The Stalking Moon(1968) reteamed Gregory Peck with his “To Kill a Mockingbird” producer-director duo of Alan J. Pakula and Robert Mulligan. The film, also starring Eva Marie Saint and Robert Forster, is an off-beat Western that plays more like a supernatural thriller
I sometimes wonder about the destiny of certain movies. Some good films are ignored at the time of their release, and are rediscovered maybe 10, 20, 30 or even 50 years later, and is accorded the respect they deserve. Sometimes films are regarded as great at the time of their release but quickly fades away from public memory. Then there are films that disappear from the theaters pretty quickly, but are kept alive in the public sphere by a small cult that worship the film for its certain attributes. Then there are some really good films that doesn’t fall into any of this category. The 1968 Gregory Peck Western, The Stalking Moon, is a really terrific film that flew under the radar when it was released, despite the fact that it has impeccable credentials. It’s directed by Robert Mulligan, who made “To Kill a Mockingbird” with Peck (for which he won his sole best actor Oscar) five years earlier, with a screenplay by renowned scribe Alvin Sargent, who won two Oscars (for “Paper Moon” and “Julia”) and the film is produced by Alan J. Pakula who would go on to make some of the greatest films of 1970s. Though the film has had a certain amount of appreciation in recent times, i still believe that the film hasn’t gotten the respect that it deserves. This is an extremely well-made Western from the late 1960s; from a time when filmmakers where trying to move away from the simple cowboys Vs Indians or Lawmen vs Outlaw narratives, and tackle more complex themes regarding race relations and trying to see its heroes in more morally ambiguous light. Also, the “form” of the Western genre was changing, with new visual experiments and mixing of genres being attempted at the time, thus making the films more personal that bore the idiosyncratic stamp of the filmmakers. Once upon a time in the West, The Wild Bunch, Little Big Man, Butch Cassidy and Sundance Kid etc.. were examples of this. The Stalking Moon could be considered as a precursor to these classic, revisionist Westerns; this is through and through a director’s film; we find the filmmaker’s fingerprints on every frame of this film; it’s moody, atmospheric and chilling; a truly unusual Western that doesn’t fall easily into any of the existing Western narratives; It broadly has a cowboy Vs Indian narrative, but the way it develops is anything that; the dominant mood is not of rousing adventure, but of sustained tension, claustrophobia and dreadful foreboding. It’s more of a chilling suspense thriller, with supernatural undercurrents, set in the old west; it probes racial tensions in the light of American expansion into the land of Native American tribes, and the effects of attempts made by the American administration to civilize, domesticize and confine the natives to reservations. But like the great John Ford Westerns, these complex themes does not override the entertainment quotient of this film, which at its core tells a simple story linearly, though the simple, generic entertaining surface hides a wealth of layers and subtexts. The only question is: who is the filmmaker whose fingerprints are all over the film?, is it director, Robert Mulligan’s: who never made a film like this before or after this film, or is it producer Alan J. Pakula’s: who collaborated with Mulligan on 7 films of which this will be the last, he would debut as an independent director soon after this film. This film has the look and feel of a trio of great paranoid thrillers that Pakula made in the 70s: Klute, Parallax view and All the President’s Men. This film, especially, the second half, plays exactly like “Parallax View in the West”, with its build up of tension and suspense, and the hero going against an overwhelming dark force. Perhaps, it was Mulligan who made the film, or maybe it was a healthy collaboration between Mulligan and Pakula, whatever the creative process, the final result is a unique and interesting Western.
