Duel in the Sun is David O. Selznick's 1946 attempt to replicate his earlier success with Gone With The Wind by creating an another epic about a southern family, centered around a tempestuous heroine. As one synopsis says:
While Duel in the Sun does not nearly approach the artistry of the 1939 masterpiece, it is not without its cinematic value. According to one contemporary assessment:
Jennifer Jones portrays a stunningly beautiful half-breed named Pearl with an unbridled spirit that she cannot contain. Her noble father is executed when he lets his emotions run amok [and] murders both his wife and her lover.... She is then sent to live with distant, wealthy relatives in the heart of Texas ranch country. Once there, she meets prejudicial indifference from patriarch Senator Jackson McCanles (Lionel Barrymore). The story revolves around her divided affections between the family's good son Jesse (Joseph Cotten) and his abusive brother Lewton, played with uncharacteristic mean-spiritedness by a young and handsome Gregory Peck. She is seduced by Lewton although her head reminds her of her weak and vacillating choice. The passions of both brothers spins out of control to a stirring climax as Pearl's love/hate feelings morph into a desperate act of vengeance followed almost immediately, and irrationally, by her desires and expression of love.
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....Perhaps too much of Selznick's personal life, namely his affair with the leading lady, spilled over into the production, heightening the melodrama. Yes, the film was initially banned by the Church and in several Midwestern towns. However, compared to what is now shown on prime time television, commercials included, Duel in the Sun seems wholesome and almost pristine. Since it is often shown on TCM, I thought it would be worth revisiting, especially in terms of the family dysfunction which creates an atmosphere conducive to disaster.
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 unusually beautiful to look at. Dimitri Tiomkin's music is wonderful too....
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...is that it is done with total, unblinking sincerity.... 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.
Pearl's father Scott Chavez and Lewt and Jesse's mother Laura Belle had been in love in their youth but had been unable to marry each other. It was after the War Between the States and southerners were reduced to poverty so Laura Belle had to marry money. Both Scott and Laura Belle end up in unhappy marriages but each are too gentle to stand up to spouses who were either negligent or abusive. Unable to control his slutty wife, Scott should have at least sent Pearl to be educated at a convent or a school rather than let her run about in the streets.
Laura Belle married the wealthy Yankee senator Jackson McCanles, who never got over the fact that Laura Belle deep down always loved Scott. The Senator takes Laura Belle away to his ranch, where he proceeds to torment her with sneers and reproaches. It seems they worked out their relationship problems by each taking over one of the boys. While Laura Belle raised Jesse to be a gentleman, the Senator spoiled Lewt, taking pleasure in his wild ways, almost as a way to get back at Laura Belle. As the film opens, the McCanles household is a veritable tinderbox of angers, resentments and passions, just waiting for a spark like Pearl Chavez to walk in and make it explode.
One aspect of the story which irks me more and more as I grow older is how Laura Belle fails to protect Pearl from Lewt. Pearl is a conflicted child, as anyone can see at first glance. She is torn between her wanton mother and her noble father; she is torn between trying to be a lady like Laura Belle and being a floozy like her mother; she is torn between love for upright Jesse and her lust for no-good Lewt. She is obviously the type of teen age girl that a mother keeps an eye on. Laura Belle should have kept Pearl right at her side rather than let her loose on the ranch. Pearl was her own cousin and had been entrusted to her care. Since predatory Lewt made it clear that he was interested in Pearl without respecting her, Laura Belle should have taken Pearl upstairs to live. Instead, Laura Belle allows Pearl to sleep downstairs with the cowboys where it is easy for Lewt to ravish her. How can any woman be so simple-minded? But to give Laura Belle some slack, she was raised not to think ill of others and, as time went on, she taught herself to ignore the ugly side of life. She tried not to see what Lewt was becoming, and would not acknowledge that he was a reprobate until blood had already been shed. Such blindness on the part of a mother can be costly indeed.