The two best westerns of the 1940s that John Ford did not direct both came from the writing-directing team of Lamar Trotti and William A. Wellman: The Ox-Bow Incident (1943) and Yellow Sky. The former is an acknowledged masterpiece, although its anti-vigilantism has led to debate in some quarters as to whether such a clear, provocative social message corrupts the purity of the western form. Yellow Sky isn’t so well remembered, perhaps because it doesn’t have Henry Fonda in the lead role, as The Ox-Bow Incident does, perhaps because in the period immediately following World War II and during the Korean War war films, not westerns, were the principal “actioners,” and perhaps because the film is a work of considerable tonal complexity, in anticipation of Ford’s The Searchers (1956). In its time, though, the merits of the film scarcely went unnoticed; the Writers Guild of America honored Trotti’s script, and Wellman was named best director at the Locarno International Film Festival.
The film is that good, something of a marvel, in fact. Gregory Peck, in one of his more tolerable performances, plays ‘Stretch’ Dawson, the leader of a gang of bank robbers. It’s post-Civil War Arizona, in the last quarter of the 1800s, and the imprint of the war is seen in the men’s uprooted, restless, criminal lives; the American Southwest, a region that didn’t participate in the war, has become a gathering hole for the twisted, blighted souls who did. (Incisive irony: the one saddletramp who is too young to have had anything to do with the Civil War is a member of the gang precisely because he feels cheated of the chance that the war would have given him to prove himself a man.) “The fastest growing town in the territory” has turned into a ghost town. On one level, this is symbolic of the traumatic effect that the war had on the other half of the nation, to the East; literally, it represents the collapsed hopes of those who came prospecting for gold in the surrounding hills and found instead only sand.
The town is, or was, Yellow Sky, named for the gold that seized the imaginations of those who settled it, driving them to their delirious destiny in the desert, with only a local spring to cool their fever. Stretch and his gang have come there, by accident, across Nature’s killing fields, the parched Arizona saltlands, after robbing a bank and, in effect, in flight from civilization, as embodied by the U.S. Cavalry. They are the distorted mirror-images of the latter group. The cavalrymen old enough to have fought in the war are still military, having assimilated their war experience into this new phase of their lives in an “approved” way, whereas the gang members, warriors and outlaws, have not. The cavalrymen are clean, shaved and uniformed; Stretch and his men are filthy, unshaven, unkempt and any-way clothed. The cavalrymen have “missions”; the gang pulls off “jobs.” The cavalrymen are exalted by the group to which they belong; the gang members are diminished by their group. Neither group is any more “America” or “America’s future” than the other, but the soldiers know better than to risk their lives and the lives of their horses by pursuing the criminals into the saltlands. Both groups live at the edge of death, but, whereas Stretch and his band seem blind there, that is, purely instinctual, the soldiers, guided by the formal military hierarchy in which at the lower rung they participate, have their wits about them. Let the criminals go; the desert, one officer opines, “will save us the trouble of hanging them.” And, after all, the criminals are, like the soldiers, white—like the saltlands itself.
Stretch and the men are a contentious group; Dude (Richard Widmark, good as a flat-faced snake)—the nickname itself exposes the uprooted nature of his existence—hankers to assume the gang’s leadership. Dude had counseled against crossing the saltlands; Stretch insisted on doing it, reminding Dude that he could cut out with his share of the bounty from the bank. A bone of contention while they all are crossing the saltlands is water. One member, Walrus, had preferred to fill his canteen with whiskey; now he is desperate to quench his thirst. He steals water from someone else’s canteen—a thief vis-à-vis the group as well as vis-à-vis the outside, settled world. In truth, their water doesn’t last long, and the whole adventure—Dude would say, misadventure—is mired in an aura of almost certain death. The sun blazes. In extreme long- shots that surely counted heavily in Wellman’s prize at Locarno, the men are black dots in the distance gaining only very, very slowly on the expanse of seemingly endless crystal before them. The horses lose their footing in the salt and the sand, and, so, the men have to dismount and walk the distance, guiding and helping their horses as best they can. One horse, Half Pint’s, breaks a leg; the shot that kills the horse pierces the silence of this gorgeous, hallucinatory, deadly landscape out of a horrible dream. All the men are dying of thirst and hunger, their bones nearly ground into dust by the enormous effort it has taken to keep moving across the saltlands, when Stretch sees something in the distance. A subjective shot shows something shimmering beneath the hot sun—a line of buildings that goes in and out of focus. Is it a mirage? Stretch cautiously opines that it’s a town, with food, water and rest awaiting them. This is Yellow Sky. It’s their destiny, as Wellman’s imagery discloses: the subjective long-shot of the town mimics and replaces the earlier, objective long-shot of the men crossing the desert. Nearly ghosts themselves, the men reach the “town,” only to discover that it’s (apparently) utterly abandoned, a place as ravaged as their souls and their bodies. They collapse like corpses on ground and steps.
