I had some trepidation going in but I ended up really enjoying this independent “message” film.
As the film opens, we see a five-year-old African-American girl picking flowers in a meadow. Suddenly, she slips into an overgrown hole, which turns out to be a long disused well. When the girl does not arrive at school, the alarm is raised. This is an ordinary small town with an integrated school where the races apparently live in peace.
Several people saw her in the company of a white stranger in a grey suit. A florist says the man talked to her outside the shop and then went in and bought her a bunch of violets. When finally located, he turns out to be Claude Packard (Harry Morgan), the nephew of a prominent contractor in town. Claude says he stopped in town to visit his uncle on the way elsewhere to look for work in the mining industry. He saw the little girl looking longingly in the florist’s window and bought her the flowers on an impulse. He then helped her across the busy street and walked with her for a couple of blocks after which he lost track of her. He never did see his uncle, who was away from the office. The sheriff does not buy this story and arrests Claude.
Then the rumors start. The African-American community becomes convinced that the sheriff will release, or has already released, Claude because he is white. The whites think that Claude is being framed. Then the girl’s parents get into a mild altercation with the contractor during which he slips and is hurt. Things spiral out of control with fights breaking out all over town and increasingly outlandish rumors spreading like wildfire. Finally, the mayor calls the state militia in fear of a race riot.
As quickly as it started, the trouble stops when a boy’s dog smells the little girl in the well and alerts his master. The last third of the film is devoted to the suspenseful and detailed rescue attempt.
The racial tensions explored in this film are really well done. There is only one short “speech” made and that is just about how dangerous race riots are and how people on all sides of them get hurt. We mainly just see the events. And then, when that part is done, the rescue is really exciting. The story gets down into the nitty gritty of how heavy equipment is used to dig a parallel shaft and the dangers to both the rescuers and the girl in doing this. Recommended.
The Well was nominated for Academy Awards in the categories of Best Writing, Story and Screenplay and Best Film Editing.