A knockout. Stone cold five-star gold label classic. It’s rare for a non-western to turn into one of the greatest westerns of all time. Forget The Wild Bunch (1969) and Once Upon a time in the West (1969) and every other paean to the dying of the Old West. This is all you need. A true insight into just what is left for the cowboy once civilization and modernization have run their course.
What’s perhaps most astonishing is that three major Hollywood stars plus a top director and one of the three greatest American playwrights of all time combined to make an indie. There’s no high drama of the kind Hollywood usually requires, no love dashed, no death or murder, nothing dramatic enough to be called narratively gripping. Made today, it would be the kind of picture that would traipse from film festival to film festival, hoping for a break at Sundance. The cast would be no-namers unless a star, fed-up with actioners, wanted to gain some artistic credibility.
By some freak of Hollywood magic this was greenlit. There’s plenty good dialog but nothing that’s going to make it into the Classic Line Hall of Fame and there’s only a handful of finely wrought scenes. So beyond the astonishing mustang sequence, what reverberated was the acting, with each big star producing a scene of the highest quality, for pure emotional impact possibly unsurpassed in their entire careers.
The story itself is pretty slim. Roslyn (Marilyn Monroe) in Reno to get a divorce hooks up with washed-up cowboy Gay (Clark Gable) and grieving car mechanic Guido (Eli Wallach). They repair to Guido’s cabin in the country, unfinished after his pregnant wife died because he didn’t have a spare tire. They are joined by hard-drinking man-hungry Isabelle (Thelma Ritter). Roslyn shacks up here with Gay, brightening up the place with decorative ideas and planting vegetables.
At the rodeo they stake drunken Perce (Montgomery Clift), a tough guy with mother issues, self-destructing one rodeo at a time. At various times the trio nurse and console each other, but mostly they get drunk. The three men take Roslyn along to show off their cowboy skills, catching wild mustangs. This is less old-fashioned than you might imagine. It’s more like tracking down the great white shark in Jaws (1975), a primeval battle between man and beast. Man has the advantage of being able to use Guido’s biplane to drive the horses down to Gay and Guido waiting with lassoes.
What are the tires for you might well ask? Well, they fulfil the same function as the barrels in Jaws, to weight down the animals so they are easier to track, perhaps exhausting them so much they might just topple over and die. So the odds are not exactly even.
The guys are further disadvantaged by Roslyn’s presence. When she learns of the horses’ fate – not as you might expect to become working horses on a ranch like current television series Yellowstone – she is horrified. The critters will end up as pet food. So much for the Wild West.
This is an absolutely fantastic sequence and I’m surprised it doesn’t turn up on critical lists at all as one of the great western segments of all time. It says more about the end of the West than all the violence of The Wild Bunch or operatic fervour of Once Upon a Time in the West. And it’s a companion piece to The Old Man and the Sea, man, for all his endeavors, ending up with virtually nothing.
There’s a few twists and turns to this sequence so I won’t spoil it for you except to say it is one of the very few sections in movies where character plays out in action.
And this isn’t even Gable’s greatest scene. The moment when, drunken out of his skull already, he bleats in the street about his kids carries awesome power. What he’s saying doesn’t even make a great deal of sense, which is the beauty of it, because what drunk ever makes sense, most of the time he’s effectively addressing the demons inside.
Clift has a horrifically comic scene. His brain is as washed away as his body. He wakes out of a drunken stupor and can’t remember why he has a huge bandage round his head and proceeds to unravel it, again with a monologue that reveals his inner catatonic state.
Monroe is mute in her best scene. She just stares in horror at the mustang incident unfolding. And she has another terrific scene, probably the most ordinary thing she ever did in her screen career, battering a ping-pong.
The title is actually a rodeo term apparently for, unsurprisingly, a horse that was too small or weak to work. I would have preferred something less obvious because it’s quite clear from the outset all the characters are misfits.
This is probably the closest Monroe got to playing a character who reflected her inner turmoil. Roslyn’s beauty brightens up lives but mostly she is depressed, thinking that even when you win you lose, too fragile to cope with reality, and inclined to need consoled as much as she is willing to nurse the others. Gay is a superb creation, who despises men who earn “wages,” that is have a regular job and lose their freedom. Even if freedom means no female companionship and being reduced to catching horses for the few bucks they will bring in from pet food manufacturers, he would rather do that. Perce is just so battered by life he hasn’t a clue what he’s doing. The self-serving Guido whines.
Put all these characters together and they still live in world of their own, and although they occasionally cross the border into another’s existence by and large it is without understanding.
Without John Huston’s empathetic direction it would be unbearably sad, but with virtually nothing in the way of real plot he draws us inexorably in to their small lives. Given its budget and the box office potential of the stars, it was a flop on release. Now it’s a masterpiece.
However tragic or premature, few Hollywood stars could have gone out at the top with a picture of this quality as did Gable and Monroe. Possibly as a result of his exertions on the film, Gable died a few days after shooting completed, Monroe eighteen months later, but what a final legacy.