It turns out that the town isn’t completely uninhabited. ‘Mike’—Constance Mae—lives there with Grandpa, an old prospector who lives one-quarter inside his head and three-quarters outside, rendering his talk wonderfully elliptical. Grandpa is a quintessential outsider, wary of whites but a friend to Apaches, who helped raise his proud granddaughter. (This is a brilliantly scripted role, with James Barton giving a more interesting performance than Walter Huston did in John Huston’s Treasure of the Sierra Madre the same year.) Toting a shotgun, Mike points Stretch and his men to the local spring, but advises them to expect no hospitality from her or her grandfather. But Grandpa is of a different mind. Since he and Mike have worked a gold mine up yonder to a rich point of production, he is loath to arouse the strangers’ suspiciousness by appearing dismissive and inhospitable. The men, meanwhile, haven’t seen a girl in quite a while, and Mike is beautiful. (Anne Baxter, in the finest performance of her wonderful and varied career, has never been warmer, feistier or more arresting.) In particular, Stretch and Lengthy itch for Mike. When the men discover the gold mine, however, the bone of contention between them and Grandpa and Mike, and among themselves, becomes the gold. Stretch, smitten with Mike, wants to share the gold: 50% for the pair, and 50% for themselves. Dude, though, has other ideas, and these lead to a bloodbath that, again, echoes on a tiny scale the Civil War.
Stretch in particular is haunted by that war; now that he himself is, in effect, haunting a ghost town, the irony of his self-reflective, fractured life prepares us for his capitulation to Mike’s (off-screen) demand that they start life anew by returning to the bank the stolen money. Some find his doing this farfetched. It’s nothing of the sort, because we aren’t considering here what people would or would not do in real life but, rather, how they might function in a fable with all its fabulous elements. Among these elements are Nature’s desert and man’s desert, that is, the ghost town, Yellow Sky. (The abandoned, dilapidated town is magnificently rendered by the art directors, Lyle Wheeler and Albert Hogsett.) The gang’s survival of the desert and their stumbling encounter with the town are fabulous elements, as are the spring and the gold mine. The film has been bewitchingly photographed in black and white by Joseph MacDonald (Yellow Sky boasts some of the most beautiful “day-for-night” shooting in existence), mixing comedy, danger and romance, and, during the day, the massive rock formations outside the mine, with their layers of lateral folds, seem a projection of the erotic fantasies of the men for either Mike or the gold. In long-shot, the stupendous structure of the mine, with its black, square entrance, again suggests a beckoning woman for the gang members to enter. In such a heady atmosphere, and taking into account Mike’s own rapturous beauty, not to mention the fact that the gold has made Stretch rich anyhow, it isn’t odd that, given the chance for a life with Mike, Stretch would “unrob” the bank. Yellow Sky is a fairy tale for adults.
Trotti’s script derives from a book by W.R. Burnett. The story reminds me of stories by a contemporary of the film’s characters, Bret Harte. However, Shakespeare’s The Tempest has been noted as an inspiration. I don’t see this. A grandfather giving up a granddaughter in marriage isn’t normally the same thing as a father giving up a daughter, for the latter, in its wide embrace of human elements, includes the natural and normal mutual sexual attraction between a father and daughter. (In giving up his wand, Prospero is giving up his penis as well as his magic.) Rightly so, nothing of the sort exists in Yellow Sky. But I don’t want to start a tempest in a ghost town. If someone sees Shakespeare in Yellow Sky, he or she is welcome to do so.
Let us praise ‘Wild Bill’ Wellman, especially given that Chicago (see my piece about this 2002 monstrosity) recently won Oscars despite being vastly inferior to Wellman’s brilliant treatment of the same material, by way of Nunnally Johnson’s brilliant script, in Roxie Hart (1942). It’s sad to think that some people might like something as vapid as Chicago but won’t appreciate the beauties of Yellow Sky. Whereas Chicago is relentlessly in-your-face, Wellman’s western is “discreetly” shot, with the camera often catching action from behind wooden fences or by looking in from outside windows. In part, this is strategic, so that stunt doubles can convince us that they are the actors they are doubling for; more importantly, this technique creates a distance correlative to the passage of time and to our incapacity to invade the past with perfect sight and an unfettered view. Yellow Sky is fabulous and oblique, and, once we enter, we encounter characters who yet live in some region of the imagination where history and romance intersect. It’s left to Wellman to create an elastic tone as well as an elastic vision capable of accommodating such disparate elements as romance, ruthlessness, greed, echoes of war experience, low comedy, and both Nature and people testing to the limit human survival. It’s a wry and lovely tone, as when, after he has made unwelcome advances, Mike grazes Stretch’s scalp with a perfectly marked shot. On one level, of course, she is warning him: “I was raised by Apaches. Mess with me and I’ll kill you and scalp you.” It’s at that other level, where this gesture, however unconsciously, is a sexual tease and invitation, despite all of Mike’s protestations to the contrary, that the incident is miraculously transformed into another wrinkle in the fable, another element of the shimmering dream that is Yellow Sky/Yellow Sky.
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