One-Eyed Jacks: The only film directed by Marlon Brando is one of the greatest and most original Westerns ever made

One-Eyed Jacks (1961) is the only film directed by acting legend, Marlon Brando. The film is a one-of-a-kind Western that mixes the glossy production values of old-Hollywood with the emotional values of an emerging new-Hollywood, with its complex plot and morally ambiguous protagonists.

“one may smile, and smile, and be a villain”

from William Shakespeare’s play “Hamlet”

Marlon Brando smiles a lot in “One-Eyed Jacks”; in fact, i think this is the most i have ever see him smiling in a film. Usually, Brando plays such sullen, troubled, complex characters that he hardly smiles- there have been movies where Brando doesn’t smile at all. So this aspect of his performance was the most striking part of this film or me; that, and the fact that the film is directed by Marlon Brando himself- the only film he ever directed. And like the original, one-of-a-kind actor that he was, the only film he directed is also quite unique in the annals of cinema. One-Eyed Jacks can be broadly categorized as a ‘Revenge-Western,’ but like his performances, Brando brings a keen sense of detailing, psychological depth and a stylized realism to this genre piece. It’s unlike any Western that came before it, and it has influenced several that came after it, but none that equals its mesmerizing combination of visual resplendence and dark, brooding storytelling. No wonder that the film’s biggest fans include movie maestros like Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese: both of them were instrumental in creating a newly restored print of the film in collaboration with Criterion and Universal Pictures, and thus saving the film for the future generations; the film had long existed only in badly worn bootleg versions after its copyright had expired. So now we can enjoy Brando’s acting and directorial genius in all its pristine glory. One may have heard several stories about Brando deriding, both, the craft of acting and the art of cinema. But there was a time when Brando was passionate about both- to the extend that he launched his own production company- Pennebaker, Inc. (named after his mother)- in 1955 to make movies that he believed in. One-Eyed Jacks was his maiden production, and it was a labor of love for him. He took no fees for it, only a percentage of the profits (and hence never made a penny from the film) and invested six years of his life bringing it to the screen. The film that was to be an adaptation of The Authentic Death of Hendry Jones, Charles Neider’s novel about Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, went through several screenwriters like Guy Trosper, Calder Willingham, and then up & coming TV writer named Sam Peckinpah. But it is believed that Brando himself wrote the final shooting script- constantly improvising scenes and dialogues with his actors while filming. (On a side note: Sam Peckinpah would later use ideas from this script for his own take on the story in the 1973 Western, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid). Brando had not intended to direct this film- his initial choice was another up & coming director named Stanley Kubrick who had just broken out with films like “The Killing” and “Paths of Glory.” But after working on the film for six months, Kubrick left- citing creative differences- to take up Kirk Douglas’ “Spartacus (1961).” That’s when Brando decided to direct the film himself, even though people close to him believe that that’s what he intended to do all along.

One-Eyed Jacks began shooting in late 1958, with Brando planning to complete the film in 3 months and at a cost of $2 million. Brando’s inexperience behind the camera was obvious from day one- when he started framing shots by looking through the wrong end of the ‘viewfinder’. Brando, who was notoriously indecisive and had no clear idea what he wanted to achieve with the film, shot multiple takes of each scene from multiple angles, believing that he could shape the film to his satisfaction on the editing table. This meant that that film soon ran over-budget and over-schedule. Ultimately, Brando shot almost a million feet of film, with the film taking 6 months to complete and costing a staggering $6 million. Actor Karl Malden, who had a stop date in his contract beyond which he had to be paid a massive overage, ended up earning more in overtime than his actual salary. With the money he earned from the film, he bought a beautiful home in Los Angeles, which Brando jokingly referred to as “The House That Jacks Built.” But even after the principal photography had finished in mid 1959, the film was still very far from being ready for release. Brando toiled in the editing room for more than a year before he emerged with his first cut, which was more than five hours long. Of course no studio will release a film of that length, which meant further edits. Finally, Brando became ‘sick’ of the whole thing, and he did not object when the studio, fed up with the delays and escalating cost, took it away from him and recut it to 141 minutes and released it in 1961. Brando did complain later that the studio cut took away the moral ambiguity he sought for his characters: He had intended the film to be an assault on the ‘citadel of clichés’ that populated the Westerns of the time, and he had designed every character to be two-faced- the public face, and another face that is hidden- befitting the title. But in the resultant film, the moniker suited only Malden’s character. This is ironic because Brando intended Malden’s ‘villain’ to be the only one who speaks the truth throughout the film, the rest of them, including the hero and heroine, were liars. The film made money at the box office, but due to its huge budget, it was deemed a financial failure. Brando was more hurt by the artistic failure of the film. Any hopes he had that cinema could be art was dashed by this experience. Disillusioned by the whole process, he never directed another film.

