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September 28, 2010

The Bravados

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Henry King - 1958
20th Century-Fox Region 1 DVD

"I'm a stranger here myself." The line spoken by Sterling Hayden in Johnny Guitar, directed by Nicholas Ray, is repeated four years later by Gregory Peck. The screenplays for that film and The Bravados were both by Philip Yordan. That it appears in a film directed by Henry King may be a nod towards Ray's recycling some dramatic footage from King's Jesse James for a scene in Ray's True Story of Jesse James. The Bravados fits in thematically with Henry King's other films about characters who are driven by a singular thought, although it twists that theme from one of pursuit of a higher ideal to one of a personal descent.

There is what I think of as a visual correlative that works on two levels. Much of the film takes place at twilight, and frequently the characters are filmed in shadow or in silhouette. This motif serves as a reminder of the ambiguity of the main characters, the presumed hero, Gregory Peck, is not entirely good or altruistically motivated, while the bad guys, particularly Lee Van Cleef and Henry Silva, reveal redeeming qualities. Additionally, one might interpret the film as a reflection of a filmmaker who may have understood that he was at the twilight of a long career at age 72. Henry King was one one of the few directors still active from the silent era, yet he proved himself capable of handling the contemporary story elements of Philip Yordan and the demands of filling the CinemaScope screen.

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Gregory Peck rides into town to witness the hanging of four men that he has chased for six months. The men, he was told, raped and killed his wife. The night before the hanging, the four outlaws escape, taking with them the daughter of one of the townspeople. Peck joins the posse in pursuit. Along with the posse is Joan Collins, the woman Peck almost married about five years earlier. The posse stops at the Mexican border. While Peck goes crosses a geographical border, he is urged to cross personal borders earlier. At one point, Joan Collins tries to convince Peck to let the past be, and to discontinue his pursuit. After Stephen Boyd has raped the woman he abducted from the town, Collins can't get Peck to kill the outlaws soon enough. The ending is more incisive than The Man who Shot Liberty Valance with its conclusion of "print the legend". The Bravados ends with Peck gracefully accepting the accolades of a hero, in spite of his newly found knowledge and appropriate self-doubts.

Lance Mannion has written about the emphasis of Catholicism in The Bravados. While Henry King's own Catholic faith has served him personally and to varying degrees as a foundation for several of his films, again he chooses not to impose those beliefs on the viewer but instead allows the viewer to draw their own conclusions. Where there is an emphasis is with repeated shots of a statue of the Madonna and child, as well as key shots of women caring for a young child. The mother and child motif also carries over in connecting Peck with Van Cleef and Silva.

Working again with cinematographer Leon Shamroy, the look of The Bravados is naturalist, Henry King is comfortable with CinemaScope to play with some of the possibilities of perspective, forcing the viewer to actively watch the film. Examples include a shot near the beginning of the film that includes a deputy seen in the foreground looking at Peck riding in the distance. Stephen Boyd peers out of the jail window, almost proportionate to the movie screen which serves as a frame within the camera frame, vertically broken by the jail cell bars. There are also extreme close-ups of Peck, Collins and the others, something that filmmakers shied away from when CinemaScope was first introduced. Interestingly, in one of his interviews, Henry King had thought that the then new wide screen process would eliminate the need for close-ups of the actors. Henry King may have been an old hand at making movies, but he proved himself open to what could be done with the new technology.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at September 28, 2010 07:47 AM