Saturday, February 25, 2023

The Shepherd of the Hills (1941)

During the last free preview weekend I had, over Thanksgiving, I recorded a bunch of movies. A lot of them were more recent, but off of StarzEncore Westerns I recorded the 1941 John Wayne version of The Shepherd of the Hills.

The movie is based on a book from the early part of the 20th century and had already been filmed at least once before, as a silent, although Wikipedia says there are substantial plot changes from the book which, in any case, I haven't read. John Wayne plays Matt Matthews, a man in the Ozarks who spends a lot of his time mourning his dead mother, and cursing his absent father, since Dad was nowhere to be found when Mom got sick and died so Matt blames the missing father for Mom's death. But this conflict comes up a bit later in the story.

This being hillbilly country, there's not a whole lot of respect for the government, specifically the revenuers, who harass the poor people for liking the wrong sort of alcohol -- they should drink wine instead like the good rich folk do. Jim Lane is one of the many moonshiners, living with his adult daughter Sammy (Betty Field). He gets shot at by one of the revenuers, but, in a stroke of good luck, another man just happens to be pasing through. That man, Daniel Howitt (Harry Carey), saves Jim's life and decides that he's going to think about settling down in this neck of the woods.

After Matt's mother died, his Aunt Mollie (Beulah Bondi) and Uncle Matt (James Barton) took over the old homestead where young Matt's mom and the rest of that part of the family lived. They haven't done much with it, however, because of young Matt's continuing to mourn for his beloved mother. Aunt Mollie, for her part, tries to point out that she did a lot of the taking care of he sister, since young Matt was too young to do so at the time. But I bring all of this up because when Howitt lets it be known that he'd like to buy some land here, Sammy suggests buying what had been young Matt's home.

This would also serve the purpose of giving young Matt a little bit of money to get started in life, which in Sammy's view would be perfect because she's in love with Matt and this would enable him to marry her. Matt, for his part, is aghast at the idea, because in his mind he can't escape the past and has no intention of ever selling his mom's house. (The one thing you can argue in his defense is that the house might be a good place for newlyweds to start married life, although it would have to be a different set of newlyweds from Matt and Sammy. Matt is going to continue to curse the world, especially Daniel, whom he sees as an interloper.

Everybody else, for their part, sees Daniel as a kind and generous man, willing to overpay for that house and even willing to donate money to see that Granny Becky Matthews (Marjorie Main) can get cataract surgery to restore her eyesight. That brings about the final dramatic conflict of the movie, which you might be able to see (no pun intended) coming a mile away.

The Shepherd of the Hills is a rather different movie for John Wayne. He had spent almost all of the 1930s making B westerns on Poverty Row before being made a star again with Stagecoach. It's easy to see why a movie like The Shepherd of the Hills would wind up on a westerns channel, although it's not a traditional western. There's also a magical nature to the movie that isn't like Wayne's work up to that point. But because of the nature of the story, that unreality -- like a story not bound by place or time -- mostly works.

Wayne, I think, is not quite rightly cast here; he does well with his material but after Stagecoach he always looked a little older than he was and the story really needs somebody younger. Young Matt needs not to have been an adult when his mom died, and the timeline doesn't seem to work here. But again, Wayne does well, as do the other actors. They're also well served by the Technicolor photography, which I think was a first for Wayne.

As I said earlier, I haven't read the book, and I haven't seen any of the other movie versions either. But this version of The Shepherd of the Hills stands on its own and is definitely worth a watch.

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