Ironically, this mega-hit epic-Western, a critical embarrassment producer David O. Selznick never fully lived down, now looks more influential than his much Oscar’d literary adaptations & psychological suspensers GONE WITH THE WIND/’39 and REBECCA/’40. (It’s Selznick’s sole forward-looking pic, with a raw abandon that points ahead to mad souls like Nick Ray, Brian De Palma & Quentin Tarantino.) Before the personal drubbing, Selznick proudly took sole script credit for this ‘pop’ pulp, laying bare his uncomfortable infatuation with the film’s equally uncomfortable star Jennifer Jones. (She’d have the lead in four of his five remaining productions.*) And though the story makes feints at being interested in cattle wars & railroad rights, that storyline’s jaw-dropping climax hits at mid-point, leaving little but the sexual favors of Pearl Chavez (Jones’s ‘half-breed’ vixen) to work on. The catch-as-catch-can story construction problems begin right at the start with an elaborate prologue Selznick added for an uncredited William Dieterle after original director King Vidor ‘ankled.’ All told, seven directors were employed, including Second Unit man Otto Brower who staged the staggering ranks of horseback riders & military standoffs. (Vidor shot less than half of the film's total footage.) It all should be ridiculous, indeed, it is ridiculous, but also visually magnificent . . . in a ridiculous sort of way. Gregory Peck is swaggering & sexy as cat-like hedonist to older brother Joseph Cotten’s constipated do-gooder. Then Charles Bickford appears (from where?) to make nice to Pearl so Peck can emasculate him. (And Jones gives such an uneven performance, you never know whether she’ll be rolling on a dusty floor or having her make-up readjusted.) Lionel Barrymore, as Dad to Peck & Cotten, gives every line a thorough wringing; and his long-suffering wife Lillian Gish tries to die without losing all of her dignity. (She fails.) At long last, Peck & Jones play Western liebestod on sun-baked rocks while Dmitri Tiomkin stands in for Richard Wagner. And somewhere, a young Sergio Leone is getting a hard-on. It’s that kind of powerful nonsense.
DOUBLE-BILL: Watch Peck take on the older ‘good’ brother role, against Charlton Heston who’s got his old bad-boy role, in William Wyler’s undersung THE BIG COUNTRY/’58. (Alas, like a lot of Wyler, the film needs a Big Screen presentation to really take off.)
SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *With the exception of Hitchcock’s contractually obligated THE PARADINE CASE/’47, Selznick either fired the director or significantly recut all his later films (all with Jones) in spite of hiring the likes of John Huston, Michael Powell, Vittorio De Sica & the very same William Dieterle he’d brought in to ‘save’ this film.
CONTEST: There’s an odd little mistake on the soundtrack of this film’s original trailer. Find it to win a MAKSQUIBS Write-Up of your choosing.