The Virginian and the Unintentional Villain

Sonny Tufts (R) is found with some incriminating evidence.

Often, in Hollywood films, The Villain is a highly-motivated character. He or she knows what they want and they pursue it doggedly.

For example, look at the 1946 western, The Virginian.

Brian Donlevy stars as a crooked Wyoming rancher who spends his time siphoning cattle from other ranchers’ herds. Donlevy’s character isn’t a poor, desperate man; nay, he wears an expensive, tailored wardrobe. He doesn’t need money, he wants excitement and power. These he finds in cheating his neighbours.

His chief adversary is Joel McCrea, who plays a principled ranch foreman and a truly Decent Fellow. McCrea’s character is the kind of neighbour everybody likes; he’s honest, generous and resourceful. He also has enough gumption to bring down the likes of Donlevy and his merry men.

McCrea and Donlevy make no pretense out of their dislike for each other. McCrea gives the impression he’s always restraining himself from strangling Donlevy, while the latter seems to derive no end of pleasure from it.

Based on McCrea’s first interaction with Donlevy, early in the film, we know there will be a showdown between the two men. The script practically writes itself.

What isn’t immediately apparent, however, is Donlevy’s character isn’t the only one to worry about.

McCrea (L) is happy to see his old pal.

In our opinion, the most interesting character in The Virginian is Steve, played by Sonny Tufts.

We first meet Tufts’ character at the beginning of the film, when McCrea runs into him after a three-year absence. There is genuine affection between the two men; we sense their shared history and mutual respect.

Tufts displays an unsophisticated, self-deprecating charm, a man who doesn’t make demands. He’s not an ambitious character, he takes life as it comes. He wins money one day and loses it the next. That’s the way life is.

Everybody likes an easy-going fellow, but Tufts’ character has a great flaw: He has no discernment.

For example, in one scene, McCrea discovers Tufts branding another man’s calf using Donlevy’s brand. When McCrea confronts him, Tufts is only slightly perturbed, and blames his poor eyesight. McCrea lays out the parameters: Stop branding other people’s cattle or Face The Consequences.

But Tufts continues to work for the greedy Donlevy, and even takes part in a stampede that diverts cattle away from their owners. Two hundred head of cattle are stolen, at $50/head. (And they say crime doesn’t pay!)

So it comes to this: McCrea must arrest the cattle thieves, among whom is his long-time friend. Even after his arrest, Tufts remains amiable and doesn’t seem to hold it against McCrea. He accepts his fate because he’s not an agent of change, not even in his own life.

Tufts’ character isn’t someone who intends to be a criminal; he falls into it because the money is good, because Donlevy is nice to him, because it came his way. He doesn’t think about the consequences to the other ranchers.

He chooses not to see that far.

Dapper Brian Donlevy (center) enjoys an outing with Tufts (R). Image:

The Virginian has been kicking around Hollywood for over a century. Originally based on a novel by American author Owen Wister (1860-1938), it was adapted as a stage play in 1904. Film adaptations were next in 1914, 1929, 1946, 2000, 2014, as well as a television series in the 1960s.

The Virginian spawned the famous line, “When you call me that, smile.” It also explores the twin themes of friendship and loyalty.

The only version we’ve seen is the 1946 film and, while it runs out of steam well before the end, it does have a lot of surprisingly funny lines, as well as a (contrived) romance between McCrea and Barbara Britton.

We can’t wholeheartedly recommend the 1946 version of The Virginian, even though we think the first 60% of the film is terrific. However, Sonny Tufts, the unintentional villain, is a worthwhile character study.

  • For some good background history, check out Caftan Woman’s review HERE.
  • This is part of The Great Villain Blogathon, hosted by Speakeasy, Shadows and Satin and yours truly.

The Virginian: starring Joel McCrea, Brian Donlevy, Sonny Tufts. Directed by Stuart Gilmore. Written by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett. Paramount Pictures Inc., 1946, Technicolor, 90 mins.

Villains 2017



  1. Steve as the villain has swirled in my head since I saw your choice on the Villain list. Such an amiable fellow, as you said. Who couldn’t like Steve? Cattle rustler he may have become, but oh his fate is as hard on us as it is on the Virginian. Yet the man who doesn’t consider the consequences of his actions on his friends and neighbours has indeed crossed over the line. Sadder still that he didn’t consider the consequences to himself until it was too late.

    Thank you for a interesting article, as well as for the mention. Appreciate it, pardner.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Enjoyable read. I like how you describe Tuft’s character flaw as “lacking discernment.” I haven’t seen this one; but, I want too thanks to your review and for the fact that It sounds like it explores the complexities of a friendship.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Almost any movie starring Joel McCrea is worth seeing, just as well, because his westerns are a staple of afternoon television schedules over here. I watched The Virginian just the other week and it is chock full of good stuff, starting with gorgeous Technicolor. The exterior scenes give the film a nice authentic, outdoorsy feel too. Your man Sonny Tufts and Brian Donlevy were great. Donlevy reminded me of a Western-style Darth Vader, decked from head to toe in black, including the black gloves. Having only previously seen the TV series from the sixties I was a little bit startled to learn that Trampas and Steve were bad guys, although Steve is definitely not your stereotypical villain. He’s probably the best role of Sonny Tuft’s career!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Bahaaha! “Western-style Darth Vader”! Brilliant!! Wish I’d thought of it.

