Back Add a Comment Share:
Duel In The Sun is scaled to be a classic epic on the order of The Godfather or at least Gone With The Wind; the producer, David O.Selznick planned it specifically to top his earlier triumph with the latter film. The problem is that everything about the plot just screeches "Mills And Boon" and the grossly overblown style of the film tends to induce giggles rather than swoons. Having said that, if you take it all with a very large pinch of salt, this is a very entertaining film indeed, made with all the wasteful but guiltily enjoyable extravagance of Golden Age Hollywood.

Duel in the Sun (Roadshow Edition)
Movie
The story involves a romantic triangle between half-breed Indian Pearl Chavez (Jones), Jesse McCannam (Cotton) - heir to a vast area of land called Spanish Bit - and his younger brother Lewt (Peck). Jesse is awfully nice and extremely boring, while Lewt sings romantic songs, eyes up the local talent and ruthlessly seduces Pearl, not that she needs a great deal of persuasion. Pearl, who has come to Spanish Bit after her father is hung for murdering her prostitute mother, can't decide between the brothers; she loves Jesse for his kindness but she isn't turned on by him and she hates Lewt for his brutality but lusts after him like nobody's business. Throw into this sexually charged atmosphere the Senator (Barrymore) - the McCannam patriarch - and the advancing railroad which threatens to destroy the private empire of Spanish Bit and you have all the ingredients for a shamefully enjoyable load of rubbish. If it's not as richly textured as Gone With The Wind that's probably because the source material is less interesting and there was no studio to rein back Selznick's wackier ideas.

The actors appear to be having a lot of fun. Gregory Peck is particularly amusing in a rare villainous role, relishing every nasty action so much that it makes you disappointed that he didn't do this sort of thing more often. Joseph Cotten has the most boring part but he does the honourable good guy about as well as anyone can. Lionel Barrymore hams away, but his usual prize for overacting is stolen by the great Walter Huston as a "sinteller" - a name given to charlatan preachers who travelled around dispensing redemption in exchange for, er, hospitality. Huston is so much fun that he enlivens the film during some of the slower spots but he's not really given enough to do. The same goes for Lillian Gish as the oh-so patient mother who is infuriatingly weak-willed and likely to tempt even the most tolerant viewer
to shout abuse at the screen.

What makes the film so memorable however is not the story or the actors but the incredibly powerful imagery which transcends the melodrama that surrounds it. The story is played out in a succession of vividly coloured, headily intense visuals which are often far more revealing than the dialogue. From the marvellously atmospheric opening in a sleazy western bar to the unforgettable final dance of death between the doomed lovers, the images sear themselves onto the mind. This is quite clearly kitsch, but it is very striking kitsch. The intensity of the emotions is surprising for a Hollywood film from 1946, as is the level of sexual frankness. The sexual imagery runs rampant from a storm breaking out the night Lewt ravishes Pearl to the scene where she insists on riding a big, powerful horse bareback with no concern for her own safety.

The direction is supremely professional in the old Hollywood style and remarkably seamless considering that King Vidor walked off the set (tired of having to defer to Selznick) and was replaced by William Dieterle. Some of the scenes have a breathtaking confidence, such as the moment when the Senator rounds up the men on the estate to confront the railroaders and the glowing photography is usually beautiful to look at. Dimitri Tiomkin's music is wonderful too. As for the script, it can best be described as a collection of cliches strung together loosely. That it really doesn't matter explains the appeal of the film. This is big, idiotic, overblown nonsense and all the better for it. It's a huge folly of a passionately iconoclastic producer, packed with primal themes about lovers and families and the destructive power of sexuality. The film was, predictably, condemned by the Catholic Church although it does in fact get a lot closer to the tone of the Old Testament stories than most Biblical epics. The reason it works as well as it does, and that it is so hilariously over the top, is that it is done with total, unblinking sincerity. The naivity is deeply comic, but it's also strangely touching. Even the hopelessly dated treatment of the black servant is fascinating, albeit for the wrong reasons. This is pure, unadulterated Selznick, and for all its obvious flaws, it's also rather wonderful.

Duel in the Sun (Roadshow Edition)
Video
This is a vast leap in quality for the hitherto mediocre Pearson TV DVD range. Although far from perfect, it is considerably better than the likes of The Grissom Gang, which was hideous to look at. This image is actually very good indeed for the most part. It's not perfect since there is a constant texturing of grain throughout and it does look a little dated (understandably), but the immediate impact of the picture is in the stunning colours which really are sensational. There is some minor artifacting visible in some of the night scenes and the blacks aren't quite as solid as I would have hoped, but this is still a crisp and detailed transfer that serves the film well. It is a fullscreen transfer, reflecting the original 1.33:1 ratio of the film.

Sound
The only track on the disc is the original Mono soundtrack. This is perfectly fine for the purpose and a stereo remix would probably have sounded little better. The music might have benefitted from a bit of extra oomph, but otherwise this is perfectly acceptable.

Extras
There are a few extras that show PTV have tried to put a bit of effort into this release. Nothing earth-shattering but still an improvement on their earlier discs. The version of the film included here contains the original Roadshow release music cues; The Prelude, the Overture and the End Music. We also get some extracts from Martin Scorsese's book "A Personal Journey Through American Movies" - this is one of Scorsese's favourite films and a major influence on him since he saw it as a child. There are also brief biographies of the cast. We also get 5 trailers; the original Coming Soon teaser, the Coming Soon trailer, the full trailer, the "1947 Popular Tag" and the 1954 "Widescreen Tag". The thought of seeing this beautifully composed film in 1.85:1 with the top and bottom cut off is enough to send me into a nervous breakdown. There are 18 chapters and some nicely designed menus

Duel in the Sun (Roadshow Edition)
Conclusion
If this film was released now, it would be far too self-consciously knowing and insincere. As it is, the camp humour value lies mostly in the seriousness with which it is made. Unmissable entertainment, provided you don't mind watching something so shamlessly old-fashioned in almost every respect. This DVD release is not perfect but it's worth a look for fans of the film.


Links: