Peck and King's Darker Western Ride

Peck and King's Darker Western Ride

Posted by Mike Finnegan on Aug 20th 2018

The Big Country (1958) is rightly considered an ambitious adult Western of greater than usual complexity for the genre, a noteworthy credit on the resumés of its two producers, star Gregory Peck and director William Wyler. It was a sprawling, somewhat testy production that for a couple of years afterward strained the relationship of the two friends, but certainly not enough to sour its leading man on doing more Westerns whose material appealed to him. Indeed, another smaller-scaled tall-in-the-saddle production came into Peck’s sights – with another long-time pal in the director’s chair, The Gunfighter (1950) helmer Henry King – right after The Big Country finished shooting. Given the vagaries of post-production, The Bravados (1958), with a screenplay by Philip Yordan from a 1957 paperback by Frank O’Rourke (who also penned the source novel for 1966’s The Professionals), rode into theaters two month earlier than the more mammoth Wyler opus. It was “less epic in scope, about $2 million cheaper, and roughly an hour and fifteen minutes shorter in running time” according to Peck biographer Gary Fishgal, and “by coincidence, his characters in the back-to-back Westerns were both named Jim. But whereas The Big Country’s McKay was a peace-loving man, The Bravados’ Jim Douglas was a taciturn small-time rancher out to track down and kill the four men who had raped and murdered his wife.” 

The truth that awaits Peck’s antihero at the climax of his vigilante quest for justice, marking a notable change from the original book’s ending, gives The Bravados a jolting darker charge as well as a spiritually redemptive outcome that underlines, perhaps even more forcefully than the Wyler Western, the emptiness of blind revenge. Filmed in the southern Mexican provinces of Michoacán and Jalisco (a favored King location utilized in another Twilight Time title, 1947’s Captain from Castile) by four-time Academy Award®-winning cinematographer Leon Shamroy, the grim manhunt saga was, in A.H. Weiler’s estimation in The New York Times, “executed intelligently in fine, brooding style against eye-filling, authentic backgrounds, so that its basically familiar ingredients glisten with professional polish.” Peck was not entirely at ease with the monomaniacal aspects of his haunted character. “But,” Fishgal relates, “he was pleased by his work in the film’s final scenes, in which Douglas learns he’s been hunting the wrong men and seeks forgiveness from God. ‘I think my realization of the enormity of what I had done,’ Greg said years later, ‘three or four minutes on the screen, was as good as any work as I’ve ever achieved.” Revisited 60 years later, it’s more than that, particularly as a showcase for many on-the-rise acting talents like the fearsome foursome that Peck’s wronged rancher tracks down – Stephen Boyd, Albert Salmi, Lee Van Cleef and Henry Silva – along with Fox contract player Joan Collins as Douglas’ former flame, Gene Evans as a duplicitous prospector neighbor, future Three Stooges member Joe DeRita as a treacherous hangman and Andrew Duggan as the understanding padre of the parish at Rio Arriba. (For his work in this film and the same year’s The Brothers Karamazov, Salmi earned the National Board of Review’s Best Supporting Actor Award.) The Cinemascope adventure is also ripe for reevaluation, as film historian David Meuel asserts in his critical study The Noir Western: Darkness on the Range, 1943-1962: “Since The Bravados isn’t as neat and tidy as The Gunfighter, it may come closer to being a more accurate reflection of how people acted in the West and to some extent have always acted in morally complicated situations. So much of life is about murky, messy moral issues that people do not want to consider too deeply and would prefer to forget about, and the film’s uncompromising exploration of this unpleasant reality is certainly one reason why The Bravados remains a powerful experience more than half a century after its release.” TT’s hi-def Blu-ray offers the opportunity to experience its bracing force when it rides home September 18. Preorders open September 5.