The Bravados(1958), starring Gregory Peck and Directed by Henry King, is an intense, brooding Western that finds Peck taking revenge against the outlaws who killed his wife.
When one thinks of the great actor-director combos from the golden age of Hollywood, the names that come immediately to mind would be John Wayne and John Ford, or Humphrey Bogart and John Huston or even Joseph Von Sternberg and Marlene Dietrich. The duo of Gregory Peck and Henry King might hardly make the cut; mainly because King was never as famous as Ford, Huston or Sternberg- all mavericks who put their stamp on the movies they made, as opposed to King, who’s considered a studio ‘journeyman’ director. But that’s a pity really, because King, who started out in silent cinema, was one of the founding members of the AMPAS, and was twice nominated for best director, apart from directing seven movies that were nominated for best pictures. He had a sprawling career starting from 1915 and ending in 1962 in which he made more than hundred films; and films in every genre, as the Studio professionals were required to during the golden age of Hollywood. Peck and King were brought together by the studio, Twentieth Century-Fox, to whom both of them were then contracted to, and they would make six films together. Peck is famous for playing the noble, stoic American hero in his films, and what’s special about the films he made with King is that even as these films cast Peck in the traditional heroic roles, it also closely examined and subtly deconstructed his heroism; which is why I consider this duo to be a formidable actor-director duo. King had already established a strong collaboration with the Fox superstar, Tyrone Power, with whom he made nine movies, all regular Power swashbucklers like “Captain from Castile”, and “The Prince of Foxes”. King didn’t do any great experimentation with Power’s screen persona, especially since Power was a much inferior performer than Peck; which explains why Power is one of those golden age stars who has zero relevance today- either among the movie intelligentsia or in pop culture. But with Peck, King’s approach was different. Starting with the WWII drama, Twelve O’clock High(1949), for which Peck received an academy award nomination, the two would make The Gunfighter (1950), David and Bathsheba (1952), The Snows of Kilimanjaro (1952), The Bravados (1958), and Beloved Infidel (1959); films that pushed the envelope when it comes to Peck’s characterizations even as it fits perfectly into studio’s wishes for a mainstream commercial product. In The Gunfighter (1950), probably their greatest collaboration, Peck (then 34) played the legendary, now over-the-hill gunfighter Jimmy Ringo who wants to quit his ugly profession, but is forced to carry his legendary reputation as an albatross around his neck; what with every young punk in every town trying to take a shot at him to prove their worth. He then played the morally compromised King David in the highly successful biblical epic, David and Bathsheba; The heroic David who slayed the giant, Goliath, invites the wrath of god after he lusts for, and later marries the wife of one of his soldiers. Peck and King’s final collaboration was “Beloved Infidel” in which Peck played the tragic F. Scott Fitzgerald. The 1958 Western, The Bravados, is perhaps the most interesting and darkest of their collaborations; and just as no Western is free from the influences of John Ford, nether is this film. If “The Gunfighter” proved surprisingly prescient in foretelling Ford’s “The Man who shot Liberty Valance”, then The Bravados is very much influenced by Ford’s masterpiece, “The Searchers(1956),” as well as the great psychological westerns of Anthony Mann like “The Naked Spur” and “Man of the West”. Like John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards in that film, who obsessively pursues a group of Comanche who raped and murdered his beloved, here, Peck plays rancher, Jim Douglass, who sets out o take revenge against four outlaws who raped and murdered his wife. The film has the same dark, moody atmosphere of “The Searchers” (maybe not its scope) and just like Wayne, Peck’s character also gets corrupted in his blind pursuit of vengeance. King also employs Anthony Mann’s regular screenwriter, Philip Yordan, to adapt the screenplay from Frank O’Rourke’s original novel. Several of O’Rourke’s novels have been turned into movies, the famous one being A Mule for the Marquesa that was made into a popular movie named The Professionals (1966) by director Richard Brooks. As in that movie, this film too features a “twist” ending.
