Savannah is based on the true story of the larger-than-life Ward Allen (Jim Caviezel), a man whose profession as a hunter was deemed antiquated and uncivilized by the new decrees and mores of modernity in the early 20th century. The film establishes Allen as a sharp but stubborn outdoorsy type with a pedigree, a man so in tune with nature that he turned his back on his inheritance in order spend his days by the river, shooting fowl for a living alongside his best friend, a freed slave named Christmas Moultrie (Chiwetel Ejiofor). Though hunting had become a restricted activity in Savannah, Georgia, few took the matter seriously, including Allen, who’s frequently charged for breaking the law, but never sentenced. Early in the film, he defends himself in court during a trial that the townsfolk seemingly attend solely to witness his witty repartee with the merry, laissez-faire judge (Hal Holbrook).
Allen’s life story is told via flashback in 1958, from a 95-year-old Moultrie (Ejiofor in unconvincing age makeup) to a younger friend, Jack Cay (Bradley Whitford), who in real life wrote a book about Allen and Moultrie. The film, adapted from Cay’s memoir, is impossible to take seriously as a commemoration of Moultrie’s life or Allen’s prolific status because of its plethora of contrivances, from the film score that’s so sentimental it almost suggests an intentional satire of middlebrow historical dramas, to the cloying script that has Allen’s charming little pleasantries treated by everyone who lives in the film’s Mayberry-as-Savannah as uproarious quips.
At least Allen is written to be a loquacious, affable character, giving Caviezel the chance to infuse his flat dialogue with a modicum of humanity, warmth, and some rifle-totin’ swagger. Ejiofor’s token black sidekick, on the other hand, reveals Annette Haywood-Carter’s shoddy direction. Moultrie’s nature is depicted mostly through brief shots of the man looking silently troubled and sympathetic in the aftermath of Allen’s domestic ordeals (his wife’s nervous breakdown and placement in an asylum after having a miscarriage), and yet many of these scenes fail to communicate anything other than Ejiofor’s ability to furrow his brow. Rather than seriously delve into what life must have been like for the last slave on the Mulberry Grove Plantation, the filmmakers settle for a Lifetime-grade articulation of racism in the 1910s, with a few white characters objecting to Allen’s friendship with a “negro.”
Moultrie’s distinction as a fowl hunter is also treated as secondary to Allen’s, because in reality he was never considered a legend. Savannah could have easily been a more compelling film if it had escaped the wrath of contrivance, acknowledged the experiences of Moultrie, and provided a cross-section of its eponymous town, to better portray the tumultuous, transformative times in which the men’s hallowed way of life became irrelevant.