DUEL IN THE SUN is one of those movies I last saw in high school or college, close to forty years ago. That’s long enough that it was almost like new to me. It’s widely regarded as a pretty lousy movie, but I wanted to see for myself.
The protagonist is Pearl Chavez, a beautiful young woman who is sent to live with some distant relatives after her gambler father is hanged for killing Pearl’s mother and her lover. Her new home is the vast Spanish Bit ranch in West Texas, owned by the tyrannical former senator, Jackson McCanles. The Senator’s wife Laura Belle was a distant cousin of Pearl’s father, who also happened to be in love with Laura Belle and she with him. (The fact that they were related obviously didn’t matter much in that time period.)
The Senator and Laura Belle have two sons, the studious lawyer Jesse and the wastrel Lewt. Naturally, both of them fall for Pearl (again with the cousin thing), and she loves both of them, although she’s drawn more powerfully to Lewt. Passion, angst, and scenery chewing ensues, along with a sub-plot about the Senator’s opposition to having the railroad cross his land.
I think the reason people have such a low opinion of this movie as a Western is because it’s not really a traditional Western at all. It’s a historical romance, and I think it was a deliberate attempt by producer David O. Selznick to recapture the epic feeling of GONE WITH THE WIND, which was released seven years before DUEL IN THE SUN. There’s the same sort of big, sprawling setting, with a ranch instead of a plantation, the same sort of strong but ultimately self-destructive heroine, the romantic triangle with the good but bland guy and the dashing but cruel guy. Butterfly McQueen is even in DUEL IN THE SUN, for goodness’ sake. Several things keep this movie from rising to the heights of GONE WITH THE WIND, however.
For one thing, the advance of the railroad just isn’t nearly as dramatic as the Civil War. For another, Gregory Peck, who plays the bad son Lewt, doesn’t have the same sort of dashing charm as Clark Gable, and for that matter, Lewt isn’t as interesting a character as Rhett Butler, who has a moral center that Lewt is lacking. Some elements in DUEL IN THE SUN work really well, though. The photography is beautiful and really captures the vast scope of the Western landscape. Some of the scenes have plenty of spectacle, too, such as the one where all the McCanles cowboys, led by Lionel Barrymore as the Senator, confront the railroad workers to turn them back from Spanish Bit range, only to have the cavalry show up. There are several hundred men on horseback in this scene, and there’s no CGI, either. Every one of them is a real guy on a real horse. As I commented after the movie was over, everybody in Hollywood who could stay on a horse had a job that week.
Jennifer Jones as Pearl is lovely, more sultry and sexy than most actresses around today. It’s no wonder that almost every male in the movie immediately falls in love with her as soon as they meet her. She also delivers the most understated performance in the film. Everybody else chews the scenery relentlessly, not surprising since the film was directed by King Vidor, who got his start in silent films where overacting was the order of the day. (Although, in another similarity to GONE WITH THE WIND, half a dozen other directors worked on the film at one time or another.) The screenplay is credited to producer Selznick, based on Niven Busch’s novel, but I’d be willing to bet that most of it was actually written by Oliver H.P. Garrett, who’s credited with the screen adaptation, and Ben Hecht, was brought in to doctor the script anonymously. Gregory Peck and Joseph Cotton, who plays the good son Jesse, seem miscast to me. Their roles should have been switched. Sometimes when an actor plays directly against type, as Henry Fonda did in ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST, it can be very effective, but I don’t think it works that well here.
So DUEL IN THE SUN is really a mixed bag in terms of quality. That said, I found more things in it to like than to dislike, and overall I found it pretty entertaining. It’s not a classic Western by any means, but I think it’s worth watching.