Monday Movie: The Bravados, by Kyle Anderson

Every Monday, we’ll highlight a piece of writing from our vaults. This review of The Bravados originally ran in 2010.

The image of a lone figure on horseback, riding with purpose through rough and rugged terrain is as indelible as it is cliché.  A hundred western films have begun in this way and one can almost guess from the outset what the conflict will be.  All American westerns are the same after all, aren’t they?  Director Henry King’s The Bravados, a little-seen film from 1958, sought to shake up the tropes a little bit.  Starring Gregory Peck as the aforementioned lone rider, The Bravados is a moralist western turned on its ear, a good-versus-evil story where not even the main character can tell who’s who.  Revenge stories are predicated on the belief that the one seeking revenge is fully in the right.  The Bravados wonders what if he wasn’t, and would anyone care?

The Bravados opens with Gregory Peck riding up to the small town of Rio Arriba (or “River on High”) and is stopped by a Sheriff’s deputy who says the town’s been closed. The man claims he only wants to see the hanging that is scheduled for the next day.  The deputy reluctantly lets him by, on the condition that he checks in his firearms.  Upon, arrival, he draws the eye of literally every one of the townsfolk.  Most of them assume he’s the hangman come to perform the execution of the band of knaves they have in the jail.  He seems unwilling to give any details about himself to anyone, even the sheriff, and only says he’s been following the four men set to hang for six months and is happy the law is handling their disposal.  One person, it turns out, does know this man: Josefa Velarde, played by a young and much less slappy Joan Collins.  Josefa used to be in love with this stranger, whose name is Jim Douglas, a rancher.  In a conversation with her, Douglas reveals that his wife was raped and murdered by four men matching the description of the men in jail cell, and that he’s been on their trail ever since, leaving his very young daughter at home with neighbors.

Finally, another man arrives and introduces himself as the hangman.  The sheriff asks if he’d like to see the prisoners, which he declines, but Douglas asks if he might see them.

The band of criminals is a very specific grouping: “two white men, a half-breed, and an Indian.”  Douglas is let into the room and stands opposite the cell.  The four men, who have already been shown to be irreverent to the last, get nervous when they stare back at the sullen and embittered face of Jim Douglas, though they claim never to have seen him.  These scenes in the jail, in particular, are very well directed by Henry King, as the camera, standing in for Douglas’ POV, gets a good look at each of the men. Unlike later films by the likes of Sergio Leone, these extreme close-ups are not done in an overly-stylized way, but in as realistic a way as possible.  This saddened man wants to look into the eyes of the men who’ve done him such a horrible wrong.

While there, the “half-breed,” (played by Lee Van Cleef) is informed that his mother and brother have arrived to see him, but he yells vehemently that he doesn’t want to see them.  Immediately, The Bravados attempts to humanize the criminals.  Everyone, even a man condemned to swing from the gallows, has a mother.    As I said, The Bravados is a very moralistic film, as well as a very religious one, which is what sets it apart.  When Douglas leaves the jail, he accompanies Josefa to church for the evening mass.  They pass by the town square, where workmen are still building the gallows, to an enormous Roman Catholic church. The interior of the church is as elaborate and decked in shiny metals as anything found in Rome.  There is even a full children’s chorus singing in full ceremonial robes.  Surely, this church is far too large for such a small Western town, but every seat is filled when the priest begins.  The priest, too, recognizes Jim Douglas kneeling in the pew, but does not have the opportunity to speak to him.  The priest begins his sermon by saying that gallows can cast a shadow even at night, but that they must all remember that even though the four outlaws have been condemned to death by man, they are still entitled to God’s forgiveness.  It’s this sentiment which becomes so important later on in The Bravados.

During mass, when everyone else is in the church, the hangman says he’d like to see the four outlaws.  The hangman draws a knife and stabs the sheriff in the back, to which the sheriff draws his gun and fires, killing the hangman.  The sheriff lies bleeding on the ground while the outlaws are able to get his keys and escape.  They take as their hostage the local store owner’s daughter, who just happens to have left church for a moment to retrieve something.  One of the men, Zachary (Stephen Boyd), is known to have a “weakness” for the ladies, and takes it upon himself to be in charge of the pretty young girl.  Zachary is portrayed to be the most violent of the bunch, a trait that, to Douglas and the audience, makes him the likeliest candidate for actually perpetrating his wife’s rape and murder.

The sheriff staggers into the church to tell everyone the men have escaped and it sends the town into a frenzy.  Every able-bodied man grabs a gun and a horse and gives chase.

Josefa, too, goes along for really no other reason than to see to the girl’s safety.  Everyone goes, except Jim Douglas who reasons they’ll be held up at the pass, where one man could easily defend the whole area, and he decides instead to go to the hotel and get a good night’s sleep first.  Josefa is aghast.  It’s this cold, calculated, methodical way of dealing with the tracking down of these men that makes Douglas such an interesting lead character.  It’s not that he’s a callous individual; it’s that he just knows full well he’s going to catch them.  Not a doubt in his mind.  And so, he’d rather have a full night of sleeping before he begins his inevitable task.

In order to properly analyze The Bravados, I’m going to have to talk about the ending of it.  Anyone worried about spoilers, I would recommend stopping now, watching The Bravados on Netflix Instant Watch, and then coming back.  I don’t feel that this will ruin your enjoyment of the movie, but I know some people are very particular about it.

