Nevada Smith: Steve McQueen’s dynamic star turn makes this a highly enjoyable Western adventure

Nevada Smith(1966), starring Steve McQueen, is an episodic Western revenge drama directed by genre veteran Henry Hathaway. It’s one of McQueen’s most successful outings, with the star in top form, elevating a very generic revenge movie with his dynamism and charisma.

“I don’t see nothing, except my father laying on a covered-floor all burnt and cut with the top of his head blown to pieces, and my mother split up in the middle and every square inch of her skin ripped off.”

That’s Max Sand talking about what drives his obsessive quest to avenge the death of his parents. Sand’s parents – a white miner father and a Kiowa Indian mother –  were killed by 3 cutthroats, and he is out to find them and kill them. That pretty much sums up the plot of the 1966 film, Nevada Smith, in which, then 35 year old, blonde-haired, blue-eyed Steve McQueen played Max Sand: A 16 year old half-breed seeking revenge for the brutal murder of his parents. Obviously, casting McQueen as the teenage half-breed is the problematic aspect of the film, but if one can ignore this – as a problem that afflicted a lot of American films of its times – then this is a vintage Steve McQueen action\adventure. And frankly, neither the film nor McQueen aspire to be anything more than that; thankfully, McQueen does not use any fancy makeup or ‘method’ acting tricks to convey himself to be a 16 year old half – breed, which would have made it even more offensive (think of Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s). Nevada Smith is what Quentin Tarantino would call a ‘Revenge Movie’, which doesn’t need to have a big story beyond that –  as he referred to his own revenge drama Kill Bill. Kill Bill was inspired a lot from Nevada Smith, and so was Django Unchained. The way Max Sand systematically pursue his parent’s killers and goes about dispatching them,  is very similar to the adventures of Uma Thurman’s Bride in Kill Bill. Similarly, the relationship between Max Sand and gunsmith Jonas Cord is very similar to the one between Django and King Schulz. But beyond its generic Revenge theme, Nevada Smith does try to de-glamorize and humanize, both the concept of vengeance and the characters involved in it. The  film mainly deals with Max’s regeneration, as he goes on his quest for vengeance. He is an uneducated kid, who has never killed anybody before. He has no skills in handling guns or knifes or any other lethal weapons. The only thing that drives him is his blind rage and the blind belief: that since right is on his side, he would emerge triumphant. But the film shows that that’s not the case and in pursuing such an obsessive path , he might end up becoming just like the men he is chasing. Max is blinded by revenge, which he carries on his psyche as a compulsion that obscures his other motives for living. This forces him to abandon friends (and lovers) who are kind, generous and affectionate towards him, as he is driven to keep going forward in his journey; which gives the film the feeling of a picaresque adventure, even though Max is very much a morally upright hero.

The story starts off in some far Western town, likely Nevada, though looks closer to the California Sierras, where a trio of riders(Karl Malden, Martin Landau, Arthur Kennedy) approaches Max Sand (Steve McQueen) . They ask him the whereabouts of Samuel Sand, who turns out to be Max’s father; they claim themselves to be old friends of Sand Sr. and Max shows them the way, while he himself stay back to fetch water from the well. But he soon senses something’s wrong, and it turns out that he’s right. The trio are his father’s friends alright, but they have not come with friendly intentions. They are seen beating up and questioning Sam Sand about the whereabouts of hidden gold. When Sam repeatedly asserts his innocence and ignorance in the matter, they start torturing his wife. By the time Max had returned home, both his parents are dead and the murderous threesome have fled from the scene. An angry Max burns down the house and sets off to find the killers, with just a horse, a rifle, and 8 dollars in his possession. Soon enough, he comes across in the woods, what appears to be, the three killers. He attacks one of them, but soon he realizes that this is not the threesome that he is looking for. Once this misunderstanding is resolved, the three of them treat him with generosity, and share their food with him. But when he wakes up the next morning, the three of them are gone, and they have taken all his possessions along with them. Now hungry, lonely and unarmed, Max walks through the barren desert; cutting opening Cactus for water, and trapping small animals for food. On his way, he stumbles on an upturned stagecoach, from under which, he digs up an old gun.

