Sometimes the conflicting forces of prejudice and broader morality produce some fascinatingly strange results. 1946's Duel in the Sun
, a Western about a half-Native American, half Caucasian nymphomaniac indulges in disgusting stereotypes while getting caught on a confused track of censor imposed morality that requires a character to be both amoral and ruled by an unseen hand of omnipotent decency. The result is something feverish, lusty, and weird; a garishly effective melodrama.
The Technicolor on this film is dark, oily, and bright, like the vision of a gang of drunken cowboys wandering from saloon to saloon. The film stars Jennifer Jones as Pearl, daughter of a white man (Herbert Marshall) and a Native American (Tilly Losch). Neither Jones or the woman who played her mother apparently looked satisfactorily Native American so they were given body paint that, apart from being racist, appears a bit too grey to be any real human skin colour.
Pearl's mother isn't around for long because her father murders her and the guy she's sleeping with. Pearl's father blames this on his wife's inferior race then sends Pearl off to be raised by the white woman he wished he'd married, Laura Belle, played by Lillian Gish.
This was only around fifteen years after Gish was a leading lady and director King Vidor shoots her as someone who was still a beauty. This was before she'd transitioned to solidly old lady roles like the character she plays in Night of the Hunter
. She's patronisingly affectionate to her black maid, Vashti, played with an excellent sense of comic timing by Butterfly McQueen in a sadly typical role.
Of all directors, it's strange to see King Vidor in charge of a film that perpetuates racial stereotypes given he directed 1929's Hallelujah
, a film with an entirely black cast that in many ways defied stereotypes generally enforced by films of the era. But with Duel in the Sun
, Vidor was really co-director to the Hays code censors and producer David O. Selznick, who was looking to replicate the success he'd achieved with Gone with the Wind
At the heart of the film is a genuinely complex commentary on sex, the signal of which is distorted by noise of creative interference. Already I've mentioned Jennifer Jones, Lillian Gish, Herbert Marshall, and Butterfly McQueen, but this movie had a truly large, all star cast that also included Lionel Barrymore as Gish's husband and a loyal Confederate, Charles Bickford as a somewhat pathetic wouldbe suitor for Pearl, and Walter Huston as a frightening and strange preacher. At the centre of the film, Pearl is torn primarily between two admirers, brothers played by Joseph Cotten and Gregory Peck.
Cotten is the good son--he went off to school and became a lawyer while Peck's character was spoiled by their father--Barrymore--to become a cocky and self-centred young man. Pearl falls for Jesse (Cotten) but she lusts for Lewt (Peck). Morality seems to demand she be loyal to the one who has sex with her, yet the momentum of the story makes this amoral. Walter Huston's preacher seems to underline the haziness of the moral situation in a fascinatingly bizarre scene where Gish's character brings Pearl to him wearing only a blanket, Pearl having been naked when summoned and conducted to the preacher that way for no apparent reason.
Huston starts the scene tearing into a sandwich when she walks into the room and then proceeds to talk about how her body is evil and a temptation to men before he gives her a medallion to ward off sin. It's as though Vidor and Selznick are giving us the grotesquely satirised personification of the censors who probably saw the preacher as being perfectly proper.
The last act of the film is like a collapsing tunnel of moral constraints until a final scene that's like watching people in strait jackets speaking in tongues.