Tuesday, October 03, 2006

The Bravados

By Lance Mannion

Gregory Peck rides into the town of Rio Arriba, tall, lean, chiseled, the best looking profile in the history of cowboy movies defined in black silhouette under a black hat.

In The Bravados, Peck's playing rancher Jim Douglas and he's come to town to see the four men he believes raped and murdered his wife hang.

He's a stranger here, a stranger to every one but the local heiress and the parish priest, both of whom know him as a very different sort of man than he is now. People are curious about why he's there and when they hear that he's come for the hanging they think he must be the hangman they've sent for. Rio Arriba's a small, quiet town and has never had a hanging before, so they have to contract out the job.

When Douglas tells him he's just come to watch, but that if the real hangman doesn't show he's ready to step in, they're startled, leery, suspicious, a little disgusted. Douglas could put their minds at ease by explaining himself, but he doesn't. He can't. He can barely get two words out. He's been on the trail of these men for six months and you might expect that he's fallen out of the habit of small talk. But that's not it.

Judging by the small changes that come over him the longer he's in town, we can guess that over the course of his manhunt Douglas has learned that every time he stops to talk with people, whenever he allows himself to become sociable again, he begins losing his thirst for revenge.

The kind of anger and hatred Douglas has been nursing in himself, the anger and hatred that are necessary to his mission, have to brew in the dark and in isolation.

Vengeance is an emotion, not a cause, and it belongs to loners, angry, desperate men who have cut themselves off from society. To seek vengeance then is to become a sociopath.

Douglas is by nature a sociable man. In order to do what he thinks he's got to do he's first had to go after his own self. He's had to, if not hunt down and kill, then capture and lock up in a gloomy, haunted jail within himself, an important part of his own soul.

When the bad guys, inevitably, break out of jail, Douglas is relieved. Watching them hang, for the wrong crime---they've robbed a bank and killed a teller; nobody knows about Douglas' wife---wasn't going to be enough. He wanted to finish them off himself and their escape gives him another chance.

I don't remember the movie saying exactly where in the Southwest Rio Arriba lies. The pine forested hills and deep canyons and open meadows---somewhere nearby there's a dessert we hear about but never see---could be in California, could be in Arizona or New Mexico. Doesn't really matter. What matters is that, while not a border town, Rio Arriba is a Mexican town on American soil. In this part of the country Anglos are the minority, a fact that is only important because it means that just about everybody in Rio Arriba is a devout Catholic.

Douglas himself is probably a Catholic too. He knows what to do inside a church when the heiress drags him to a night mass in honor of Mary. He's only going through the motions, but he doesn't need any prompting. The motions are reflexive for him.

The Bravados isn't a religious movie, but it takes religion seriously. The director Henry King and screenwriter Philip Yordan are respectful of Catholic beliefs and rituals, but don't go in for any warm, don't you wish your pastor was like Bing missionary work in the form of comic hokeyness. Andrew Duggan as the priest is a little too much of a paragon, both as a man and a voice of religious authority, but he's not the movie's conscience.

That role belongs to Douglas, which is one of the more intriguing aspects of the Bravados, since Douglas has pretty much buried his conscience, making it impossible for the movie to make easy, moral judgments. The movie does want us to moralize, but with the character that ought to be the spokesman for the righteous cause silenced and the only other characters up to the task not around to do it---the sheriff is gravely wounded in the jailbreak and can't lead the posse that goes after the outlaws, the priest of course can't ride with the posse, the heiress, embarrassed by the resurgence of her old love for Douglas, runs away from him, and the one outlaw with the required intelligence and sophisticated enough conscience naturally keeps as far away from Douglas as he can---the filmmakers have to push us do the job for ourselves. We have to watch it and take in all the facts as they come. It's almost like being part of a jury. Only in the end , when the prosecution rests, are we allowed to pass judgment. And by that point Douglas has become both the prosecutor and the man in the dock.

The Catholicism, religion generally, is, as I said, treated respectfully, but what's really being taken seriously is people's interest in the state of their own souls.

Whether or not there is a God, if there's a heaven and a hell and how you wind up in either place, the exact definition of sin, are all beside the point. The immediate problem is how to be good. In the Bravados, people want to be decent, they want to do right by each other and by themselves, they want to be good, even, it turns out, several of the bad guys.

Being a good man is important to Douglas too, but it's something he's taken for granted about himself, and that turns out to be a tragic mistake.

Goodness and decency turn out to be possible only in the company of other people, which is to say we need each other's help to stay on the straight and narrow.

The movie's not making an authoritarian argument. There is no authority in the movie bossing people around, making them stay in line. Authority here derives from the people and serves the people, the people do not serve it. The sheriff is an exemplary public servant.

And it's not the case that neighbors spy and scold and tattle. It's simply that left to his own devices, it's too easy for even a good guy, a hero, to talk himself into anything, including shooting down unarmed men who are on their knees begging for mercy, while there's a posse on its way ready to take them into custody.

Folks are just stronger, more capable, more decent when they have each other to lean on.

