Classic Americana turned sour
You can argue if you want whether Hud is a Western. It is perhaps more a modern drama. IMDb classifies it as Drama, Western and Brian Garfield reviews it in his Western Films. Characters wear Stetsons and use Winchesters, and a Texas cattle ranch is the setting. More importantly, there are some Western themes (Larry McMurtry wrote the source novel) and in the ‘decent-rancher vs. ne’er-do-well son’ relationship I am reminded of Vengeance Valley. On the other hand, it’s full of automobiles and transistor radios, and has more in common with the angry-young-man pictures of the 50s and 60s. Whatever it is, Western or not, it’s a fine film.
Martin Ritt (below) was certainly a talented director, called in the IMDb bio “one of the best and most sensitive American filmmakers of all time”. That may be a bit over the top but he sure made some fine pictures, was Oscar-nominated (for Hud, in fact) and was a BAFTA winner (for The Spy Who Came in from the Cold). You wouldn’t say he was a Westernista, not really, though he made, apart from Hud, two other pictures that could be defined as Westerns, Hombre (1967), which certainly was a Western, and a very good one too, based on the Elmore Leonard novel, and The Outrage (1964), more of a stage-play really, Rashomon in the West, and rather overwrought. Interestingly, all three starred Paul Newman.
Newman had a mixed career, in my view, in Westerns. He made eight (depending on your definition), and played some of the most famous characters of Western myth – Billy the Kid, Butch Cassidy, Judge Roy Bean and Buffalo Bill. That’s quite a dramatis personae. But when he started, as Billy in The Left-Handed Gun for Arthur Penn in 1958, he was still in full method-acting mode and his performance verged dangerously on overacting (in his mid-thirties at the time, he was also a tad geriatric to play Bonney), and his Roy Bean (for John Huston) and Bill Cody (for Robert Altman) were also perilously close to parody. I personally am not fond of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, more of a commercial semi-comic buddy movie than true Western, but it was certainly a huge hit. On the other side of the coin, he was superb as the white boy brought up by the Apache in Hombre. And he is magnificent in the title role of Hud.
But he wasn’t considered the best actor on the set. Newman was nominated for an Oscar but didn’t win that year. Two of his co-stars did, though: Melvyn Douglas and Patricia Neal. Mr Douglas, who twice won an Academy Award (the other for Being There) plays Hud’s father, Homer, an elderly, decent cattleman who has given up on his reprobate son. Western fans may also remember Douglas from Sea of Grass and Advance to the Rear. His performance as tired, worn-out and saddened rancher, a wonderful blend of bitterness and nobility, facing despair when foot-and-mouth disease is found in his herd, is truly fine. So too is that of Ms. Neal, playing the put-upon and taken-for-granted housekeeper Alma, her beauty fading, trying to fend off the odious advances of a drunken Hud. Both these are really sad figures.
Actually, everyone is in this story. It’s a pretty nihilistic tale, highly pessimistic in its outlook, and all the characters are basically going nowhere.
Maybe the exception to that is Hud’s nephew, Homer’s grandson, Lonnie, played by fourth-billed Brandon De Wilde. Now we all know Brandon from his part in Shane a decade before this. His Joey in that picture won huge praise. Myself, I didn’t think he was that good, being too young (he was eleven but seemed much younger) and too whiny to be the tough lad in Jack Schaefer’s novel. Not that I criticize child actors; it’s miraculous that they are as good as they are. But Shane certainly made Brandon’s name. He continued with Westerns as a teenager, playing the kid with James Stewart in Night Passage and then with Lee Marvin in The Missouri Traveler (neither an especially good film). I have never seen him better than he was in Hud, though. He was actually twenty then but he managed perfectly the in-between youth, neither boy nor yet man, who is so influenced by his grandfather, his uncle and Alma. It’s another excellent performance, in a film studded with them.
