Cooper was not at first interested in the role of Cole Hardin because, in the early drafts of the script, the film revolved around the character of Bean. "I couldn't figure for the life of me why they needed me for this picture," Cooper said, "I had a very minor part. It didn't require any special 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 was still not to Cooper's satisfaction. Finally, when Goldwyn threatened to sue the actor for violation of his contract, Cooper agreed to play the lead, "with the express understanding that I am doing so under protest." Cooper underestimated the script, for it stands among the most highly regarded films of his career, though he was entirely accurate in predicting who would get the glory. For his performance as the ornery Judge Roy Bean, Walter Brennan won the Academy Award for supporting actor (his third Oscar in five years). Cooper was not nominated, though he would win the Oscar the following year for Sergeant York (1941).
Goldwyn handsomely budgeted the film at $1 million (a substantial amount for a "mere" Western), allowing four weeks of location shooting eight miles outside of Tucson, Arizona. He also funded the herding of 7,000 head of cattle, which was at that time the most that had ever been gathered for a motion picture sequence. While on location, the cast and crew would rise each day at six a.m., recalled Freda Rosenblatt, who traveled with the company, "There would be snow and ice on the ground. By ten the sun would come out and we'd bake. We'd shoot till sundown. Then we'd go back to the Santa Rita Hotel in Tucson and have dinner. At night we'd watch rushes from the day before. Lots of times Willy would want a rewrite for the next day. The crew, including Willy, didn't get much sleep. In the morning we'd start all over again."
Wyler planned to cast his wife, Margaret "Talli" Wyler in the role of Jane-Ellen, but Goldwyn was insistent that the part go to Davenport, who had only appeared in bit parts, and whom the producer believed had breakthrough potential. The Westerner failed to make a star of the actress, and she retired after making one other film, Behind the News (1940).
In the 1940s, the Western entered a new era, leaving behind some of the clear-cut divisions between good and evil that was a defining trait of the genre, but one that limited its thematic complexity. The Westerner was the first in a series of cowboy pictures that grayed the white hat/black hat distinctions of the formula Western. The friendship between Hardin and Judge Bean is the true focus of the film -- much more so than the Texas range wars or even Hardin's relationship with Jane-Ellen. Hardin and Bean enact a dark romance of trickery, back-slapping camaraderie and cold-blooded murder that one sees echoed again and again in the timeless Westerns of its decade -- between Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday in My Darling Clementine (1946), Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid in The Outlaw (19 43), and Thomas Dunson and Matt Garth in Red River (1948).
Perhaps the shadow of World War II helped cultivate this more cynical approach to the once rigid codes of the Western, as if filmmakers were acknowledging that a chapter of American film -- like the West itself, the very source of so many cinematic myths and legends -- had come to a close. This sense of loss gives films such as The Westerner their elegiac tone, and allowed the genre to take on new emotional resonance.
Much of the film's haunting tone is due to the brilliant camerawork of Gregg Toland (Citizen Kane, 1941). The typically sunny West is, through Toland's lens, a place of looming clouds, dingy barrooms and heavy shadow. One scene in particular showcases Toland's work, that in which Hardin stands silhouetted at nightfall amid the farmer's burned-out crops, as Jane-Ellen reads over the grave of her father from a Bible, its pages charred by the fire that has destroyed her home. This scene -- with its skeletal stalks of scorched corn -- no doubt helped James Basevi score an Academy Award nomination for art direction. Basevi also designed an elaborate recreation of the Fort Davis Grand Opera House, where the film's climax 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 Our Lives (1946). At first their working relationship was strained. "I was in the habit of saying, 'Put the camera here with a forty-millimeter lens, move it to this way, pan over here, do this.'" remembered Wyler, "Well, he was not used to that. Making Westerns at Universal, I directed the camera work. I considered it part of my job. You don't do that with a man like Gregg Toland... He was an artist."
For Wyler, The Westerner was a homecoming of sorts. He had gotten his start as director by proving the speed (and quality) at which he could churn out two-reel Westerns -- a total of 21 between 1925 and 1927. In 1930 he abandoned the genre after The Storm, but would return to 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), Doris Davenport (Jane Ellen Mathews), Fred Stone (Caliphet Mathews), Chill Wills (Southeast), Lilian Bond (Lily Langtry).
BW-100m. Closed captioning.
by Bret Wood