erik lundegaard

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The Westerner (1940)

It's unfortunate when a movie sets up a villain as well as The Westerner sets up Judge Roy Bean, and then forgets he is the villain.

Written by:
Niven Busch
Jo Swerling
Stuart N. Lake
W.R. Burnett (uncredited)
Lillian Hellman (uncredited)
Oliver La Farge (uncredited)

Directed by:
William Wyler

Starring:
Gary Cooper
Walter Brennan
Doris Davenport
Fred Stone
Forrest Tucker
Paul Hurst
Chill Wills
Lilian Bond

Academy Award Nominations:
Best Original Story (Stuart N. Lake)
Best Art Direction

Academy Awards:
Best Supporting Actor (Brennan)

Quote:
"Now you men get some rope and string him up."
"String him up? Why, he's dead already."
"We hang horse thieves, don't we? String him up!"

The beginning is sharp. It's ranchers vs. farmers in post-Civil War Texas, and in a gunfight a hired hand kills a cow, for which he's brought before Judge Roy Bean (Walter Brennan), the self-proclaimed "Law West of the Pecos." Their exchange is good:

Judge: Chad Wilkins, you've been tried and found guilty of the most serious crime west of the Pecos. To wit: shooting a steer. Got anything to say for yourself before the sentence of the court is executed?
Wilkins: I told you they shot at me first! I didn't mean to kill that steer on purpose. I was aiming at the man.
Judge: It's your bad luck you missed him. That's the trouble with you sodbusters, you can't shoot straight.

Afterwards there's laughter (from Bean's cronies as well as, presumably, the movie audience), but then the man hangs and Bean jokes about the hanging and we've got our villain. In his bar/courtroom Roy Bean is a bully and favors ranchers over farmers. He's also completely smitten by the English actress Lily Langtry — who, like Bean, really existed.

Into this mix comes Cole Hardin (Gary Cooper), who's accused of horse thievery. With his neck on the line, Cooper seems absurdly nonchalant — as if he knows he's the star and can't possibly die in the first reel. With that boyish twinkle in his eye, Cooper distracts Bean with fabrications about Lily Langtry until the real horse thief arrives and is shot.

On his way to California, Cole Hardin winds up staying with a family of farmers, a tiresome romance ensues with Jane Ellen Matthews (Doris Davenport), and Hardin, despite everything he already knows about Bean, acts as diplomat between Bean and the farmers. At one point he even saves Bean's life — for which he and the farmers are monumentally betrayed. Crops are burned and people die, including Jane's father. How does Cole Hardin get his revenge? After attempting to bring Bean to justice, he shoots him (in self-defense, of course), and, as the man dies, Hardin carries him in his arms so he can finally see Lily Langtry. Wrong! One wonders if such exemplary treatment of such a despicable man resulted from Bean's estate (who wanted to pretend their man wasn't so bad after all) or from Brennan's status as an actor (he won Best Supporting Actor statuettes in '36 and '38, and would win it again for The Westerner).

The terrifying crop-burning scene is well-directed by William Wyler (The Best Years of Our Lives, Ben-Hur), but overall the movie doesn't work.

—January 7, 2002

© 2002 Erik Lundegaard