Oscar or not, Newman was superb in this. Tony Mastroianni in The Cleveland Press at the time wrote, “As Hud, Newman is perfect. He’s ornery. He’s nasty. He wears a deceptive smile and the occasional decent sentiments that come from his lips sound as hollow as they were meant to be.” The Academy Award actually went to Sidney Poitier for Lilies of the Field. I would have given it to Newman.
For me, though, the best aspect of this picture is the sheer visual beauty. James Wong Howe shot all three of Ritt’s Westerns (or semi-Westerns), as well as The Molly Maguires. He was one of the most talented of the cinematographers in our noble genre but he was a real maestro in black & white. The choice of monochrome for this picture (a big Paramount release in the mid-60s, it would certainly have commanded color) was inspired. It gives a purity and starkness to the picture, enhanced by the wide-screen Panavision. Almost every frame seems like a work of art, like a print from one the great photographic masters – which he was. The movie is worth watching simply for this. And Jimmy got an Oscar for it.
The great Robert Surtees shot another McMurtry adaptation, The Last Picture Show, in 1971, also in black & white, and very fine it was too (he was Oscar-nominated for it) but Howe’s is bleaker, lonelier, sadder, dustier, more spare.
As for the writing, well, of course there was a master novelist at work here. McMurtry is one of the truly great American writers, and Horseman, Pass By (1961) is magnificent. But full marks also to the husband-and-wife team of Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank Jr (both Oscar-nominated) for their adaptation. Ravetch worked for Ritt on Norma Rae, and the couple did The Cowboys for John Wayne.
The music is by Elmer Bernstein, so you couldn’t want much better than that, and there is a lot of tinkling guitar and folksy charm, which sits admirably with the gloom of the theme.
Hud really is a pretty loathsome character. When Homer says, “You’re an unprincipled man, Hud,” he’s not telling the half of it. He womanizes cynically but he has no relationships. Women are just sex objects for him. When foot-and-mouth strikes he derides it as “a schoolbook disease” and is all for selling the cattle quick, now, before anyone finds out.
There’s a saloon brawl and a rodeo, and many other ‘Western’ trimmings. The scene with the cattle in the slaughter pit is truly harrowing, as it was meant to be, almost difficult to watch. Homer himself shoots the last two wild longhorns that he has. This is a true ‘end-of-the-West’ symbol – of course McMurtry was something of a specialist in that.
Although the movie is called Hud, and stars Newman, in many ways it is the boy Lonnie who is the central character. Their world revolves around him, and it his relationships with the other principals that are key. At one point Hud says, “Nobody gets out of life alive” but perhaps Lonnie does, at the end. Unlike that of Alma, his departure is the sole ray of hope in an otherwise totally bleak tale. Maybe there’s a suggestion that the new generation will hark back to the values of their old West grandfathers, rather than take after their going-nowhere parents. Hud is left alone, to drink the ranch away, probably, or end up shot to death by some jealous husband, or die in a DUI smash in his flashy Cadillac. It will be good riddance.
Hud ranks with Lonely Are the Brave, The Misfits and The Lusty Men as essentially pessimistic contemporary anti-Westerns, and is the equal of those fine films. Even Ride the High Country the year before wasn’t quite as bleak and lugubrious as Hud.
Bill Cosby did a comedy routine told from the point of view of the cattle who are shot in the movie ("Wipe that foam off your mouth"). My brother and I listened to it long before we saw the actual movie.
Not perhaps in the best of taste but still…
An other interesting connection with the western is My Darling Clementine sung by the audience in the movie theater…! There are many famous films of the mid fifties – early sixties inspired by – or including some of – the western themes such as Written on the wind or Giant (James Dean might have been an excellent William Bonney – McCarty). JM
That's actually an endearing scene, when Lonnie and his grandfather join in with the singing in the theater.
Yes, some consider GIANT to be a Western too.
Jeff, a very good write-up of a bittersweet movie about the "changing times" of the West. Yes, it is a Western movie, but it is also a looking glass into all of Americana. North, South, East, and West from frontier-to town-to city. HUD(1963) is hard to stomach if you prefer the traditional Western of 1936-1962.
