The Westerner (1940) Revisited


the-westerner-1940I had completely forgotten that William Wyler directed this sweet classic of a Western that I allowed into my heart a few years ago. Based on the imagery and the tenderness of this western that I needed to be reminded off. What I took away from The Westerner (1940) originally was Lily Lantree and a historically accurate saloon of Judge Roy Bean and his own makeshift courtroom where he assumes the role of the law, sheriff and judge of Vinergaroon, Texas. A keen supporter of the cattlemen in a state that was founded on upon. With the influx of homesteaders who legally claimed land and as history tells us erected fences soon went up to protect the crops they sewed. So the with cattle wars raging in other states we have a conflict between cattlemen and homesteaders, both reaping the vast open land that is slowly being ringed off.

All this is fact (more or less), in with Gary Cooper and Doris Davenport we begin to rewrite that into myth and even folklore, An actor of Cooper’s stature, with so many classics already behind him. The stoic cowboy who stands tall, unfazed by what he’s faced with, nothing scares this man, he is a hero of the silver screen. Placed on the frontier again he can do no wrong, well he can when he’s caught between two sides of a conflict that has been going on since the end of the Civil War, peace and hope develop and war starts over as we fight for what we believe in. From the moment we first see Cooper as Cole Harden he’s accused of being a horse thief. Not fazed by the charge, knowing he’s innocent, the audience don’t even doubt it. Entering a part of the country that’s ruled by the fear of cattlemen, shot-gun trials that always end in a hanging. Surely there’s no escape from his almost certain fate until the only female Jane Ellen Mathews (Davenport) character in the film storms into his defence.

What I did forgot for sure was how effectively Harden manipulates Judge Roy Bean (Walter Brennan) who falls under the spell of his lies that he concocts under his nose. These are beautiful scenes of comedy that have the audience almost believing them until we look into his eyes, almost winking to us. We see the gullible side to Bean who adores an actress Lily Langtree (Lilian Bond), an early star to travel America. Elevating her to goddess like status without even meeting her. Harden uses this to his advantage at every opportunity to manipulate the powerful yet stupid judge who eats it all up. Harden is creating his own myth for Bean just as much as Wyler is adding his own pages to the myth of conquest, taking a fact and repackaging it for the screen, complete with conflict and even a love interest that thankfully is played down to an extent.

The real love story is between Harden and Bean, admittedly one that is hopefully to each others advantage, both have something they want. One wants peace in the town, the other wants that lock of Langtree’s hair. That in itself is a lie that is ultimately taken to the grave and only known the audience. All part of the myth-making process, when we are presented with an object, a history or origin can easily being written into it orally or through out-right lie. If told with enough authenticity and confidence we can swallow it.

Turning to the other more conventional love story that is very much played down between Harden and Jane a very modest homesteader who will not give up easily in the face of Bean. Very much a frontiers woman that are usually found on their own is here with his father and others making a go at farming. You can see Harden working his charm on her, with more sincerity than with Bean who has met his match. You could say that at one point he is using her to help his relationship with Bean – the lock of hair which he has to produce to ensure his own safety.

I found that scene with the homesteaders share some of the warmth that we find in John Ford‘s films of the same period, thinking of My Darling Clementine (1946) and The Grapes of Wrath (1940), there’s a strong sense of community and religion in those scenes as they work and play together. However I don’t think that Ford would have even looked at Bean as a subject matter for a film. As they work together to fight the fire that eventually drives them out, we see some incredible fire scenes that show the real power of the cattle men who are behind that act. Its an image that is photographic in silhouette towards the end.

You could say its a fairy tale Western, you have the hero, the villain, the damsel in distress, the oppressed people who need the hero to stand up for them. Instead of resorting to gun straight away he attempts diplomacy, the method of the 20th century man in a 19th century world that knows only violence. Its the beginning of the end as the gunfighter are all being caught, the law is sweeping through the land. There is only a few gunfights in this short and ever so sweet film that that is more a fairy tale than a legend, its too soft to be seen as hardened chapter of the West. That’s not a negative but shows how versatile the genre truly is.

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4 responses

  1. Hmmm…and my watch list continues to grow some more! 😀

    June 2, 2016 at 3:28 pm

    • Glad I was able to contribute once more.

      June 2, 2016 at 6:34 pm

  2. Coop was made for Westerns. And I’d almost forgotten what a villainous cad Brennan used to often play in his early films. Great stuff.

    June 2, 2016 at 3:54 pm

    • Can’t argue with you there. Brennan was one of those rare actors who kept on shining in the character and supporting roles.

      June 2, 2016 at 6:36 pm

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