With John Wayne partnered with his longtime collaborator James Edward Grant (Hondo, McClintock!) it’s easy to see Angel and the Badman as an early vehicle for his conservative ideals but far from being heavy-handed, it goes down as a solid B-picture with a surprisingly unique perspective on the West.
In this instance, the western is used to construct a fairly simple parable that plays out over the frontier using figures that we know well from every cowboy picture we’ve ever seen. The outlaws and the homesteaders, the sheriffs and the doctors, they’re all present.
But underlying their every interaction is a certain purpose. It’s not simply to entertain — though the film is adequate in that department and has it’s share of gunfights and showdowns. It foregoes most of the normal set pieces to carry out its main objective as a moral tale. Still, these established figures help draw up the themes by the very way they see the world.
Quirt Evans (John Wayne) has and always will be an outlaw as preordained by society until the fateful day when he finds sanctuary in the home of a Quaker family after incurring a wound. They take care of him and nurse him back to health but above all, they give him the benefit of the doubt — that he is not too far gone and he still has more than a fair chance to redeem his life if he so chooses.
The local apothecary functions as the main counterpoint to our angelic first family. He is very rational-minded, devoted to scientific thought and his cynicism leads him to begrudgingly patch up the outlaw all the while grumbling under his breath. It’s telling though that he holds this overtly religious family in high regard. But nevertheless, the parameters have been set. We must sit back and find out where John Wayne falls within the frames of this corral.
It’s true that he’s saddled with a past full of womanizing, guns, greed, and every other sin known to man. In fact, the local sheriff is bent on hanging a rope around his neck but the old veteran (Harry Carey) is a sly fellow ready to bide his time and let Quirk slip up somehow.
The main point of contention is a payload of gold that a band of glowering thugs is intent on getting a handle on. Quirt is all that stands between them and the prize but even in his injured state he still packs a gun — the bullets inside and his stellar marksmanship being the key deciding factors.
Playing against this very storyline is a parallel thread that bears equal importance if not more. Penelope Worth (Gail Russell) is the daughter of this Quaker family and she is tasked with taking care of this formidable outlaw. In any other scenario, they would be oil and water. Their lives and personalities should never mix and yet in this romance, they ultimately do. True, his lawless lifestyle chafes against the worldview of these religious Quakers who promote an existence of good will and pacifism. Still, people can change.
John Wayne notably disliked High Noon (1952) and his most famous denouncement of the picture can be seen in Rio Bravo (1959), viewed by many as a cinematic answer to its predecessor. However, in this earlier film, you see in Wayne’s character a man who also falls for a Quaker much like Will Kane (Cooper) does in High Noon. But here he comes from the wrong side of the law. Still, she redeems his very nature and far from throwing off the perceived shackles of her beliefs or simply tolerating them to stick to what he knows best (namely gunplay and showdowns) he does the fairly brazen thing and wholeheartedly embraces her way of life. Because he loves her.
It begs the question, which outcome is more believable: The sheriff who went against his wife’s pleas so he could uphold his personal convictions or the outlaw who gave up his old way of life even in the face of death because he was transformed by the love and lifestyle of his woman? Rather than drawing up which one is better exactly, it might suffice to say that Angel and the Badman, while lesser known, is still a diverting western with its own moral dilemma because westerns are and always have been horse operas.