Arthur Penn directs Anne Bancroft, Patty Duke and Victor Jory in this biographical film about Annie Sullivan’s arduous efforts to give blind deaf Helen Keller the tools to understand and communicate with the world.
A great movie set piece involves action overcoming obstacles. It might be underdog Rocky going the distance against champion Apollo Creed. Tom Cruise scaling the glass surface of the world’s tallest building with his gadget gloves malfunctioning. Or Indiana Jones trying to commandeer a truck full of Nazis, a truck he is currently being keel hauled behind. The point is we, the audience, can feel the bruising effort of a great set piece, we know what the stakes are and see the points where a lesser person would give up and admit defeat. The Miracle Worker has a similar sequence in both format and effectiveness to any of these adventure blockbusters. It takes place in one dining room for over ten minutes. Anne Bancroft needs to get Patty Duke to sit down and eat a meal like a “normal” person. After years of being ignored, indulged and undisciplined due to her condition the child wilfully will not take instruction. She lashes out, she throws tantrums, she is spoilt. But if Bancroft’s teacher cannot get her to submit and be calm then she will never be able to bully her into learning the physical alphabet that will give her a link to the outside world. They wrestle and exhaust each other, chase and struggle around the table. It is a marathon, you feel drained by the effort. But when Bancroft’s unconventional teacher finally breaks the child you know it is for the kid’s long term benefit. To see two dramatic actors so wholeheartedly and actively frazzle each other is a thrill. And this scene is replicated on a smaller scale throughout The Miracle Worker. The message is no child is unreachable. Even one with the obvious disadvantages of Helen Keller. But some children need unique, almost gargantuan, personal methods to get them to understand the world and communicate with it. It is an unarguable message on the importance of education, powerfully delivered in this gripping, experimental drama.