One-Eyed Jacks opens in Sonora, Mexico in 1880, where Kid Rio (Brando) and his pals, Dad Longworth (Karl Malden) and Doc (Hank Worden) are seen robbing a bank. The opening is truly unique and must have served as inspirations for several quirky opening scenes in Sergio Leone films: after a lengthy, unbroken panning shot displaying the credits, where the camera moves across a wall on which props like rifles, saddles and hats are kept, the camera zooms in on Brando’s Kid sitting on a counter and eating bananas. He mischievously throws the banana peels onto a weighing scale, and as the camera pans out we realize that he’s sitting on the counter of a bank, and his pals are busy mopping up the gold from the safe, while the customers are held hostage. And as the robbers are about to leave, Rio notices that one of the female customers is trying to hide her wedding ring from him. Rio quickly pounces on her and steals the ring. This is also the first time in the film that he flashes (and flashes wide) that mischievous grin of his. We soon realizes that Rio is sort of a cultured bandit: while Dad and Doc are happy carousing in the local brothel, Kid is seen seducing an aristocratic young lady, and that too using his most “precious” possession, his mother’s ring; only the ‘Mother’s ring’ is nothing more than the ring he stole at the bank- thereby establishing him as a cad as well. The Mexican police, who have been trailing the threesome, catches up with them at their lovemaking, but Rio and Dad fight their way out to the desert, while poor Doc is killed. But before he escapes, Kid removes the ring (that he had just gifted) from the Mexican senorita’s fingers, and that too rather roughly. So within the first ten minutes, Brando has pretty much destroyed the image of the conventional Western hero. But then he (that’s both Kid and director Brando) springs a surprise: the mounted police manages to trap Kid and Dad in the hills with one of their horses shot; which means that one will have to leave the other at the mercy of the ‘Federales’ to go fetch fresh horses. Rio nobly rigs the ‘roll of dice’ (or rather ‘which hand holds the bullet’ test) in favor of Dad, so that Dad is one who gets to leave. Dad promises to return with a fresh horse, but, tempted by two sacks of gold, he never come back. Kid is captured by the police, and he spends five torturous years in the Sonora prison. He finally manages to break out with the help of his Mexican friend Chico Modesto (Larry Duran). The embittered Rio is now a man bent on revenge. In one Cantina he runs into outlaws, Bob Amory (Ben Johnson) and Harvey Johnson (Sam Gilman), who tells him that Dad is now the sheriff of Monterey, and has taken himself a Mexican wife with a teen-age daughter. Kid, Bob, Harvey and Chico sets forth for Monterey. While all four are going there to rob a bank, Kid wants the additional satisfaction of killing Dad and extracting revenge.

