The Westerner (1940)

WILLIAM WYLER

Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBB.   

USA, 1940.   Screenplay by , , based on the story by .   Cinematography by .   Produced by .   Music by .   Production Design by . Costume Design by Film Editing by .

The real life personalities of Judge Roy Bean and Lily Langtry are incorporated into a fictional tale of the mythical old west.  Cole Harden (Gary Cooper) wanders the plains, a “saddle tramp” as he is called, and winds up in a town whose only law is Bean, the bartender of an old saloon that the locals  have put in charge of deciding all disputes.  The hard-edged charmer, played by Walter Brennan in his third Oscar-winning role, brings Harden in on a charge of stealing a man’s horse, ready to string him up until Harden buys himself some time by telling him that he has personally met Langtry, the former mistress of King Edward VII who became a music hall sensation and whose poster adorns the saloon wall as its mascot.  Bean is entranced, becoming friends with Harden in the hopes of getting closer to the singer that he idolizes, but his relationship with him gets tricky when Cooper ends up caught in a violent land dispute between cattle ranchers, with whom Bean is sympathetic, and the homesteaders who want arable land to raise crops.  William Wyler’s addition to the newly respectable genre of westerns is no Stagecoach, its characters don’t have the same level of sharp charisma and the story never reaches an exciting climax, exposing its aims at criticizing American cultural capitalism as rather obvious themes: the corrupt legal system that relies too heavily on outsized personalities and back-patting friendships and the greed over controlling natural resources that destroys itself when it could flourish in cooperation (since don’t people want both meat and vegetables?)  What it’s missing in magnificent plotting, however, it compensates for in chemistry, Cooper’s lovable dolt has a great time acting with frequent co-star Brennan, whose layered performance allows for Bean’s cold-hearted magistrate while fascinating us with his childlike devotion to his favourite celebrity.

Academy Award:  Best Supporting Actor (Warner Baxter)
Nominations:  Best Original Story; Best Art Direction-BW

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