Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Okay, can you name this western?

When we first see Will Kane (Gary Cooper), he's getting married. He has decided to give up his gun and his tin star for life tending a store on the prairie with his Quaker wife (Grace Kelly). Significantly, he can't simply settle down in the same town he served. He must leave it. The town's previous marshal, played by Lon Chaney, Jr., has settled down in town, but his marginal status is underscored by the presence of an Indian wife.

Possibly the movie's greatest virtue is this sense of Will Kane's weakened stature. Many actors turned down the role, including Gregory Peck, Marlon Brando, and Montgomery Clift, before it was offered to Gary Cooper. And it's not difficult to see why these actors refused: Will Kane is not a typical Western hero. As one character tells us, he has "got soft"--which not coincidentally has happened during the past year when he was courtin' his wife. Before then, when the town was wilder, he had six deputies. They cleaned up the town and made it fit for women and kids. But now, exactly because of his closeness to civilization, the town has lost some faith in his ability to meet the challenge of Frank Miller.

Time after time, people tell him to leave town, but he can't do it. Quite accurately, he says this is the best time to make a stand: "They'll just come after us, four of them, and we'd be all alone on the prairie." He knows he can't run away. Therefore, he can't listen to his wife's pleading. She urges him to not confront his problems, and she practically throws a tantrum when she doesn't get her way.

"Don't try to be a hero," says Amy.
"I'm not trying to be a hero. If you think I like this, you're crazy," says Kane.

The face of Gary Cooper becomes the ideal vehicle for carrying this complex story. He isn't the towering monument suggested by John Wayne. He's more fallible--and thus more human. This untraditional vision of the Western achieves complexities that typically stayed beyond the reach of conventional Westerns.


Anonymous said...

Will Kane breaks down and cries, cries! Not because he's lost a spouse, a loved one, he cries because he's afraid he's going to die. Can you imagine John Wayne doing this? What a secure man was Gary Cooper! And bravo for him.

CherylStJ said...

Secure, and...well, pretty darned good looking. *g*