The Westerner (1940)
The Westerner (1940)

Genre: Western Running Time: 1 hr. 40 min.

Release Date: September 20th, 1940 MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Director: William Wyler Actors: Gary Cooper, Walter Brennan, Doris Davenport, Fred Stone, Forrest Tucker, Paul Hurst, Chill Wills, Lilian Bond, Dana Andrews

 


 

A

fter the Civil War, America faced toward the West, where freedoms awaited. Texas, in particular, became the home of cattlemen like “Judge” Roy Bean, who ruled the territory how he saw fit, which eventually led to a war with the homesteaders, who wanted farmland for their families. In the town of Vinegarroon, where Bean (Walter Brennan) is the only law West of the Pecos, he unsympathetically hangs a sodbuster for accidentally shooting a steer, rather than punishing the herder mowing through his land. And it’s surely not the first time a human life was discarded so cheaply.

Mere minutes later, prisoner Cole Harden (Gary Cooper) is brought in to Bean’s bar (nicknamed after Lily Langtry, the only other real person mentioned) for another impromptu trial and judgment. Harden is a saddlebum just passing through, but he’s accused of stealing a horse belonging to Chickenfoot (Paul Hurst). The defendant says he purchased the equine, yet there’s no evidence or witnesses. To stall the verdict, Harden pretends – or does he? – that he met and got to know Langtry herself, and that he has a lock of her hair with his belongings back in El Paso. Bean temporarily sets aside the death penalty to sort out Harden’s claims, considering that the lock of hair could be retrieved in approximately 2-3 weeks – except that Cole swears he wouldn’t trade the prize for anything in the world.

A battle of wits transforms into a shaky friendship; a contest of measuring up to Bean’s ideals lands Harden in a difficult position, even after the issue with the horse is resolved. Was his tall tale just that? Can he rid himself of Bean’s iron rule simply by fleeing town? There’s also Jane Ellen Mathews (Doris Davenport), a young woman who despises Bean’s vigilante justice (“You’re no more a judge than I am!”), and whose homesteading plight against the cowboys is in desperate need of a man skilled with a gun.

Cooper’s tall, dark stranger is immediately appealing; he’s a righteous figure with a sharp mind, who reveals very little – even when his life is in danger. Unlike comparable Westerns of the era, there’s a lack of sincerity here, chiefly with Harden, that works quite well. He’s invincible in an odd way, not from bullets but from the wrath of either party as he ingratiates himself into both camps – like in “Yojimbo” and “A Fistful of Dollars,” long before either of those two incredibly famous pictures would come to be. His success is derived from intelligence over brawn, even though, as a Western, this film isn’t devoid of traded punches in the dirt and showdowns in a bar.

Along with Cole’s carefree attitude, a considerable amount of humor weaves its way through the script, punctuating the typical Western conflicts with hilarious moments of deception and flirting. After all, a bit of a romance crops up too – one that is similarly governed by coy duplicity and cleverly countering the competition. But the pacing is off, especially since the finale feels almost as if another movie entirely, attempting to bring to a close the Judge’s infatuation with Langtry. In the end, Bean is too amusingly crafty to remain an easily reformed villain, and Harden is too upright to resort to underhanded revenge tactics. A dramatic face-off is unavoidable; justice is demanded especially from those who claim to act in its name. Even here, comic notes surface, again uniquely breaking up the tension of an Old West duel, creating an entertaining if unlikely alliance. And the parting shots are triumphant.

– Mike Massie

  • 7/10