My strenuous apologies for the prolonged hiatus. Now that things have calmed down a bit, I can finally return to a (somewhat) more consistent posting schedule. First up on the docket is an entry in “Screening Classic Hollywood,” in which I discuss the 1958 film The Proud Rebel, starring Alan Ladd, Olivia de Havilland, and David Ladd (the son of Alan). It follows John Chandler (Ladd) as he attempts to discover why his son David (David Ladd) cannot speak. In the process, he ends up in the debt of independent farmer Linnett (de Havilland) and intervenes in the unofficial war going on between her and a nearby family of sheep ranchers. After a deadly showdown that restores David’s speech and sees the death of two of the ranchers, John at last returns to Linnett and the promise of a happily married and settled future.
Clearly, this film has many echoes of Shane, one of Ladd’s most memorable and famous roles, and even includes a scene in which he chops quite vigorously at a tree (a similar scene occurred in the previous film). Like the titular Shane, John is a man haunted by his past, especially the fact that he fought on the losing side of the bitterest of American wars. Though the Civil War never appears directly on-screen, it seems to hover press in around the characters, particularly when so many of the townspeople respond with outright hostility to John’s former service in the Confederate army. John is bound by his relationship to his mute son–who also seems to have suffered some sort of trauma possibly related to the war–but he is also a man struggling to make sense of his life in the aftermath of conflict.
For her part, Linnett is a woman attempting to make it world that is incredibly hostile to the very idea of women living and running a farm on their own. The film, for its part, also seems determined to punish her for this effrontery to the natural order, while also holding out the possibility of suturing her back into the social order. The farm has gradually fallen into disrepair without the men there to help her, the film raises the possibility that it will do so if John does not return from his meeting with the sheep ranchers, the cinematography highlighting Linnett’s lone figure in long shot against the dilapidated buildings of her farm.
For their part, the sheep ranchers represent a slight variation on the typical rancher/homesteader conflict that permeates so many westerns of this period (including Shane). If Linnett stands as the reminder of what happens when women are not properly aided by strong men, then the ranchers represent the danger of untamed and unbridled masculinity. They have no women in their lives, simply a father living with his two sons, whom he is willing to do anything to protect, up to and including lying for them, his deviant patriarchal attitude providing a sharp and meaningful counterpart to that of John. Indeed, it is precisely because he has not done his job as a father that he ultimately leads one son to his death and then, after attempting to avenge him, is slain in turn.
After both the father and the more bellicose brother are killed, the remaining brother is left weeping in the ruins of the ruthless and brutal world that they have built, a clear message on the film’s part that, without the calming, taming, reproductive power of the female (even if, as is the case here, that reproductive power exists at the level of the symbolic and the metaphorical rather than the physical), masculinity is doomed to destroy itself and leave nothing behind but a devastated landscape. Unlike, say, Oklahoma!, with its hopeful message that the rancher and the homesteader can get along, The Proud Rebel presents a very different message, that there can ultimately be no rapprochement between the two very different frontier lives. One leads to reproduction, domesticity, and the social order, the other to decay, destruction, and oblivion.
In its neat parallels to Shane, the ending of The Proud Rebel seems to recuperate and reorient the wandering male hero brought back into the fold of the nuclear family rather than hopelessly cast out of it. In that sense, this film strikes a somewhat more optimistic note than its predecessor, suggesting that there is hope for the solitary male, so long as he is willing to put aside his gun after having done what is necessary to ensure the survival of the home and the family. Having done so, he can finally take up his position as the benevolent patriarch that is a hallmark of so many films of classic Hollywood.