This movie hits close to home concerning my family history. Hud Bannon reminds me of my two uncles and neither came to a good end, but they lived their lives the way they wanted. Also, my parents when they lived on the Dunn place(small ranch)lost a herd of cattle to the brucellosis disease during the drought year of 1955. My mother underwent brain surgery that same year. Fortunately, the feared brain tumor turned out to be a cyst and was removed. My parents sold the Dunn place and moved north to Flint, Michigan. My father went to work in the Chevrolet factory, until he was laid off work during the winter of 1956. He said, "I'm moving back home and get so deep in debt that we'll never be able to leave again." That is what he and my mother did.
Movies like HUD and many others trigger my memories of the good and bad.
Yes, I am sure many people related to HUD and its situations – whether they had ne'er-do-well uncles or not…
All of these films ranked with Hud, Lonely Are The Brave, The Misfits, and The Lusty men, are about failure, an inability to cope, and the natural consequence of outright failure. I do not put Ride The High Country in that territory. Gil Westrum copes. As for the rest, we are either Americans or wish to be so; we deal with reality. No tears.
Maybe you are right, though I wouldn't call the end of RTHC exactly optimistic or sunny!
Certainly not sunny or optimistic, but one character, Gil Westrum not only survives, but deals with what is on the table; in fact, while reviewers often give the nod to Steve Judd, he is weak, a man who fails at every turn. Westrum is Ride the High Country's fulcrum. He and he alone, by action and intellect determines events, and his only missteps, and they are not about an inability to cope, focus on his friendship with Judd, who is not only a failure, but well aware of it.
You have a point.
Also, although a 'late' Western (e.g. the automobile) with an 'end of the West' theme, RTHC is not a contemporary Western like the others, and it's not in black & white either.
Jeff, I agree with what you say about Hud. One of my best friends was a couple of years behind Larry McMurtry in school at Archer City, TX. He said he could identify all of the characters in The Last Picture Show and that McMurtry was persona non grata in Archer City. This was in the early '60's, right after the two movies. Horseman Pass By, The Last Picture Show, and Lonesome Dove are my favorite McMurtry books. Many of his books contain humor, but I can't think of one which was not ultimately depressing in tone and theme. I watched a long McMurtry lecture on PBS once, and his own philosophy was pretty close to morbid. He mentioned that he and Paul Newman had aimed to make Hud despicable, but the public reaction was the opposite; that young men tried to copy the personality. I agree with you that, much as I liked Sidney Poitier, Newman should have won the Acadamy Award for Hud. You probably won't agree with me on the next one. I was much more disappointed that he didn't win it for Cool Hand Luke and it was awarded to John Wayne for True Grit. Thanks for all the work you do. It takes me back.
Great post, Jeff and thank you. As aside, I do not disagree with you about Newman and Wayne. I thought Wayne should have won for Red River, not Olivier as Omelet. The other Wayne performance I like is in Rio Grande. But the Academy Awards are about as meaningful and The Peace Prize. Too bad.
I guess this should have been addressed to PMA. Sorry about that.
Jeff, I guess I'll keep this thread going. PMA, I enjoyed your comments and I thought you made some good points concerning Larry McMurtry's being able to write humorously, though his tomes seem to be depressing in tone and theme. No argument there. Take a look-see at his STREETS OF LAREDO(1993) for depressing. He really put old Woodrow Call through the ringer, but at least he didn't kill him off. Too me, that is what makes Mr. McMurtry and others interesting writers, though I may not like everything they write.
McMurtry set out to debunk the myths of the West, when he began writing. Was he successful? He was asked this in an interview a few years ago and he answered that he thought he hadn't succeeded at all and that the image of the cowboy is still one of the dominant images in American culture. Also, he meant for LONESOME DOVE(1985) to be an anti-Western. The reading public really liked the story and characters in the novel flaws and all and don't seem to view it as an anti-western, so apparently McMurtry didn't succeed again.
