Monday, February 27, 2012

The Westerner

Gary Cooper in The Westerner is the epitome of the movie Western hero: a loner, taciturn yet able to persuade others to follow him, slow to draw his gun but deadly when he does, a reluctant love interest who gets the girl in the end.  Walter Brennan (Silky in The Day They Hanged Kid Curry and Don't Get Mad, Get Even, Gantry in Twenty-One Days to Tenstrike), on the other hand, is the epitome of the Western bad guy: surrounded by lackeys, takes the law into his own hands, greedy and ultimately overreaching, a bachelor with lots of cronies but no woman to soften all the rough edges. 

In an Oscar-winning role, Brennan was almost unrecognizable in this movie.  Chill Wills (Bixby in The Biggest Game in the West) plays one of the cronies and Forrest Tucker (Harker Wilkins in the Pilot) plays a homesteader; they also were virtually unrecognizable.  Interestingly, Jo Swerling, the father of Jo Swerling, Jr. who was the associate executive producer/producer of ASJ, co-wrote the screenplay for this film.

Set in Texas shortly after the Civil War ends, The Westerner is the classic story of farmers versus cattle ranchers.  Gary Cooper, as Cole Harden, rides into town but, unlike Shane, is under arrest and likely to be sentenced to hang by Judge Roy Bean, played by Walter Brennan.  However, noting that the walls of the saloon-cum-courtroom are plastered with pictures of Lily Langtry, Harden uses his silver tongue—much like Heyes would--to talk himself out of the death sentence.  From there, an unlikely friendship develops between him and the judge.

And then there are the sodbusters, as Bean refers to them, reminding me of Joe Briggs in The McCreedy Bust: Going, Going, Gone.  In fact, the judge and his friends torment the farmers just as Briggs and his friends do in that ASJ episode.  Harden, attracted to the strong farm girl who stands up to the judge, tries to work a compromise between the two opposing sides.  The end of The Westerner reveals who the winner is. 

Ultimately, The Westerner is about the meaning of friendship and love and what a man will do for it.  There are no bonus features but this 102-minute long black-and-white film from 1940 is briskly paced and contains enough flashes of humor among the action scenes to raise it substantially above the average movie Western.