Garden of Evil: Gary Cooper and Richard Widmark comes to Susan Hayward’s rescue in this lush Western scored by Bernard Herrmann

Garden of Evil (1954), directed by Henry Hathaway and starring Gary Cooper, Richard Widmark and Susan Hayward, is a handsomely mounted character-driven Western that explores the evil effects of gold on men.

if the earth were made of gold, men would die for a handful of dirt.

Another Western that deals with greed, gold lust and macho gringos on a mission south of the border, Director, Henry Hathaway’s “Garden of Evil (1954)”, one of the earliest Technicolor Westerns to be shot in Cinemascope, is another one of those under-seen and underrated star-driven Westerns from the 1950s (the golden decade of the Western genre). Resembling an Anthony Mann Western in its scope – just five\six characters (plus some no-name native tribesmen) in total trying to survive in harsh landscapes far away from civilization – but mounted on a spectacular scale – keeping in with the studio, Twentieth Century-Fox’s then plan to concentrate solely on making widescreen spectacles to lure the audiences away from the TV screens – “Garden of Evil” tells a standard Western tale of American adventurers riding deep into Mexico on what’s essentially a rescue mission. The three Americans, Hooker (Gary Cooper), an Ex-Sheriff; Fiske (Richard Widmark), a gambler; and Daly (Cameron Mitchell), a bounty hunter, were on their way to California gold fields (circa 1850) when their steamship breaks down on the Mexican coast . It will take six weeks to repair the ship, so the Americans are forced to wait out in the Mexican fishing town of ‘San Miguel.’ As the three men are drinking together in a cantina, they are approached by Leah Fuller (Susan Hayward) to assist her in rescuing her husband John Fuller (Hugh Marlowe) who is an engineer exploring a distant gold mine; there was a partial cave-in, and he is trapped under the beams of wood. Leah is willing to pay any man who assists her Two thousand dollars for his help. Since they have nothing to do for the next six weeks, the threesome agrees to help her out , despite the fact that the location of the mine is about three days ride from the town and deep within Apache territory. Seems that the men are driven more by gold lust (what they can take out from the mine) and pure old lust (for the attractive Leah) rather than the two thousand Dollars. A Mexican, Vincente (Victor Manuel Mendoza) also joins the Americans in the mission.

The long journey to the mine takes up most of the film, with its focus on the rivalries, jealousies, and suspicions that arise during this journey. While Vincente is seen making stone-signals on the ground to mark out the path of their journey, Leah takes special care to remove the markings, making sure that the the men will have to rely on her geographical knowledge for getting in & out of the place. Tensions are fuelled further when both Fiske and Daly start putting their moves on Leah. At one point, the hotheaded Daly tries to rape Leah , resulting in a fistfight with Hooker; Hooker easily defeats Daly and exposes him for the coward that he is. The fivesome crosses rivers, mountains, valleys and even a dangerously narrow cliff-hugging path to reach the location of the mine. The place used to be a boom town once but was wiped out by a volcanic eruption. The resident priest called it the ‘garden of evil.’ The Indians now consider the volcano sacred. All through their journey, the men have this feeling that they are being stalked by the natives, but they never come under an attack. When the group arrives at the mine, they discover John unconscious but alive. They work to free him before the ceiling collapses further, then transport him to a nearby cabin where Hooker sets his broken leg. John turns out to be quite hostile to his rescuers and particularly to his wife. He gives a bitter speech denouncing Leah for causing his troubles and accusing the others of conspiring with her. On top of all this, the surrounding mountains are full of hostile Apaches who have staked out the mine for attack. John says they came to look at him when he was trapped, and left him alone only because they couldn’t think of a more horrible way for him to die. Now that he’s been freed, they’re sure to come after him and his rescuers without delay.

