Law and Morality in William Wellman’s West – Il Cinema Ritrovato

A few weeks ago, actor/director Tommy Lee Jones premiered his new film The Homesman in Cannes. A Western, a genre of which Jones is a noted fan, telling the tale of a single woman who, with the help of the titular character played by Jones himself, transports three mentally disturbed women from Nebraska to Iowa. Several reports commended the film for the revisionist, but probably correct, approach of showing that the West was built on acts of violence, cruelty and selfishness, mainly portrayed by Jones’ character. This play for lower and questionable morals is in sharp contrast with the way the West, and especially its morals, were portrayed in the genre’s heyday during the forties and fifties.

One of the programs at Il Cinema Ritrovato in Bologna this year focused on the work of William A. Wellman. This Massachusetts native, respected but generally not counted among his era’s greats, was a director whose career spanned several genres. His forays into the Western included some of his most acclaimed films, and give us an interesting look at how the ideas of law and morality and the image of the righteous hero have become engrained in our collective memory of how the West was built. Two of Wellman’s Westerns, Yellow Sky (1948) and The Ox-Bow Incident (1943), both aim to teach us an important moral lesson through their perhaps not unflappable, but righteous heroes.

Yellow Sky tells the tale of Gregory Peck’s James Dawson, the leader of a gang of bank robbers. After a successful heist, James leads the men’s flight across blistering salt flats to the small town of Yellow Sky. Unfortunately for them, it turns out to be a ghost town, its only inhabitants an old prospector (James Barton) and his granddaughter Mike (a very young-looking Anne Baxter). Not exactly welcomed with open arms by these two, James’ crew form a tense relationship with their hosts, who provide them with food and water while their horses get a few days of rest after the gruelling walk across the flats. A cat-and-mouse game ensues between James and the independent, headstrong Mike. At one point, James attempts what can only be seen as rape, though Mike single-handedly manages to fend him off. Later, James deduces correctly that Mike and her grandfather have been successful in their prospecting, and the crew decides they have the upper hand and can make a play for the gold. They propose a 50-50 split to the old man, and he reluctantly agrees. The robbers dig up the gold, but are surprised by a large group of Apaches at night. The Apache leaders visit the old prospector, and James and his men suspect he sold them out to the Native Americans. When James confronts him with this, the old man explains that he in fact struck a completely different deal with the Apaches, promising to help them with an issue with their reservation. The rest of James’ crew is not convinced, even if James is, and they want to take off with all of the gold instead of the agreed one half. The morally correct James, however, wants to honour the original deal, and the conflict between James and the rest of his gang makes him and Mike unlikely, but not unexpected, allies against the rest of the band of criminals. Of course the ones on the moral high ground decide the conflict to their advantage, split the gold, and live happily ever after. In one of the final scenes, James and one other robber that switched sides during the final gunfight revisit the bank they robbed at the beginning to return the money they stole. In the last scene, Baxter’s reverse feminist trajectory is completed when Peck buys her a hat that transforms her into the stereotypical Western love interest, all the more peculiar given the attempted rape mentioned earlier. The moral of the story is that the hero redeemed himself by staying true to his word, and any flaws and earlier mistakes are forgiven because of his honesty.

The Ox-Bow Incident does not explicitly include a love interest, unless she ended up on the cutting-room floor. Henry Fonda’s Gil Carter and his friend Art Croft (Harry Morgan) ride into town looking for Rose Mapen, with whom Gil has a history. It turns out the young lady has moved to San Francisco, but about a third into the film she is introduced after all, arriving on a stagecoach with a newfound husband. The former history between the two is played up again, and even explicitly alluded to by the new husband, but this is, rather bafflingly, Rose’s last appearance in the film. Wellman is not interested in male-female relationships in this one, though the reason to set the character up as he does is puzzling.

But character development is certainly not the focus in this film: the story revolves around a posse being formed after news of an alleged murder and cattle theft against a nearby rancher is brought to town. Most members of the posse are caricatures, with Jane Darwell’s Jenny Grier an extremely grating example. Some townsmen plead for justice to be served, but most are just out for blood. The chase is on, and after a while the posse catches up with the three suspects: Donald Martin (Dana Andrews), who says he rightfully acquired the cattle from the rancher (without being able to produce a bill of sale, though); a dimwitted old man (Francis Ford); and Juan Martinez (a young Anthony Quinn), who at first does not speak English, but turns out to perfectly master the language after all (as well as not being who he claimed to be). A lot of evidence, though mostly circumstantial, is brought up against the three men, but they maintain they are innocent. Martinez tries to escape but is caught, and the rancher’s gun is found on him. Again the posse is divided: some urge that they bring the men back to town to investigate the matter and let justice run its course, others want to hang the trio on the spot. Donald is allowed to write a final letter to his wife and children. When the posse’s strongest supporter of justice, Davies (Harry Davenport), reads this letter, he is convinced the men cannot have done what they are accused of. He urges Gil to read the letter too, in a last-ditch attempt to prevent the inevitable. Gil refuses, and the three men are hanged. Shortly after, the sheriff meets up with the posse, and it turns out the three men were indeed innocent. Returning to town, Gil decides to read the letter after all, and sure enough the letter is a sermon for justice and morality, both of which were just spat upon by these men. Even if the audience (at least in 2014) were already aware that these men made a terrible mistake, here it is underlined by what becomes a righteous speech by Fonda (even if in the words of another character) hammering home the morally correct message of the film. The whole film seems to exist just to deliver that final scene, and it renders the tone of the film preachy, far more so than Yellow Sky.

The interesting contrast between the two films is that in Yellow Sky initial bad deeds are washed away by good deeds that come from a strong moral code of what is right and wrong in the central character, flawed as he may be. The central character in The Ox-Bow Incident, even if he was among the seven posse members that chose justice over lynching, is not allowed that relief, and is made to suffer for the immoral choices of the majority. He is less flawed than his counterpart in Yellow Sky, but had he chosen to read the letter he could have prevented the drama (at least that’s what the film aims at). Still, both James and Gil are inherently good men who rise above their flaws. This is not an uncommon pattern in older Westerns and their typical hero-versus-villain stories, which leads to the general perception that civilization was brought to the West through the virtues of such good and moral men. From the sixties on this image has gradually been changed by films that challenged this notion, but the genre dwindled for quite some time. Only in recent times has the genre had a bit of a revival, but these days the central characters are more nuanced and given shades of sometimes deep grey. Even Jones’ Briggs in The Homesman can be seen as a traditional Western hero in a general way, but some of his actions late in the film tarnish this early impression of a grumpy but ultimately good-natured man. Neither Peck’s James nor Fonda’s Gil would ever go as dark as this character does. Heroes doing unthinkable deeds were simply inconceivable in Wellman’s West. In essence, these films were morality tales that fit genre staples around issues of right and wrong. They might as well have been sword-and-sandal films or stories about knights and kings, but the forming of the West is such an integral part of the American psyche that it was more logical to use it to frame these moral issues. Unfortunately, it tainted our view of those early frontier pioneers so much, that films that paint a more balanced but realistic image of the old West are seen as exceptions.

The myth of the Western hero was fed by films like Wellman’s, and it has taken us decades to deconstruct this myth. Morality is hard to find in The Homesman, and having a sense of what’s right and what’s wrong and living by it is certainly not rewarded. In another, more contemporary Western, the Coens’ No Country for Old Men, another Tommy Lee Jones character laments that he cannot understand evil anymore. An unwritten code seems to have been broken. But in his own film, Jones contends that this evil has existed for a long time, and that law and morality as William Wellman portrayed them never really existed.