Thursday, October 9, 2014

Review - The Westerner

October 9, 2014

The Westerner – US, 1940

It is said that the West was only truly wild for twenty years. These were the years when getting cattle to the market necessitated the hiring of teams of riders whose livelihoods depended on their ability to get across the great plains of the southwest easily. The end of this period of American history came after a struggle between two groups, those who wanted the land to remain open and free and those who wanted to “tame” it with barbed wire. Hollywood films have tended to sentimentalize the latter group while simultaneously singling out a certain kind of cowboy for distinction – the lone wanderer. This cowboy is not part of a band of outlaws, and he does not have much in the way of plans for the future. In fact, most of the time, he only seems to know one thing – his next destination – and more often than not something happens to delay his arrival. This is the kind of character at the heart of William Wyler’s likable 1940 film, The Westerner.

The film takes place in Vinegaroon, Texas post Civil War, and there is an ongoing struggle between those who want to keep things wild and those who came west in search of a better way of life. The town is run by “Judge” Roy Bean (Walter Brennan), who uses his unofficial legal authority to ensure that the land remains open and his pockets full of cash. Looking at the men that surround Judge Bean, I was reminded that theirs was essentially a bachelor society and that bachelor societies have rarely been peaceful. Perhaps that is why they find confrontation so preferable to compromise.

In the opening scene, there is a gun battle started by a group of men who have an aversion to private property. During the battle, a cow is shot, and soon after, the man who shot the cow is brought before the judge. The trial, if you want to call it that, is conducted in a building that doubles as a saloon and decided by a jury that likely includes the very men who started the gunfight in the first place. The homesteader’s fate is not hard to predict.

Into this setting comes a lone cowboy named Cole Harden (Gary Cooper), although one could hardly say he comes willingly. When we first see him, he is tied up and being led before the judge. The charge against him is stealing a horse, a crime punishable by death in these parts. It isn’t giving anything away to say that Cole does not suffer the same fate as the settler in the opening scene or to reveal that he eventually meets and comes to admire the families seeking to make the Wild West a better place. As with many films of this sort, the key question is ultimately whether Harden will take up their cause or not. I suppose the answer to that question is not really in doubt either, but I appreciate how much time the film devotes to showing him reaching his decision.

The film focuses a great deal on the respectful relationship that develops between Harden and Judge Bean, and it is this storyline that makes The Westerner both riveting and occasionally silly. I would argue that the old judge is the more interesting of the two characters and that this is one of the film's greatest flaws, for usually when a film can't decide which characters to focus on, the story suffers. Indeed, that is what happens here. I can imagine viewers watching one of Cooper's scenes and thinking to themselves, "This is all fine and good, but what's that judge doing right now?"

On the plus side, both Harden and Bean are intriguing individuals. Both of them have been around, and they see their present situations through the prism of their past experiences. Harden’s have made him understand the need for dialogue and negotiation, and a scene in which he tries to prevent violence from breaking out is one of the best ones in the film; Bean's experiences have toughened him up and made him somewhat power-hungry. He’s more likely to protect the side that is strongest rather than the one that is right. In fact, even when he seems to be doing the right thing, we get the sense that he’s just biding his time, waiting for the exact moment to unleash his fury. Brennan plays these scenes with a fire in his eyes that is truly astonishing to behold. 

Unfortunately, the film is saddled with Judge Bean's real-life obsession with a British stage actress named Lily Langtry, and to me, this is one of the film's weaknesses. In reality, Bean was considered by some to be Ms. Langtry's greatest fan. However, in the film, his obsession is magnified to a rather ridiculous degree. Bean is portrayed as being so infatuated with the actress that both his saloon and the room where he sleeps are adorned with painting and replicas of her, and he is shown requiring his customers to toast her in the most solemn tone imaginable. Just how Brennan delivered some of his lines with such a straight face is beyond me. Also, the plot device bogs down several scenes, turning what should be interesting conversations into long awkward expressions of fascination and admiration that are more likely to provoke unintended laughter than intrigue. In short, they cause Bean too often to resemble an immature, love-struck teenager rather than a man who is not to be messed with. However, there is a point to the device. It provides the means for Harden to get out of his early predicament, and it gives him a way of getting the otherwise hard-hearted judge to soften up a bit.

There is of course a love story involving Harden and Jane Ellen Mathews (Doris Davenport), the feisty daughter of one of the town’s homesteaders. The ensuing relationship is believable despite being given very little screen time to develop. In addition, the film includes a very dramatic stretch towards the end before giving way to one of those clichéd Hollywood climaxes that requires a great deal of suspension of disbelief  to accept. After all, what famous actress would be tickled pink to have a man die in front of her? Also, problematic is a fist fight between Harden and Jane’s brother, Caliphet. Apparently, their idea of fighting is standing in one place and letting the other person hit them. Finally, the film is slightly undone by the regrettable inclusion of moments of intended comedy, some of which simply fall flat. It is as if the screenwriter did not believe that audiences would be enthralled by a purely dramatic western and therefore felt the need to dumb it down somewhat.

In the end, however, The Westerner is a noble, enjoyable effort. It has two great performers who cause the screen to crackle whenever they are fully in their element. There are also a number of intense well-shot scenes and intriguing back-and-forths about historically-important issues, and the film provides a bit of a history lesson in this respect. In addition, towards the end of the film is one of the most ingenious cuts I have ever seen, as a curtain falls on the Wild West and rises on what to many was a much more promising future. It’s an amazing end to a somewhat pleasing film. (on DVD on October 14, 2014)

3 stars

*Walter Brennan won his third Academy Award for his performance in the film.

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