But when he joins the posse, he starts to act like a part of the posse. Although he's the best tracker, the more experienced gunman, a natural leader, he defers to the deputy leading the chase, and when he gives advice, it's good advice, that is he points out ways to capture the bad guys that minimize the danger to the members of the posse and which, if followed, will bring the bad guys back alive, to face the hangman again, that will bring them to justice.

The bad guys are bad but not that bad. They're not evil. They robbed the bank, but killing the teller was a mistake, and they may have robbed the bank on a lark. There's no suggestion that these guys are career criminals. Their association is accidental. They apparently fell in together somewhere, probably at a saloon or a whorehouse, and just sort of drifted into Rio Arriba, with no plans. They clearly didn't think through their plan to rob the bank since they were easily captured by the affable, middle-aged sheriff and his two not particularly dangerous deputies in the process.

There are hints that their plans for after they get away and are safe in Mexico don't include any more bank robberies.

We're not meant to sympathize with them, too much, at least not with all of them. But two of them are definitely not beyond redemption.

And only one of them, the ringleader, played as grinning overgrown naughty boy by Stephen Boyd, seems capable of rape and murder.

In short, there are good reasons that these men belong in jail, but there are also good reasons for us, and Douglas, to doubt that these guys are those guys.

Which means that we can see that the right thing for Douglas to do is to stick with the posse and help bring the bad guys back to jail.

He doesn't do the right thing, of course. He breaks off from the posse and pursues his own course.

The Bravados was made in 1958. Ten years later a movie like this would have ended ironically or tragically for Douglas, as in another revenge quest film, the excellent Hour of the Gun does for James Garner's Wyatt Earp.

Fans of The Searchers, made two years before The Bravados, can jump in here to point out that that revenge quest ends tragically and ironically for John Wayne's Ethan Edwards and argue that it's not a question of when the film was made. But The Searchers was a movie both ahead of its time and out its time, which is to say a great work of art. The Bravados is a good movie and if I was going to compare it to any Western of its period the Anthony Mann-Jimmy Stewart problem westerns, particularly The Naked Spur, would be more useful to the purpose.

The Bravados ends on a hopeful note. The movie settles for a different, more forgiving kind of moral ambiguity.

Like I said, the movie isn't interested in whether or not there is a God, but it does seem to believe in karma. I wouldn't call it a zen western; it's too dark despite its hopefulness. But it does set things up in such a way that we can be glad that Douglas doesn't do the right thing and stick with the posse.

It turns out that by doing the wrong thing, by pursuing his quest for revenge, Douglas inadvertently brings about a more just resolution for the town and the bad guys.

The real villains are punished and one doomed soul is allowed a reprieve.

Douglas is punished for his selfishness and hatred, but he's rewarded for his mercy and his willingness to admit and own up to his mistakes.

The movie ends with the hero neither triumphant nor disgraced. He's still in between, like the rest of us.

I can't think of another film that ends with the hero's next step going to be an act of penance.
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This is an excellent time to re-read, or read for the first time if you missed it, Rob Farley's post on The Searchers, American Kurtz.

Random asides:

The heiress is played by the very young but not very convincing Joan Collins.

It's interesting the things the movie presents without a thought or an explanation, as if we're expected to take them for granted, the most important of these is the fact that Douglas and the outlaws and one shopkeeper in town and his daughter are about the only Anglos in the whole movie. Joan Collins' character, the sheriff, his deputies, most of the posse, the other townsfolk are all Mexican, which has absolutely nothing to do with their characters or the plot (except for their Catholicism, as I mentioned above); their ethnicity is a geographical fact. That's the demographic of that part of the Southwest. There's no stereotyping, but no self-congratulation either. And when it turns out that Douglas is fluent in Spanish, that his three year old daughter speaks Spanish more naturally than she speaks English because she's being taken care of by Douglas' Mexican ranch foreman and his wife while Douglas is away, there's nothing made of either of these facts either.

Joan Collins' character wears pants everywhere. No one remarks on this or appears to notice. She's running a ranch, after all. She joins the posse, too, and only Douglas has a problem with this. His problem isn't that a posse is no place for a woman. His problem is that she remembers him too well as he was before he became a man on a mission. She might distract him from his quest by making him remember himself as he was.

Joe DeRita has a small role as the hangman. Yes, that Joe DeRita! He's very good, in an unctuous, smary, sinisterly overly-friendly way.

The colors in the movie are so clean. When did color in movies get muddy? Also the compositions of shots are much less cluttered than they are in movies today. This isn't just a matter of arranging actors. It's the set decorations and what's placed in the foregrounds and backgrounds. Movies now are more realistic---there are as many details in any one shot as there would be in real life, which means it's harder to know what to look at it, and nearly impossible to take everything in. In The Bravados every shot is neat. You can read each one. The details are all comprehensible.

Lots less cross-cutting as well.

This is the first of Gregory Peck's westerns I've seen. He was a much better cowboy than I expected. Better than Jimmy Stewart even. And he wears a hat well.

Who was the first movie or TV cowboy to wear those low crowned, smaller brimmed hats that all TV cowboys wore but which no real cowboys ever did?

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