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Duel in the Sun

Duel in the Sun(1947)

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Duel in the Sun (1946) ranks as one of the screen's greatest testaments toobsession. Not only does it chronicle the doomed love between amoral cowboyLewt McCanles (Gregory Peck) and half-breed temptress Pearl Chavez(Jennifer Jones), it was made to satisfy the two obsessions that droveindependent producer David O. Selznick's career from the '40s through theend of his life: his need to outdo his spectacular success with GoneWith the Wind and his quest to make protegee (and later wife) Jonesinto the screen's greatest star.

The story was born in another man's attempt to influence the career of theactress he loved. Niven Busch wrote the novel, then pitched it to RKO withhimself as producer in hopes that it would provide a career-changing rolefor his wife, Teresa Wright, who was typed in "good girl" roles. WhenWright got pregnant, however, the studio had to find another leading lady,particularly since they'd already signed John Wayne to play Lewt. Whentheir second choice, Hedy Lamarr, turned down the role because she, too,was pregnant, studio head Charles Koerner tried to borrow Jones, who wasunder contract to Selznick's production company. The choice wasunconventional -- Jones was primarily identified with her Oscar®-winning role as St. Bernadette of Lourdes -- but it appealed to Selznick, who was having an affair with her at the time. But the deal was never closed. Complaining that Wayne didn't have the sex appeal for the male lead and a first-time producer like Busch couldn't make the film importantenough for Jones, he refused the loan out. When RKO lost interest in theproject, he bought the rights himself. Not only did he ink Jones to playPearl, but he cast two other actors whose contracts he held -- Gregory Peck andJoseph Cotten -- as Lewt and his honorable half-brother, Jesse,respectively.

Selznick first considered William Dieterle as director because Jones hadjust had a good experience working with him on Love Letters (1945), butthen decided he'd put too much emphasis on the romance. Instead he choseKing Vidor, who'd excelled with westerns and other outdoor films likeBilly the Kid (1930) and Northwest Passage (1940), but had also directedstrong women's pictures like Stella Dallas (1937). Initially, he offeredVidor the chance to serve as his own producer, saying he was too busy tospend a lot of time on the picture.

As he worked on the script, however, Selznick's attitude changed. Hestarted seeing the opportunity for spectacle and became increasinglyintrigued at the thought of presenting Jones to the filmgoing public in anew, sexier image. By the time the film went on location in Arizona,Selznick insisted on approving every setup and was re-writing the scriptdaily. Some of his revisions were incredibly picky; he would change only a single line of dialogueor, in one case, the position of Cotten's arm as he sat on a sofa. One dayhe arrived on the set after Cotten had been released for the day with anew version of the scene they'd just shot. To get one minor line changein, he had Cotten called back and kept him shooting until midnight.

He also had various additional directors -- including Dieterle, Joseph vonSternberg and William Cameron Menzies -- on hand to shoot additional scenesor serve as consultants. He even tried to shoot a few scenes himself whenVidor fell ill. At least that meant there was somebody handy whenSelznick's interference and on-set tantrums finally led Vidor to walk offthe film. Ostensibly there were only two days left, and Selznick gotDieterle to fill in. Then as the film was being cut, Selznick kept addingscenes that dragged the production out for almost a year and tripled thebudget.

Among the new scenes were a prologue, in which Pearl's father kills hermother for cheating on him, and a sexy dance Pearl performs for Lewt. Thelatter posed special problems for Jones, who had little confidence in herdancing abilities and was already uncomfortable with the character's sexualnature. It didn't help that the sequence had to be shot three times to getpast the Production Code. After the film was released, Selznick had to cutit entirely to appease the Catholic Church's Legion of Decency and avoid aboycott of the film.

The entire process was grueling for Jones. On location in February andMarch, she had to endure snowstorms and sub-zero temperatures. In thefinal scene, Pearl and Lewt shoot each other, then she crawlsthrough a jagged canyon so they can die together. For this sequence, Vidor wanted to usepadding to protect Jones from the rough terrain. But Selznick insisted thatit wouldn't look natural. By the time they were done shooting, the actress wascovered with welts and bruises. The film was emotionally trying, too. Herrelationship with Selznick had already contributed to the breakup of hermarriage to actor Robert Walker. Shortly before production began, Selznicktold his wife about Jones. Throughout filming and postproduction, hevacillated between leaving his wife for her and then trying to break thingsoff to save his marriage. Shortly after the film was finally finished,Jones even attempted suicide, in despair over the state of her relationshipwith Selznick. Some of that emotional turmoil made it onto the screen.Pearl Chavez is now considered one of her best performances, and she stillamazes audiences with the passion and commitment of her work in thefilm.

Further production delays were caused by a series of strikes, including oneat Technicolor that almost kept the film from opening in time for the 1946Academy Awards®. On the day of its premiere, a freshly struck printwas rushed to Loew's Egyptian. Selznick also ran into trouble with hisusual distributor, United Artists, partly over the film's sexual nature.Faced with their refusal to distribute Duel in the Sun, he createdhis own distribution company, Selznick Releasing Organization. Because allof his money was tied up in the film, he took a chance on a new releasingpattern, opening the film in hundreds of theaters around the country ratherthan starting slowly in a few first-run houses in the major cities, as wasthen the custom. Opening the film wide was decades ahead of its time, butproved a box-office bonanza as audiences, prodded by a $2 million publicitycampaign, raced to see the film wherever it played. Despite pretty awfulreviews, the picture grossed $10 million, making it the second-highest-grossingfilm of the year (behind The Best Years of OurLives).

At the time, Selznick was stung by the poor reviews, jokes about "Lust inthe Dust," as the film was dubbed, and even complaints in Congress aboutthe picture's unbridled sexuality. He even instructed his publicitydepartment to find a way to salvage his image. He didn't have to worry.MGM's re-issue of Gone With the Wind later in 1947 reminded criticsand audiences of just how great a producer he was. In recent years,Duel in the Sun has been re-evaluated by critics, most notablydirector Martin Scorsese, who consider the work ahead of its time. In anera in which filmmakers are expected to put their personal visions andobsessions on screen, Duel in the Sun stands as a testament toSelznick and Vidor's ability to use the western as a vehicle for artisticexpression.

Producer: David O. Selznick
Director: King Vidor
Screenplay: Oliver H.P. Garrett
Based on the novel by Niven BuschCinematography: Lee Garmes, Harold Rosson, Ray Rennahan
Art Direction: J. McMillan Johnson
Music: Dimitri Tiomkin
Cast: Jennifer Jones (Pearl Chavez), Joseph Cotten (JesseMcCanles), Gergory Peck (Lewt McCanles), Lionel Barrymore (Sen. McCanles),Lillian Gish (Laura Belle McCanles), Herbert Marshall (Scott Chavez),Charles Bickford (Sam Pierce), Harry Carey (Len Smoot), Tilly Losch (Mrs.Chavez), Butterfly McQueen (Vashti).
C-145m. Closed captioning.

by Frank Miller

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