William A. Wellman enjoyed pushing buttons. His cinema bears the mark of a man careening through life, ripping the extraneous bits off and plastering it all up with broken mugs so hopelessly wrought we can’t help but see our reflection in their grainy close-ups. Nowhere is this grit more perceptible than in Wellman’s westerns—nearly all of them one kind of masterwork or another, including The Ox-Bow Incident (1943), Yellow Sky (1948), Westward the Women (1951) and Track of the Cat (1954). The resonance of these works is so strong, because they so recklessly dash our conceptions of what westerns can be, should be. Avoiding any clear aesthetic program, these pictures are connected less by their genre conventions than by a thematic obsession with identity and self-mythologizing. Lacking a clear visual signature, Wellman is often castigated as being a mediocre technician or craftsman and not much else. (1) Yet through recurring set pieces and multiple extraneous asides, Wellman ruthlessly interrogates the fragile stability of friendship, family, ethnicity, romance, capitalism and (most radically of all) gender.
Already by the 1930s, Wellman had developed a personalized approach that was befitting the times: most often sensitive portraits of hardnosed, down on their luck roustabouts, which rarely turn away from grim socio-economic truths—a grubbiness that was prolifically honed through the Great Depression and on into the war years. Films like Frisco Jenny (1932) with its sympathetic titular character unforgiving for her life of crime; Heroes For Sale (1933) charting a veteran’s social downfall; and Wild Boys of the Road (1933) set in a go-nowhere world of youthful train-hoppers we find a filmmaker eager to blow-up fears and trepidations. (And while the gusto for lower class life and criticism of capitalism suggests a socialist-realist vision, Wellman pays too much attention to minutiae, to sustenance and survival to allow a totalizing view of human life to take shape. Perhaps, one of the reasons he was so long ignored by the auteurist critics.) Nothing is too coarse nor delicate for Wellman: at the heart of these early, Pre-Code talkies are women of enormous complexity —presented both as objects of desire, debased by their home communities as well as scrapping types, humanized by the camera, which lingers (often uncomfortably long) on their attempts to recover their loved ones as well as themselves.
It’s in the fleshing out of these subversive paradoxes that Wellman’s cinema really comes into being, and then only does it reach its apotheosis in his later westerns. Sharing the rough-hewn, carpenter’s approach to cinema that other contemporaries like Raoul Walsh and Howard Hawks mastered, Wellman is rougher still in his later westerns where visual resources are scarce and explicit social commentary is out. Yet his workmanlike production belies the thoughtfulness of composition. And the financially disastrous Track of the Cat is certainly the most artful of the bunch; Cinemascope has rarely been used to such great effect. Curt Bridges (Robert Mitchum) girds along the snowy backdrop (where the colours are so mute, it is often referred to as a black-and-white film in colour), hunting a cat we never eye; desperate in his manliness, Bridges tries to rule nature even as he fails to rule himself. It’s back home, though, that we see the real hand of a painter at work—constantly eschewing close-ups for wide shots, we find in the film the disasters of patriarchy filling the ’scope canvas to the hilt. Harold Bridges (Tab Hunter), the youngest brother of Curt, is pinned in by his uncertain love of an older woman, while his family goes about emotionally devastating one another in a cycle that involves resentment, claustrophobia, plenty of booze and death. The film’s central visual motif is the resting place, most powerfully invoked in the sequence shot from within a burial plot. Every character overwhelms or is overwhelmed, except the object of Harold’s affections, a woman so steely and determined, her figure towers over even the brutality of Ma Bridges (Beulah Bondi) and the alcohol-soaked advances of Pa Bridges (Philip Tonge).
If Track of the Cat is commonly thought of as neglected territory for cineastes, Westward the Women isn’t even on the map. (2) That’s a real shame, because the picture is his most emotionally taxing and aesthetically severe—a proto-feminist exploration of social norms, and a western with a barebones visual look and multicultural outlook (material that had a major influence on the much bleaker Meek’s Cutoff (Kelly Reichardt, 2011)). Robert Taylor plays Buck Wyatt, a man hired to get a group of some two hundred women west as brides for settlers in California. While it makes a fairytale of marriage—the ultimate happy ending—its women are the ones who pick their partners (even before their journey commences). What’s all the more startling about the narrative is that it originated with a story by Frank Capra! We find no schmaltz here, though, just honest depictions of personal upheavals, the bread and butter of Wellman’s dark night of the soul.
