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The Westerner

The Westerner(1940)

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teaser The Westerner (1940)

Gary Cooper cemented his reputation as an icon of the Western screen inWilliam Wyler's 1940 film The Westerner. He stars as Cole Hardin, awandering horseman who is brought before the kangaroo court of the colorfulbut deadly Judge Roy Bean (Walter Brennan). Playing upon Bean's obsessionwith musical actress Lily Langtry, Hardin talks his way out of thehangman's noose, and strikes up a friendship with the hard-drinking,short-tempered, self-proclaimed "judge." Hardin soon learns that theterritory is involved in violent range wars (a dispute between cattlemenand farmers over land rights) and lends his support to the homesteaders --becoming attracted to Jane-Ellen Mathews (Doris Davenport), the daughter ofan aging corn farmer (Fred Stone). But when Bean violates his word andallows the farmers' crops to be burned, Hardin has himself deputized andprepares for a final confrontation with the west Texas dictator.

Cooper was not at first interested in the role of Cole Hardin because, inthe early drafts of the script, the film revolved around the character ofBean. "I couldn't figure for the life of me why they needed me for thispicture," Cooper said, "I had a very minor part. It didn't require anyspecial effort." Screenwriters Niven Busch (Duel in the Sun, 1946)and Jo Swerling (It's a Wonderful Life, 1946) expanded the role(additional material was written by playwright Lillian Hellman) but it wasstill not to Cooper's satisfaction. Finally, when Goldwyn threatened tosue the actor for violation of his contract, Cooper agreed to play thelead, "with the express understanding that I am doing so under protest."Cooper underestimated the script, for it stands among the most highlyregarded films of his career, though he was entirely accurate in predictingwho would get the glory. For his performance as the ornery Judge Roy Bean,Walter Brennan won the Academy Award for supporting actor (his third Oscarin five years). Cooper was not nominated, though he would win the Oscarthe following year for Sergeant York (1941).

Goldwyn handsomely budgeted the film at $1 million (a substantial amountfor a "mere" Western), allowing four weeks of location shooting eight milesoutside of Tucson, Arizona. He also funded the herding of 7,000 head ofcattle, which was at that time the most that had ever been gathered for amotion picture sequence. While on location, the cast and crew would riseeach day at six a.m., recalled Freda Rosenblatt, who traveled with thecompany, "There would be snow and ice on the ground. By ten the sun wouldcome out and we'd bake. We'd shoot till sundown. Then we'd go back to theSanta Rita Hotel in Tucson and have dinner. At night we'd watch rushesfrom the day before. Lots of times Willy would want a rewrite for the nextday. The crew, including Willy, didn't get much sleep. In the morningwe'd start all over again."

Wyler planned to cast his wife, Margaret "Talli" Wyler in the role ofJane-Ellen, but Goldwyn was insistent that the part go to Davenport, whohad only appeared in bit parts, and whom the producer believed hadbreakthrough potential. The Westerner failed to make a star of theactress, and she retired after making one other film, Behind theNews (1940).

In the 1940s, the Western entered a new era, leaving behind some of theclear-cut divisions between good and evil that was a defining trait of thegenre, but one that limited its thematic complexity. The Westernerwas the first in a series of cowboy pictures that grayed the whitehat/black hat distinctions of the formula Western. The friendship betweenHardin and Judge Bean is the true focus of the film -- much more so thanthe Texas range wars or even Hardin's relationship with Jane-Ellen. Hardinand Bean enact a dark romance of trickery, back-slapping camaraderie andcold-blooded murder that one sees echoed again and again in the timelessWesterns of its decade -- between Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday in My Darling Clementine (1946), Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid in The Outlaw (1943), and Thomas Dunson and Matt Garth in Red River (1948).

Perhaps the shadow of World War II helped cultivate this more cynicalapproach to the once rigid codes of the Western, as if filmmakers wereacknowledging that a chapter of American film -- like the West itself, thevery source of so many cinematic myths and legends -- had come to a close.This sense of loss gives films such as The Westerner their elegiactone, and allowed the genre to take on new emotional resonance.

Much of the film's haunting tone is due to the brilliantcamerawork of Gregg Toland (Citizen Kane, 1941). The typically sunnyWest is, through Toland's lens, a place of looming clouds, dingy barroomsand heavy shadow. One scene in particular showcases Toland's work, that inwhich Hardin stands silhouetted at nightfall amid the farmer's burned-outcrops, as Jane-Ellen reads over the grave of her father from a Bible, itspages charred by the fire that has destroyed her home. This scene -- withits skeletal stalks of scorched corn -- no doubt helped James Basevi scorean Academy Award nomination for art direction. Basevi also designed anelaborate recreation of the Fort Davis Grand Opera House, where the film'sclimax is played out in an especially memorable sequence.

Wyler and Toland made seven films together, including Dead End(1937), Wuthering Heights (1939), and The Best Years of OurLives (1946). At first their working relationship was strained. "Iwas in the habit of saying, 'Put the camera here with a forty-millimeterlens, move it to this way, pan over here, do this.'" remembered Wyler,"Well, he was not used to that. Making Westerns at Universal, I directedthe camera work. I considered it part of my job. You don't do that with aman like Gregg Toland... He was an artist."

For Wyler, The Westerner was a homecoming of sorts. He had gottenhis start as director by proving the speed (and quality) at which he couldchurn out two-reel Westerns -- a total of 21 between 1925 and 1927. In1930 he abandoned the genre after The Storm, but would returnto the American West a final time in 1958 with The Big Country.

Director: William Wyler
Producer: Samuel Goldwyn
Screenplay: Jo Swerling and Niven Busch
Based on a story by Stuart N. Lake
Cinematography: Gregg Toland
Production Design: James Basevi
Music: Dimitri Tiomkin and Alfred Newman
Cast: Gary Cooper (Cole Hardin), Walter Brennan (Judge Roy Bean), DorisDavenport (Jane Ellen Mathews), Fred Stone (Caliphet Mathews), Chill Wills(Southeast), Lilian Bond (Lily Langtry).
BW-100m. Closed captioning.

by Bret Wood

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