Duel in the Sun (1946) Revisited
Now you can’t categorise Duel in the Sun (1946) as a straight forward western, either as a historical epic, a outlaw or the good bad-guy (yes I’m reading more about the genre at the moment). I would say that it falls into the epic but sliding into romance, ultimately its one of those obscure overlooked Westerns that came out after WWII. Most notable for being David O. Selznick‘s attempt to recreate the success of Gone With the Wind (1939) which undeniably the runaway success, it wasn’t really topped at the box-office until Jaws (1975) (adjusted for inflation). It’s that second product syndrome, when you release a product that is so successful, you and the public wonder what you will bring out next. Will it be better and bigger than the first, it’s well known that surrounded Pixar when they were working on A Bug’s Life (1998), how do you cope with all the expectation? Let it go to your head, scare the life out of you or just go ahead, reinvest the money you’ve made into the new film and just get on with your next production, hoping it breaks even. For Selznick he would always live in the shadow of Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler never able to break free of them.
So why return to this admittedly obscure film that tries so hard to be as grandiose as Gone With the Wind? I guess it was a chance to see where all the energy and ideas went, also a healthy dose of curiosity to try and understand the thickly laid sexual overtones in the film which went over my head originally, or memory has simply failed me. I needed ultimately to understand what’s going on in this film that has been shouting at me to take in once more.
My first reaction was how grand a scale this Western is, before we even meet Pearl (Jennifer Jones) the mixed race woman who is eventually torn between two men. We see a mass of people outside in Mexico, sex, dance, drinking and debauchery, it’s a world you want to be part of before, the exotic of Mexico filled with characters we won’t even meet. No expense has been spared in making this a rich, dramatic and intense film. At least that is the intention; there are times that I think that O’Selznick is just showing off, spending money like water, running away from realism into pure romanticism, trying to repeating the winning formula of Gone With the Wind, 7 years previously, he’s fighting the giant that is his own shadow and it shows. There are literally hundreds of extras, this is in the time of sound and increasing costs, its madness at times. However when it comes together we have these dramatic moments that raise this from being just another routine Western yearning to be an epic.
Ultimately we have another version of Gone With the Wind really, except we are not fighting the Yankees, they have long since won the war. There are still two men to one woman with a different dynamic to the love triangle, they are both after her, instead of each one after another, a winning formula for romance and drama, lets just see how it plays out. A woman coming from a mixed marriage, tainted by blood of a Mexican/Comanche and a White Southerner – Scott (Herbert Marshall). Both die in the opening scenes of the film, leaving her to live with her fathers first cousin Laura Belle McCanles (Lillian Gish) who has two sons so very different they bring out the best and worst in Pearl. They do however awaken her from her innocence, a young woman, confused and dirtied by her heritage, sexually unaware of her power.
It’s the brothers who I remember the most, good vs. evil, the best and worst of their parents. Lewton ‘Lewt’ McCanles (Gregory Peck) the epitome of the cowboy who can break a horse, have a good time on a drive, complete with a sex drive that has to be met. Hoping he has found his equal in Pearl who at first rejects his advances. Instead turning to the educated Jesse (Joseph Cotten) the polar opposite of his brother in every possible, wanting to bring out the best in Pearl who wants to be the girl that her father wanted her to be. However since his death she has to make her own path in a world that is full of temptation in the Wild West.
What I found interesting about the casting is that Selznick, casting three very popular actors opposite three from the silent era (Harry Carey, Gish and Lionel Barrymore), the producer is catering to audiences old and young. However the themes are very adult, even for a post war audience, I’m surprised so much got passed the censors, from the longer than three second kiss to the advances in the bedroom, the flesh in the skinny dipping. Today we wouldn’t think any more of it, you could say it was ahead of its time, brave even to depict such themes so overtly. The emotion and action is cranked up, the use of technicolor, the use of reds, yellows and oranges to increase the intensity of the film. Visually the film is very unique meaning it will always have a places in the genre, for being just that; unique and it’s wanting to be more. It’s over the top visually and emotionally, bleeding it at times that you need to take of your handkerchief to clean up the excess.