|Laconic screen legend Gary Cooper is in fine form in this stand-out early work.|
In The Virginian, that line is cattle rustling. To our modern sensibilities it seems horrifying when a band of cowboys tracks down a group of cattle thieves and hangs them in the woods. Shouldn't there be a trial, a defense, an opportunity for redemption? More importantly, should not the punishment of their crimes come from an impersonal collective rather than the direct response of the victims? Civilization has taught us that, but in a world without jails and law courts and state-sponsored attorneys justice must be harsh and immediate or it doesn't exist at all. Moreover, is the judge who condemns a man any less responsible for his death than the vigilante who takes him into the woods and hangs him? In both cases the killing is sanctioned by a society that recognizes that an individual's right to life is less important than a community's right to security.
Such is the moral compass that drives The Virginian. Victor Fleming's 1929 film was the third of six screen adaptations (four film, one TV series, and one TV movie) of a landmark 1902 novel by the same title that helped to define the modern western genre. The nameless title character (Gary Cooper) romances Molly, a pretty young schoolteacher from Vermont (Mary Brian) against a background of frontier justice. As the voice of civilization, Molly does not understand the violent behavior of her lover and repeatedly tries to change him. He is not moved. Like Cooper's Marshall Kane in High Noon, the Virginian's love of a woman will not shake the guiding principles of his world view. Allowing thieves to operate either through the inability of the community to apprehend them or through some misguided sense of mercy challenges the very notion of property. In an isolated society disconnected from traditional supply chains and support systems, property is as fundamental as life.
|Discussing poetry with the pretty schoolteacher.|
This sort of moral dilemma gives a psychological richness to the film that makes its otherwise simple story thoroughly engaging. There is a relatively small amount of action in the film. There are no elaborate gun fights or show downs, no attacks by bands of Indians, no cattle stampedes. The story positively smacks of realism, albeit a harsh sort of realism we'd rather not think of as part of our nation's heritage.
|Twenty-eight year old Cooper, who got his start in movies as a stunt rider, |
is a natural cowboy.
Like most early talkies, The Virginian suffers somewhat in production quality. The sound is muffled and unclear in places, with excessive background noise throughout. With no music integrated into the soundtrack, it comes across as a bit stale, and does not have the polish shown in either the silents of the late 20's or sound films of the mid 30's. These technical difficulties are only a minor hindrance, as the story, direction, and performances are all excellent.
|"With a gun against my belly, I always smile."|
Unfortunately, The Virginian is a public domain film, so quality DVD releases are hard to come by. The version I saw was faded and with inadequate contrast throughout. Combined with the sound issues inherent in films of the era, it makes watching The Virginian something of a challenge. Ultimately, though, it is well worth the effort, and ranks among the better westerns I have seen to date.