After casing the bank in Monterey, Kid leaves alone to visit Dad at his home. On reaching Dad’s home on the coast, Kid is surprised to find a guilt-ridden Dad who seems to be expecting him. As they strike up a tense conversation, Dad lies to him that he couldn’t find any horses and that’s why he didn’t come back to get the Kid on the Mexican hills. Dad also looks willing to shoot it out with Kid if the latter wants to settle scores. But Kid has other ideas: he also lies to Dad that the Federales never caught him, and that he was living it up for the last five years, and has now come only to pay a friendly visit. Dad is overjoyed to see there is no animosity in Kid, and he presents his family- his wife, Maria (Katy Jurado) and stepdaughter Louisa (Pina Pellicer), and invites Kid to stay for supper. Dad also insists that Kid stay in town for the fiesta next day- to which Kid agrees. After returning from meeting Dad, Kid assures his restless comrades of his intention not only to rob the bank after the fiesta, but also to kill the sheriff. Obviously, Dad is not completely convinced about Kid’s intentions and becomes uneasy when Kid and his step-daughter show a romantic interest in one another. Dad wants Kid to leave town as soon as possible, and though there’s lot of drinking, hugging and smiling during the fiesta, Dad keeps a close eye on Kid; that’s until Dad gets drunk and totally loses himself in the revelry, and forgets about Kid and his stepdaughter. This is when Kid seizes the moment- he steals away with Louisa to the beach, where he seduces the virginal Louisa and steals her virtue. But by the next morning he’s remorseful, and confesses to Louisa that his act of lovemaking was intended to shame her. He also tells her about his and Dad’s past life and how he’s out for revenge. Later that morning, in a saloon, Kid confronts, and then kills (in defense) a drunk mistreating one of the house girls. Realizing that Kid is determined to stir up trouble in town, and having got an inkling as to what transpired between Louisa and Kid the previous night, an enraged Dad takes Kid into the street and arrests him with the help of his deputies. Going further, Dad ties Kid to a horse rail, flogs him with a whip, smashes his right hand with a rifle butt, puts him on his horse and drives him out of town.

Kid retreats to a small fishing village on the coast with his partners and nurses himself back to health. Louisa, who’s now pregnant with Kid’s child, visits him at his place. But seeing Kid’s blind hatred for her stepfather, she leaves without mentioning she is expecting his baby. After her departure, Kid struggles with his conflicting desires to love the girl and to get revenge on her stepfather. But still, for over a period of six weeks, Kid practices with his gun in an intent to regain the use of his hand. Fed up of waiting for Kid to recover, Bob and Harvey grow impatient, and decide to make their own move. But the resulting bank robbery goes terribly wrong when a child gets killed in the crossfire. Now Dad finds himself at the head of a lynch mob as he goes to arrest Kid. Ironically, Kid, by this time, has lost interest in pursuing his revenge- he decides to take Louisa and leave for Oregon. That’s when Dad and his men pounces on him, and imprisons him. Dad, though sure of Kid’s innocence in the bank robbery, still insists on hanging him to absolve himself once and for all for betraying the Kid five years ago. From here on, director Brando meticulously builds up the action towards an explosive climax in which Kid will extract his long-delayed vengeance. This may sound like a typical ‘Western’ ending for a rather offbeat Western, but this was an ending forced on Brando by the studio, who wanted something close to a traditional Western. Brando himself was unsure as to how the film would end, and shot multiple endings in which either he, or Dad, or Louisa, or Dad & Louisa would die. This was far from the optimistic ending that the studio used- where Kid and Louisa have an emotional parting at the beach, and Kid promises to return to her. This does not make much sense in the overall scheme of things, because now Kid is a wanted man on both sides of the border, and is going to be hunted for the rest of his life.

