(directed by William Wyler, 1940)
***** (out of 5)
> As with most all great American westerns, this wonderful William Wyler film is the story of a highly moral man who clashes with a sociopath: a megalomaniac egoist who is unable to feel empathy of others.
. Here the hero (mistaken for a horse thief) is predictably grounded Gary Cooper and his nemesis: Walter Brennan in the single best (Oscar winning) role of his considerable career. I was not familiar with the young Walter Brennan we see here, having been exposed to him at the end of his career in TV shows like “Gunsmoke” and as the ornery grandpa on “The Real McCoys”. (As a kid, I used to do an impression of this character, limping and wincing: “Goldurnit, Pepita!”) The plot deals with the unrelenting conflict between cattlemen and the new ranchers who want to homestead in the Texas countryside, erecting fences to keep the cattle out. As the nakedly corrupt self-appointed “Judge” Roy Bean, Brennan is absolutely wonderful in every frame, and Gary Cooper makes a perfect foil for him. They have that wonderfully complicated screen relationship of friendly opponents, and even though it seems Gary Cooper can see their inevitable confrontation coming, he can’t help but kind of admire and like this basically evil man.
. There is a wonderful comic dimension to Brennan’s bossman Roy Bean: he is an obsessive fan of popular stage actress Lily Langtry that he renames the town in her honor, harboring such a soft spot for the alluring celebrity that she threatens to be the source of his downfall. The final confrontation between the two immovable objects is absolutely classic, so I will resist the urge to tell you anything about it- except that it’s just about perfect.
. If you missed this one, and truly love great American films- seek it out!
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