“The Stalking Moon” begins like any regular Western; the set up is very familiar from hundreds of Westerns we have seen before: The film opens with the visuals of a mountainous desert terrain – film is set in Arizona, but was shot in Nevada- where we see a lone figure of a man carrying a rifle silhouetted against the sky running swiftly along the steep slopes. Music composer, Fred Karlin’s score complements the rousing Western mood of the piece with its guitar riffs and whistling tune. The great cinematographer, Charles Lang- a veteran of both Westerns and film noirs having photographed such classics as The Big Heat, One Eyed Jacks and The Magnificent Seven– captures the majestic beauty of the desert wilderness with his magnificent widescreen photography; slightly diffused through fog filters giving the visuals a misty luster. The title credits are played over these scenes, and as the titles come to a stop, so does the lone man’s chase. As his figure comes into focus , we realize that it’s the towering visage of Gregory Peck- a star who has played the stolid, dignified, noble hero of the West in countless previous Westerns, and most probably he’s reprising the same role here as well. As the camera comes to a stop on top of a mountain ledge along with Peck, we see below an encampment of sleeping Apaches; mostly women and children, with two male sentries keeping guard. Peck overpowers one, then jumps the other. After he confirms that the two guards are subdued, he fires his rifle, waking up the sleeping group. The rifle shot also brings the American cavalry to the spot. Now this typical Western set up is fully clear: Peck is Sam Varner, a scout working for the army. They have been trailing the group of Apaches who had walked-off the reservation. And true to his noble persona, Peck’s Varner has managed to locate and round up the Apaches without shedding a single drop of blood on either side. Up to this point, the film plays out pretty much to our expectations, except, usually, a “cavalry Vs Indians” western begins with the Natives walking-off the reservation and ends with them being brought back – after 2 hrs. of chases and violence in which many are killed. This film begins at the point where many Westerns end. This is just the beginning of what’s different about this Western; soon enough, it’s revealed that a women in the group of Apaches is “white”: Sara Carver (Eva Marie Saint) was kidnapped by the Apaches about 10 years ago, now she has a half-breed son. Obviously, she’s now the squaw of an Apache warrior. The army quickly begins to round up the Apaches to take them back to their reservation, but Sara wants to return to her birthplace, Columbus, and she wants to leave immediately. The Major promises her that she can have an army escort in 5 days but she’s not willing to wait. Though she’s not willing to divulge the reasons for her haste, we feel that she fears someone, but we are not sure who.
The next time we feel something’s not right is when army troopers brings news of an attack on some soldiers close to the Apache encampment. Varner and some of the troops goes out to investigate the area, and finds three soldiers murdered. They could see footsteps of only one ‘Apache’, who seems to have escaped moments before Varner ambushed the camp. The fact that this was done by one man, and he’s carrying a “buffalo rifle” is enough for Varner to deduce who it is: “Salvaje”- a silent and ruthless killer, greatly feared even among his own people. Salvaje means “Ghost” in Apache, or in their own tongue: “He Who Is Not Here”, meaning a dead man. Another soldier volunteers further information about Salvaje’s supernatural strength- reportedly, he jumped a troop of 10 soldiers, killing 4 and he was so fast that they couldn’t even get a good look at him. Something tells us that this Salvaje is going to play a big role in the film from now on, though true to his name, he will be present more in spirit rather than in body. Fred Karlin’s score has now taken on an ominous, foreboding tone, as opposed to the joyous score we have heard in the beginning. By the way, Varner is retiring from the army (after having completed 15 years of service), much against the Major’s wishes. The Major begs him to stay one more year, but Varner has made up his mind. He has purchased some land in New Mexico and he’s going to raise cattle for the rest of his life. Besides, he has also kept his replacement ready and waiting to take his place: his protégée, Nick Tana (Robert Forster), a half-breed, whom Varner had taken in when Nick was a kid and raised him like his son and taught him the tricks of his trade. Like the Major, maybe even more than him, Nick resents Varner’s retirement- Nick throws a knife at Sam’s retreating back to show the full breadth of his anger (and perhaps also to celebrate his independence) at Varner’s abandonment of him. Seeing Varner leaving, Sara begs him to take her with him, but he declines. Next morning when Varner is saddling up his horses, she once again approaches him; Varner pauses for a few moments; this is a turning point in the story, but not as big as what’s about to come. After pondering for a moment, Varner agrees to take Sara and the boy to the stagecoach station in Hennessey. From there they can travel to Silverton railroad station; from there they can catch a train to Columbus. As the threesome leave the army camp and sets off on their journey through the dusty mountain roads, Nick and the rest of the soldiers looks on with some apprehension.
When Varner and co. arrive in Hennessey, they are told that it will take 2 days for the stagecoach to arrive, so they decide to rest. The station is filled with rather ominous looking people who surveys Varner, the white women in Apache garb and her half-bred boy with suspicion. When they awake the next morning, the boy has disappeared, and there’s a sandstorm raging outside. Varner and Sara goes looking for the boy, and find him lost in the storm. They hole up to wait out the storm. Finally, when the storm subdues, both Sara and the boy has lost their horses, so Varner mounts them on his horse and he walks along with them back to the station. There they encounter a gruesome sight: everyone at the station is murdered; only one man seems to be alive ,as he stumbles out with a rifle in hand and covered in blood. he collapses into Varner’s arms and gets a few words out before he falls dead: “Never… seen… nothing….like him.” Varner immediately realizes that this is the handiwork of Salvaje, but since he has finished what he has come to do, he’s not going to come back and they needn’t fear staying on. That’s when Sara drops the bomb: Salvaje is her husband, and the boy is his son. he has come looking for the boy, and until he gets him he’s going to keep coming back. Varner is incensed at Sara’s selfishness of not waiting for 5 days when she could have had an army escort; her haste has led to the death of so many innocent people. But Sara has suffered so much in captivity that she’s beyond reason- she cant even think or express herself properly (she speaks in broken English); only thing she knows is that she has to get herself and the boy as far away from Salvaje as possible.