Jim Douglass is a rancher leading a quite, happy life with his wife and daughter. One day, after returning home from tending cattle, Douglass finds his home ransacked, his money stolen and his wife brutally raped and murdered. John Butler (Gene Evans), a prospector and Douglass’ neighbor, is the sole witness to the incident and he convinces Douglass that the dastardly deed was committed by an outlaw gang of four: two whites, one half-breed and an Indian. Burning with desire for Vengeance and filled with hate, Douglass leaves his daughter with a Mexican help and sets out to track down the four culprits. He chases them for almost six months, when finally he comes to know that the four have been arrested – for some other crime- and imprisoned in the town of Rio Arriba, where they are to be hanged to death. Though happy that the government is carrying out his vengeance for him, he’s disappointed that he couldn’t kill the culprits himself. He rides to Rio Arriba to witness the hanging. It is at this point in the story that the film begins: the opening shot is the classic “Western” image of a lone, mysterious stranger riding into town; but unlike the usual heroic introduction scenes where we see the rider in bright sunlight riding through a desert wilderness, here, the loner is pictured as a dark silhouette against the darkness just prior to daybreak, and as the credits roll, and the sunlight starts blazing down, we see the tall figure of Gregory Peck’s Jim Douglass riding through a parched, craggy, treacherous, mountain terrain, with its sharp edges practically jutting into the frame and into the eyes of the viewer; the landscape perfectly expressing the hardened mindset of Douglass, which is also mirrored in his appearance: He is wearing a black hat, dark gray clothes and a hardened expression on his face. Alfred Newman’s powerful score pounds away on the soundtrack; as opposed to rousing, the score is angry, violent and hard, showing the determination of the protagonist. This expressionist use of landscape, costumes and music will be seen throughout the film, especially the usage of blue filters for the (day for) night sequences by the great Fox cinematographer Leon Shamroy giving the film a cold, steely edge that matches Peck’s brilliantly laconic performance. This film may lack the scope of “The Searchers”, but the film is every bit a visual treat as Ford’s classic, with Shamroy using splendid use of several of the beautiful Mexican locations for his “DeLuxe” color photography. By the way, this kind of visual ostentatiousness is a change for director King, whose films has not been so visually dynamic in the past; though he has directed huge spectacles with Tyrone Power, as it was with the Studio directors of yore, he was a proponent of “invisible” style, who liked to keep the camera movements and other visual pyrotechnics to the minimum, and concentrates on telling a good story in a straightforward manner. This change in his filmmaking style is definitely influenced by the times as well as by the works of directors like Mann and Ford.
Douglass is stopped just outside of the town by the deputy Sheriff, who takes his guns and escorts him to town; an added security measure implemented by the town sheriff, Eloy Sanchez (Herbert Rudley) since the very next day is the hanging of the four outlaws and he doesn’t want any disturbance. The people in the town are really on the edge and the presence of this mysterious stranger disturbs them even further, especially since the laconic Douglass volunteers very little information about who he is, and what’s the purpose of his visit. Douglass requests an audience with the outlaws and sheriff allows him to do that. Douglass is led into the prison cell holding the men, and he comes face to face with the four whom he believes killed his wife. Douglass looks at them with hate-filled eyes and thy look back perplexed- since they have not seen each other before. The condemned men are a mix of contrasts; the filmmakers manage a fair bit of characterization within the limited amount of screen-time available to distinguish one from the other which will be important as the film progresses. The leader, and the most cunning of the gang is Bill Zachary (Stephen Boyd), a lecherous womanizer- and as his past (and future) actions will confirm he could very well have led the assault on Douglass’ wife. Next is Ed Taylor (Albert Salmi): more grounded, laconic and is the best shot of the bunch. Alfonso Parral, the half-Indian (Lee Van Cleef), is the most temperamental, whereas the Mexican Indian, Lujan (Henry Silva) is the most composed and thoughtful of the violent gang. Lujan is skilled in the ways of the open range and seems to harbor a veiled contempt for his companions. All of them seem to be waiting for someone to arrive and save them before the hanging; and he comes in the form of (most ironically) “The executioner”, Simms, played by none other than Joe DeRita of the “Three Stooges” fame. When one of the stooges arrive as the executioner, you know some mischief is up, especially when he’s least interested in meeting the prisoners and appears more interested in his drinks and his cigars. Obviously, he’s an imposter and an ally of the foursome who has come to save them; his eccentricities are just a ruse to kill time; He’s just waiting for everyone in town to congregate in the church for the special service, so that he gets a free ride to release the prisoners and clear out of town. And that’s exactly what happens: once everyone in town – including Douglass- is in the church, Simms demands to see the prisoners, and while in the cell, he stabs the Sheriff from the back, Sheriff manages to fire one shot which kills Simms, but the sheriff passes out from the wound; the foursome manage to grab the keys and escape; not only that, they manage to take a young woman in town, Emma(Kathleen Gallant) as a hostage. Emma is the daughter of the town’s dry goods store owner Gus Steinmetz, who immediately assembles a posse- led by the Deputy Sheriff- to pursue the convicts and save his daughter, but Douglass, who’s now quite an expert at tracking the foursome realizes that chasing after them in the night is foolish, as one of them can take the high ground at “the pass” and gun down anyone coming after them. This is exactly what happens, and as Douglass rides into the pass the next morning, the posse is still carrying away bodies of their members killed or wounded by Ed Taylor who is shooting down anyone trying to get through the pass. This goes on for the whole day, and Douglass waits in the shadows, by nightfall Taylor has retreated to join up with the other three, and the posse picks up the chase, only this time with the experienced hunter Douglass as their “de facto” leader.
