Saturday 24 September 2016

Movie Review: The Proud Rebel (1958)

An appealing post-Civil War western, The Proud Rebel is a family-friendly story of a father from the south finding both lingering resentment and the welcome of strangers as he tries to help his son.

Immediately after the Civil War, southerner John Chandler (Alan Ladd) is travelling north from town to town, looking for a doctor who can help his mute son David (Alan's real-life son David Ladd) talk again. The clever sheepdog Lance is David's close companion. In Aberdeen, Illinois, Dr. Enos Davis (Cecil Kellaway) suggests that a Minnesota-based expert may be able to help. Before John can set out again he tangles with rowdy sheep ranchers Jeb and Tom Burleigh (Harry Dean Stanton and Tom Pittman) and their father Harry (Dean Jagger) after they try to steal Lance. John is found guilty of instigating a brawl, but farm owner Linnett Moore (Olivia de Havilland) saves him from prison by paying his fine in return for John working her land.

John and Linnet establish a good rapport and David enjoys the stability of life on the farm. But the Burleighs are a constant menacing presence, seeking to drive Linnet off her land to expand their herding territory. Meanwhile, John is desperate to raise the money needed for the Minnesota trip, and an opportunity arises when a local dog breeder offers a lot of money to buy Lance.

A resizing of Shane to appeal to a younger audience, The Proud Rebel hits all the amiable notes. Directed by Michael Curtiz and well-served by a deep cast, the film carries enough edge to avoid sentimentality and despite a rather clumsy ending maintains focus on a shifting western landscape where the wounds of war are slowly healing. Often beautiful colour cinematography, making exquisite use of red skies and silhouettes, adds to the film's quality.

The character of John Chandler as a steadfast yet proud man dedicated to his son and seeking to avoid conflict allows all colours of society to swirl around him. Dr. Enos and Linnett represent the more mature residents of the north eager to help close the war chapter. The crude Burleighs are at the opposite end of the scale, condescending towards Chandler just as they are keen to chase Linnett off her farm. And Judge Morley (Henry Hull) who hurriedly convicts Chandler for his part in the brawl is somewhere in between: he offers at least a modicum of due process for a rebel from the South, and allows Linnett's generosity to trump the court's half-baked version of justice.

Alan Ladd delivers a stoic performance as John Chandler, a man who lives a principled life where resolute actions speak much louder than words. Olivia de Havilland slips easily into the role of the farm owner stubbornly holding onto her land and staring down the Burleighs, de Havilland displaying plenty of breadth to combine determination with lurking passion for a family. Dean Jagger and Harry Dean Stanton contribute suitably despicable villains, and Cecil Kellaway adds colour to the role of a Quaker doctor.

The triangle of emotions between John, Linnett and David resides at the heart of the film, and allows a warm glow to seep through the drama. John is still grieving the death of his wife and until he finds a cure for his son there is no place in his heart for any other quest, as much as Linnett is emotionally available. And young David is dedicated to his father and but also quick to accept Linnett as a mother figure, creating a conflict for John since moving on will mean tearing his son away from an essential new bond. The resourceful dog Lance is the glue holding David's life together, and John faces his biggest test when the sale of the dog offers a possible route to heal David.

On his search for a cure, The Proud Rebel will find conflict and resolution in unexpected forms, for both father and son.

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