A communal spirit hangs over the film, as the women (and the male hired hands who can stick around without touching them per Wyatt’s orders) pull together and take on challenge after challenge before finally taking on the settlers. Towards the end of the film, the women have so fully taken over the day-to-day drudgery that it’s hard to tell if the women have been masculinized or the men emasculated. Both, probably. When the incorrigible foil Patience Hawley (Hope Emerson) encounters the bridegrooms for the first time she remarks, “You can look us over, but don’t think you’re going to do the choosing! All the way from Independence, I’ve been staring at two things: one was this picture [of my husband to be] and the other was the rump of a mule…and don’t ask me which was prettier!” Only the ethically compromised are castigated, left out; many quarrels are settled relatively swiftly without any centralized authority dolling out punishment. Its ethnic inclusiveness—with characters from France, Italy and Japan—is just plain bizarre for 1951. Each of them, at least part of the time, speak in their foreign tongues, uttered without translation. Not since the early 1930s had American cinema seen such unmitigated otherness.
The critical neglect the film has suffered would be understandable if the only notable features of the feature were its social politics, but its stylistic deportments are just as enthralling. When critics do take Westward into consideration it’s usually with thinly veiled distain and wrong-headedness, as is the case with John Howard Reid in his Hollywood Gold when he insists that “the direction by William A. Wellman is visually stylish, but the decision to dispense with background music was a bad error of judgment as its lack points up dialogue and situation clichés more strongly.” Ridiculous. It’s this very sparseness (already noted) that lends the film such a semblance of tragicomedy. As Frank Thompson notes in his essay, “The Wellman Westerns: An Appraisal,” Wellman obsessed over paring away:
Apart from interiors, virtually no shooting was done at the studio. Wellman had been ecstatic when cameraman William C. Mellor chose Surprise Valley because of the beauty and unpredictability of the terrain. He found that they could shoot the entire film in a relatively small area of ground and give the illusion of having covered many miles of desert. Wellman instructed Mellor to use no filters (or as little as possible) to give the film a stark, glaring look. It works beautifully for one almost feels the white heat of the desert sun in this shadowless land.
No shadows, no hiding—every fracture, every failure, every fault in the group is laid bare, which must explain why it’s filled with so many gags—it’s very hard to take on pioneering work with a straight face.
The Ox-Bow Incident, on the other hand, offers no outs, no second chances, so it’s jokes (few that there are) are hard to meet with so much as a snicker—it is the most uncompromisingly brutal of any of his work. The plot is as bare as its studio setting: the garish murder of three falsely accused cowboys by an angry mob has a wise, shoot-from-the-hip feel to it. Henry Fonda, Harry Morgan, Dana Andrews and Anthony Quinn all pull off once in a lifetime performances as men up against a wall. Fonda, as lonely hearted Gil Carter, can’t—no matter how bad his conscience gets him—stop bloodthirsty machismo from running its course. Manny Farber creeps close to what’s just so harrowing about Wellman’s burrowing when he writes in his review of The Ox-Bow Incident that “its soundest, most original declaration is its realistic, pedestrian view of violence, that there is nothing unusual about it in our society, that the men who participate in it did not regard it as violence.” Repetitious and cyclical in its structure, The Ox-Bow Incident begins and ends with Gil Carter and Art Croft (Harry Morgan) out on horseback to make amends, and when the accused are on ‘trial’ everyone wears the sweaty visage of a condemned man as though they know it isn’t the first injustice they’ve witnessed and it won’t be the last.
Here again, we find Wellman attacking the slovenly bonds of male society. The only respite from the unrelenting cruelties of men in The Ox-Bow Incident is the appearance of a melancholic woman, Rose (Mary Beth Hughes), untainted by the savageries that surround her. She’s a former lover of Carter’s, and he’s in town looking for her, only to discover she’s left for good. It’s only in the mad dash to find the killers that the posse comes across her in a stagecoach halfway up a mountain pass. When Carter and Rose do finally meet, it is one of the film’s few tender respites, a mini-elegy the atrocities swirl around; it is—along with the condemned Donald Martin’s (Dana Andrew) letter to his wife, which Carter reads at the end (3)—a momentary glimpse at a kinder world, a poetic aside to the movie’s dominant prosaic style. Their relationship is only hinted at through locked eyes and a hush that falls over the group. Fonda is so terse his face squeezes into itself in a dispassionate relief. (Its brittle quietude—it too lacks much non-diegetic music—is, in a way, echoed in the repressed longings of Robert Bresson’s wayward models in his 1966 Au hazard Balthazar.) Rose’s new husband, a wealthy gentleman, reacts defensively, sensing the overwhelming emotions that just befell them. And just as quickly as the flame is fanned, it is snuffed out with a rush of horse hooves—never to be reignited.