(Major spoilers and plot twists ahead, if you have not seen the film or are those whose film watching is spoiled by the knowledge of plot twists, then skip to End of Spoilers)
This is the opportunity that Douglass has been waiting for all these months and he intends to make full use of it. He splits up the posse, and rides out ahead to track down the convicts all by himself; making sure that nobody is going to disturb his mission. The outlaws themselves makes things easy for him by setting themselves up one by one for his convenience. The outlaws correctly figure out that Douglass is their biggest threat, and taking him out will neutralize the posse. So they first charges Parral to kill Douglass, but the jittery Parral is no match for Douglass, who easily overpowers Parral and delivers comeuppance by turning judge, jury and executioner. Before he kills Parral he takes out his pocket-watch which has the picture of his wife and child, and asks Parral to identify them; Parral swears ignorance and innocence in the matter of Douglass’ wife’s death, claiming that he has done some terrible things in his life, but never rape or murder, as he himself has a wife and child. But Douglass is so far gone beyond in his obsession that all of Parral’s protestations falls on deaf years, and Douglass cold-bloodedly shoots him down. The killing of Parral takes place in a wide open space covered by tall grass, the geography is going to change radically when Douglass kills Taylor- who’s next to volunteer for the “Kill Douglass” mission. It’s dark, thick forest all around when Taylor ambushes Douglass, but again Douglass manages to overpower his opponent; in the most excitingly shot action sequence in the film that also showcases Peck’s exquisite horsemanship, Douglass chases down Tylor on horseback, ropes and later hangs him. He leaves the corpse for the rest of the posse to find as he continues on his mission that will take him through gorges, waterfalls, steep mountain ranges and finally into the desert, as he relentlessly pursues Zachary and Lujan. Finally, the outlaws gets close to Douglass’ ranch and holes up at his neighbor, Butler’s place, where Zachary rapes Emma and kills Butler. Lujan steals a sack of gold coins found in Butler’s possession. The outlaws then cross over into Mexico where the posse does not have a legal right to follow, but Douglass is undeterred as he goes on alone and confronts Zachary in a Mexican cantina, where he’s seen making moves on a senorita. Douglass follows the same routine he did with Parral, he takes out his pocket-watch and asks Zachary to identify the women in the picture, and like Parral, he too claims ignorance, and he too is shot down by Douglass. Lujan, who was witnessing all this, gets on his horse and makes a run for his life, with Douglass in hot pursuit. Finally, Lujan reaches his home and hands over the sack of gold to his wife, but his escape is thwarted when he comes to know that his child is gravely ill. By the time he tends to his sick child, Douglass is already there. But before Douglass could take a shot, he is knocked out by Lujan’s wife. When Douglass regains consciousness he finds Lujan sitting in front of him with his gun in his hand. Lujan patiently explains to him that the foursome has never been to Douglass’ ranch and they did not ransack his house or murder his wife; all they did was pass through the place six months ago. When Douglass points to the sack of gold which was actually the one that was stolen from his house and now is in Lujan’s possession, Lujan explains how it was originally with Butler and he had stolen it from him just the other day. Now things are clear to Douglass; the adage, “the Butler did it” was never more apt to describe the whole situation, and that Douglass was pursuing and ruthlessly killing men who were innocent of the crime. This major plot twist that messes up the moral center of the hero elevates, or separates the film from other traditional Westerns of the period. Filled with shame and remorse on his actions, Douglass return to Rio Arriba, where he’s given a hero’s welcome, but he has other plans, as he walks into church and confesses his sins.
