It becomes increasingly apparent Rachel and The Stranger is a peculiar little movie that would have no place in the modern landscape, and not simply because RKO Studios is no longer in existence. It feels like arguably its biggest star is off-screen more than he is on because he was probably in at least 3 or 4 other pictures in the same year. When he is present, Robert Mitchum is altogether jolly, always wandering into the story with a guitar and a song on his lips. It’s a slightly different iteration from the rogues he was normally called on to play.
Likewise, Loretta Young isn’t her usual effervescent self for much of the picture, made to look dowdy and such given the territory. These were the days before William Holden had yet to come into his own. He’s likable in a movie like Apartment for Peggy or here, but he hardly has a voice. There’s nothing alive and individual about what he brings to the part. He’s not yet a romantic heartthrob, and he doesn’t have his cultivated sardonic edge.
Mind you, this is all before even getting to the content at hand. Because Rachel and the Stranger concerns itself with subject matter we rarely see in Hollywood either. Rather than consider it a conventional western, it’s more of a colonial drama taking on the pioneering days of the likes of Natty Bumppo and Davy Crockett.
David Harvey has just recently lost his wife to some unnamed affliction. He is comforted by his friend Jim Fairways (Robert Mitchum), even as he is faced with the seemingly insurmountable task of raising his son Davy (Gary Gray) on the harsh frontier with some element of civility. To uphold the honor of his wife, he wants to impress upon his boy the importance of education, praying before meals, and such puritan disciplines.
He knows he’s not able to give that to the boy as his own know-how is all of a practical nature, about survival out in the wilderness. The only alternative is to find a suitable wife, not a romantic partner, but someone who might be a good maternal presence in young Davy’s life. As women are scarce, David finds the next best thing in Rachel.
Historically, a step before mail order brides, there was something even more archaic: indentured servitude. This is before the chattel system of African slaves when we had another outdated economy where people were beholden to others to pay off debts. So David buys Rachel from her previous owner so she might fulfill the surrogate duties of a mother. One is led to inquire, “How in the world did Loretta Young end up as a bondservant, to begin with?”
As is all but expected, there are growing pains and chafing as Davy is unimpressed by this woman who is a shadow of his own mother’s talents when it comes to shooting guns and running a home. But Rachel has a will to prove herself and earn their undying respect.
In one sense, it’s somewhat difficult to consider the story soberly, given how the material plays, but Susan is quite a unique character, especially given the time period. Her point of view is typically unsung and unseen. For this reason alone it’s a slightly intriguing proposition.
The story escalates gradually with the men fighting over the woman. Because when Jim drifts back into their lives as he has a habit of doing, he brings out contours of Rachel they have never seen before. Her love of music. The warmth of her smile. Laughter. David realizes she is far more than he gave her credit for, and her personality is far more intricate than he ever took the time to find out.
However, this ensuing battle also asks the implicit question, “What say does she have in the turn of events?” If we wanted to use more current vernacular, we would need to consider her personal agency. Thankfully, she has a moment to fight back with a few choice words of her own.
The tone changes completely with a midnight onslaught by some militant Shawnee out on the warpath. It’s as if we needed a reminder of where our setting is. It does its job by blowing over the tiff between friends. It puts it in perspective so they can start afresh with a new lease on life. For once, this is a story about husband and wife — not man and servant.
True, there’s a controversial verse from the Old Book that reads, “Wives submit to your husbands” just as another entreats, “slaves obey your masters.” But there is a flip side to these seemingly patriarchal ordinances. Husbands are told to love their wives, “just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.” Then, “masters, treat your slaves in the same way. Do not threaten them, since you know that he who is both their Master and yours is in heaven, and there is no favoritism with him.”
David Harvey without question is familiar with these words. This movie is an exercise of him grappling with the weight of their meaning, just as it is a tale of a woman coming into her own as a beautiful, unique individual.