Monday, August 1, 2011

Reeling Backward: "The Bravados" (1958)

I think in many ways Gregory Peck was the perfect expression of idealized cinematic manhood: Remote yet full of passion, stern but empathetic, skilled in the ways of violence but reluctant to employ them. Atticus Finch was his ultimate role, but you see these central characteristics of his star persona in most of his films.

Take 1958's "The Bravados," which might be termed a revisionist Western before there was such a thing.

Peck plays Jim Douglass, a rancher turned hunter on the trail of the four men who raped and murdered his wife. He wears a black hat, dark gray clothes and an expression so hardened, it's no wonder the people of the border town of Rio Arriba are afraid when he rides in one day. He is there to witness the next morning's execution of four men who match the description of those he seeks: Two white men, an Indian and a "half-breed."

The sheriff (Herbert Rudley) reluctantly accedes to Douglass' request to see the men, whom he silently stares down one by one. For their part, the four bravados insist they have never seen him before.

The condemned men are a mix of contrasts. Bill Zachary (Stephen Boyd), the ostensible leader, has one of those smiles that make you feel icy rather than warm. He has a lecherous fondness for women that he calls his one weakness, and it seems certain that he led the assault on Douglass' wife.

Ed Taylor (Albert Salmi) is more grounded, has less to say, and is the best shot of the bunch. Alfonso Parral, the half-Indian played by Lee Van Cleef, is the most temperamental, whereas Lujan (Henry Silva) is an oasis of calm in the passionate gang. Lujan is skilled in the ways of the open range, and seems to harbor a veiled contempt for his companions.

While the entire town is at church, the foursome break out of jail with the help of one of their friends posing as the hangman, kidnapping a virginal town girl as collateral. A posse is formed, and Douglass assists them -- in a roundabout way -- and eventually is calling the shots.

Now, the statute of limitations on spoilers lies somewhere well south of 53 years, so I don't shy away from revealing the film's big reveal: After hunting down the four men, and mercilessly slaying three of them -- he shoots Parral while he's literally on his knees begging for mercy -- Douglass learns that they weren't responsible for his wife's death.

It's not exactly a surprise -- director Henry King and screenwriter Philip Yordan (working from the novel by Frank O'Rourke) drop plenty of hints that the protagonist is on the wrong path. The ending, in which the townsfolk cheer Douglass and enshrine him as their heroic savior, has a deliberately bittersweet, ironic note to it.

Joan Collins has small, totally unnecessary role as Josefa Velarde, a former flame of Douglass' from New Orleans who's now running her father's ranch. Her presence serves to soften some of his rougher edges, and like a lot of females in Westerns she's merely eye candy who exists to make the menfolk think of gentler things.

"The Bravados" succeeds ultimately because of Peck's presence, a mixture of brooding, buried rage and misplaced righteousness. The killing in Westerns had always been depicted as the necessary meting out of justice, even the roughshod frontier kind. And here's this odd, contemplative film in which good men do bad things, bad men aren't always deserving of punishment and the innocent, who suffer at both their hands.

3 stars out of four

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