Tuesday, March 12, 2013

The Westerner

TCM recently showed the movie The Westerner as part of 31 Days of Oscar. It's getting another airing tonight at 10:00 PM as part of a night of movies looking at justice, Old Western-style.

The movie starts with one of those old western staples: a fight between the ranchers and the homesteaders who would fence off the land for their farms, something the ranchers with their free-range cattle obviously don't want. This particular fight sees one of the cattle get shot accidentally, and the farmhand who did it is brought before the bar-turned court of Judge Roy Bean (played by Walter Brennan), the "Law West of the Pecos". Bean, at least as portrayed in this movie, is a tough-on-crime judge, and his jury of bar patrons quickly sentences the shooter to death. Into all of this walks Cole Harden (Gary Cooper), who isn't from any place in particular, and isn't going anywhere specific either. However, one of the townsmen sees that the horse Cole rode in on is in fact his horse, so Cole is tried on a charge of horse thievery, another capital crime in this part of Texas.

Cole is a quick thinker, however. He notices that Judge Bean has a thing for actress Lily Langtry, and Bean seems to think that anybody who likes Lily Langtry can't be all bad. So Cole claims that he has a lock of Langtry's hair, but it's in El Paso. So, the judge stays the sentence, presumably until that lock of hair can be obtained. Cole, for his part, uses the stay to "exonerate" himself, steal the horse again the next morning, and get out of town. He doesn't get all that far, however. His first stop is at the farmhouse of one of those poor put-upon farmers (Fred Stone), whose daughter Jane (Doris Davenport) Cole met in town the previous day when she was at the cattle-shooter's trial decrying the state of "justice" in Bean's courtroom. She's obviously trying to convince Cole to stick around and help out the farmers, but he has equally understandable reasons for wanting to get the heck out of town. Still, Jane's beauty and goodness convince Cole.

What follows next is in many ways your typical ranchers-vs.-farmers western, which plays out in a way that's wholly inconsistent with history. There's a disclaimer at the beginning of the film that Judge Bean and Lily Langtry are based upon real people and that everybody else in the movie is a fictional character. But even much of what the movie says about Bean is inaccurate. The other problem the movie has is that from the first time we see Bean, he's drawn in such an unsympathetic light that it's tough to watch. Exigent circumstances may have necessitated rough justice at times in the Old West, when there was no higher justice around. It's something that's handled well in a movie like Yellow Sky. But in The Westerners, it's dun in a way that makes the ranchers and their supporters look like caricatures. To be fair, though, I've also always been a bit predisposed against westerns, so my reviews of them may be harsh by nature.

The Westerner has received multiple DVD releases, but all of the individual DVD releases seem to be out-of-print and high-priced. TCM is offering a 13-disc box set which includes The Westerner, although I wonder about the quality of the discs when a box set with that many films from multiple studios is being sold at a relatively low price.

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