When the stagecoach arrives, Varner briefs them about what has happened. Sara and the boy quickly get in the stage. The driver requests Varner to ride behind them as an escort, so that he can warn them if Salvaje appears again. Varner agrees, and they reach Silverton without any further causalities. At the railroad station, Varner purchases tickets for Sara and the boy to travel to Topeka. As they await the arrival of the train, Varner bids them goodbye and walks across to a nearby cantina to have some coffee. What follows is the most beautiful scene in the film: a long wordless scene where Charles Lang brilliantly uses the widescreen to frame Sara and the boy to the extreme right in deep focus, as Varner sits sipping coffee on the left of the frame; Varner repeatedly staring at Sara and her son, their loneliness accentuated by framing them as tiny specks against the desolate wilderness, as they wait at the lonely train station. He’s thinking about them, He knows to let them go is the smart thing to do, but he’s also seen the looks and reaction the pair produces in white society and guesses what their future will hold. They will not be able to survive in the city. He has been living alone for 15 years, and he himself is not comfortable with having company, but he knows that if he’s settling down, he would need a family. Carefully weighing matters, coupled with his own longing for family, he convinces himself that he and the mother and child are better off together in New Mexico, and Sam walks over to Sara and invites them to come live with him at his ranch. The next cut shows Varner and his new family travelling by train to New Mexico. This scene is the most important turning point in the film, and the filmmakers have rightfully given it the time it deserves. It more than sums up the whole wordless, slow-burn aesthetic of the film. The film is made up of moments like these throughout; the scene where Varner fetches the ticket for Sara is again one of those moments, where it is shown how grueling train journeys were doing that time; the ticket issued to Sara is a long paper-chain; consisting of multiple tickets from separate starting points and destinations. It’s so big that it had to be stacked in a shoebox. The scene also show how desolate frontier towns where, even when there are joined by railroad; the train station is like a speck in the desert wilderness, one has to look very carefully to find it in such a vast open space. Another great moment comes when Sara is travelling by train, she accidentally catches her image in the window glass pane, and she’s shocked by the change in her appearance; it has to be assumed that it’s been a long time since she has seen her face in a mirror.
Once they arrive in New Mexico, the film shifts gears, both visually and narratively. The vast vistas of the Arizona desert gives way to claustrophobic cabins surrounded by mountains and thick trees encroaching upon it; the big, bright desert sky gives way to dark, cloudy and gloomy skies as if it’s twilight hour all the time. From a standard Western, the film transforms into a suspense thriller or rather a supernatural stalker-thriller, as Salvaje shows up in the territory looking for his boy, leaving a trail of dead bodies in his wake, even as Varner is trying to build a home with Sara, the boy and his friend, Ned (Russell Thorson), in his ranch. A silent romance starts developing between Varner and Sara, even as the deadly specter of the savage Indian warrior that they had miraculously escaped from in Arizona finally descends upon them. Nick returns to Varner’s cabin to warn him of Salvaje’s arrival, and stays on to help Varner and Ned in combating him. The last 40 minutes of the film is a slow-burn, as suspense builds and builds, inside and outside Varner’s cabin, as Salvaje lays siege on Varner’s ranch. We never get to see Salvaje properly, (he’s too fast for even the camera to pickup), and is shot either in darkness or in long shots, making him less of a character, more of a supernatural force stalking Varner and his family. The big bear-skin poncho he wears and his face covered in paint makes it appear he’s part of the nature itself. The fact that the antagonist is more resourceful, cunning and physically adept than the hero allows the suspense to be ratcheted up to unbearable levels, which in any other film would have been tame because we know that at the end the hero will beat the villain. As hours tick by and the body-count on the ranch mounts, Peck’s Varner stands strong, and as expected, manages to triumph the almost-superhuman enemy; in a climax that’s fully worthy of the great build-up that precedes it; the tension that has been slowly accumulating for almost 110 minute running time of the film has a spectacular release. Though bloodied and bruised and having sacrificed his near and dear ones in the near-apocalyptic fight, Varner returns to his ranch, where Sara is waiting for him, to begin his life anew; Fred Karlin’s score once again transforms from the ominous to the rousing, and the film ends on a high note.
