In the scene where Tony Sinclair and his sidekicks confront Clay Ellison and burn the wagon, the shot alternated between a facing shot of Clay, and a rear view. In each shot Clay is holding the shotgun. In the facing shots he holds it across his body with the barrel held high, yet in each of the rear shots it is held horizontally at arms length. There is no apparent movement of the gun, however. See more »
I tried to bend that kid a certain way. I tried to shape him. He was some kind of tough leather that I had to make soft. But he didn't soften any. He wasn't made that way. He was just rotten leather and he came up hard.
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The Sinclairs and the Deneens are two ranching families who share the open range in their remote western valley. Steve Sinclair is a fine, strong man who has put his gunslinging days behind him and is now a figure of rectitude and stability in the affairs of the valley. His younger brother Tony, however, is a hothead who is beginning to regard himself as a handy guy with a six-gun.
Robert Taylor plays Steve with manly, tight-lipped stoicism, contrasting markedly with John Cassavetes' Tony, a jumpy dynamo of attention-seeking energy. This thoughtful MGM western sets up a whole web of conflicts and tensions: there is the inevitable clash between the two brothers, the uneasy modus vivendi with Old Man Deneen, friction between ranchers and homesteaders, as the latter try to settle on the free range. When Tony returns from a trip to the city bringing with him the beautiful Joan (Julie London) as his bride-to-be, yet another source of conflict arises.
"Steve's gonna like you," Tony tells his new fiancee with unconscious irony, not knowing that it is Steve and Joan who will fall for each other. The romantic closeness between the saloon girl and the older man is never made explicit, but it is plain that they are destined to be a couple. The psychology of this tentative relationship is sensitively portrayed, for instance in the scene where Joan remarks, "I've seen reformed gunmen before." Steve reacts with a mixture of shame and hurt which tells us that he desires her good opinion.
Prefiguration is a stylistic leitmotif running through the film. Larry Venables refuses to have his saloon table cleared, and then later Tony prevents Manuelo from clearing another table. Deneen's young son was killed in a futile gunfight, an event which has impacted on the life of the whole valley, and we see the tragedy re-enacted as other men lose their lives needlessly. Tony and Dallas act out a playful 'mock' draw on the exact spot where Ellason is later gunned down.
A good deal of the film's psychological import is conveyed, not in dialogue, but through visual communication. Joan's reaction when Venables makes trouble in the saloon suggests that she knows the bad guy but is trying to conceal the fact. After the shooting, we see Tony fail the 'test', though nothing is ever said directly. Joan wants to be taken home, and Tony's immature decision to stay drinking with the boys signals the breaking-point of the relationship. Joan moves away from the group and sits alone. The ploughshare which is used for shooting practice symbolises the threat posed to wholesome farming life by irresponsible gunmen. Tony places his arm on Steve's shoulder, and Steve dislodges it with the subtlest of movements, showing the rift that is growing between the brothers, but which neither wishes to acknowledge. In the very next image, Hank tries to take the whiskey bottle away from Tony, but Tony clings to it, his pattern of destructive self-indulgence now well established. Once Deneen (the marvellous Donald Crisp) has decided to choke the range with wire fences, we see bales of barbed wire thrown down onto the ground with force. They glint harshly, their steely newness a hostile presence, harming the soil. When the brothers finally meet, we see each of them silently preparing his gun.
The scene in which Steve and Joan ride back from town is nicely done, with its change of tempo from hard anger to a quieter, more reflective mood. Steve shows himself to be a man of complex emotions beneath his stern facade.
The film is shot in Cinemascope and MGM's own colour process, Metrocolor. In the first scene, Venables menaces the bartenders in the saloon, a drab brown man in a drab brown setting. This is this creature's element. A very striking effect is achieved as the scene changes and we see the open range, the beautiful sunlit countryside contrasting powerfully with what has gone before. By the end of the film, the sage is in bloom, and the image of the young man dying on a brilliant purple carpet of natural luxuriance is almost unbearably poignant.
Elmer Bernstein was the Musical Director, and in his characteristically understated style he did his usual excellent job. By 1958 it was beginning to be ambarrassing for audiences to see a character breaking into song, but the restrained guitar accompaniment as Julie London croons the theme tune salvages this one from seeming too obtrusive.
Everybody is looking for his place in the world. Deneen dreams of establishing a paradise where violence is unknown, and Steve is striving to be a good rancher and to live down his past. Tony wants to make a name for himself, while Joan is hoping to escape the squalor of her earlier years. Venables wants the kudos of having killed Steve Sinclair, and Ellason is yearning for the homestead of his dreams. Some achieve their persoanl nirvana, but most don't. The film's message is that violence and confrontation don't move anybody forward in life.
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