The Bravados

(USA - 1958)

by Alfred Eaker

Cast: Gregory Peck, Joan Collins, Stephen Boyd, Albert Salmi, Henry Silva, Kathleen Gallant, Lee Van Cleef
Genre: Western
Director: Henry King
Screenplay: Philip Yordan based on Frank O'Rourke's novel
Cinematography: Leon Shamroy
Composer: Lionel Newman

Henry King may be among the most symbolically quintessential American of American filmmakers. He tackled Hemingway in "The Snows of Kilimanjaro" (1952), "The Sun Also Rises" (1957) , "The Old Man and the Sea" (1958-uncredited), F. Scott Fitzgerald in the "Beloved Infidel" (1959) and "Tender is the Night" (1962- his last film), religion in "The Song of Bernadette" (1943) and "David and Bathsheba"(1951) , American composers in "Rogers and Hammerstein's Carousel" and Irving Berlin's "Alexander's Ragtime Band" (1938), Americanized swashbucklers in "Lloyd's of London" (1936), "The Black Swan" (1942), "Captain from Castile" (194), and "Prince of Foxes" (1949), and westerns in "Jesse James" (1938), "The Gunfighter"; (1950) and "The Bravados" (1958).

King liked working with actors Tyrone Power and Jennifer Jones, both of whom personified apple pie American wholesomeness (never mind that, off-screen, neither of them were that at all). A third actor King collaborated with often was Gregory Peck and, in Peck, King had his best partnership and the real deal. With Gregory Peck, one did not have to separate the artist or the persona from the actual person (as one has to with John Wayne). Gregory Peck fit the iconic bill of integrity and nobility on and off-screen. Together, King and Peck vividly imprinted these qualities into each film's characterization without flinching from the flaws, warts and frailties which flesh out and give resonance to that characterization.

Compared to the likes of the stylized extrovert John Ford, King is a straightforward director and, thus, remains an underrated American symphonist (putting him in good company with forever underrated fellow American symphonists, such as David Diamond and Paul Creston). "Twelve O' Clock High", "The Gunfighter" and "The Bravados" are integral canvases of the American frontier landscape that King made with Peck, yet the latter two languish in near obscurity.

The first time I stumbled onto "The Bravados" I thought at first it was an Anthony Mann film that I must have somehow overlooked. 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 from in the know critics. "The Bravados" has even less a reputation. It is a very different film than "The Gunfighter", yet it too deserve a wider audience. While "The Gunfighter" was shot in stark black and white, "The Bravados" benefits greatly from Leon Shamroy's sense of composition and ethereal blue filters. On the surface, "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 tensioned individuality.

Peck's introductory appearance as Jim Douglass, on horse, against a vast sky, echoes his Jimmy Ringo in "The Gunfighter", but here the similarities end. As Ringo, Peck conveyed an aged weariness, dreading violence. As Douglass, Peck conveys a younger, determined lust for violence in retaliation against four men for the rape and murder of his wife, or so he believes.

After six months of tracking, Douglass has ridden 100 miles and enters Rio Arriba to see the four men hang for a different crime. Everyone, including the sheriff wants to know why Douglass is there. He is tight lipped and reticent to reveal anything. Peck conveys these emotions with expertly gauged skill, acting with his eyes and internal hesitancy. He stops short of speaking several times.

Then, in direct contrast, is Joan Collins. An old flame named Josefa (Collins) spots Douglass and here the film falters. Collins was still fairly early in her career, and it shows. Despite her reputation, Collins did sharpen her acting skills considerably, but that is not in evidence here. In several scenes, such as her initial reunion with Douglass, discovering his past via a local priest, and her pleading with him to take revenge, Collins registers stiffness. Also, the part of Josefa is underwritten and awkwardly unfulfilling, rendering Collins part as mostly one of decor, which she does succeed in filling out. Still, Douglass attraction to her never registers.

Everyone is waiting on pins and needles for the hangman, Mr. Simms. Simms appears in the form of Joe DeRita, who later became one of the three stooges. I would not even have guessed this was DeRita, until I looked it up and, not being a Stooge fan in the least, his casting is not a distraction. Actually, 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.

The hanging is to take place at 6 am the next morning. On the eve of the execution everyone goes to mass. Josefa arrives at Douglass' door to take him to mass. She is surprised to learn he no longer wants anything to do with church. He offers to accompany her and this is when Josefa finally learns that Douglass' wife is dead. Josefa tells him there is a lady in the church he should talk to. Douglass walks away, but then Josefa's advice and the image of Our Lady weighs on him. He turns around and enters the church. Douglass awkwardness in this surrounding is made all the more intense when the priest (much utilized character actor Andrew Duggan) suggests everyone pray for the condemned men.

Now that Douglass and most of the town are at mass, this clears the way for Mr. Simms to break the four men out of jail, since he actually has killed the real Simms and taken his place. The sheriff is injured in the escape and Simms is killed. Of the four antagonists, only Stephen Boyd as Bill and Henry Silva as the Indian Lujan have any real personality. Albert Salmi as Ed and Lee Van Cleef as Alfonso are mere sketches. The four kidnap a local, virginal girl named Emma (Kathleen Gallant, quietly effective in her small role) who Bill takes a liking to, which turns out to be a hard lesson for Emma's father, who wants Emma to meet other men and not marry a local boy. She certainly meets other men. Bill strokes his phallic gun as he lusts over her and the worse is yet to come. Emma is, by turns attracted to and repelled by the mysterious and dangerous elements within Bill. Boyd vividly registers as a real, slimy threat.

The posse is in hot pursuit, but Douglass rests for the night before taking off after them, methodically preparing his vengeance. The shifting, contrasting landscapes make for interesting, expressionist parallels. The rugged, rocky canyon terrain gives way to an ominous forest in which Douglass both murders and escapes murder. A waterfall gives temporary sustenance. A small, claustrophobic cabin houses the ugly, terrible truth. The unrealistically large parish contains the vast possibilities of sanctuary and redemption, but that is only reached after revelation at the home of the good thief, Lujan. There, Douglass is met with surprising hospitality and familiarity of family. Silva, as Lujan, employs admirably restrained depth when face to face with his hunter, who he refuses to kill. The truth revealed has not set Douglass free, indeed, it has only increased his internal torment. When Douglass returns to the church he is ashamed and exposed. The eyes of Our Lady and her priest meet him, greet him, and offer to embrace him.

When Douglass emerges from the church, it is only now a potential sanctuary. Douglass returns to the daughter he has abandoned and a reacquainted love, yet he is still incomplete, forever scarred by the irony of his actions. Belittled, Douglass asks for the prayers of the cheering townspeople who naively hail him a hero.

"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 its greatest decade.



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