Brando literally leads from the front as actor and director- the film looks like the ultimate personal expression of Brando, the actor and man. He summons all his strengths as a performer in full force to put across this very unconventional Western hero, thus elevating the film to the level of mythopoetic.. The tightly-coiled, simmering range, ambivalent attitude, and emotional eclecticism are all put to good use here. The character covers a wide range of emotions- from being tough, cunning, vicious, violent and athletic to being masochistic, romantic, soft-spoken, inert and sentimental- sometimes all this in the space of a single scene. And there is that too gorgeous and too overwhelming physical presence. This was a time when he was still young, fit and trim, and his charisma, his almost poetic body movements and screen presence is truly electrifying. The performance he delivers in the film is far superior to what actors in Westerns of the time where coming up with. He plunges deeply into the dark psyche of the character and generates such powerful intensity that it truly scorches the screen- those eyes are like two fireballs ever ready to set the screen on fire. Though Kid Rio is a unusual hero for a Western, he’s quite the typical Brando hero. We can find elements of ‘Johnny Stabler’ from “The Wild One” and ‘Zapata’ from “Viva Zapata” in this role. Like Johnny, Kid Rio is an anarchist (riding horses instead of bikes), but who emerges morally superior to the townsfolk and their trusted sheriff he’s hounding. Now coming back to Brando’s smile and the relevance of the quote from “Hamlet”: where Hamlet is, of course, referring to his stepfather Claudius. His stepfather has murdered Hamlet’s father, the King, and taken the throne. Hamlet is saying here that Claudius, who is gregarious and smiling, not to mention seemingly earnest in seeking his new stepson’s approval, is a villain. Brando was a great admirer of William Shakespeare. Brando, who was notorious for never memorizing his lines while acting, could recite several of Bard’s lengthy monologues and poems from memory. But in his lengthy acting career that spanned almost 60 years, Brando has done Shakespeare only once: it was playing Mark Anthony in Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s 1953 adaptation of “Julius Caesar.” He never played any of Shakespeare’s iconic characters on stage, even though none other than Sir Laurence Olivier had invited him to do so.

There has been Shakespearean undertones to several of Brando’s roles, but the biggest Shakespearean influence seems to be on One-Eyed Jacks. “Kid” Rio is basically ‘Hamlet’ as a cowboy bandido: who delays his vengeance against his father figure, appropriately named “Dad”, who has betrayed him and created a little empire of his own- much like Claudius. While Hamlet feigns madness to distract Claudius, Kid creates an elaborate web of lies regarding his past life to put Dad at ease. One can also notice a parallel between the lovers Hamlet & Ophelia and Kid & Louisa- first passionate courtship, and then brutal betrayal of that love in service of the protagonist’s vengeance. But unlike Hamlet, Kid almost gives up his quest for vengeance, and, also unlike Hamlet, both Kid and Dad uses their smile as their chief weapon of deception. One could say Kid uses it more than Dad, and here, it’s this feigning of ‘extra friendliness’ that stands in for Hamlet’s madness. The oedipal undertones that permeated ‘Hamlet’ is much more pronounced here- starting with the name of the protagonists; also the fact that it’s his ‘father figure’ Dad’s daughter- which metaphorically makes her his sister- that Kid seduces and abandons. So Brando is effectively borrowing elements from two of the greatest tragedies in literature for his opus, and you realize why only a tragic ending would have been the only truthful denouement to the film. In real life, Brando had a troubled relationship with his father; he called his father the man he hates the most in the world, and someone he would like to kill- for mistreating him and his mother. But he also hired his father to run his production company, and stuck with him even when he ran all of Brando’s businesses to the ground. So, in the complex love-hate relationship between Kid and Dad, one can find a strong personal connection for Brando. The personal connection is also extended to the portrayal of ‘race’ in the film: The Mexicans and Chinese get sympathetic treatment- they are the true friends of “Kid” Rio, while the White Americans are the ones who betray him. Brando was a lifelong liberal, who relentlessly fought for the rights of the minorities.

