“You can be a woman of sin or a woman of God. Which is it to be?”
Super-producer David O. Selznick was keen to top his already legendary 1939 colossus Gone with the Wind, so with the lavish 1946 melodrama/Western Duel in the Sun, he wasn’t holding anything back. Costing well over $6,000,000, this Technicolor production was grandiose in most every way, a large-scale saga with big scenes, big ideas, and big emotions. In its full roadshow version, now available on Blu-ray from Kino Lorber, the film opens with a prelude, followed by an overture, then the opening credits. Some 13 minutes later, the picture proper begins, with a booming narration from an immediately recognizable Orson Welles. Selznick and director King Vidor (one of several directors who had a hand in the film) make no effort to downplay the stately thematic context of this sweeping chronicle. Set in a time (the 1880s) and place (Texas) when “primitive passions rode the raw frontier of an expanding nation,” the story is initially promoted as a morality tale, a battle between “the forces of evil” and the “laws of God and man.” But that’s just a compulsory PC caveat, a way to placate those who would (and still did) otherwise object to some of the ensuing film’s more incendiary subject matter. With a massive marketing campaign, controversial hype, and this ostentatious introduction, Duel in the Sun has a lot to live up to. And while it may not meet all expectations, it surely succeeds on the basis of unabashed flamboyance. A film like this doesn’t have to hit every note perfectly—just the highest ones.
The primary focus of Duel in the Sun (one of those high notes) is the rambunctious, self-determining Pearl Chavez (Jennifer Jones), a young mestiza woman—half Hispanic, half Native American—who from a young age seems destined to fall in the footsteps of her sultry dancing mother, played by Tilly Losch in her final of just four screen appearances. Before she ever gets the chance, her jealous father, Scott Chavez (Herbert Marshall), kills one of his wife’s lovers and is sentenced to death. The now-orphaned Pearl is sent to live with Scott’s second cousin (and former sweetheart), Laura Belle (Lillian Gish). Laura resides with her husband, Senator Jackson McCanles (Lionel Barrymore), and two adult sons, Jesse (Joseph Cotten) and Lewt (Gregory Peck). The McCanles family has accrued vast ranching territory, obtaining considerable wealth in the process. They are currently embroiled in a dispute with the burgeoning railroad company, which threatens to impede their land in the name of westward expansion. That’s the historical backdrop. More intimately on the home front, Pearl, a border town wildflower, effortlessly entices both brothers—Jesse a kind and decent man; Lewt an unsavory womanizer—and raises the ire of the senator, a blatant bigot who derides the half-breed girl, partly because of her heritage, partly because she represents Laura’s lost love. Scorned for his forward-thinking views concerning the railroad, Jesse is soon out of the romantic picture, allowing Lewt to aggressively slither into Pearl’s bed. Their resulting romance is instantly twisted, born from an unexpected fusion of sex and violence, and while she nevertheless has high hopes for a stable relationship, he regards the girl as a passing fancy at best.
Since her screen debut just seven years prior, Jones had built herself up to be quite the actress, winning an Oscar in 1944 for The Song of Bernadette (1943) and receiving nominations the following two years for Since You Went Away (1944) and Love Letters (1945). But it was no secret that Selznick, her lover, was crafting Duel in the Sun to specifically highlight her more carnal capabilities. As hoped for, she does indeed give a powerfully erotic performance, playing a barely bridled innocent with a simmering sensuality. Her unaffected suggestiveness sets the McCanles house on fire, first with good-natured comic flirtatiousness, then with something far more sinister and seductive. Cotton, meanwhile, plays Jesse in very Joseph Cotton fashion. He is gently-spoken, respectable, and pragmatic. Bad boy Peck, on the other hand, comes on strong, playing Lewt largely against his soon-to-be-established upright type (forgetting that he would later play Josef Mengele in the 1978 film, The Boys from Brazil). Gish, who with Jones received an Academy Award nomination for her work in Duel in the Sun (amazingly, it was her sole such honor), gives a refined, delicate performance, while Barrymore’s wheelchair-bound patriarch is the definition of surly. Finally, there is a bombastic Walter Huston in a marginal role as the preacher, Jubal Crabbe, also known as the “Sinkiller,” a man who espouses dubious admonishment of the story’s rampant corruption.
As everything intensifies, Duel in the Sun swelters with the heated realization of Lewt’s murderous potential, Pearl’s spitefulness, Laura’s pain, and the senator’s disappointment. In the foreground, a family plagued by pride and doomed romance is steadily torn asunder, while in the background, an empire collapses under the weight of bravado and stubbornness. It all culminates in a delirious conclusion, an over-the-top denouement that wholly suits this gloriously excessive Western. Duel in the Sun is a film where heightened desires intersect at a cultural crossroads, where the law of the gun runs counter to the politics of progress, where conditions of national growth and familial strife stimulate Selznick’s devotion to epic scope and provocative substance, grand vistas and shocking sexuality (the picture was infamously dubbed “Lust in the Dust”). Less admirable is the film’s off-putting, if historically accurate, sexism and racism: Pearl’s presumed subservience, the notion of “training” an African-American maid (the ebullient Butterfly McQueen in a role sadly similar to most of what she was given at the time), and the way the senator derisively calls Pearl “Pocahontas” and refers to her growing up in a wigwam.
Though Selznick was the fundamental force behind Duel in the Sun, a collection of individuals reinforced the picture’s visual and tonal intensity. Vidor, who routinely displayed cinematic elegance with films like The Crowd (1928) and Street Scene (1931), gets stated directorial credit, though William Dieterle, William Cameron Menzies, Otto Brower, and Sidney Franklin all contributed in some way (supposedly, Josef von Sternberg was also brought on board, mainly to ensure Jones was lit and filmed as impeccably as possible). Three cinematographers—Lee Garmes, Hal Rosson, and Ray Rennahan—also influenced the film’s bold strokes, its panoramic multitude of extras, its vigorous camera movement, its artful choreography of interior light, and its brilliant use of color (a kaleidoscopic town dance, Pearl’s luminous white dress, the scenery’s adobe palette). Add in Dimitri Tiomkin’s robust score, the flavor of the location shooting, and the best technical enhancements money could buy, and Duel in the Sun rises as one overblown and overheated passion project, in the best possible way.