It’s funny, isn’t it, how sometimes you see a showdown coming. Look – there it is, galloping across the plain, heading straight toward you. Even if you try to jump out of the way, it’ll still knock you over.
Such is the case with the 1940 western, The Westerner. Here is a movie packed with conflict, but everything hinges on the relationship between two men – one of whom will have to kill the other before it’s done. There’s no way around it.
The Westerner takes place in the American west, in the days when homesteaders began settling in cattle ranching territory. The homesteaders’ fencing and agricultural activities angered the cattlemen because they saw it as an invasion of their range land.
This was also the time of Judge Roy Bean, who, according to the movie, “took the law into his own hands”.
Three-time Oscar winner Walter Brennan is the infamous Bean. We first meet Brennan as he hangs a man whom we suspect is innocent. After the man is dead, Brennan moves the festivities into his saloon. Drinks all around! (The bar, incidentally, bears a sign that says “Law West of Pecos.” This tells you about Judge Roy Bean’s judicial philosophy.)
The weakness in Brennan’s character is his obsession with entertainer Lillie Langtry, a woman he desperately loves but has never met. Lillie Langtry posters fill the wall behind the bar like a shrine.
Brennan’s men burst into the scene, toting a stranger by the name of Cole Harden (Gary Cooper), who is accused of stealing a horse. Cooper’s character, a man who can talk his way out of anything, sees Brennan’s obsession with Langtry and starts telling glowing stories about her. Brennan, a shrewd man but a fool in love, suspends Cooper’s sentence so he can “to look into the matter further.” He’s hopeful Cooper can arrange a meeting with Langtry.
An unlikely friendship develops between these two men, despite Cooper’s attraction to the daughter of a homesteader (Doris Davenport) and his own growing belief that homesteaders have a right to be in the territory. But he keeps Brennan in check by feeding him fiction about Langtry. There is genuine respect between the two characters, but you know a Bad End is coming.
Cooper is a dominant presence in any film, but this film is not his. It is Brennan’s film, and he wears it comfortably.
In one scene, Cooper confronts Brennan, saying he’s getting a warrant for his arrest. Brennan snaps, “If you come back with a warrant, you’d better be first on the draw.” He says this without hesitation, and we’re shocked that he could turn on his friend so quickly. We suddenly realize that, while we thought Cooper was fooling Brennan, Brennan was actually fooling us.
As he watches Cooper leave to get the warrant, Brennan’s face is a mixture of loss and revenge. “So long, Cole,” he says quietly. His soft farewell hangs in the air, revealing his cleverness; with three little words, Brennan snatches the entire movie.
The Westerner is about the old west, but it’s really about motive. All movies are about motive to one degree or another, but this movie drives it like a freight train. There is no getting out of the way until it’s too late.
If you are new to the western genre, give The Westerner a try. We think you’ll be adding it to your “Must Watch” list.
The Westerner: starring Gary Cooper, Walter Brennan, Doris Davenport. Directed by William Wyler. Written by Jo Swerling and Niven Busch. United Artists Corp., B&W, 1940, 100 mins.