So the next morning, Jim catches up to the posse of townsmen, exactly where he said they’d be, and begins his quest.  At first the men are wary, and even fearful of Douglas’ involvement, saying he has no business helping them.  He says, of course, he’s not doing it to help them.  It’s the classic revenge line.  Eventually, he gets the first member of the gang alone, Parral, the “half-breed.”  He makes him toss his weapons down and shows him a picture of his wife in a pocket watch.  Parral denies ever having seen the woman, being anywhere near Douglas’ ranch, and even ever having killed anyone.  Douglas just gets angrier as he demands to know which of them actually performed the horrible deed, and finally Parral pleads, cries, for Douglas not to kill him, but the grief-stricken rancher shoots the man dead in cold blood.  Rarely has an American western, especially one made in the ‘50s, depicted an act of murder perpetrated by the film’s “hero.”  And certainly, even in the nihilistic Italian Westerns of the 1960s, when Clint Eastwood would routinely murder bad guys, they never begged for their life.  Bad guys are bad guys, but not in this case.

Still no happier, Douglas goes after the next member of the band, Taylor played by Albert Salmi.  He chases him down, hogties him, and strings him up by his feet.  He is caught, 100%.  The action fades away to the posse coming across Taylor’s body, still hanging by his feet, but dead.  Douglas has killed another unarmed man.  He is operating on nothing but blind hatred.

The remaining bandits, Zachary, the other white man, and Lujan, the Indian (played by Henry Silva and his face), come across the small cabin of a miner.  They ask the miner for some food and coffee, which he agrees to, only because there’s a lady present.  He asks where they’re headed and they say Rio Arriba, to which the miner replies they’re going in the wrong direction.  The only thing the way they were headed is the Douglas ranch, four miles t’other way.  The miner, knowing these men to be dangerous, decides to let them stay while he goes to work.  Before he leaves, he takes something from a satchel and exits.  Lujan sees it and says he must have taken something valuable.  Zachary shoots the miner and instructs Lujan to retrieve whatever he took.  Lujan finds that it’s a bag of gold.  Zachary takes the opportunity to, we can assume, rape the young woman.  We hear her screams and shrieks while Lujan sees the posse approaching.  The bandits take off again, leaving the poor girl in the miner’s house.

Douglas finds the body of the miner, whom he identifies as his neighbor, and Josefa finds the girl inside the house.  Douglas asks Josefa to go to his ranch and stay with his daughter while he and some of the other men go after the bandits again, finding that they must have crossed the border into Mexico.  The deputy says they can’t cross since they have no jurisdiction, but Douglas continues on.  He eventually finds Zachary at an eatery with a Mexican woman.  One can only assume what he intends for the lady once they leave the establishment.  Lucky for her, Douglas appears and confronts Zachary.  He shows the man the picture of his wife and, like the others, Zachary claims never to have seen her before.  Douglas draws and fires, but not before Zachary can draw his own pistol and fire a bullet, grazing the rancher’s arm.  Lujan, who must have been in the john, comes in and then makes a run for it when Douglas sees him.

Lujan makes his way to a small farmhouse where a woman and little boy come out to greet him.  He has made it home.  However, Jim Douglas has made it there too.  As he is about to shoot Lujan, Douglas is hit on the head by Lujan’s wife, knocking him cold.  When he awakens, he finds Lujan holding his own gun on him and asking why he’s chased them all this way.  Douglas shows him the pocket watch and tells him that his neighbor, the dead miner, told him that four men matching the description raped and murdered his wife while he was away and that he’d spent six months searching for them.  Lujan assures Douglas that they have never been to his ranch, nor have they done any harm to his wife.  Douglas then sees the bag of gold and knows it to be his own, taken from his house during the crime.  Lujan says he took it from the miner.  This realization causes Douglas great dismay.  It was his own neighbor who had committed such a heinous act on his wife, all for a bag of money.  He is then hit with the gravity of what he has done: killed three “innocent” men.  He gets up and leaves Lujan in peace.

Douglas, now a broken man, heads back to Rio Arriba and goes into the enormous church.  The priest, an old friend of his, approaches and asks what the problem is.  He tells the priest the whole grisly story and that he is guilty of murder.  The priest tries to calm him by saying he was part of an official posse and that they have the power of justice on their side, but he says it wasn’t for justice that he killed the men, but for revenge.  The priest, again, says that everyone is entitled to God’s forgiveness.  Josefa arrives with Jim’s daughter and the three exit the church only to be met with the entirety of the town applauding him and saying he’s done them a wondrous service by killing those evil men.  Douglas says only that he is grateful for their praise and wishes only that they pray for him.  He, Josefa, and the girl, walk off into the sunset.

This ending is truly what sets The Bravados apart from other westerns.  So many films in the genre depict white-hatted heroes killing black-hatted villains with no real examination of the toll that must take on their psyche.  Indeed, rare is it that the death of a character, especially a “bad” character, is met with such remorse.  Jim Douglas is the quintessential “God-fearing man,” but he had justified his crimes in his head to the point where he felt he was doing the work of God, only to find out he had been betrayed and sent astray by a friend who was now already dead.  Doing bad for good reason is the cornerstone of the Western, as is doing bad for bad reasons, but this is an instance where the lead has done bad for NO reason.  On top of it all, he is not met with shame or castigation from his peers, but with thunderous, hearty applause.  To them, the ends have completely justified the means, and even the priest himself feels he’s probably done okay in the grand scheme of things.  With Douglas’ final line, “Pray for me,” he proves that, in the world of The Bravados, there is only one true authority.

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