Film Review: Duel in the Sun
In 1946, King Vidor released Duel in the Sun based on the 1944 novel of the same name by Niven Busch. Starring Jennifer Jones, Joseph Cotton, Gregory Peck, Lionel Barrymore, Herbert Marshall, Lilian Gish, Walter Huston Charles Bickford, Butterfly McQueen and Harry Carey, the film grossed $20.4 million at the Box Office. Nominated for the Academy Awards for Best Actress in a Leading Role and Best Actress in a Supporting Role and the Venice Film Festival Grand International Award, the film won the festival's Cinecetta Cup.
After Pearl Chavez’ father catches her mother with a lover, he shoots her and is executed as punishment. However prior to the execution, he arranges for Pearl to live with his second cousin. However, after coming to live at the cattle ranch, she winds up in a love triangle between said cousin’s second son, Lewt and neighboring rancher Sam.
A scandalous film for the time, with content that many would still find so today, Duel in the Sun is pretty interesting with some well-done characterization. In fact, Lewt's character is an important aspect of the film. He’s an enormous hothead who likes the sound of his own voice as well as thinks himself to be the cleverest person around. But when it all comes down to it, he’s an arrogant jerk who brought about the tragic end of the film through his smugness. It really all starts when he starts to try and woo Pearl, who continues to refuse his advances. And this is where the scandalous nature of the relationship came from as Pearl and Lewt are related, albeit distantly, but eventually she relents and begins a relationship with him, though it could be argued that she’s essentially believing that there’s no use continuing to rebuff him as he’s always just going to keep trying as she does resist before giving in, which may be part of her thinking the whole thing through.
However, in Lewt’s smug nature, it would appear that all he really wanted to do was humiliate her as well as fulfill his desires. Later on, after the ranch hands know of their relationship, they decide to tell everyone that they’re getting engaged. But his true nature comes out when Lewt tells his father that he’s just playing with her and calls her by some racial slurs. It really shows the convergence of his self-love and hostility. And when Pearl goes running to Sam, it’s apparent that Lewt is under the impression that she’s only his, even with his maliciousness towards her.
Eventually, all the hostilities converge into death, with Lewt having murdered Sam and then a finishing shootout between Pearl and Lewt. However, it’s enormously clear that even though she’s just finished with him, Pearl still has a great amount of affection for Lewt. And he does to her, even though he shows it with different forms of abuse. Because when they both shoot each other, they die proclaiming their love for each other.
The whole film gives a good long look at how complex infatuation can be and how it’s often mistaken for love as well as a look into an abusive relationship. It’s apparent that Lewt doesn’t love her, but doesn’t want anybody else to have her, making it so that she can only come back to him. On the other hand, Pearl doesn’t have anywhere else to go and believes herself to be in love with Lewt when she’s merely infatuated and stays around because of how he makes her believe that she’s only worth being loved by him.
At the same time, there’s some good foreshadowing going on through the film. Early on, Pearl is given guidance by a traveling preacher, a hypocritical man that keeps drawing attention to Pearl’s body and its attractiveness while telling her to fight a life of sexual temptation. He gives her a medal to wear that will keep her sweet and clean. Later on, Lewt gets rid of the medal, mocking its meaning and it’s not hard to think that Pearl might have lived if that medal had stayed on.
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