might have gotten even more votes in 1968 had he not fatally miscalculated by choosing the aggressively hawkish Gen. Curtis LeMay as a running mate.

The most provocative and consistently fascinating segments of “George Wallace” chart Wallace’s profound impact on conservative politics and politicians in America. Pat Buchanan is unabashedly admiring as he discusses Wallace’s instinctive grasp of “the politics of rage.” More to the point, Buchanan cites the Alabama firebrand as a prime influence on the presidential campaigns of Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and Buchanan himself.

“George Wallace” is only slightly less gripping as it focuses on the private life of its subject. Pic details Wallace’s often stormy relationship with Lurleen Burns, his first wife, who briefly succeeded him as governor before dying of cancer. There are some amusing moments to be savored as the filmmakers demonstrate how Wallace’s second wife, former beauty queen Cornelia Ellis Snively, tried to upgrade his image by offering grooming and sartorial pointers. But the mood darkens abruptly as docu shows how Wallace — then a serious Democratic Party candidate in presidential primaries —- was paralyzed in 1972 by five bullets fired by a would-be assassin.

McCabe and Stekler artfully dodge the question of whether their subject truly rehabilitated and redeemed himself during the last 26 years of his life. Pic duly notes that Wallace — campaigning from a wheelchair and claiming to be born again — was twice re-elected as governor of Alabama by directly appealing to the African-American electorate. “Governor Wallace is a child of God now,” a black voter opines. “You can believe that.” But other observers aren’t entirely convinced.

Scrupulously fair and resolutely unsentimental, “George Wallace” emerges as a balanced and insightful portrait of an undeniably charismatic figure whose influence, for better or worse, continues to be felt in American politics.

After the PBS telecast, pic should enjoy a long shelf life on homevid as invaluable source material for academics, journalists and anyone else who wants to make sense of the forces that shaped American life in the second half of the 20th century.

George Wallace: Settin’ the Woods on Fire


  • Production: A Big House production in association with Midnight Films for the American Experience. Produced by Daniel McCabe, Paul Steckler. Directed by Daniel McCabe, Paul Steckler. Screenplay, Steve Fayer, McCabe, Steckler, based on Dan Carter's "The Politics of Rage: George Wallace, the Origins of the New Conservatism and the Transformation of American Politics."
  • Crew: Camera (color), John Hazard; editor, Daniel McCabe; music, Mason Daring, Duke Levine. Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (competing), Jan. 29, 2000. (Also in SXSW Film Festival.) Running time: 160 MIN.