Duel in the Sun, as shameless and vulgar as it certainly is, remains one of producer David O. Selznick’s most watchable post-Gone With The Wind motion pictures, even when one considers his infinitely more valuable productions like Rebecca (Alfred Hitchcock, 40), Gaslight (George Cukor, 44) and Since You Went Away (John Cromwell, 44). The film also represents Selznick’s most blatant and unsurprisingly inaccurate attempt to match the huge success he had with Margaret Mitchell’s Civil War epic back in 1939. Still, Duel in the Sun is a fine film in which to take some guilty pleasures, thanks to a great cast—Jennifer Jones (Mrs. David O. Selznick, overacting in an obviously rigged Oscar-nominated role), Gregory Peck, Joseph Cotton, Lionel Barrymore, Lillian Gish (also Oscar-nominated—she’s terrific
in this), and a whole lotta character actors: Walter Huston (two years before his Supporting Actor Oscar win for his son John’s The Treasure of the Sierra Madre), Herbert Marshall, Hank Worden (the tall, elderly waiter in David Lynch’s Twin Peaks!!), Harry Carey (the Speaker of the House in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington), Charles Bickford, Butterfly McQueen (GWTW’s Prissy), Sidney Blackmer (husband to Ruth Gordon in 1968’s Rosemary’s Baby).
The plot of Duel in the Sun is simple to reduce: mixed-breed orphan Pearl (Jones) is sent to live with a rich family cousin (Gish). The film follows her good-guy romance with Gish's son Joseph Cotton, and her bad-guy lust for younger Gish son Lewt (Peck, looking quite strange as a villain).
You can see where things would get rather lurid, with a synopsis like that. But making the film worth noting is its shocking color photography (by Lee Garmes, Ray Rennahan and Hal Rosson, and King Vidor’s (at least, by today’s standards) tongue-in-cheek, overly soap-operatic direction. Now that I check the IMDB, I see the movie was directed by six other uncredited people (it worked with GWTW so why not here?). These directors including Selznick himself—no surprise there, since he directed the Burning of Atlanta sequence in GWTW—Josef Von Sternberg, William Dieterle, Otto Brower, Sidney Franklin and color expert William Cameron Menzies, one of the most interesting figures in cinema history. Menzies' involvement must have been on the art direction and cinematography level here; these are the elements the raise the status of Duel in the Sun immeasurably.
Now I feel compelled to review the career of William Cameron Menzies. He started off as the production designer of a 1918 film called The Naulakha. In fact, Menzies came to the movies with such a prodigious gift that he downright invented the term “production designer.” To enjoy his efforts: Look at Raoul Walsh’s 1924 version of The Thief of Bagdad with Douglas Fairbanks (he also assisted on the more famous 1940 version). Or the cave sequences in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (Norman Taurog, 38). Or the glorious visage of Gone With The Wind (still, the fastest 4 hours you’ll ever spend watching a movie). Or the space-aged brilliance of at least two of his directorial efforts: 1936’s Things to Come (above--and notice how much that miniature set looks like modern-day hotels) and 1953’s Invaders From Mars (he oversaw the art department on both titles). He won a Special Award (actually, it was just a plaque, not a
statuette) from the Academy in 1939 for his “outstanding achievement in the use of color for the enhancement of dramatic mood in Gone With The Wind.” (By the way, Gone With The Wind is one of the few titles for which I feel strange not capitalizing each word, for whatever that means.) Menzies was a master writer, director, art director, special effects man, color specialist, and producer (his last film was the Academy Award-winning Around the World in 80 Days). Unique is too weak a word to describe his career.
What’s perhaps most amazing about Duel in the Sun is the fact that it was made six decades ago, when Hollywood was still under intense pressure from the Hayes Code—the Byzantine, long-standing Hollywood list of on-screen do’s and don’ts, morality-wise. Even more threatening were the roving (too much so) eyes of the town’s newspaper mavens like Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons. Even after walking those gauntlets, though, Selznick managed to retain much of Duel in the Sun’s sordid, retarded sexuality. This said, it still had to bear the brunt of not only the condemnation of some of Hollywood’s premier denizens, but also of the Catholic Church’s humorously deemed Legion of Decency. Despite all this noise, and probably because of it, Duel in the Sun made quite a bit of money in 1946.
I prefer, quite frankly, not to read too much into this film that Martin Scorsese credits as being his childhood introduction to the wonder of the movies. There is, naturally, the negative view of racism taken, and the stock battle between the good and the evil. But also a stand is ALMOST taken in the film regarding the repression of sexuality in women. The question: should women such as Pearl remain sexually timid or should they run the risk of finding real love (or lust, as the film’s derisive Hollywood nickname “Lust in the Dust” might attest), even if it may cost them their lives? Good question; only problem is, one cannot surmise whether the film condones or condemns such repression; it just brings it up and ends. Which will it be, guys? Choose. C’mon!! Choose!! No? Okay…I guess because SPOILER ALERT Pearl dies in the end, we’re supposed to think she made a lot of bad choices. Well, not necessarily…
I must admit that, even though I enjoy the audacity (especially visually) of Duel in the Sun, this one unsettled facet to the film prevents me from praising it sky-highly. Ultimately, it’s a slick-looking piece of 1940s schlock presented as a now-venerated but, in the end, preachy western. Still, it’s historically important and entertaining as all get out. Even if it makes you laugh uncomfortably, you’ll long remember it.