For me, Paul Newman's best performance was as COOL HAND LUKE(filmed 1966, released 1967), but Rod Steiger received the academy award for IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT(filmed 1966, released 1967). Also, in my opinion, John Wayne deserved his academy award for his role as Rueben J. "Rooster" Cogburn in TRUE GRIT(filmed 1968, released 1969) as he did for RED RIVER(filmed 1946, released 1948), THE SANDS OF IWO JIMA(1949), and THE SEARCHERS(filmed 1955, released 1956). Also, I tend to agree with Barry Lane on the academy awards and the Nobel peace prizes.
Walter: You're right, about the Oscar in 1969. I still wasn't a big fan of the original True Grit. I was a fan of Rio Grande and all of John Wayne's cavalry movies in the '50's. You probably know, but if you haven't looked up Peter J. Ortiz, who played Capt. St. Jacques, you're in for a surprise. He was the real thing; French Foreign Legion, only U.S. Marine officer in ETO in WWII with OSS, in full uniform behind enemy lines. Back to McMurtry, Streets of Laredo did serve his goal of de-mythologizing the west, but others, like Hud and Lonesome Dove just had too many really great characters to do that. Something which went a long way toward doing that for me was INDIAN DEPREDATIONS IN TEXAS, by early settler J.W. Wilbarger. It is a compilation of every ambush, battle, and murder he heard tell of and I finally had to just put it aside and give thanks I hadn't been there. Anyway, thanks for correcting me for blaming the wrong person. In my memory, they were both movies I had seen in a base theater in Okinawa or shortly after I came back and discharged. I didn't see the Academy Awards but thought the one for John Wayne was more honorary because I had thought him better in earlier movies. On the other hand, I thought Newman deserved one for Luke.
PMA's point about how McMurtry and Newman "aimed to make Hud despicable, but the public reaction was the opposite; that young men tried to copy the personality" is interesting in light of the ambivalent way Lonnie regards Hud – with as much admiration as loathing.
The TRUE GRIT Oscar was more of a lifetime award or consolation prize, I think. Wayne DID deserve an Oscar, but for earlier, greater performances.
PMA, yes, I had read about the incredible real life of Colonel Peter J. Oritz, who received several medals from 4 different countries. In the movie RIO GRANDE(1950) Colonel Ortiz wore his Légion d’honneur medal.
Concerning John Ford's Cavalry Trilogy, my personal favorite is RIO GRANDE, which is based on the short story "Mission with No Record" by James Warner Bellah, first published in THE SATURDAY EVENING POST(September 27, 1947). Colonel Bellah was a veteran of both World Wars.
John Wesley Wilbarger's INDIAN DEPREDATIONS IN TEXAS(1890) is full of blood soaked stories, which you won't see portrayed in movies today. Although, I'm somewhat sure that Larry McMurtry has read the remarkable book.
Sounds like INDIAN DEPREDATIONS IN TEXAS is a must-read!
Great discussion about all these films, actors, writers….
Bart a western aficionado from small Belgium
Jeff, yes, INDIAN DEPREDATIONS IN TEXAS is a must-read along with the two volume THE TRAIL DRIVERS OF TEXAS(vol. 1, 1920 and vol. 2, 1923) compiled and edited by John Marvin Hunter and published under the direction of George Washington Saunders, president of the Old Time Trail Drivers' Association. Together these two volumes are almost 1,100 pages of "interesting sketches of early cowboys and their experiences on the range and on the trail during the days that tried men's souls–true narratives related by real cow-punchers and men who fathered the cattle industry in Texas." Good subtitle. Again, I'm somewhat sure that Larry McMurtry and many other writers used these primary sources for Historical background.
It feels funny in some ways to say that I really love a movie that is largely sad and depressing with a lead character that is so despicable, but I do so because of the amazing quality in the direction, performances and photography. The film knocks me out every time I see it. I’ve read Lonesome Dove, but after reading all these comments I really want to read more of McMurtry’s canon.
Yes, it is a fine film.
You’ve got some real joys ahead of you as you discver McMurtry.