Tuesday 16 June 2020

Movie Review: The Bravados (1958)

A routine western exploring a quest for revenge blinded by rage, The Bravados mixes beautiful scenery and dogged convictions in a bowl of genre cliches.

Jim Douglas (Gregory Peck) rides into the small border town of Rio Arriba to witness the hanging of four men (played by Stephen Boyd, Lee Van Cleef, Henry Silva and Albert Salmi) who have been convicted of a violent bank robbery. Douglas has been tracking the criminals for six months, believing they raped and killed his wife. In town he rekindles a relationship with his ex-lover Josefa Velarde (Joan Collins), and meets banker Gus, his daughter Emma and local Sheriff Sanchez.

On the evening before the hanging most of the townfolk congregate at a church service, and the four criminals make their escape, taking Emma with them as a hostage. A posse is organized and Jim emerges as a leader in tracking the bandits. As he corners each of the criminals individually they all plead ignorance about his wife's murder, but he anyway doles out his version of frontier justice.

With most of the action consisting of Douglas and the posse hunting down the escapees, the filming locations in Mexico infuse The Bravados with a cinematic majesty. The CinemaScope production features stunning landscapes, director Henry King and cinematographer Leon Shamroy capturing imposing vistas of waterfalls, gorges, cliffs, trails and impressive plains.

The alluring imagery and visual splendour compensate for an ordinary story and stiff performances. The stock stranger-seeking-justice narrative remains exceptionally shallow, the Philip Yordan script deploying awkward silence instead of providing context. Gregory Peck aims for stoic but is surprisingly awkward in the central role, and the supporting characters on the good side of the law are featureless.

But with the help of good casting, the four criminals add zesty colour. Boyd, Van Cleef, Salmi and especially Henry Silva provide a welcome edge and emerge as the more interesting group compared to the bland justice-seekers.

The story serves as an obtuse beware-of-assumptions critique of McCarthyism, with religion playing an intentionally exaggerated role as an alternative moral compass. The dusty small town of Rio Arriba boasts an ostentatious church more appropriate for a city ten times the size, complete with a heavenly all-boys choir. The divine gloss reorients Jim's perspective, from an initial reluctance to enter the church doors to a final moment of reckoning when the church is the only place he can turn to.

With a decent twist in the tail, The Bravados follows a crooked but still largely familiar trail.

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