Basing an entire feature-length film on a top-ten song, especially a song that topped the charts nine years before the film, may seem like a bad idea. Likewise, watching a movie directed by Max Baer Jr., best known for playing Jethro on “The Beverly Hillbillies”, put me off at first. But I liked this film right off. The song itself is rich in narrative, and the film fleshes it out more than enough to make a compelling story, and the performances are surprisingly restrained in a movie where they could easily become cartoonish, with the big exception being some drunk hoodlums who try to run a truck of the bridge. There are also some beautiful, scenic shots in the film.
The composer of the hit song, Bobbie Gentry said she was never sure why Billy Joe MacAllister jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge, and focused the song more one the nonchalant manner in which the family discuss it, and the narrator who has to hide her feelings about the dead boy. Gentry gave free reign to the screenwriter Herman Raucher, who wove a rather complex story of Bobbie Lee, a lonely 15-year-old girl living with her family on a farm without electricity or an indoor toilet, and spends her free time reading and rereading pulp romance magazines and has an imaginary friend. She is pursued by Billy Joe, a boy with aspirations too big for the small town. His reasons for jumping off the bridge are personal, but are also at the heart of the rural, God-fearing community.