Approved | 1h 40min | Comedy, Drama, Romance |1940
A mysterious drifter rides his horse through a harsh yet beautiful desert landscape. We see cracked earth and scrub brush in the foreground and a rugged range of mountains that sprouts up in the hazy background. Soon we see text scroll up that begins with: “After the Civil War, America, in the throes of rebirth, set its face West where the land was free. First came the cattlemen and with them ‘Judge’ Roy Bean …”
Although William Wyler’s hidden gem of a Western film, 1940’s “The Westerner,” starts off like many others, I soon discovered that this was a different cinematic animal altogether. With its drama, a bit of romance, and lots of side-splitting humor, I knew halfway into watching it that I’d add it to my Top 10 list—it’s just that great.
As the film begins, a group of cattle herders are peeved that their stock keep getting caught on homesteaders’ fences. The homesteaders have recently arrived and plopped down near the small town of Vinegaroon, Texas. When the cowboys spot the homesteaders responsible for putting up the fences, the two groups become involved in a running gunfight that results in one of the homesteaders being captured for killing a cow.
The homesteader is brought into town, where he is quickly convicted of killing the cow, a crime for which the area’s ultimate arbiter of law—Judge Roy Bean (Walter Brennan)—sentences the man to death. Since Bean is a “hangin’ judge” who dispenses his highly dubious sentences from his saloon’s long bar table—his court—the accused man is hastily hanged for his supposed offense. It’s clear that Bean sides with the cattlemen.
Soon, the mysterious drifter, Cole Harden (Gary Cooper), arrives in town escorted in handcuffs by local lawmen. He’s been accused of stealing a horse belonging to Bean’s good drinking buddy Chickenfoot (Paul Hurst). Bean holds the trial at his saloon and not only convicts the drifter but also sentences him to hang. Harden, however, tells Bean that he has a lock of hair belonging to an English actress whom Bean is obsessed with, and that he’ll send for it via mail back in El Paso. This buys Harden just enough time to kill the supposed real horse thief, who suddenly rides into town.
From there, Harden and Bean fall into a precarious friendship with each other. Harden reminds Bean of himself when he was a tricky and manipulative youngster, while Harden sees a somewhat charming, well-meaning man underneath his ruthless exterior.
Things become complicated when Harden meets some of the homesteaders, consisting of Wade Harper (Forrest Tucker), old-timer Caliphet Mathews (Fred Stone), and his daughter Jane Ellen (Doris Davenport). Jane Ellen charms Harden into staying a little longer before leaving for California, his ultimate destination.
But the next day, Harden discovers a plot that entails Wade leading a group of men into Vinegaroon in order to mete out their own justice. They’re determined to lynch Judge Bean as revenge for killing their homesteader friend the previous day.
The stage is set for a showdown between the two groups: the local cattlemen, who believe that they should be able to herd their cattle across the open range, and the homesteaders who prefer to fence things off as boundaries of their property.
A Golden-Age Western With Laughs
This film is one of the funniest Westerns I’ve ever seen (probably the funniest), despite the literal gallows humor about the homesteader who is hanged at the start of the film. The back and forth between Bean and Harden as the two try to outwit one another is hilarious and reveals how versatile both Brennan (who won and Oscar for the role) and Cooper were as actors. You have to see their subtle eye movements and gestures to know what I’m talking about.
There are oddball characters aplenty. These include the town’s boozer and gambler Chickenfoot, and its matter-of-fact undertaker Mort Borrow (Charles Halton), who takes body measurements of suspects before they’ve even been convicted and hanged.
After watching many serious Westerns by directors such as the great John Ford and Sam Peckinpah, I found this film to be a breath of fresh laughter mixed in with the unfolding drama that its unique characters engage in—all of whom seem believable.
Indeed, Vinegaroon is based on the real town of Langtry, Texas—a place that the real-life Judge Roy Bean bought and was later appointed as judge for the entire surrounding territory. “The Westerner” is likewise smack-dab in must-watch territory.
Director: William Wyler
Starring: Gary Cooper, Walter Brennan, Doris Davenport
Running Time: 1 hour, 40 minutes
Release Date: Sept. 20, 1940
Rated: 5 stars out of 5