“The Stalking Moon” can be considered a spiritual sequel to John Ford’s “The Searchers“. We see at the end of that film: Ethan Edwards bringing Debbie back home. What if “Scar” is not dead?. What if Debbie is with his child?, and Scar returned to get her and his child back?. If one makes a film on that story, then it would be this film. though this is not as epic in scope and scale as that John Ford masterpiece, it is every bit as socially conscious, detailing the struggles of both white and red men in reconciling themselves to a life in the aftermath of the defeat of the “Indian Nations” and unification of America from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Though the lead protagonist here is not as virulently racist and violently aggressive as Ethan Edwards, he’s still representative of an American nation at war with the natives; Gregory Peck is every bit the heroic American as John Wayne, but his screen image is much more gentler than Wayne’s and it suits this film perfectly. Though Sam Varner is shown as a noble hero, who is morally strong, decent, dignified, stoic and resourceful as every other Gregory peck hero- he could very well be “Atticus Finch on horseback”, the man who fights for racial tolerance and to protect his family, Varner has the record of hunting down Apaches for almost 15 years, and i don’t think he achieved all his victories as bloodlessly as seen at the beginning of this film. He is a paragon of virtues within the context of this film; as i said, this film begins where every other Western seems to end, and hence we may consider him the all-virtuous hero, but history tells otherwise. In that regard Sam Varner is “Uncle Sam” who has been involved in a war with the “Indian Nations” for several years. Now that the wars have come to an end, it believes that it can comfortably settle down into being a unified nation; Varner’s adoption of the multi-ethnic family- a white woman raised among Apaches and her half-breed boy- and his desire to settle down into domesticity as a rancher is a signifier to that, but it’s not that easy, there’s blood-debt to be paid: for all the native tribes who have been exterminated in this westward expansion. They come collecting in the form of Salvaje; you see why he’s presented in the film more as a “concept” rather than a “character”, as he represents the spiritual force of all the native tribesmen whose lives were extinguished in the wars. We also see the confusion inherent in the two half-breed characters, Nick and Sara’s boy; while Varner has turned Nick into his own image, and trained him to hunt down the Natives (and for that he seems to harbor some sort of deep-seated resentment towards him even as his love for him is very palpable); Sarah’s boy wavers between his father and mother; he refuses to warm up to his adopted father, Varner, and he does his best to run away to his real father, Salvaje, in his desire to shed his white identity and to be one with his Native spirit, while his “white” mother holds on to him at any cost, even though it appears that the boy may not be suitable for the “white” society and is better off with his father. In the end, Varner, like America, emerges victorious in their battles against the native force, but is bloodied and bruised, and have to sacrifice a lot of good men in this process.
Gregory Peck is obviously the heart and soul of this film. He gives an emotionally rich performance, even as he effortlessly embodies the All-American virtues of the character with his towering persona. He has been making Westerns for a long time by then, which started off most uncharacteristically with the anti-hero role in David Selznick’s overheated “lust in the Dust” Western, Duel in the Sun(1946), and included highly regarded works like “The Gunfighter” and “The Bravados“. He is also very good at some understated humor, especially in the scenes with Nick, and later with Sarah and the boy. The first dinner scene at Varner’s cabin, after Sara has cleaned up the place and cooked for the first time is a real delight. Both Sara and the boy have been used to doing what they are told to do, so Varner has to prompt them to sit with him, eat with him and even talk with him. It’s the kind of subtle humor Peck does very well. Robert Forster as Nick is a problematic casting, not because he’s playing a half-breed – it was par for the course for the time when white actors played natives -but because he seems to be struggling with his accent, his body language and his thick makeup. Also, the character is not well fleshed out, falling somewhere between a real character and a ‘symbol” like Salvaje. Eva Marie Saint is a great actress, and she does well with the role, though at times she too seems to be struggling with her broken English, but she makes the “silences” work superbly, as does Noland Clay, who plays Sarah’s boy. He is really good in a role where he does not speak a single word, but his silences, his awkward body language and his piercing looks convey a hell of a lot. This is perfectly in sync with this great film which is spare, lean, refined and for the most part silent.