The 1951 film I’d Climb the Highest Mountain, starring Susan Hayward and William Lundigan, tells the story of a Methodist circuit-riding minister and his new city-born wife on their first assignment in the north Georgia mountains. Written and produced by Atlanta native Lamar Trotti, the film is based on the 1910 novel A Circuit Rider’s Wife, by fellow Georgian Corra Harris.
A Circuit Rider’s Wife, Harris’s first novel, is a semiautobiographical account of her experiences serving a “circuit” of rural north Georgia churches with her husband, itinerant preacher Lundy Harris. In the novel, minister William Thompson thrives despite the low pay and large workload, while his young wife, Mary, struggles to learn to keep house and provide such support to her husband’s churches as preparing dinner on the grounds and laying out dead bodies for burial.
Learn she does, however, and in doing so, Mary becomes the backbone of the family, while William is so concerned with matters of the spirit that he can scarcely attend to more practical matters. Through various trials he maintains great faith and manages to convey his confidence to others in desperate situations. Together William and Mary weather their own crisis, their baby’s stillbirth.
As the years pass, William is sent from one mountain circuit to another. Maintaining an untiring commitment to help any lost or needy soul, regardless of church affiliation, he is much loved by his church members and others. Despite her concern that William is exploited, Mary remains devoted to him throughout his life. Only after William’s death does she feel her “own 'I am’ sitting up. . .and taking courage,” and she becomes “a free moral agent for the first time in [her] life.”
Long after Corra Harris’s death in 1935, Lamar Trotti developed the screenplay I’d Climb the Highest Mountain, which brought together his interests in rural America, the simplicity of times past, and inspirational stories. Henry King directed the movie for Twentieth Century Fox, and William Lundigan and Susan Hayward starred in the leading roles of William and Mary, while Rory Calhoun and Gene Lockhart played in supporting roles. (Hayward was a late replacement for Jeanne Crain, who was originally cast as Mary.) Edward Cronjager received praise for the film’s Technicolor cinematography.
Much of I’d Climb the Highest Mountain was filmed on location in and around Helen and Cleveland during the spring and summer of 1950. The movie showcases the dirt roads, farm land, and simple clapboard architecture typical of the Georgia Blue Ridge at the turn of the century. Hayward was fond of the region and its residents, many of whom appeared as extras in the movie.
Trotti chose to focus his narrative on William and Mary’s first church appointment. More episodic than plot driven, Trotti’s script, like Harris’s novel, emphasizes the adjustments that Mary must make as she learns both to run a household and to nurture William, who strives to maintain his “witness of the spirit.” Despite William’s religious nature, his worldliness is marked by a love of horse racing and arm wrestling, as well as by a physical attraction to his wife.
As complications arise for the young couple, William, in typical Hollywood style, resolves them through his unerring goodness, while the beautiful Mary stands by his side. His spirit is tested when an epidemic sweeps the community; William offers to turn the church into a hospital, where both he and Mary work tirelessly to assist the only doctor in the mountains. A Harvard University–educated atheist named Tom Salter (played by Alexander Knox), whose son drowns while attending a church picnic, continually resists William’s ministrations. Salter later comes to recognize the effects of his beliefs on his children, who react with excitement to gifts left for them by William at Christmas, a holiday never before celebrated by the Salter family.
Another crisis occurs with the stillbirth of Mary and William’s baby. Mary’s difficult emotional recovery from the loss of her son is ultimately sparked by the arrival of Mrs. Billywith (Lynn Bari), an attractive “summer visitor” to the mountains who is unhappy in her own marriage and repeatedly requests William’s help in interpreting the scriptures. Suspicious of Mrs. Billywith’s motives, Mary rallies herself to confront the woman in order to protect her own marriage. Finally, the redemption of Jack Stark (Calhoun), a young rake and community outcast, becomes a special project of William’s. William eventually marries Jack to his sweetheart, Jenny Brock (Barbara Bates), in a midnight ceremony and later appeases the young woman’s irate father (Lockhart).
The film had its world premiere at Atlanta’s Paramount Theater in February 1951. Hayward attended and was honored by the Georgia senate, which issued a resolution making her an “adopted daughter of Georgia.” (Hayward would later marry a Georgian and live in Carrollton). Though not a major box-office success, the film was well received by critics at the time and has since come to be seen as one of King’s best films.