NR | 1 h 33 min | Drama, Western | 1957
Millie Parker (Mary Webster) cares for the young, idealistic sheriff, Ben Owens (Anthony Perkins) but not for his tin star. To her, that shiny badge stands for only one thing: death. If she’s going to spend the rest of her life with him, he must quit as sheriff. Her father, who’d been sheriff for 20 years, has just been killed on duty. She doesn’t mind someone keeping the peace, as long as it’s someone else: “I’m going to be a wife, not a widow!”
Greenhorn Owens is only temporary, until a more seasoned sheriff is selected. But, in a toss-up between townsfolk who play it safe and those who play it dirty, he can’t allow anyone else to wear the badge. Wise old Dr. Joseph McCord (John McIntire) agrees. Still, Owens worries. Is he up to the task? Enter older drifter, ex-sheriff, and bounty hunter Morgan Hickman (Henry Fonda) who’s worn a badge “a lot longer” than Owens has. Owens figures Hickman can handle himself and seeks out his guidance. Waiting to collect a bounty he’s due, a reluctant Hickman obliges.
A Rare WesternRare for a Western, this film secured an Oscar nomination for Best Screenplay. Screenwriter Dudley Nichols delivers memorable characters and compelling characterization.
Both Fonda and Perkins are atypical leading men in a Western. Except for their height and Perkins’s ridiculously broad shoulders, they’re soft-spoken and far from physically imposing. Yet their steely bearing brooks no ambiguity about their moral resolve.
Nona places her trust in a man she doesn’t know, and Millie learns to trust a man she does know; both women are swayed more by their men’s values than their gallantry with guns.
Sensitive ScreenplayAdmirably unhurried and in step with his theme of keeping the peace, Nichols shows Hickman’s choices as reflexes, flowing from his values: loyalty, humility, courage, restraint, and a life centered around family. Slowly, even ploddingly, you see Owens living those values even as they’re tested by local bullies. Starting out, Owens is no different from a grown-up version of little Kip; practicing a stylish draw of his guns the way Kip playacts sheriff on his pony. Then he wises up.
Hickman teaches Owens to fire his pistol, to confidently challenge an outlaw, to study men, to remember that a mob is only as tough as its leader, to lead from the front, and not to sweat the small stuff. Owens’s dependence on Hickman makes him stronger, not weaker.
Nichols’s point? Keeping the peace has a price, and someone must pay it. Ordinary citizens, even without badges (lawyers, doctors, traders, homemakers), must back the law, with or without guns. In one scene, an outnumbered Owens confronts a belligerent Bogardus and his mob. Hickman upends that dynamic quietly, by stepping up from behind, and standing alongside Owens; guns holstered, he just smiles.
When the town’s influential men desert Hickman and Owens because they can’t stand the heat of an impending climactic confrontation with hoodlums, one of the men feebly begs Owen to understand why he too is turning tail: “Don’t get hurt, we need you.”
Owens is silent, but you can almost hear him snap: What do you need me for? What’s left if no one gets hurt, and everyone plays safe? What’s left to protect or defend?