Now for a boy who has lost his father and mother at a young age, Max would collect his share of Father figures (and mother figures) during his long journey for revenge. The first one of them is gun merchant, Jonas Cord (Brian Keith); Their relationship starts on an antagonistic note, when a hungry Max tries to steal food from Cord by threatening him with his rusty pistol. But Cord is quick to size up the young boy and easily calls his bluff . He then gives him some food and asks Max to go back home by the shortest route, as he doesn’t have it in him to track down and kill the vicious threesome.

The film is based on two characters (Jonas Cord and Nevada Smith) from a sleazy Harold Robbins novel, The Carpetbaggers, which had been a successful movie two years earlier. In that film, a 50 year old Nevada Smith was played by Alan Ladd ( who doesn’t look half-Kiowa either) , in his last movie role. There was plans to make the prequel with Ladd, but he died before the film could go into production, so the studio decided to turn this into an A List production with McQueen in the lead role. the film is adapted for the screen by John Michael Hayes, who has written some of the classic Hitchcock films like To Catch a Thief and Rear Window. His strength has always been snappy dialogue, and this film is no exception. The back and forth between Brian Keith and McQueen is extremely well written. Brian Keith is excellent as the father figure who adopts McQueen. Keith pretty much steals this section of the film, with his low key performance and great line readings. As Cord he is sincere in warning the young avenger that in order to catch and kill these men, he will have to comb out every saloon, gambling hall, hog farm and whorehouse, and become just as despicable as they are.

Jonas Cord: It ain’t that easy, kid. Findin’ em’s one thing. Killin’ em’s another.

Max Sand: I’ll figure out ways.

Jonas Cord: Ah! Well, I’ve been sellin’ guns and ammunition to men like that for 15 years, and they got more ways to cripple and kill a man than you ever dreamed about. They’ll shoot you in the back. They’ll ambush you. They’ll cut your throat while you’re layin’ asleep. All you got on your side is some blind Indian revenge.

Max Sand: I’m half-white.

Max Sand: And you’re all-helpless!

Cord decides to try out Max’s shooting skills; Max claims to have shot a lot of deer and rabbits, so Cord throws a metal plate into the air and asks Sand to shoot it down, Max fires, but fails to hit it, Cord realizes that the kid is hopeless

Jonas Cord: Go on home, boy. Take the shortcut.

Nevada Smith: The sun was in my eyes and I wasn’t expecting it!

Jonas Cord: Do you expect a man’s gonna hold still for you with the sun at your back, and give you warning so you can stand there and shoot at him?

Nevada Smith: I can hit a rabbit at 80 yards with a rifle.

Jonas Cord: A rabbit don’t shoot back. And how you think you’re gonna swing a rifle in a barroom.

Nevada Smith: I never been *in* a barroom!

Jonas Cord: Look, just to find them, you’re gonna have to comb out every saloon, gambling hall, hog farm, and whore house between here and Mexico. What do you think you’re after, three preachers? You gonna gun ’em down at 80 yards when they’re coming out of a church social? You’re hunting three men who steal because they’re too damn lazy to work, and they kill because they love to, and they hide out like rats in the garbage. So if you’re gonna get ’em, you’re gonna have to eat, drink, and wallow in that garbage right with ’em, ’til you get so you think like ’em and smell like ’em.

Nevada Smith: I’ll do what I have to do.

Max is persistent and slowly wears Cord’s defenses down. Cord would become his mentor, training him in the usage of guns and imparting valuable knowledge of how to track down his enemies. Max proves to be a quick learner. He becomes an expert in handling of guns and knives. On top of that, Cord also trains him to be a good gambler, which would help Max to earn a living while he’s tracking down his enemies.

Then it comes time for Cord and Max to part ways; they come to a crossroad, with the road diverting to three different places, and Cord tells him: I sure can’t tell you which way to go, but you want to catch ’em, you best go where the money is. If they got it, they’re goin’ to head for where they can spend it. If they ain’t got it, they’ll go where they can steal it.