Leah is stung by Fuller’s perception of her as a hard-hearted fortune-hunter, and when Hooker reveals that they are being watched by Apaches, she offers to stay behind and light fires as a distraction while the men slip away during the night. Hooker explains that her overwhelming drive for riches has made a coward of her husband, and Fiske accuses her of knowing that none of the men would let her sacrifice herself. With hostile Apaches nearby, the group quickly prepares to leave, but during the return journey, Daly is killed by an arrow in the back. At a burnt-out mission, Leah’s husband is found dead and hung upside down on a cross. Leah, believing that he hated her, weeps. Hooker tries to persuade her that Fuller loved her, and that is why he left their camp rather than endanger her, but she cannot accept his words of comfort.  Vicente falls next, the victim of multiple arrows. At a choke point in the cliff-hugging path, which is the only way out, Hooker and Fiske draw cards to see which of them will stay behind to hold off the Indians while the other rides with Leah to safety. Fiske wins and succeeds in killing or driving off most of their pursuers before he is mortally wounded. After seeing that Leah is safe, Hooker returns to aid a dying Fiske, who admits he cheated on the card draw to guarantee he would stay behind. Fiske urges Hooker to settle down with Leah. Hooker returns to Leah, and they ride off into the sunset.

“Garden of Evil” closes with two classic Western images. In the first, we have Gary Cooper’s lone gunfighter standing on top of a cliff and looking into the horizon illuminated by the setting golden sun; this is where he delivers the film’s best line that’s quoted at the beginning of this piece about man’s greed for gold. In the second, we see the gunfighter riding off into the sunset with his girl. From these images itself it should be clear that this is a visually striking, old-fashioned, traditional Western that’s powered by the beauty of its on-location lensing (the jungles of Acapulco and Parícutin volcano locations are superbly photographed by Cinematographers, Milton R. Krasner and Jorge Stahl, Jr., in gorgeous widescreen technicolor) and the charisma of its stars. Though the film’s basic story has the potential for deeper psychological evaluation of the characters, the half-baked script is content to let the characters remain archetypes and stereotypes, and the plot very much a ‘by the numbers’ affair with very few surprises. On top of that, the actors, especially Cooper and Widmark, are made to deliver some portentous dialogue that may give some indication to the fact that the makers wanted to make a more ambitious Western, but since the characterizations are so watered down that it just comes across as bizarre and unnecessarily pretentious Suffice it to say that this one does not have the style, depth or grittiness of an Anthony Mann or a Budd Boetticher Western, despite the fact that it broadly resembles films like “The Naked Spur,” “Seven Men from Now” and “Comanche Station.” Neither does it have the artistic qualities of John Huston’s meditations on greed, like “The Treasure of Sierra Madre.” Still, the film is a very engaging watch thanks to the fantastic scenery (a mixture of great Mexican locations and Matte paintings) and the work of the actors.

Though Gary Cooper has played varied roles across genres in a career that spanned more than three decades, he was most identified as a classic Western hero, especially in the final stage of his life & career. When he hit a career-slump in the late ’40s, it was the success of the acclaimed Western, “High Noon (1952)” that rejuvenated his career. In 1954 Cooper made two Westerns whose themes was very similar. Both “Vera Cruz” and “Garden of Evil” dealt with American soldiers of fortune in Mexico who come under the evil influence of gold. In “Vera Cruz,” he was starring with then up and coming Noir & Western hero, Burt Lancaster; here, he was co-starring with another up & coming Noir & Western hero, Richard Widmark. But while “Vera Cruz” was a high energy entertainer with Lancaster’s charming blackguard act playing off fantastically well against the quite dignity of Cooper, here, Widmark’s performance is almost as somber and subtle as Cooper’s. There are hints that Widmark’s Fiske is a disreputable character, but nothing much is made of it and, hence, the redemption arc he is given at the end is not very effective and the chemistry between him and Cooper never catches fire. Thankfully, Cooper is in his elements throughout the film; this is the kind of noble, stoic hero and leader of men that he has played a number of times in his career; the man who knows more than he lets on, and is ever ready to help out anyone in peril, especially a damsel. Cooper was 53 at the time, but he still moves, rides and shoots better than anybody in the cast; his towering presence and star charisma holds the film together from beginning to end.. Widmark is saddled with an ill-defined character and he does what he can with it. I feel the filmmakers made a big mistake by toning down his performance; the film would have definitely benefitted from his over-the-top vitality.

