The Bravados (1958)
Directed by Henry King
We mistake things, I’ve come to believe, if we suppose that the American western film was mainly about action, with men shooting each other up in most unlikely ways, or about some simplistic formula of the good guys wearing the white hats and the bad guys wearing the black hats. We make a similar mistake when we want movies about outer space to center upon the “science,” which is usually fantastical and very likely impossible, and not on what the setting gives the writers and directors a chance to do.
Likely you walk down the main street of your town, and the social order allows you to get through the day without having to face great issues of good and evil, with immediate and possibly dreadful consequences. But imagine that you are where law is hardly a spur of the heels away from savagery — from the dark corners of the human spirit, or from a kind of desert where your choices stand out in bold clarity; except that they may be mirages, too, and you may be taking evil for good or good for evil. That’s where the western brings the audience, and a strong science-fiction story is but a western beamed onto another planet.
This week’s movie is just such a morality play. Jim Douglass (Gregory Peck), a good man, a church-going Catholic in fact — except that he has not gone to church in six months — comes into a strange town one day to witness the hanging of four men. He believes they have robbed his ranch and raped and murdered his wife. Only his little daughter has survived. Nobody in town knows him, and when he confronts the four men in prison — sharply distinguished one from another and excellently played by the character actors Lee Van Cleef, Albert Salmi, Stephen Boyd, and Henry Silva (the most human among them, a “half-breed” Mexican Indian) — they deny they have ever seen the woman whose picture he shows them, in a locket. Of course he believes they are lying. And they are not good men. People in town believe that Douglass is the hangman, but he isn’t. As it turns out, the real hangman — we learn this only later — has been waylaid and murdered, and an impostor has arrived to set the men free from the jail while the whole town has gone to church for evening services. Even Douglass goes there, with a woman he has known from years before (Joan Collins). While the priest (Andrew Duggan) is reminding the congregation that they should pray for the conversion of the condemned sinners, because one of the thieves crucified with Jesus turned at the last moment toward repentance and salvation, the impostor is busy helping the prisoners escape.
So of course we will have a posse and a hunt, with Douglass leading the way. The men of the town want to capture the four men because they are criminals, but Douglass is seeking a personal revenge. It does not matter that the first man he catches (Van Cleef), lying on the ground before him, unarmed and terrified, insists that he has never seen Douglass’s wife and never been at his ranch, and that he has a wife and a little girl too.
I don’t want to reveal any spoilers here, except to say that there are ironic reversals throughout the film, the most significant involving a showdown that isn’t a showdown, between the Mexican Indian and Douglass. “Why did you not kill me?” says Douglass, when he comes to and sees the Indian seated beside him, with a gun drawn. “I have no reason to kill you,” says the Indian, adding, “Why do you hunt me? I have done you no wrong,” and again, “Why do you hunt me?”
In Shakespeare’s time, there was a whole category of drama called the “revenge tragedy,” and The Bravados skates close to it. Yet the finale, while deeply moving and troubling, is not tragic. It is crushing and humbling. It provides no cover for human pride.
One caution: You may not want to watch this movie with children. IMBD’s Family Guide lists The Bravados as having a modern PG or PG+ rating for most countries. The Hayes Code was still observed when this film was made, so Hollywood enforced strong standards to limit explicit scenes and gore. But they also depended upon adults to determine the suitability of certain films for children.
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Reckoning one's conscience best takes place within the Temple of The Lord.
This film came immediately after Peck's wonderful western, The Big Country, my favorite film of all films. Its moral effect on me as a young child was profound. This film, too, is a great film, driven beautifully by Henry King's no-nonsense direction, Alfred Newman's relentless musical score, and a plot twist at the end through which everything is turned upside down. Peck, normally a very stoic and reserved actor, displays an amazing range in the climactic scene. This film, too, like The Big Country, caused my eight -year-old developing Catholic mind to consider things it never would have otherwise.