After saying goodbye to Cord, Max rides off alone; promising to look him up after he is done with his mission. He tracks down the first of his parents killers, Jessie Coe, in Abilene. He is a card dealer now, and feigns ignorance of the events when Max confronts him with a gun. But Coe is riding Max’s father’s horse and that’s more than enough proof for Max. Coe cannot hold out for long and his true colors come out soon enough. A fight to death commences between the two, which begins with guns and ends as a knife fight in the middle of a fenced-in cow herd. Martin Landau, who was McQueen’s mate at the famed Actor’s studio, gives an absolutely terrifying performance as the Psychotic Coe. His strong, intimidating features and physicality creating a great contrast to the more diminutive, yet athletic McQueen. Max manages to kill Coe in the end, but is seriously wounded. He is taken care of by a Kiowa girl – like his mother – at a nearby Indian village. She falls in love with Max and teaches him to read and write. But just as it happened with Cord, when Max is well enough, he leaves the village and rides off to track down the rest of his parent’s killers

Max learns that Billy Bowdre (Arthur Kennedy), the second of the threesome, is in a prison camp in the Louisiana swamps after an unsuccessful bank robbery.  Sand gets himself thrown in prison to find Bowdre.  The prison is a hard run place with no walls, but as the Warden says, “The swamp are our walls,” ; They don’t need walls due to the swamp’s abundance of quicksand, malaria, mosquitoes, and poisonous snakes no one could survive if they tried to escape. Although the place is run like a slave labor camp , the Warden has an arrangement with a nearby brothel, where the women are send to service the prisoners. Max meets one such woman, a young Cajun Pilar (Suzanne Pleshette), and they fall in love. Meanwhile, Sand and Bowdre have become close friends  and they escape through the swamps with the help of  Pilar, but in the process, Pilar is bitten by a snake and she becomes delirious.  Soon enough, Bowdre realizes the true identity of Max and tries to escape, but he is shot and killed by Max, much to the disapproval of Pilar. This episode ends with Pilar’s death, and Max cradling her dead body and begging her forgiveness. This prison episode has a lot of similarities with another McQueen film, Papillon(1973), which he made almost 6 years after this.

The third, and the final, one of his parent’s killers is Tom Fitch (Karl Malden), who is running an outlaw gang  in the California gold country. Fitch has heard about the deaths of Coe and Bowdery and is now paranoid and believes that Max Sand isn’t human; because no half-breed boy so obsessively and doggedly chases down his parent’s killers as Sand has done. Sand, who has already tracked down Fitch, uses a unique strategy to get inside his gang. He calls himself Tom Fitch, and get himself thrown in the town prison. Fitch’s men, believing that the real Fitch is behind bars, bust him out of jail, but once they realize that they have been duped, they almost kill Max by roping him and dragging him though the stream. They leave him for dead and he is nursed back to health by a Catholic priest, Father Zaccardi (Raf Vallone) , who becomes another father figure for Max. The most explicit presentation of moral choice for Max comes during this brief stay with the priest. The priest relates his own parents’ murder by marauding Indians. The difference in his story is that he has forgiven those who killed his parents, and advises Max to do the same. But Max turns him down and continue with his pursuit of Fitch. He renames himself  “Nevada Smith“. and manages to join Fitch’s outlaw gang after he passes Fitch’s test; the cunning Fitch try all the tricks in the book to unmask him and find out whether or not he’s the real Max Sand, but Sand manages to outwit him and keep his real identity a secret. Fitch is planning a big heist: to steal gold bullion from the nearby mine and Max is an integral part of the plan. On the way to the heist, Max’s old friend Jonas Cord shows up in town and notices Max riding with Fitch and his gang; he calls out to Max, but not to give himself away, Max ignores it. But Fitch has heard Cord calling somebody in his gang Max and his paranoia increases. The heist goes as planned , but while he is collecting the gold, Fitch notices Max Sand\Nevada smith- who stay away from the theft- watching him from the top of the hill. He is now certain that Nevada is Max, and he makes a run for his life. But Max chases him down and shoots him in his arms and his legs, but does not kill him. He leaves him alive and rides off, even as Fitch curses and begs him to finish him off.

Like a lot of films made during the the time of Martin Luther King Jr. and Civil rights movement, this film too tries to preach racial tolerance and renouncing of violence to achieve ones goals. But the noble intentions of the film are torpedoed by the fact that the biracial character at the center of the film is played by a white actor. It’s rather ironic that the scenes which exist to provide substance to the film, actually makes it dated, and becomes the least engaging parts of the film. They should have just made it an unapologetic revenge thriller. The film was a beneficiary of the newly relaxed censorship laws, and so the film features a lot more gritty scenes of sex and violence, but not to the extend that Sam Peckinpah and others would push it. The film was directed by Henry Hathaway, an old master at Westerns , who directed  a lot of the 1962 Cinerama epic How the West was Won and had recently finished Sons of Katie Elder with John Wayne. He does a solid, professional job in executing the film. He is aided immeasurably by the great cinematographer Lucien Ballard (who would go on to photograph Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch), who gives the film a glorious look with big blue skies and the landscape dotted by natural greens and browns; each episode in the film has a different look and color scheme. His wide screen compositions conveys the the enormousness of the landscape through which Max Sand traverses. Music composer Alfred Newman also chips in with a rousing score.