At issue in the film, like in its companion piece, Yellow Sky, is the crisis of desires: the doom and gloom that results from wanting the girl, the job, the just cause, but having no legitimate way to get them. So too is there a continual depletion of selfhood. The bandit leader in Yellow Sky, James ‘Stretch’ Dawson (Gregory Peck) goes through a similar remolding of his personality when he meets Constance ‘Mike’ Mae (Anne Baxter), a young woman protecting her grandfather and his gold. Tensions bind the group tighter and tighter as the goods get harder and harder to score, until Dawson has a change of heart. Peck’s iciness is not unlike Fonda’s in that it’s played up for its emotional excess. Crimes and insults are committed with no remorse, but all is forgiven simply by the reshaping of group agreements—‘Mike’ being the boy to bust up the boy’s club with her bravado, which puts a fright in Dawson and his compatriots. Soon a group of Indians are dragged in to the matter and western tropes begin to strain under the pressure of the odd social dynamics. (The tribe is friendly towards ‘Mike’ and her grandfather and puts yet another scare on the gang.) And while the blank slate ending has a goofy charm, its conclusiveness doesn’t fit with the ethical and sexual ambiguities. A flirt with noir elements in its crescendo, the picture fails to really bury us in its dark corners. The Ox-Bow Incident with its ‘heroes’ loping out towards a country awash in guilt, self-loathing and just a bit of hope is more convincing in its uncomfortable questions, questions Wellman is best to leave unanswered. But that’s when we realize how valuable Yellow Sky is: it’s part of a tapestry from an artist whose greatness can’t be contained by a single great work; Wellman deals with ethical and aesthetic quandaries so universal and amorphous that they spread out in multiple directions, uncontained and unreconstructed.
American cinema has always been full of oddballs charging into environs no one else anywhere on the planet would go near. And when ‘Wild’ Bill Wellman went westward, he made camp where few others of his era dare tread. Ensconced in the woods or trapped in a desert, Wellman always found a way to mark his ground in his own peculiar, minimalist manner.
- Andrew Sarris argues in his epochal The American Cinema that Wellman doesn’t do enough with the talent he has on hand: “What is at issue here is not the large number of bad films he has made, but a fundamental deficiency in his direction of good projects” (165). And David Thomson complains in his Dictionary of Film: Fifth Edition that Wellman made “too few items that raise the pulse” and that his is “so untidy a career, as sentimental and hokey as Buffalo Bill, but then as rough and socially urgent as Wild Boys of the Road and Heroes for Sale” (1033). These are narrow minded assertions: Sarris is not looking closely enough when he writes about the grotesqueness of The Ox-Bow Incident, and Thomson is simply asking for too much; even Hawks made a number of stinkers. I hope, through this essay, to help relocate Wellman’s later corpus in that high alpine region of great American cinema.
- In fact, Westward the Women has only recently been released on Region 1 DVD as part of the Warner Archives series.
- The letter is worth quoting unabridged, as it’s the most explicit evidence of Wellman’s humanism: “My dear Wife, Mr. Davies will tell you what’s happening here tonight. He’s a good man and has done everything he can for me. I suppose there are some other good men here too, only they don’t seem to realize what they’re doing. They’re the ones I feel sorry for. ‘Cause it’ll be over for me in a little while, but they’ll have to go on remembering for the rest of their lives. A man just naturally can’t take the law into his own hands and hang people without hurtin’ everybody in the world, ‘cause then he’s just not breaking one law but all laws. Law is a lot more than words you put in a book, or judges or lawyers or sheriffs you hire to carry it out. It’s everything people ever have found out about justice and what’s right and wrong. It’s the very conscience of humanity. There can’t be any such thing as civilization unless people have a conscience, because if people touch God anywhere, where is it except through their conscience? And what is anybody’s conscience except a little piece of the conscience of all men that ever lived? I guess that’s all I’ve got to say except kiss the babies for me, and God bless you. Your husband, Donald.” It’s all the more remarkable a document, because Martin becomes furious when Mr. Davies, in trying to spare his life, attempts to read the letter to the group without his permission. It’s as though the letter is so personal it’s meant only for that other, more humane society where men and women of unchecked authority are not welcome.