Duel In The Sun

US (1946) Dir. King Vidor

When her father is hanged for killing his wife and her lover, half-caste Pearl Chavez (Jennifer Jones) is forced to flee into the care of her father’s second cousin, Laura Belle McCanles (Lillian Gish). While Pearl doesn’t get much of a welcome from Laura Belle’s senator husband Jackson (Lionel Barrymore) she does arouse interest in their two sons, nice guy Jesse (Joseph Cotton) and troublemaker Lewt (Gregory Peck), creating a rivalry for Pearl’s affections which widens an already deep rift within the family.

Directed by the legendary King Vidor, written and produced by David O. Selznick and featuring an impressive cast, on paper, this couldn’t fail. Unfortunately, while it did well at the box office and garnered Oscar nominations for Jones and Gish, it wasn’t the critical and artistic success that was being aimed for.

The problem was two fold: first Selznick believed he was making a film to eclipse the success of his greatest triumph Gone With The Wind seven years earlier. Secondly, the overt sexual and religious content of the film was too much for the strict censorship code of the time and much of the film was either cut or toned down to make certification, yet still drew complaints from religious groups.

Despite the delusional aspirations of its writer, this is a fairly mediocre piece of western based melodrama that doesn’t use its 125 minutes as wisely as it could have.The conceit of the film is why Pearl would fall for the lecherous and abusive Lewt despite being treated like a dog by him when she has already declared her interest in gentleman Jesse but the latter’s ostracising from the family after siding against his father in a civil dispute leaves Pearl open for Lewt.

The titular duel is not quite what you would expect while the big finale is either moving or hilarious as is your wont. The cast at least make an effort although Gregory Peck and Lionel Barrymore are a bit too parody-ish in their respective “nasty men” roles. On the bright side Jennifer Jones is a fox while the inestimable Lillian Gish, returning to the movies after 13 years, delivers another powerful and touching death scene to her already overcrowded gallery of powerful and touching death scenes. And Walter Huston as the irascible reverend is a hoot.

Definitely one for classic cinema fans only.

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