NR | 1h 41m | Western |1947
There are plenty of interesting Westerns from Hollywood’s Golden Age that depict mysterious men with shadowy pasts who strive to reinvent themselves and begin their lives anew—or at least live a quiet life. Some of the finest examples of these can be seen in films such as 1950’s “The Gunfighter,” 1953’s “Shane,” and many of the later “Spaghetti Westerns” in which Clint Eastwood starred.
However, 1947’s “Pursued” takes a very unique approach to the whole “man-with-a-mysterious-past” concept. Instead of beginning by alluding to the protagonist’s past, this intriguing Western delves into the tragic events of the past that caused the trajectory for things that unfold on-screen.
It begins near the small town of Lone Horse in the Territory of New Mexico. A young woman, Thor Callum (Teresa Wright) rides her horse high up into “butte country” and dismounts outside of a small, dilapidated house. Inside, she finds Jeb Rand (Robert Mitchum) hiding out. Although Thor urges him to ride off somewhere to avoid some sort of undisclosed threat, Jeb insists that he stay put to face whatever is coming. It is also apparent that the two are romantically involved.
Jeb’s mind drifts back to when he was a young boy (Ernest Severn) living in that very same house (when it was in much better shape), hiding beneath the living room’s trapdoor. Jeb recalls taking peeks at all of the commotion going on in the house, but can only remember seeing flashes of light and boots clomping around. After things calm down, a woman appears and whisks him away to another house where she stashes him with two other children.
Later, it’s revealed that Jeb has been adopted by the woman, Mrs. Callum (Judith Anderson), who has integrated him into her own family, which includes the two aforementioned kids: her birth children, Thorley “Thor” (Peggy Miller) and Adam (Charles Bates).
While young Jeb’s out riding one of the family’s horses one day, someone takes a shot at him and misses, killing the horse instead. Since Adam Callum doesn’t consider Jeb to be a real part of the family, Jeb assumes that Adam is the one who tried to kill him, and the two fight.
After breaking up the squabble, Mrs. Callum deduces that the shooter is none other than Grant Callum (Dean Jagger), the brother of her dead husband (no spoilers). Wanting to guard the kids, especially Jeb, from the tragic events that led to that fateful night in the old house, she blames the shooting on anonymous deer hunters.
Mrs. Callum travels into town and finds Grant’s name scribbled in a local hotel’s registry. She boldly confronts him, and he admits to trying to kill Jeb. It is revealed that Grant killed Jeb’s natural family, the Rands, because of something that happened in the past between the Rands and the Callums, and he vowed to kill every last one of the Rands. However, Mrs. Callum convinces Grant to ease off of his murder plans and let the boy grow up to see what sort of man he’ll turn out to be.
Jeb’s friction with his adoptive family is indicative of a larger problem that Jeb has with adjusting to them. He frequently has flashbacks of the frightful night in the old house and remains haunted by it since he can’t quite fill in all of the details.
We move ahead to 1898 and see that Jeb has matured into a mild-mannered adult (Mitchum), who has established a good reputation in Lone Horse. He and Thor (Teresa Wright) have fallen in love and plan to marry.
While in town one day, Jeb is recognized by Grant Callum, who is now a prosecutor in Santa Fe. Since at least one young man from every household must sign up for the Spanish-American War that has just broken out, Grant urges Jeb to sign up, secretly hoping that he’ll be killed in action. Back home, Jeb and Adam flip a coin to see who will go. Jeb loses the coin toss and is soon off to war.
A Strong CastThe shrewd filmmaking technique of starting off with a character that hails from a tragic past, and then drip-feeding tidbits of their life through a retrospective lens is utilized to great effect here. The mysterious plot immediately drew me in, and, with actors as magnetic as Robert Mitchum and Teresa Wright, inspired me to want to find out what happened to them in their respective characters’ pasts.
There are a few brief gunfights, but most of the action happens in the subtle body language and expressions of characters as the film’s tension gradually ratchets up. The camera work is splendid with great shots of beautiful windswept deserts and massive rock formations. The backgrounds could have easily been mistaken for John Ford’s Monument Valley.
“Pursued” is an excellent Western that features an intriguing, ever-unraveling storyline, interesting characters that range from dastardly to heroic, and some outstanding acting performances by its top-drawer cast. It also builds up to a very hopeful ending, which although unexpected, is indeed welcome.