As a director, Brando is meticulous; he never rushes things, and always allows time for the scenes to build organically. He interweaves themes of friendship, betrayal, revenge, romance and hypocrisy into something that’s very fantastical and hypnotic, but also very real. He displays a keen eye for spectacular outdoor cinematography, and an instinctive sense for the visual expression of inner conflicts: the most visually spectacular scene in the film has Brando sitting high up on the ridge on the Monterey coast, with majestic waves lashing behind him, as he reminisces about Louisa; the imagery more than reflecting his inner turmoil; should he choose love or revenge?. As in all Westerns, the terrain itself becomes a character reflecting the inner emotions of the protagonists. The barren, dusty, windswept Mexican landscape sets the stage for the Kid being betrayed and incarcerated- it’s a place which has nothing to offer the Kid except bitterness and disillusionment; while the magnificent Monterey coastline with its menacing waves portrays Kid as a rejuvenated elemental force brimming with vitality who’s unstoppable in his quest. The seaside setting of the second half is truly unique for a Western- i don’t think i have ever seen so much water in a Western before. It’s also another subversion attempted by Brando which goes well with his character. The only fault one can point out regarding Brando’s subversive tactics is that: since this is one of those rare Westerns where it’s more about the waiting rather than about decisive action, this leads to a prolonged spell of dramatic inertia, especially in the second half. it’s one thing to subvert the tropes, but Brando fails to fill up the narrative – in this part of the film- with anything substantial or interesting to replace those tropes that he’s rebelling against. The audiences are made to feels as irritated and restless as Bob and Harvey while waiting on the coast as Kid comes to terms with his physical and emotional wounds. But the brilliant performances of the actors and the visual beauty of the film somehow manages to overpower these weaknesses and keep the proceedings interesting at all times.

And Brando is a great actor’s director- extracting superb performances from every member of the cast. Karl Malden, whose surface friendliness and affability usually concealed either weakness or malice or both, is excellent as the ambitious, determined outlaw, and the volatile, treacherous sheriff. Brando and Malden were lifelong friends and frequent collaborators, and their chemistry together is mesmerizing. Brando filled up the other supporting roles with regular Western players: (Sam Peckinpah regular)Slim Pickens, (John Ford regular)Ben Johnson and Katy Jurado; Johnson, a real life cowboy, is not only superb as the amoral Bob Amory, but also served as a reference for Brando in his own performance. Making her film debut is the wonderful, young Mexican actress Pina Pellicer as Louisa. Pellicer was not a classical beauty, but she gives Louisa, caught between her love for Kid and loyalty to her stepfather, a fragile, tragic quality which is one of the most attractive things about this film. The technical side of the film is also top notch, with Hugo Friedhofer providing a lush, orchestral score, and the great cinematographer Charles Lang (nominated for an Oscar). providing the fantastic visuals of the film. This was the final Paramount Pictures’ film to be released in the ultra-crisp Vistavision process, and the film, being a visually striking Western, benefits immensely from it.

One-Eyed Jacks marked the end of the first (and the most fruitful) stage of Brando’s film career, in which he was not only the most widely acclaimed actor in the world, but also the biggest movie star in the world. The failure of this film would trigger a career slump for Brando that would last an entire decade. His reputation as an actor and movie star would suffer immensely, and by the end of the 60s, he would find himself- in his own words- “all washed-up and unemployable.” It would take Francis Ford Coppola and the massive success of his 1972 gangster classic, “The Godfather” to resurrect Brando’s reputation and stardom.

2 thoughts on “One-Eyed Jacks: The only film directed by Marlon Brando is one of the greatest and most original Westerns ever made

  1. Have now read carefully, your excellent remarks about “One Eyed Jacks”. The fact that the film seemed to have damaged Brando’s career for the 10 years afterward, as you mentioned, seems to me to be more of a failure of audiences to be as smart as Brando, and to appreciate its uniqueness and many remarkable attributes.
    Also, many years ago, Pina Pellicer, as Louise, was as you said a most exquisite foil to the toughness of all the men in the film. Ever since I first saw the film in 1962 in the NZ cinema ( on the big screen of course) I have been fascinated by it and read everything I could find about it. That task became easier once we at last had the internet! Back in the early 1990s I read that Brando had an affair with her, which would probably be true, considering what is known about his attraction to exotic young beauties. However I was SO very sad to realise that a few years after making the film with him, she comitted suicide. Who knows why… or if it had anything to do with Brando and the relationship or not. She seemed to be so very delicate, fragile, in the film, and perhaps that was not acting? Maybe you or some other of your readers know? Thank you again for writing about this amazing film. Of course you have inspired me to find an afternoon, to devote to watching it again! I must be up to about my 15th time! -Cynthia Webb

    Liked by 1 person

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