DUEL IN THE SUN Revisits a Movie Mogul’s Legacy

Thank God they don’t make ’em like this anymore.

Duel in the Sun is just the kind of old-school epic you would have expected it to be. The film is a long, drawn-out, star-studded saga that crosses over years and milestones, oftentimes doing so in the blink of an eye. Throughout the course of its bloated runtime, people die from execution and disease, families are torn apart, men fight, women lust, and comical servants offer up pearls of wisdom. There’s even an extended, over-dramatic showdown about the construction of a railroad and the family legacy it threatens as a result. All of it draws both laughs and admiration simultaneously as it reminds audiences of the power within larger-than-life cinematic storytelling.

In Duel in the Sun, half-breed Pearl Chavez (Jennifer Jones) has been sent to Texas to live with her distant cousin Laura Belle (Lillian Gish) after her father (Herbert Marshall) is sentenced to death for killing her mother after discovering her having an affair. Upon immediately arriving at her cousin’s sprawling ranch, Pearl encounters a hostile welcome from Laura Belle’s husband, Senator Jackson (Lionel Barrymore), as well as kind affection from older son Jesse (Joseph Cotten) and the glaring eye from the younger handsome son, Lewt (Gregory Peck).

Duel in the Sun may be one of the campiest epics that was ever put to film. The script seemed to never be able to tell the difference between drama and comedy and comes loaded with moments which are just plain laughable, like the instance when Pearl is shown repeatedly calling herself trash after sleeping with Lewt. Meanwhile, lines meant to be dramatic end up being real howlers, such as when Laura Belle, who has recently confessed to Pearl that her and the latter’s father had feelings for each other, tells her, “Neither your father nor I found happiness in this world, and I’m afraid neither will you.” So much about Duel in the Sun feels so over-the-top, even by the melodramatic standards of the day. It seems like every other line in the movie is accompanied by a dramatic musical cue, while the film is scattered with endless soap-opera fodder, including people lamenting on their death beds before dropping altogether.

Still, Duel in the Sun does the job in a number of ways. On a technical level, the color of the film is just too stunning. Considering that the movie was made in the mid-to-late ‘40s, the fact that an epic such as this could’ve been so visually mounted was a feat in and of itself. Also, despite any silliness, this is just the kind of saga that is easy to get swept up in, especially when it comes to the fate of the main heroine and her quest to find happiness and self-acceptance. As exaggerated as her and Lewt’s story is, there’s something so compelling about these two lovers who were driven by passion and fated to be together. Socially, Duel in the Sun also proves somewhat bold with regards to its content. Not only are there a number of scenes filled with burning sexuality, but the film offers up frank comments on both race as well as the treatment of women as property.

Pearl may be the most divisive performance Jones ever gave her fans. In some instances, she plays the character as if she’s in a piece of kabuki theater, while at others, she hones in on her passion and intensity with more fire than she was ever given credit for. Peck matches her in the passion arena as he makes Lewt a dynamic cad ready to trample over anyone standing in his way. As Jesse, the good son, Cotten may have the least flashy role of the three leads, yet he provides a calming warmth in the face of the movie’s more outrageous moments. Finally, Barrymore and Gish excel in their parts, which serve as great illustrations of what made them true acting legends.

If Duel in the Sun is notable for one thing, it’s how it representend the end of an era for the film’s producer, David O. Selznick. The legendary mogul, who had given the green light to films made by Orson Welles, Alfred Hitchcock, and had shepherded the seemingly unfilmable Gone with the Wind to the screen, Selznick had hopes that Duel in the Sun would launch him into greater territory as a filmmaker. Unfortunately, production problems (including many which came from the controlling Selznick himself) made this impossible. The film saw a number of setbacks, such as the loss of director King Vidor before being banned by the Catholic church as well as a number of conservative states for its racy content. When the dust had settled, the film barely broke even in terms of profits, and Selznick’s reign as a Hollywood power player had come to an end. But boy…what a way to go.

The Package

Peck’s children turn up for a retrospective interview where they remember their father and offer up their own takes on the film. A commentary track, trailer and the film’s original roadshow presentation round out the disc’s special features.

The Lowdown

A classic for some, while being a footnote for others, Duel in the Sun remains admirable in intent, laughable in execution, and captivating throughout.

Duel in the Sun is now available on Blu-ray and DVD from Kino Lorber.

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