I do appreciate older films running their credits at the beginning, and I make a habit of perusing them for familiar names. More often than not, I’m rewarded in some small regard. However, The Westerner features a rather unusual notice: “This story is legend founded on fact and, with the exception of “Judge” Roy Bean and Lily Langtry, all the characters are fictional.”
It seems a curious statement to make, but upon actually viewing this western, it makes complete sense. Not simply because the genre thrives off of myths, legends, and larger-than-life heroes, but the story is as much a testament to its characters than the offbeat movements of its plot. To a varying degree, it precedes thematic elements found in pictures like Shane (1953), The Far Country (1954), and Day of The Outlaw (1959).
Judge Roy Bean is one of the eccentric and notorious “hanging” judges of the Old West who supposedly lorded over the Texas territories. It’s difficult to think of a better man to play the ornery son of a gun than Walter Brennan. It’s even harder to think of a better part for Brennan. He’s got his name all over it.
Because he’s part of the local crowd of cattlers who are ready to do everything in their power to get the miserable sodbusters off the land they deem to be rightfully theirs. After all, they got to the land “first” so dibs should obviously go to them, no matter how much land is available.
The animosity is already fierce when the film opens with the cattle ranchers looking to scare off and gun down any of the opposition. Meanwhile, the homesteaders are intent on protecting their own with guns if they have to, continuing to grow their crops and fence off their territory.
But one brazen individual isn’t so lucky as he’s tracked down and brought before the “Judge” who holds court in his own bar and sentences the man be “hung.” It’s one of the grimmer moments in a western offering otherwise ripe with jocular even humorous interludes.
Because the inevitable occurs and the prototypical saddle tramp, Cole Harden (Gary Cooper) is drifting his way to California. It wouldn’t mean much except for the fact he’s accused of riding a stolen horse belonging to one of the cattlemen.
As is typical in the territory, he’s about to be tried and strung up right there in the bar. The Judge is all ready to throw the book at him. But Gary Cooper is not your typical man. Normally we would say he’s a stellar gunfighter or a fierce personality, but what he’s armed with, in this picture, is a quick wit.
We see his eyes gazing up at the wall above him as his mind works coolly to make up a story to save his own skin. It’s quite obvious that Bean has a special admiration for one dancehall performer Lilly Langtry and so, of course, Cole’s story goes something like this…
He once met Ms. Langtry while she was touring the states and struck up a friendship with her. Why he even asked for a lock of hair to hold onto as a keepsake. And of course, he doesn’t have it on his person. He would have to call for it. By this point, Bean is licking his lips with relish; the jury concurrently convening on whether or not the out-of-towner should be strung up.
We see Harden has gained a very influential admirer and he and the Judge strike up an uneasy partnership that we might tentatively call friendship. Conveniently, another horse thief — the real one — is found to take his place. Thereafter, the story is injected with subsequent comic undertones following a real bender, leading into a chase on horseback as Brennan tries to catch up to Cooper. He really wants that lock of hair for himself!
They both end up rolling around in the dirt conducting a meeting of the minds to decide if he will stay. In a perfect follow-up, the camera switches angles with Brennan’s back to the camera as they continue to converse and Cooper nonchalantly slips the other man’s gun into his boot.
It’s interludes like these that continually assert the film as a wholly idiosyncratic take on the western genre, which, by all accounts, wasn’t much to Gary Cooper’s liking. Because The Westerner lacks the classical elements we’ve come to expect, and there you have part of what makes it a good-humored time.
But this blissful note strikes too soon. There is an inferno of drama ready to envelop the film leaving behind charred remains and pained relationships. One of the most integral people is plucky Jane Ellen Matthews (Doris Davenport) who spoke up on behalf of Cole and subsequently castigated the judge for his corruption.
In the end, she feels betrayed by Harden in his attempts to play mediator between both sides. One questions whether or not this is the last straw. Surely he will ride on to leave behind all the trouble at hand.
Still, with any Gary Cooper hero, there must be an inherent decency to be abided by. It’s little surprise he sticks around to cross wills with Bean one last time. They meet indoors waiting for Ms. Langtry’s stunning debut at a local theater. For some reason, it feels like we are sitting in on Ford’s Theater with some unnamed tragedy about to occur.
What goes down thereafter feels a bit like an anti-payoff after all we have gone through. Although it does come with a wide array of bullet holes. There must be more to this story. Then again, maybe it is just the right resolution for a rare oater such as this. At any rate, the film is at its best not as a wide-ranging epic but on a micro-scale. This is a story owned first and foremost by our two leading men.
Taken as it is, the story is uneven even subpar, but it gives us enough that is unorthodox and set alongside the incandescent performances of Cooper and Brennan with Gregg Toland’s ever superb compositions, there’s too much to like here to disregard it outrightly.
While William Wyler was never synonymous with the West like a John Ford, he nevertheless delivered on several occasions. The Westerner was one and The Big Country another. It comes from stellar character dynamics and cinematography more than anything else. However, when put together compellingly, they do make a sterling combination. For this one, we could not envision the West without the likes of Gary Cooper and Walter Brennan.
Walter Brennan leverages his role to become one of the most endearing of antagonists. And if it’s pushing it to say he’s lovable, then at least there’s something tragically inane about him so agog over a lady, even to the point of renaming his town after her. Since actors like Chill Wills and Dana Andrews are mere blips on the screen, Cooper is the only character coming close to his equal.
There’s only one final thought left. It really is a shame Gregg Toland never shot more westerns, especially with John Ford (his collaborator on two contemporary pictures). Some of the most captivating images in The Westerner come from sunlight glistening through the cornfields as the homesteaders thank the Lord for their bounty. What could he have done with Monument Valley as his playground?