Directed by King Vidor
Written by David O. Selznick
We’ve seen a wide range of style of film throughout this marathon, which is the beauty of the genre: it is open to so many different things. Some of the early silent films were epics, displaying the settlement of the west on a grand scale. Some of the more recent films have featured much smaller, concentrated stories. Each has merit, each has produced great films, and poor films. We’ll continue to see more of both as the marathon continues, with added story elements and genre subvertions to make things interesting. But with Duel in the Sun, we return to the grand scale filmmaking which made films such as The Iron Horse and The Covered Wagon hits in their day, and important entries into the quintessential American genre: Westerns.
After seeing her parents killed, half breed Pearl (Jennifer Jones) goes to live with her father’s first love, Laura Belle (Lillian Gish) and her husband (Lionel Barrymore) on a grand ranch in Texas. As soon as she arrives, Pearl turns the heads of both sons. Jesse (Joseph Cotten) is the good one, until he spurns the family for the railroad in what the McCanles’ see as treason. Lewt (Gregory Peck) is the bad boy, forcing himself upon Pearl, insisting that he loves her and they will always end up together. As the politics of Texas, and the romance of Pearl grows bigger and more tense, The brothers find themselves at odds over each other, while Pearl struggles to figure out which direction her new life may take.
Popping this disc into my DVD player, I was struck with something we’ve not yet seen in this marathon: Intro music! which even includes an Overture (the film also closes with Exit music). Immediately this film made an impression on me, setting itself apart from the other films we’ve seen thus far. It carries itself like an epic on the scale of producer David O. Selznick’s Gone with the Wind. The story is grand and sweeping, with ill fated romance, reminding one of a Shakespearean narrative. The cast is grand, featuring Hollywood greats Jennifer Jones, Gregory Peck and Joseph Cotten, and legends Lionel Barrymore and Lillian Gish. Everything is lined up in this movie for it to be an absolute all-timer. And then it isn’t.
This movie tries, it tries so hard. And I don’t mean that in a bad way, but ultimately the film fails on a number of levels. It accomplishes a few things, including spectacular technicolor cinematography and a few stellar performances, mostly from Oscar nominated Lillian Gish and Jennifer Jones. It would also appear as though no expense was spared in the film’s production, allowing the large scale epic to unfold. But unfortunately none of it is that good. The epic music is forgettable, and the story itself suffers even more, getting caught up in its own self-importance enough to make it a slog of a movie to sit though. And it all starts with the characters at the center of the film.
Jennifer Jones is good here, but at times she is clearly overacting, mostly in the more dramatic moments. But the largest problem I had with the film were the characters themselves, who motives and desires were not believable, nor were they noble. The story arc for Pearl is disappointing. As a half breed, she has certainly faced racism and a hard path along the way, but given her new lease on life with the McCanles, she seems pre-occupied with falling in love with the wrong sort. Gregory Peck certainly pulls off the sleazy Lewt character well, while Cotten is good as his counterpart, but as the film builds to its dramatic finale, I found myself more bored, less interested in cheering for, well, anything. I can’t say these two characters deserve each other, because Pearl has nothing much against her, while Lewt is a horrible person. Duel in the Sun feigns importance and drama, never earning either distinction on its own. It’s a beautiful film to look at, not without its fleeting merits, but in general, it misses the target, by a wide margin.