A few weeks ago I wrote about The Grapes of Wrath (1940) and John Ford. Its cinematographer was Gregg Toland, and he did another film that year, The Westerner, directed by William Wyler, the filmmaker Toland usually worked with. It is not typical of Wyler's work and it is an oddity in many ways. It begins with violence, then it becomes a two-man show about the growing friendship between two men, Judge Roy Bean (played by Walter Brennan) and Cole Harden (played by Gary Cooper), and then suddenly it turns to tragedy, before a brief ending, set a few years later than the rest of the film, which is at odds with almost everything that came before. It also has moments of unexpected dark humour. I am mentioning it today because the look of it, and how it sometimes corresponds with the look of some of Ford's films, including The Grapes of Wrath. Some images are breathtaking in their beauty and starkness.
The look of the film is its main asset. The other is the relationship between Roy Bean and Cole Harden. After the introduction there is an almost 40 minutes long sequence with the two of them in a bar, first as enemies and then they become friends, ending up sleeping together in the same bed. They talk and they drink and tell wild stories, and then they become partners, even if they sometimes fight. Roy Bean has a problem with his neck so every now and then Harden must set it right, it is a recurring thing in the film, and nicely handled.
But The Westerner is also somewhat confused, not sure what it wants to be about or where it wants to go. Wyler said it was "a comedy disguised as a melodrama" and within Wyler's oeuvre it does not really compare to any other film (I have written about Wyler here before), even though he began by making cheap westerns. It has at least four scriptwriters, Stuart N. Lake provided the basic story about Roy Bean, Jo Swerling and Dudley Nichols (uncredited) fleshed out the story and then finally Niven Busch was brought in and, among other things, he added the "love story" between Roy Bean and the stranger in town, Cole Harden. Wyler apparently wanted script changes on a daily basis and even though they have all written fine films, Niven Busch in particular is an interesting writer, still there is something missing here. Perhaps a number of compromises and committee decisions got in the way; one problem in particular is the part of Jane Ellen (played by Doris Davenport). As this is a film about two men and their affairs her part is rather superfluous and in that respect there are too many scenes with her, yet since she is in the film and is given some importance towards the end, more scenes with her earlier might have given the film a better balance. But any problems somehow pales when Bean and Harden share a drink, or one of Wyler and Toland's compositions pierce through the screen.
So while it is nobody's best work, it is still a good film and the real ending (i.e. the one before the last scene) is very moving.
Judge Roy Bean is a historic figure, a justice of the peace in Texas ("the law west of the Pecos" as he called himself), although the film is not exactly a true story. Cole Harden is fictional. The actress that the judge idolises in the film, Lillie (or Lily) Langtry, is a real person, and Roy Bean's obsession with her was also real.
Toland and Ford made another film in 1940, The Long Voyage Home, which is also visually advanced. One of Ford's self-consciously artistic films, but it is far from his best.