Devil’s Doorway | MGM | Anthony Mann | 1950
Anthony Mann made Devil’s Doorway under the same studio supervisors that oversaw his own Border Incident from the year before, as well as countless other envelope-pushing dramas – Stars in My Crown, The Bad and the Beautiful, Act of Violence, The Asphalt Jungle, Intruder in the Dust, The Red Badge of Courage. This was MGM under Dore Schary — vaguely liberal, slightly somber, a trek to the crumbly underworld of Culver City. The worst of these Schary-fostered movies channeled the white liberal do-gooderism that Darryl Zanuck was riding into the ground over at Fox. But the best were downright transgressive. If so much of MGM’s output under Louis B. Mayer could be symbolized by a parade-float Andy Hardy — sentimentality too factory farmed to even appear homespun, too pastry-fluff weightless for even a facsimile of flesh-and-blood reality — then a movie like Father of the Bride was the anchor clamped around ol’ Mickey’s marshmallow ankle, dragging the whole fantasyland enterprise back to Earth’s anxiety-charged postwar surface.
Devil’s Doorway is one of the unsung masterpieces of this fertile period of Cinematic Excellence, an Anthony Mann classic that seems to have slipped through the auteurist cracks. People are more likely to rhapsodize about The Glenn Miller Story — it’s Mann/Stewart collaboration after all! — than to treat this as anything more than Mann ‘warming up’ for his later, greater achievements. But how much greater are they? I’d take Devil’s Doorway over Bend of the River, God’s Little Acre, Men in War, The Far Country, and a helluva lot more. Just because Mann churned out at least three other great works in 1950 alone does not mean he wasn’t perfectly capable of a fourth.
So, get this. Robert Taylor is an Indian back from the Civil War, ready for well-deserved peace and quiet (the movie doesn’t just pay lip-service to pacifism – Taylor has plenty of room to articulate his desire to live harmoniously with all peoples and tend to his land). Louis Calhern is the grim specter of latent nativist evil — a sickly lawyer out West for the climate who gradually morphs into a proto-Judge Holden. Paula Raymond is the middling voice of the ‘let’s not be too reckless’ liberal — sympathetic to Taylor, but ultimately beholden to the racist homesteader laws. Sidenote: each character has a goddamn beautiful Western name — Lance Poole, Verne Coolan, Orrie Masters.
The movie begins at a reasonable scale for an eighty-minute Western — soldier returns to town, where some things are the same (Edgar Buchanan and other old friends reminisce over drinks) and others are different (a sharp tone of bigotry pervades the dusty air). Taylor is ostensibly in a good place — I mean, Jesus, the guy just won the Medal of Honor for his wartime service. But it isn’t long before racism becomes the (literal, figurative) law of the land. Old friends hope to shirk the label of Indian-lover in cowardly obeisance to the emerging right-wing order. It’s a cowardice with a very familiar stench — HUAC contemporaneously, but there’s also a tinge of The Mortal Storm’s domino-effect fascism. It’s this idea that interracial (inter-ideological, by extension?) camaraderie only lasts as long as the rallying cry of the right is in abeyance. But when it thunders (visually literalized to perfection, goddammit John Alton…), it has a way of exposing your ‘friends’ for who they really are — beleaguered backstabbing cretins. Unlike High Noon’s facile misanthropy — people are only cowards insofar as Gary Cooper can emerge as lonesome hero against a gestalt of crestfallen defeat — Devil’s Doorway gets at the honest-to-god ubiquity of moral cowardice. These people are otherwise perfectly ‘brave’ by traditional standards, quick to fight for a plot of land and for the well-being of their livestock. They’re just clinging to bigotry’s mast, more afraid of being accused of disloyalty to the ivory herd than they are to die.
The film is clearly pro-Taylor and anti-townspeople. But when Paula Raymond shows up, the film flirts with rearranging this dynamic for the worse, with Taylor and townspeople representing opposite but equally wrongheaded extremes and Raymond harnessing the objectivity of ‘the law’ to impart enlightenment to victim and victimizer alike. But nah, Mann neutralizes Schary’s milquetoast sermonizing instincts: Raymond is not his mouthpiece. But she is still part of the larger complexity, at times under the spell of law but at others privy to real moral sense – she is sympathetic in noting that the livelihoods of the would-be homesteaders are in jeopardy. But Taylor is sympathetic, righteous, and a few other things besides when he insists, “But do they have the right?” He is (I like to assume, but how can one be sure?) fine to share the fruits of his vast property so long as it’s his to share. But it’s not. Hence, his straightforward resolve: he and his people will not be erased, and if that resolution comes at the cost of a few sheep, then that’s not a problem.
So from the flint-rock of personalized emotions and tragic omens — wounded pride, incremental betrayal, a death in the family — Mann finally strikes at a Shakespearean eruption of epic violence, the only solution to a problem that the law fails (no, refuses) to solve (the anti-legalistic bent of the film is one of its greatest qualities). And God Almighty, it looks and feels like trench warfare (again, hats off to Alton). From a guy riding home from the war, Searchers-style, to the encroaching threat of actual genocide — that’s the escalated trajectory of this endlessly nervy Western. Run-of-the-mill prejudice is more or less equated to Calhern’s blood-curdling incarnation of diffident evil, and the liberal pretense of a fair trial is viewed as no different from an actual lynching. All of these are pathways to Native American erasure. Some are just a bit more polite than others.
It is this series of equivalencies that subsumes an initial bid for complexity into Taylor’s righteous fuck-everything fury. When you and your persecuted people stand the risk of being wiped off the face of the Earth and out of the annals of history, there’s no room to compromise, to take the path of least resistance. Compromise is teased in one glorious moment — a hard axial cut into Taylor’s and Raymond’s lips on the trembling precipice of a kiss — before Taylor backs away: “A hundred years from now it might have worked.” Sure, miscegenation was not going to happen in a 1950 Western. But Mann and screenwriter Guy Trosper play a game of inversion. The romance is unconsummated on Taylor’s terms. He’s calling the shots. He’s not going to compromise, because he’s not such a dope as to believe that Love is more important than the legacy of his tribe. And so Taylor dies and the film is classical tragedy at its best. It’s no wonder Mann made The Furies at about the exact same time.
So what’s, uh, wrong with the film? Besides Robert Taylor in red-face? I don’t really see anything. And speaking of Robert Tyalor in red-face, should that really deter anyone from what is otherwise a stone-cold masterpiece? I mean, I know Taylor wasn’t a great actor, but I think his stolid professionalism is what the part needs. Striving for nuanced, actorly greatness in this role would probably amount to some weird retrograde transracial posturing. Taylor’s just playing it straight. Before too long you don’t even notice the face paint. Western heroic archetypes may have been fashioned with white people in mind, but they ultimately proved more expansive than their makers counted on. Boring ol’ Robert Taylor as a righteous Indian fits comfortably in that mold. It’s a bit off-putting. But it’s also kind of harmonious.