Duel in the Sun is predominantly directed by King Vidor and is produced and written by David O. Selznick who adapts (with help from H.P. Garrett & Ben Hecht) from Niven Busch's novel. It stars Jennifer Jones, Joseph Cotten, Gregory Peck, Lillian Gish and Lionel Barrymore; with a huge support cast list that contains the likes of Herbert Marshall, Walter Huston, Charles Bickford & Harry Carey. The plot centres around Pearl Chavez (Jones), a half Indian girl who is orphaned after her father kills her mother and her lover. Pearl is sent to live with an old sweetheart and friend of her fathers, Laura Belle McCanles (Gish), here she becomes involved in prejudice and forbidden love that turns the McCanles family inside out.
David O. Selznick had hoped to recreate, even surpass, the success he had had with Gone With the Wind 7 years previously, only in a Western setting. Plagued with controversy both on and off the screen, the film, in spite of poor reviews, was a box office hit. Tho it's believed that due to high production costs and a cash driven advertising campaign, that the film ultimately only broke about even. The controversy on the screen stemmed from the sexual nature of the story, something that earned the film its famous "Lust In The Dust" nickname. Yet were it not for the Hays Code censors and religious review boards, the film would have been far more controversial, out went rape and a downplaying of the overt sexuality that existed prior to the cuts. Off screen controversy came in the form Selznick's relationship with Jones, a coupling that would break up both their respective marriages. The role of Pearl was originally meant for Hedy Lamarr, and even Teresa Wright was lined up too, but both women fell pregnant. Thus Selznick got the chance to shoehorn in his love and push her to the forefront of the movie with almost tyrannical urgings. 8 directors, 3 writers, 3 cinematographers & 4 editors would ultimately be used (that we know of). While bad weather, strikes and illness to Jones would also plague production. It's a wonder the film got finished at all.
It's an odd film in many ways, but one that appears now to have been very harshly treated by the critics of the day. That's not to say it's a masterpiece of classic Oater cinema, because it's not. But if viewed as a fun Horse Opera with Selznick getting away with as much as he can, then it's not half bad at all. Certainly the cast seem to be playing it as a fun piece of work, especially the wonderful Huston as OTT minister man, The Sinkiller. So viewed without expectation of serious melodrama, Duel In The Sun delivers some fun entertainment. Granted not all of it is intentional; the ending for one is preposterous and mirthful when really it shouldn't be. But the fact remains that the film is entertaining. Action wise it scores well, with stand out scenes including Jones on a runaway horse, hundreds of mounted horsemen riding to defend grumpy Jackson McCanles' (Barrymore) land against railroad incursion, and Peck (playing a sexual rebel type) taming a sex crazed stallion (even the horse knows what is expected of it here!). Then there's the vast scope of the Western vistas, that are in turn dripping with lurid Technicolor. The terms beautiful and sordid spring to mind, now that is surely two words that aptly apply to the film as a whole? For the best performances one needs to look into the support cast, where Bickford, the afore mentioned Huston, Gish and the always enjoyable Butterfly McQueen, all deliver stoic like performances. Jones is a touch miscast, saddled with being the epicentre of the film (and Selznick's attentions), she at least deserves credit for trying to make the so-so writing work. She certainly looks beautiful and in the more quiet moments for her character the good actress threatens to break out. Peck, in a role originally meant for John Wayne-who balked at the sexiness of the plot, gives it gusto supreme, but whilst acknowledging it being an unusual role for him-so thus a brave choice, he never once convinces as a sexual dynamo. Cotton gets the short straw in that the role is badly underwritten, which when one considers that the story is essentially a Cain & Abel based story; he deserved better. While Barrymore is solidly doing what he does best and his only failing here is to not be as good as his on screen wife. Musically, Dimitri Tiomkin provides a competent if unmemorable score.
Fun, sexy and with little snatches of daring in the plot, Duel In The Sun is better than some would have you believe. But maybe, just maybe, it needs to be viewed with a glint in the eye and the tongue firmly planted in cheek? 7/10