      As for Tufts’ performance, it is perfect, in my opinion. Some critics have slagged him in this film, which I don’t get. He’s the best part of the film, aside from that beautiful Technicolor.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I haven’t seen this and though you don’t recommend this version (wholeheartedly, anyway), I’m itching to see it. What an awesome concept. The unintentional villain. Now I’ll be thinking about other movies that may have an unintentional villain in them. Great post!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. It’s funny but from a history point I don’t often think of Sonny, it’s a McCrea vs. Donlevy film and that works fine for me but it’s nice that you’ve featured a different angle here. It’s a common theme in westerns where the two pals find themselves on the wrong end of the law. But they are usually the main adversaries. Still is I guess in modern cinema when the western evolved into the crime film. I’ve always kind of liked this one and that probably has to do with the likable on screen presence of McCrea.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I remember being somewhat disappointed by the 1914 version, which of course I saw three years ago. That romance was half-hearted as well, and I don’t recall that the villain was all that interesting. Still, it was Cecil B. DeMille’s second picture, which is something at least.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Seeing Cecil’s second picture would be something. And the romance wasn’t that great in the 1914 version either, hey? Many people say the Gary Cooper version is the one to watch, so I’ll be checking that out soon. I’ll let you know if the romance is any better. 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Sonny Tufts is a great villain in a terrific noir “The Crooked Way” with John Payne. You do not want to get on his wrong side, or get ambushed in his dark warehouse.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. You argue an excellent case for watching this movie (or at least the first 60% of it!). Westerns in general represent a real gap in my movie knowledge; I’m tempted to give The Virginian a try . . .

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Interesting, so the worse villain is actually a friend of the hero. And the reason him being a villain is more ’cause he doesn’t have a conscious, he doesn’t care how what he does affect other people; makes it more amusing.
    In the last picture you shared Brian Donlevy is the one that looks more like the villain, than Sonny Tufts. That’s what this character analysis, of Sonny Tufts character, makes it so interesting. I like a story where, someone you didn’t expect to be bad (or good) in the begining, turns out to be the exact opposite.
    I’ve actually heard of 60’s TV show!!! But haven’t seen any of “The Virginian”s yet. I’d love to see the one Gary Cooper!!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yup, like you said, Donlevy’s wardrobe is a little too on the nose, but it does provide a good contrast to Tufts’ costume. Tufts’ clothes are deliberately bland – they almost fade into the scenery. It’s quite clever, when you think about it.

      I hope you get the chance to see this story, in any of the versions. The script has some very good lines.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. Tufts is always a good nemesis – wasn’t he the guy Tom Ewell was jealous of in Seven Year Itch?
    This movie looks like a winner – anything with Joel McCrea is OK in my book – he was so charming and easy on the eyes.
    Another great entry in a spectacular Blogathon!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks! Yes, Sonny Tufts was the nemesis in 7 Year Itch. He’s always enjoyable on screen, isn’t he?

      If you’re a Joel McCrea fan, you ought to see this film. There’s an interesting scene involving him and Tufts towards the end of the film – but I won’t say any more for fear of giving away the ending.


  11. Sonny Tufts WAS terrific in The Crooked Way, and his role in The Virginian sounds too good not to see, as does the entire film! I’ve not been into too many Westerns but now I must see this because of your excellent over view. It does quite seem as one blogger put it, that Westerns do share elements of the crime genre for sure. Like some horror thrillers of the 40s can be very noir-esque. You always pick em good Ruth!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m looking forward to The Crooked Way – I have it bookmarked on YouTube & plan to watch it this weekend.

      As for The Virginian, I think Sonny Tufts’ performance is the best in the film. I’m not trying to take anything away from Joel McCrea or Brian Donlevy, but Tufts is a remarkably understated performance. I hope you get the chance to see it…only be warned that the very last shot in the film is SO cliché.


  12. …and I call myself a McCrea fan! Haven’t seen this one yet but of course want to after reading. That’s a cool take on the villain and loved this post. Thanks as ever for co-hosting, you ladies are a joy to do these with!

    Liked by 1 person

  13. I haven’t seen any of McCrea’s westerns, which I’ve been wanting to do. This one sounds intriguing, due to the characters alone. You reminded me of one of my favorite quotes from ML King, Jr: “Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will.” This deliberate attempt NOT to fully understand the implications of one’s actions explains much of the bad things that happen in the world. The villains you don’t see coming are scarier, and it’s easier to see oneself in their place (the scariest prospect at all). What a perceptive post.

    Liked by 1 person

    • MLK knew what he was talking about, and I’m glad you mentioned that quote. I agree that refusing to see beyond one’s own backyard can have devastating consequences, as this film shows.

      The characters in this film are interesting, although many people prefer the 1929 version with Gary Cooper. However, it would be a shame to miss Sonny Tufts’ performance here.


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