Sunday, December 5, 2021

The Iron Mistress

Another of my recent movie watches in an attempt to free up some space on my DVR was The Iron Mistress, yet another of those movies that got a DVD release courtesy of the Warner Archive.

Alan Ladd plays Jim Bowie, who has a famous type of knife named after him and who famously died at the Alamo, although the movie doesn't deal with the Alamo. And anybody with a knowledge of history would probably say that it doesn't deal with any other real aspect of Bowie's life. The movie starts in 1825, in a corner of northeast Louisiana where the Bowie family is involved in forestry, selling the trees for lumber and making their living that way. Each year, one of them has to go down the river to New Orleans to contract for selling the lumber, and this year, Jim happens to earn that right.

In New Orleans, Jim gets into a dispute with Narcisse de Bornay (Douglas Dick), resulting in Bornay challenging him to a duel as was the thing in polite New Orleans society at the time but not up in the backwoods parts of the state where the Bowies come from. So Bowie gets out of the duel by scheduling it for the next time it snows in New Orleans! Bornay and Bowie become friends, with Narcisse taking Jim to his big house where Jim meets Narcisse's sister Judalon (Virginia Mayo). Jim falls in love with Judalon, but she can't marry somebody like him who's not a gentleman, so she goes off and marries Philippe de Cabanal (Alf Kjellin) instead.

Meanwhile, Jim learned in New Orleans that cotton is becoming a big deal and virgin land for cotton is more valuable than land for growing lumber. Jim sells the family mill to raise seed money to buy land, and becomes a bit of a land baron on the side of the Mississippi opposite from Natchez, MS. However, this also brings him into conflict with the current land owners there. They try to keep him from getting loans; with capital drying up, he'll have to forfeit the land. Jim is able to get a fast racehorse and win a big stakes race to get that money, although his enemies will try not to pay up. This leads him to get that knife made, as he knows he's going to have to use it in a fight.

Jim wins another fight but is going to have to escape west to Texas (still a part of Mexico at the time) to stay alive, because his powerful enemies are going to chase after him. In Texas, he meets beautiful Ursula de Varamendi (Phyllis Kirk) and falls in love with her, although to be able to marry her he's going to need money, which will require him to go back to Louisiana, where he'll meet Judalon, Philippe, and his enemy Black Jack Sturdevant (Tony Caruso) again....

The Iron Mistress is a movie that made me think of some other biopics, like Lady Sings the Blues or the technically not a biopic Young Man With a Horn. The material here is pretty good, if a fairly standard action movie plot from the first decade after World War II. There's more than enough fighting and romance going on to satisfy viewers of the day. There's also good Technicolor photography and colorful costumes.

The problem, of course, is that The Iron Mistress is supposedly about Jim Bowie. If it had been about a fictional person and drawn loosely from some events in Bowie's life, we'd have that serviceable movie. Instead, what we have is a film that will likely lead people to go to Wikipedia to see what really happened, and that isn't at all like what happens in the movie. In real life, Bowie traded in slaves, and was also fairly dishonest in his business dealings. Apparently he did have any number of duels, although he was just as responsible for them as the other parties, unlike what we see in the movie. And of course, if it weren't Jim Bowie, we probably wouldn't think about the Alamo either.

So enjoy The Iron Mistress for what it is, a period piece with a fair bit of action. Don't expect it to be accurate history.

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