But the star of the show is Steve McQueen. He was reaching his peak as a movie superstar then; i think Bullit in 1968 marked the zenith of his career. He was coming off action blockbusters like The Great Escape and more character driven dramas like Cincinnati Kid – in which he made a great team with Karl Malden. McQueen is a pure movie actor, who talks very less, acts very subtly and moves very quickly. He is also a great reactor, and the film benefits immensely having great actors like Brian Keith and Karl Malden to play opposite McQueen. The scenes between Malden and McQueen are really suspenseful and thrilling, with McQueen very subtly playing off the talky histrionics of Malden.  McQueen is also at his most athletic and effortless that i have ever seen him in a film, with his body language almost poetic in some scenes. Just take the scene where he learns to shoot successfully from Brian Keith. He shoots the marker thrown by Keith while riding the horse at full gallop, then jumps off the horse and unload the bullets from his gun, all in the matter of seconds; or take another scene, where Keith gives him a silver Dollar to buy something to read. He takes the dollar in one hand and starts clapping his hands, and even as he enters the store and asks for a can of peaches he is still doing this routine with his hands; or at the end of the film, there is a scene where he bushwhacks one of Fitch’s guys with a rope and beats him up mercilessly (as revenge for what the guy did to him earlier, as well as to impress Fitch to take him in his gang); the thing that he does with that rope is an absolute beauty; he keeps spinning it and throwing it up in the air, even as he is beating up the guy.  McQueen does all his stunts in the film, and he was almost killed during the knife fight with Martin Landau, when the Fence around a cow herd gave away and the cows almost trampled him; the scene is kept as it is in the film.

Like the character of Max Sand, McQueen had a tough childhood. Though he was not exactly an orphan, he was a product of a broken home, abandoned by his father and mother; McQueen was also  a wild kid with run-ins with the law, who made his way through life doing odd jobs; the Marine Corps, racing cars and motorcycles and, finally, acting. So there is a personal connection to the role for McQueen . Also, the character of Nevada Smith is a man-hunter, out to avenge his parents’ death, quite similar to that of Josh Randall that McQueen played in the series, Wanted: Dead or Alive. As already mentioned, McQueen was 35 at the time of filming, but he was able to project the image of someone young and fit enough to make the film’s essential story of a young man’s murder, rage, and revenge plausible to moviegoers. Steve was always considered a little difficult to work with; always clashing with directors and costars, while director Henry Hathaway was a tough taskmaster -an old-fashioned, screaming ,mocking tough SOB, who use to drive his cast and crew to the limit. So it was expected that there is going to be acrimony on the set. But surprising everybody, McQueen and the director got on very well. Steve, who always looked for a father figure in his directors was impressed with Hathaway’s work ethic and his toughness. He was exactly the kind of man’s man he admired. Though there were difficulties during shoot, he didn’t mind, as he later said about the director : “Difficulties I don’t mind, And Hathaway knows his job. I’d go to hell for him. Maybe if I’d had a father like him I’d of turned out better.”  McQueen’s glowing comments about the director is a testament to how much he enjoyed working on the movie, and that shows in his work in the film. His charisma and dynamism elevates this film into a thoroughly entertaining Western.

4 thoughts on “Nevada Smith: Steve McQueen’s dynamic star turn makes this a highly enjoyable Western adventure

  1. Great article about one of my favorite films! The actors chosen for were mainly perfect, I am a fan of McQueen and he was very good in it! What kept gnawing at me watching is he was 35 at the time and it must have been irritating to be playing what a kid and being called that by the other actors. The fact he was blond and blue eyed stuck out diminishing the film. Henry Hathaway was expert in the genre and Joseph Levine as producer was gifted as usual. I just would have chosen a 20 something actor with dark hair and dark eyes, Richard Beymer for example would have been perfect!!

    Like

  2. It’s a solid, tight western, elevated by McQueen’s graceful performance and Hathaway’s professionalism. Your insightful essay (as usual) makes me want to
    watch it again. Thanks.

    Liked by 1 person

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