Weekend Marquee --- The Bravados
The era of responsible westerns may have ended with The Bravados. Revenge themes were frowned upon by the Code. You could seek justice for killings, but getting even for its own sake was verboten. By 1958, restrictions were sufficiently loosened as to allow Randolph Scott to ride vigilante style through an economy western like Seven Men From Now, but this wouldn't do for Bravados director Henry King, a veteran since silents who’d applauded restrictions and happily worked within them. King was a deeply conservative filmmaker with studio granted freedom sufficient to invest projects with a highly individual sense of rights and wrongs as he saw them. Few mainstream features went so deep into their director’s head as The Bravados. King was past seventy when he made it, a helmsman since 1915. He was to Fox what DeMille had been to Paramount. No one challenged his authority nor questioned creative control from inception to release. King made it clear he’d not direct The Bravados without major alterations to the script. He felt strongly that revenge, as a guiding principle, was both pointless and morally wrong. If that were not emphasized in The Bravados, he’d have no part of it. A third-act reversal King developed was indeed something new in westerns, one that would shame viewers for shared bloodlust with Gregory Peck’s morose lead character. Could that have limited the boxoffice? Expectations for July 4 and continuing summer business were naturally high. The Gunfighter from this team had performed well and continued doing so in reissues, despite its own downbeat ending, but westerns now were engaged in daily showdown with television, and only the strongest survived. The Bravados had a negative cost of $2.1 million, nearly twice the cost of The Gunfighter, and earned domestic rentals of $1.8 million, a losing proposition rescued by foreign rentals of $2.8 million. The final profit, albeit disappointing, was $159,000.
I don’t think you could find a story like "The Bravados" anywhere else but here, on the Cinemascope screen of your theatre, says Gregory Peck in the trailer he narrates, and so he’s right to the extent of adult themes beyond permissive boundaries of television as of 1958. That was the comparison intended, of course, and a pointed one to remind us that indeed there were no surprises left on the tube at home. Westerns had exploited sex before. There was The Outlaw and Duel In The Sun, but here was one to confront taboo topics of rape and revenge and call them by name. This was queasy subject matter, but unavailable among TV cowboys, and expensive westerns by this time needed size (The Big Country) or nerve (Man Of The West was another with harsh sex content) to compete. Gregory Peck as avenging angel for the rape/murder of his wife was itself unexpected. Could The Bravados follow through on such a premise with the Production Code still operative? As things turned out, it would not. Eleventh hour edits and discreet cutaways avoid confrontation with Peck as a killer in cold blood. We’re never sure just how some of his quarry met their finish. He confesses later to having killed three men, but two are not shown dying at Peck’s hand, and a third appears, by way of a confused edit, to draw first. It’s as though cooler (censorial?) heads prevailed and punches were pulled, so as to spare Peck following through on what his stated mission promised. Someone blinked here. Maybe it was director King, or an intrusive Code, or perhaps Gregory Peck in defense of his image. Either way, The Bravados, good as it is, was compromised. Within another decade, we’d have no such moral reservation with Lee Van Cleef squaring familial accounts in For A Few Dollars More. Indeed, a sixties (and beyond) audience would feel cheated by heroes showing the slightest hesitation over matters of taking revenge, preferring they do so in brutal accordance with wrongs done them.
Limited availability and inadequate presentation on occasions when they could be seen circumscribed the afterlife of pictures like The Bravados. Fox Cinemascope may have looked good in theatres, but they wouldn’t again for many years to come. Nothing adapted so poorly to television as movies shot through anamorphic lenses. The Bravados was sold to NBC for home premiere on the new Monday Night at the Movies, a 1962-63 expansion of Fox’s relationship with the network which saw much of its top 50’s product reaching audiences far larger than had ventured out to them in theatres. In this instance, The Bravados played middle position in a three-week punch-out of competitor CBS, which until that season had dominated primetime programming on Mondays. NBC ran The Enemy Below, The Bravados, and Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison against the weekly lineup of To Tell the Truth, I've Got a Secret, The Lucy Show and The Danny Thomas Show and according to TIME magazine, blew CBS out of the water. It was dawn upon the era of recent Hollywood movies as ammunition in network wars, and viewers made it known they preferred features, so long as star names were familiar and broadcast was free. NBC's Hollywood movies were obviously as superior to CBS's TV shows as the old ironclads were to the wooden gunboats, said TIME, but where were voices noting how inferior said cropped casualties looked once transplanted to inhospitable home screens? Now that we’re getting accustomed to wide televisions, I wonder if even casual viewers would sit for pan-and-scan abuses such as were visited upon The Bravados and its kin over so many years. DVD release and showings on the Fox Movie Channel have finally made The Bravados (properly)available again as margins close on Fox Cinemascope titles unaccounted for in the digital recovery. Among worthy westerns still waiting, From Hell To Texas stands out, coincidentally another one that ran during that 1962-63 NBC season (which is when I last saw it). There’s still a number of wide features from the 50’s needing to be put right, and a lot of these will see critical reputations made (or restored) when that time comes. A humble suggestion to Fox for next year's deluxe box set and follow-up to Ford and Murnau/Borgaze might be a collection of all the remaining unreleased early Cinemascope titles. There would be a signal event for 2009!