Cameron Mitchell, no stranger to westerns, here plays the stereotypical hotheaded young punk who seems to have been designed to appeal to the “Rebel without a Cause” ’50s teenage crowd; he played a similar hot-head alongside Clark Gable in the excellent Western, “The Tall Men.” Susan Hayward, who was at the peak of her career at the time, is superb as the tough & sexy Leah. It’s through her character that the film attempts to go beyond the boundaries of a traditional Western. She starts out as the typical ‘damsel in distress’ who loves her husband very much and is seeking help to save him. But as the story progresses, Leah proves to be as tough and resourceful as any man she has hired to save her husband; and once we finally meet her husband, we realize that perhaps she is some kind of ‘femme fatale’; the ‘Lady Eve’ in this ‘garden of Evil,’ who draws men into this otherworldly place with the temptation of taking a bite out of the forbidden apple. Her desire to save her husband seems to arise more out of guilt than love, and it’s hinted that her husband is a not the first man she seduced into digging out gold for her. Also, the characterization of Leah’s husband John is very unusual: at the end of the long journey, the riders and the audience expects to find a gentle soul who’s befallen by tragedy while trying to better himself for the sake of his family. But what we find is a resentful, hate-filled and hateful man, who’s angry at his wife and the very people who has come to save him. I only wish Hugh Marlowe didn’t have to overact so wildly to sell the character’s hostility. But adhering to the genre template and keeping in with the times the film was made, the characters of Leah and John have rather tame endings. John sacrifices himself so that his wife and the rest of the riders can escape quickly, as he, being wounded, was slowing them down. And Leah ends up becoming the regular ‘girl’ in a standard Western whose fate will be decided by two macho men, who are both in love with her; one chooses to stay and fight to save her, while the other escorts her out of danger. We never find out whom Leah really loves, as she seems to be attracted to both of them during the course of the film.

Anyway, the real love story in a Western is always between men, so the film ends appropriately with the scene between Cooper and Widmark, with one dying and the other watching over him. The film’s director Henry Hathaway, who specialized in making star-studded, traditional Westerns and adventure films, was a purist when it comes to these things. He made 7 films with Gary Cooper in his career and he knows that having Cooper ride away leaving Widmark to die alone is just not done; this is not what Cooper is famed for doing. So, we have Cooper escorting the lady to safety and then returning back to help his comrade (and shoot down whatever is left of the no-name Apaches, who surprisingly looks like Mohicans) and keep him company when he’s dying. What Hathaway does really well, and this is another of his trademark, is giving us a real sense of place; this is a very atmospheric Western, where the locations develop a character of their own; whether it’s the coastal town & the dingy cantina (featuring a singing, dancing Rita Moreno) in the beginning, or the eerie yet breathtakingly beautiful valley of evil, we really feel we are there.

Finally, I come to the most striking aspect of this film, which is its music score. When I started watching the film and heard the first strains of the brassy score, I was struck by the fact that this was a very unusual score to open a Western; It’s very tense & foreboding and nothing like the soaring orchestral scores of Dimitri Tiomkin or Elmer Bernstein. And the second thing was that the score felt very familiar; I could swear that i have heard those ominous beats before. It’s when the credit, Music by Bernard Herrmann, appeared on screen that it just clicked in my head that this is the same pulse from his very famous score for Alfred Hitchcock’s “Vertigo (1958).” Of course, “Vertigo” released four years after this film, so he reworked this tune, as he must have felt that not many would be familiar with it. If there was some special prize for a music score that singlehandedly managed to elevate an above-average genre piece into something good, otherworldly, haunting and elegiac, then Herrmann’s score for “Garden of Evil” would win it hands down. The music does for the film what the screenplay fails to do; right from the opening scene, it lends a hint of tension to the proceedings that keeps growing as the film progresses. Only Hermann could have composed a score that brings out the themes that’s buried deep within the film’s subject matter; of paranoia, suspicion, lust and the thrill\danger involved in travelling into a forbidden ‘garden of Eden’ where evil lurks at every corner, rather than just providing a generic score. Legend is that Herrmann did not see a foot of film and composed the score purely based on the film’s story. If that’s true then credit should be given to director, Hathaway, or the studio’s creative head, Daryl F. Zanuck for judiciously using Herrmann’s music in the film. By the way, this is the only Western that Herrmann has ever scored (one could discount his score for the Burt Lancaster starrer, “The Kentuckian,” as it was set in the pre-Western period of the 1820s). So, this score occupies a special place in Bernard Herrmann’s musical pantheon; and that alone makes “Garden of Evil” a special Western.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s