(End of Spoilers)
Contrary to many adult-Westerns of the period, Religion plays a very important role in the film, to the point that one could call this a “Catholic Western”. There are Christian symbolism scattered throughout the film, no doubt, influenced by the extraordinary success of the religious\biblical epics of the period. Twentieth Century-Fox themselves were at the forefront with films like “The Robe”, “Demetrius and Gladiators” and of course, “David and Bathsheba”. Douglass’ revenge is throughout contrasted with religious piety, represented mainly by the gigantic church in the middle of Rio Arriba, it’s far too big a church for a small town like Rio Arriba, it’s less a church, more a cathedral, with its interiors and décor rivaling St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York. The service that takes pace in the church is so elaborate, with dozens of choir boys and all that it could very well be taking place in the Vatican. When Douglass first arrives in Arriba he runs into his old-flame Josepha (Joan Collins making the most unconvincing Mexican senorita), who exhorts him to accompany her to the church service, he first demurs, but later he has a change of heart and attends the service at her side. The ‘Padre'(Andrew Duggan) is the only one in town who knows Douglass’ history and why he’s in town. His words about forgiveness etc. makes Douglass extremely uncomfortable even as he continues to stare at the statue of the “Madonna”; the image of Virgin Mary holding her child brings back memories of his wife and child, and later, we see the picture in Douglass’ pocket-watch of his dead wife holding his child that’s almost the replica of the “Madonna”. This must have been a big influence on Sergio Leone who transports much of these themes and characters wholesale for his second Spaghetti Western, For a few Dollars More(1965)– The casting of Lee Van Cleef as well as the character of the avenging angel played by him is named “Douglas Mortimer”; also, a lilting Ennio Morricone tune is added to the pocket-watch that he carries around which has the picture of his sister, who was brutally raped and murdered by the main villain. Another religious contrast is provided in the same church-service sequence, when it is interrupted by a wounded Sheriff screaming for help after the convicts had escaped. The service is held as a sort of ritualistic penance by the townsfolk before the hanging of the foursome, but the moment they realize that the convicts have escaped, the service is abandoned and the townsfolk become a lynch-mob out to kill the convicts, showing how hollow their religious beliefs are. In a similar instance, Josepha first requests Douglass to let go off his vengeance, but when she later finds Emma brutally raped by Zachary, she exhorts Douglass to kill the outlaws at any cost. These contradictory moral impulses are something that has inflicted the film as well; on one hand it wants to be an exciting traditional Western adventure where the morally upright hero take down the bad guys; hence, Douglass’ roaring rampage of revenge takes over the majority of the film’s running time, but perhaps the filmmakers also wanted to appease the Production code, the Catholic Legion of Decency, a newly evolved public hungry for religious epics, and a more sophisticated adult audience that emerged in the postwar period that demanded more than the old-fashioned thrills and spills. hence the off-beat final denouncement, despite the fact that every convict murdered by Douglass is painted in the most vicious and repulsive colors, and the one, Lujan, who is let go by him is shown to be an innocent family man(even though he didn’t stop Zachary from committing his heinous crimes). Thus like Peck’s other great Western, The Big Country, released the same year (about which i wrote here), the makers get to keep their cake and eat it too. In the end, when Peck returns to Arriba, he goes straight to church to confess; though his sin is only “doing the right thing”, but “with wrong intentions” he wants forgiveness for appropriating the lord’s business, and becoming judge, jury and executioner himself. The Padre who’s sympathetic to his cause appreciates him for not making excuses like the men he killed were all bad. When he emerges from the church a reformed man, he is greeted by Josepha and his little daughter, his family is complete again. The town sheriff uses some biblical terms to express the town’s gratitude for the man who came to their rescue:
“Ladies and gentlemen, there’s no need for me to tell you – the emergency arose and the man appeared. Mr. Douglass, it’s not often a man gets to do so much for his neighbors and do it like you did. We want you to know we’ll always be grateful… and in our hearts always.“
Douglass poignantly retorts: “Thank you… and in your prayers, please.“
This is a role that’s right up Gregory Peck’s street and he is magnificent in it; his suppressed rage, his sudden outbursts of violence that borders on psychosis; and his final “revelation” moment when he realizes the truth are all brilliantly rendered. The character has shades of his previous turns like the obsessed Captain Ahab from “Moby Dick”, as well as the amoral anti-hero in “Duel in the Sun”; the film foreshadows his future films like the even more brilliant and atmospheric, The Stalking Moon(reviewed here). The strong supporting cast consists of Stephen Boyd- a year before his scenery chewing villain Messala in Ben-Hur- who provides the adequate menace to the despicable Zachary; and Lee Van Cleef – seven years before For a few Dollars more- providing a nervous energy to the cowardly Parral. The surprise packet of the film is Henry Silva, who gives a very mature and controlled performance as Lujan. he’s really good in the final scenes with Peck, which he plays with a calm authority. On the basis of “The Gunfighter” and this film, it’s surprising that King didn’t make many Westerns in his career, he’s really good with the genre, in both sticking to its tropes as well as twisting it if need be. He was widely regarded as a director whose strength was adapting good novels; his last two movies has a F. Scott Fitzgerald connection- his penultimate film was a “Beloved Infidel” and his final film was an adaptation of Fitzgerald’s “Tender is the night”. King passed away in 1982, dying of a heart attack at the age of 96.