An Unusual Western: William Wyler’s The Westerner (’40)

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In 1940, immediately following his adaptation of Wuthering Heights (1939), William Wyler directed his first major full-length Western, The Westerner, starring Gary Cooper and Walter Brennan. Although he hadn’t yet made any Westerns for producer Samuel Goldwyn, this wasn’t Wyler’s first time working in the popular genre. In the 1920s, in the early years of his career working for Carl Laemmle at Universal, Wyler was a crew member on countless Westerns, eventually working his way up to director. Finally in the director’s chair and still under contract with Universal, Wyler only directed Westerns. It wasn’t until the 1928 comedy Has Anyone Seen Kelly? starring Bessie Love, that he was able to break free and experiment with other genres outside of the Western. Returning to the genre after a long absence gave Wyler a renewed perspective, allowing him to apply his artistic vision and constantly evolving camera techniques to something he was quite familiar with.

The Westerner tells a fictionalized account of the life of the infamous “Judge” Roy Bean (Walter Brennan), a man whose penchant for violence and corruption was used to enforce his vigilante ideas of “law and order,” resulting in unusually harsh punishments for those breaking his law. Over time, the legend behind the actual Roy Bean has reached tall tale proportions, with numerous accounts regarding his reputation as the Wild West’s most ruthless “hanging judge.” For this larger-than-life character, Samuel Goldwyn wanted to cast actor Walter Brennan. Goldwyn wasn’t always right when it came to casting, but having Brennan play Bean proved to be a brilliant choice.

For this particular tale of Judge Roy Bean, we are transported to a saloon in the town of Vinegaroon, Texas, where he is sole proprietor. Bean not only enforces the law, but he is the law. Bean unfairly dishes out punishments to those he perceives as guilty (meaning anyone who stands in his way or disagrees with his methods), refusing to give them a fair trial. For the residents of Vinegaroon and the surrounding area, getting on Bean’s bad side is a death sentence. In addition to the corruption from Bean’s self-appointment, there is a land war between cattle ranchers and the homesteaders. To protect their homes and crops, the homesteaders have put up fences to keep the livestock out. The ranchers, who have the unwavering support of Judge Bean and his cronies, insist that the fences are harmful to their cattle and keep them from accessing water. With the homesteaders legally occupying the land due to federal law, they attempt to fight for their rights. Unfortunately, with Bean in charge, their fight is a lost cause.

Spencer Tracy In Movie Still

Enter wandering cowboy Cole Harden, played by Gary Cooper. Harden has been brought into Judge Bean’s “court” on the charge of stealing a horse. Harden claims to have bought the horse, unaware that the person who sold it was not the rightful owner. Bean sentences Harden to death, but delays the sentence when Harden comments on Bean’s impressive shrine to actress Lily Langtry (Lilian Bond). Picking up on Bean’s obsession with Langtry, Harden spins an incredible story about meeting the actress and receiving a lock of her hair. Intrigued, Bean asks to see the lock. Quick on his feet, Harden says the lock is in El Paso, but that he can get it if given the time. Fortunately, the real horse thief is caught, saving Harden’s life. But Bean naively believes Harden’s story and is insistent upon seeing the lock of hair. Despite the original circumstances of their meeting, Bean and Harden become unlikely friends. Bean respects Harden, treating him like a younger brother. Harden disagrees with Bean’s methods, especially his treatment of the homesteaders. But he also sees the good in the man, what little is left anyway, and he tries to encourage Bean to be a kind and fair person. Harden’s outlook on life, as well as his peace-seeking mentality, is very much needed in Vinegaroon. Harden’s outlook on life is sort of a novelty for Bean, who, despite Harden’s influence, ultimately fails to change his ways. Bean’s steadfast cruelty, selfishness and cynicism betrays Harden’s trust in him.

The Westerner is one of the most unusual Westerns ever made. Like most Westerns, we know who the bad guys and good guys are, but in this film, the characters are more complicated and nuanced than what regularly appears in this genre. Also, the feud between the ranchers and homesteaders is secondary to the plot, as is the romance between Gary Cooper’s Harden and the homesteading Jane Ellen Mathews, played by Doris Davenport. The film is ultimately about the friendship between Judge Roy Bean and Cole Harden. Their interactions are like what you would expect to see between two old friends or close brothers. Another thing that sets The Westerner apart from other examples is the humor. While the homesteader storyline is quite serious, the back and forth between Judge Bean and Harden, at least initially, is hilarious. This is no doubt due to the chemistry and rapport between Gary Cooper and Walter Brennan, who starred together in several films, including Meet John Doe (1940) and The Pride of the Yankees (1942, written about here). Another interesting observation about The Westerner is that it can be viewed as a subtle commentary on the then-unfolding events in Europe, prior to the United States involvement in World War II. Cole Harden represents the idea of neutrality and maintaining it at all costs. That is, until the horrific actions of one party against another party forces him to choose a side and fight for basic human rights. If you watch The Westerner through that lens, it proves to be a pretty strong argument for America’s involvement in World War II, as well as adding an interesting layer to an already incredible film.

Jill Blake

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3 Responses An Unusual Western: William Wyler’s The Westerner (’40)
Posted By Muriel schwenck : October 28, 2017 12:03 pm

Excellent commentary on an unusual film. I’m one of those people who find the biggest problem with almost every Gary Cooper film is Cooper. His serious acting has all the charm of a brick. But he had a gift for light comedy and is very good in this movie.

Posted By Arthur : October 28, 2017 6:07 pm

Yes. This film did seem different. It seemed to be in a unique world different from other Westerns.

Interesting that Paul Newman a generation later starred in a film about Judge Bean that was also quirky but in a sixties sort of way.

Posted By kingrat : October 29, 2017 11:08 pm

Jill, thanks for pointing out the political ramifications of the story. A better actress than Doris Davenport would have helped the film.

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