[31 August 2012]
Tall, dark and handsome Rory Calhoun plays an Argentinian gaucho in a story that casts him as a reactionary force who knows he’s doomed against “progress.” The dialectic in writer-producer Philip Dunne’s script casts the gauchos as a vanishing species resisting “the soft ways of the foreigner” and “foreign ideas out of the gutters of Europe”. These ideas have to do with public education and refraining from duels of honor. “He’s a fool but he’s very gaucho,” says an admiring friend as Calhoun deserts the army and flees the canny, relentless martinet commander played by Richard Boone in his patented method-actor intelligence. Their simmering relationship is partly like Inspector Javert against Jean Valjean, and partly like Claggart against Billy Budd.
Our gaucho knows he’s an outdated relic, like John Wayne’s character in The Searchers except that he identifies with the Indians and goes to live with them, sparking an organized rebellion against those who would lay railroad tracks across the Pampas. City senorita Gene Tierney goes to live with him (in sin, though they keep trying to get married in the nearby Catholic church). This prompts a cynical troubador (Everett Sloane) to opine, “As for me, give me one of these Indian women. They ask for nothing more than to be beaten three times a day.”
Our hero’s story seems partly inspired by the Argentine epic poem about Martin Fierro. A few scenes are shot in the standard U.S. locales, but most of the film is shot by Harry Jackson in authentic Argentine locations in a lovely, shimmering Technicolor that seems somehow washed in soft, sepia-tinted tones.
Director Jacques Tourneur seems to be channeling his own father Maurice, whose silent films (The Blue Bird, The Last of the Mohicans, Lorna Doone) framed characters with a ravishingly pictorial eye; here Calhoun is constantly framed by evocative trees and Rembrandt-lit windows in one beautiful shot after another. Tourneur is most famous for his horror films (The Cat People) and noirs (Out of the Past) but this French immigrant had an atmospheric feeling for Americana (most conspicuous in his great Stars in My Crown), and here he transplants certain tropes of the Western into a South American. Newly available on demand from the 20th Century Fox Cinema Archives, this film is a feast for the eye, and the unusual story and setting isn’t bad for the mind either.