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The Western Frontier, contrasting the ethereal with the stark
on 4 April 2014
Henry King may be the most quintessentially American of American filmmakers. Compared to the likes of the stylized extrovert John Ford, King is a straightforward director and, therefore, remains one of the underrated American symphonists (putting him in good company with forever underrated fellow American symphonists, such as David Diamond and Paul Creston). Twelve O’ Clock High (1949), The Gunfighter (1950) and The Bravados (1958) are all integral canvases of the American frontier landscape that King made with Gregory Peck, yet the latter two languish in near obscurity.
King often directed Peck, and in Peck King had his best collaborator. Gregory Peck was the real deal. With Peck, one does not have to separate the artist or the persona from the actual person (as we have to do with John Wayne). Gregory Peck fit the bill of integrity and nobility on and off-screen and, thus, personifies the best and most honestly masculine qualities in the Western (which, along with jazz, is one of the two great American art forms).
Together, King and Peck vividly imprinted these qualities into each film without flinching from the flaws, warts and frailties which flesh out and give resonance to well-rounded characters. King and Peck had created their previous Western, The Gunfighter, eight years earlier. That is a film which deserves all the accolades it has received. The Bravados has less of a reputation. It is a very different film than The Gunfighter, yet it deserve a wider audience. While The Gunfighter was shot in stark black and white, in color The Bravados benefits greatly from cinematographer Leon Shamroy’s sense of composition and use of ethereal blue filters.
The Bravados, at first, seems to be another standard revenge film, but it is the juxtaposition of faith and violence that gives this film its tense individuality. Here again, we have the authenticity of Peck, the man of a deep Catholic faith that informs his role, imbuing it with a striking intensity. Peck conveys emotions with expert skill, acting with his eyes and an internal hesitancy. He stops short of speaking several times. Peck makes this a remarkable role.
Then, in direct contrast, is Joan Collins. Playing the old flame, Collins was still fairly early in her career, and it shows. Despite her reputation, Collins did eventually sharpen her acting skills considerably, but that improvement is not yet in evidence here. In several scenes, such as her initial reunion with Peck, discovering his past via a local priest, or pleading with him to take revenge, Collins is stiff. Her part is also underwritten and awkward, rendering her mostly decor, a role she does succeed in filling out. Still, Peck’s attraction to her never registers.
Future Stooge Joe DeRita is quite good in his eccentric characterization. His is a small role, but he fleshes it out with personality, making one wish he had gone this route instead. Of the four antagonists, only Stephen Boyd and Henry Silva have any real personality. Boyd is a real, slimy threat. Silva is admirably restrained when face-to-face with his hunter.
The shifting landscapes make for interesting expressionist parallels. The rugged, rocky canyon terrain gives way to an ominous forest in which Peck both murders and escapes murder. A waterfall provides temporary sustenance. A small, claustrophobic cabin houses the ugly, terrible truth. The unrealistically large Catholic parish contains the vast possibilities of sanctuary and redemption, but that is only reached after revelation at the home of the good thief, where Peck meets surprising hospitality and familiarity.
The Bravados is a harsh, brooding, tautly paced example of the 1950s western at its most adult. Despite some minor flaws, it is a stand-out in its genre, during a great decade.