Duel in the Sun

Dir: King Vidor, 1947. Starring: Jennifer Jones, Joseph Cotten, Gregory Peck. Westerns.
Duel in the Sun

They don’t really make ‘em like this any more. Dubbed “Lust in the Dust” by clever people of the time Duel in the Sun is a ferociously overheated western with a bad romance novel plot blown up to the scale of grand opera. The combination of terrible acting, epic scope, its goofy depiction of a lustily violent romance, and Technicolor so rich and strange it makes Texas look like Mars all work to achieve a rare kind of purity that the film exudes. Hollywood still produces expensive flops but rarely something this original and insane. It was truly the Showgirls of its day. We have star producer David O. Selznick to thank for this fantastic folly.

Selznick needed to top his previous success with Gone With the Wind. He was also determined to make his questionably talented mistress Jennifer Jones a big star. Selznick’s meddling with Duel in the Sun is legendary. He ran through directors (including Selznick himself and the inimitable Josef von Sternberg who, one would assume, would have been a perfect match for such gilded fakery), fought with his composer, Dimitri Tiomkin, and spent so much money and overstuffed his movie with so much talent – Gregory Peck, Joseph Cotten, Lionel Barrymore, Lillian Gish, Walter Huston, Herbert Marshall – that the results were going to be interesting no matter what.

And they really are interesting results. After a dreamy opening narration by Orson Welles, setting the scene while we adjust our eyes to the Martian color palette of this particular version of the Old West, we meet Jennifer Jones, who plays a young woman named Pearl. She’s a half-Mexican girl who goes to live with her rich family in Texas after her father is hanged for shooting her mother and her mother’s lover in Mexico. Once there she meets crotchety patriarch Senator Jackson McCanles (Barrymore), his devoted wife, Laura Belle (Gish) and their two sons: hell raisin’ rough ridin’ stud Lewt (Peck) and overall nice guy Jesse (Cotten).

Laura Belle and Jesse are kind and welcoming to Pearl while Senator Jackson and Lewt are rotten and racist towards her. But Lewt’s cruelty masks his unquenchable desire for her. Jesse and Lewt both have a thing for her and while Pearl knows she should choose the good brother she can’t help but keep running back into the arms of the bad one. The way Jones signals emotions such as “worry,” “anger,” and “I like you” are pitched so high that it’s pretty much impossible to take the movie seriously from the start. Her character is a direct predecessor to Elizabeth Berkeley’s nutty Nomi from Showgirls. A lot of people now assume director Paul Verhoeven’s Showgirls was meant to be a campy spectacle but in Selznick’s case I think it can be chalked up to his really bad taste. The fact that he was determined to make this poor girl a star is a wonderful example of Hollywood hubris at its most excruciating.

Still, it is a really enjoyable bad film. Don’t let me discourage you from seeing it! The originality of how it is bad is integral to the film’s strengths and, again, it's David O. Selznick’s baby through and through. Selznick was part of Hollywood’s “super producer” set, which started with MGM’s Irving Thalberg. Some say they were geniuses who lived up to their own hype but many directors found them meddlesome, with bad ideas, and an eagerness to take credit for films that succeeded in spite of their involvement. I tend to think it’s the latter. But I am so glad they kept marching up this mountain of delusion because with Duel in the Sun Selznick really can claim a victory. His phenomenally bad ideas regarding casting, screenwriting, and plausible characters really do give Duel in the Sun its considerable and wholly enduring charm.


Duel in the Sun was nominated for two Oscars: Best Actress (Jennifer Jones) and Best Supporting Actress (Lillian Gish).

Posted by:
Jed Leland
Aug 6, 2013 9:55pm
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