Westerner, The (1940)

“Don’t spill none of that liquor, son; it eats right into the bar.”

Westerner Poster

Synopsis:
When Cole Hardin (Gary Cooper) is falsely accused of stealing a horse, he stands before the bench of the infamous Judge Roy Bean (Walter Brennan). By convincing Bean that he knows Lily Langtry (Lillian Bond), a singer who Bean has an obsessive crush on, Cole manages to save his life, only to get embroiled in the middle of a nasty feud between the local cattlemen and a group of homesteaders.

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Response to Peary’s Review:

William Wyler’s historically inaccurate yet “agreeable ‘A’-budget western” successfully joins “standard western themes and confrontations with light comedy.” Gary Cooper — who, as Peary notes, has “remarkable presence as a slow-talking, quick-thinking cowpoke” — is at his laconic best, portraying a man whose very life hinges on speaking just the right combination of words, yet who never loses his cool. Brennan (brilliant and scene-stealing as always) plays the infamous Bean “as someone who is part dictator and part spoiled child– [and] who doesn’t see anything wrong with his murderous forays”. It’s disturbingly easy to laugh at Judge Bean, a real-life sociopath whose kangaroo courts caused the deaths of so many innocent men and women.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Walter Brennan, who definitely “steals the show” as Judge Bean (and deserved his Oscar)
    Westerner Brennan
  • Gary Cooper as Cole Hardin
    Westerner Cooper
  • Hilarious rapport between Brennan and Cooper
    Westerner Brennan Cooper Rapport

Must See?
Yes. All film fanatics should see this humorous, well-written western.

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One Response to “Westerner, The (1940)”

  1. A must! A masterfully realized film.

    As the assessment states, of course, not that it’s all true… Whether you’re an FF or not, when you hear that a movie is “based on a true story”, obviously the operative word is usually “based”. To get yourself straight on what actually went down, it behooves a film-watcher to get thee to a Google search. For example, Wikipedia informs that Roy Bean did not die in a shootout but peacefully in his bed.

    But how exciting would that have been for a film? NOT! Audiences everywhere would have been falling asleep – if they were there at all.

    Sometimes the reality is simply beside the point. In many cases with fact-based stories – as is especially true of ‘The Westerner’ – we allow for what’s false for the sake of a higher ‘truth’. If the overall film makes a successful, powerful statement re: human nature, as this film immeasurably does, we have an easier time accepting inaccurate use of historical personalities when it serves to anchor a higher purpose.

    I am not a huge fan of westerns. To me, so many of them are cookie-cutter. But every once in a while, one comes along that is not merely a western – it seems to be going for something more, which transcends the genre. This is one of those films.

    ‘The Westerner’ lays out evil, greed, backwardness, ambition, resilience and fortitude and weaves them slowly into an unexpected frenzy. In fact, the film starts off as something somewhat small and, early on, you may be apt to think the piece will develop as a simple character study and little else.

    The film will sneak up on you, though – and, when it does, it will not let you go.

    (The film does often have a light touch and humorous moments, but it is not in any way a comedy. Though I must say I found Brennan’s growing fetish for a lock of Langtry’s hair kind of hilarious, if mildly disturbing on some level.)

    I’m not sure why I say this exactly but Wyler’s direction this time out seems less obvious to me. He appears to have responded to a subtlety that the script asks for. You know he’s there, and yet you don’t. As a result, I think this is one of the director’s strongest films. And the cast is uniformly excellent (with Cooper giving one of his most impressive performances).

    Special mention goes to DP Gregg Toland’s remarkable work. (68 films – astonishing accomplishments in a 22-year career, ending with his death at 44.)

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