From National General
Directed by Robert Mulligan
Eva Marie Saint
I love bringing attention to good westerns and also to forgotten ones. This film is both. It concerns issues that one doesn't always find in just any western. It cannot be put off as simply another shoot-'em-up. It is both an action western and a character-driven film. It also stars Gregory Peck and really now, seriously, how bad can that be?
The last time the team of director Mulligan, star Peck and producer Alan J. Pakula worked together, it was 1962 and the film was To Kill a Mockingbird. While I delight in exposing those credentials, in no way am I implying The Stalking Moon is another classic from that team but it is still worthy of some attention.
Beautifully filmed in Nevada at Red Rock Canyon and Valley of Fire State Park and Sonora, Mexico (standing in for Arizona and New Mexico), it is a rugged tale of frontier life, a harrowing account of a shell of a white woman and her Apache son who flee the woman's vicious captor, the boy's father. It becomes an exciting cat and mouse chase when an army scout, on the day of his retirement, reluctantly takes up her cause and leads her and the boy, to the safety of his secluded home. Along the way we are served up a large helping of suspense (especially for a western), a look at the stoicism of western people, a display of differing cultures and a glimpse into a most capable man's steely determination to track and retrieve his son, no matter the cost.
Suffice it to say the angry Apache father kills everyone he seems to come across (including some we wish he hadn't murdered). The scout, the woman and her son narrowly escape the carnage that takes place at two stagecoach stations. Once they arrive at the scout's secluded home, which is a state away from where mayhem started, all hell breaks loose.
A part of the tension for me dealt with this extremely secluded home, tucked away in the canyons of a mountain range. Such places are wonderful refuge hideaways, unless, of course, the pursuer discovers it. And then it is too tucked away to be available for outsiders to assist. After they are in the home for awhile and relaxing a bit, the scout says to the mother... he's here. The scout had a partner who didn't like it one bit that his friend was retiring and he has come to visit him. He did not know that the Apache has been stalking him, hoping he'll lead the way to where his son is hiding.
It all leads to an exciting finale with the scout and the Apache in the hills above the home on a deadly mission. These are the scenes in which we finally get to see what this killer really looks like. Most other scenes throughout the film he is just glimpsed, either in the shadows or fast-moving. I'm sure you can guess how it all works out.
Of course the western landscape is showcased beautifully... the great southwest, desert wastelands, gorgeous mountains, dust storms. At the heart of the story I suppose one could say we have a western staple... the hero rescuing the damsel in distress.
One other thing the film deals with without knocking one over the head with it is the racism that was rampant during those times. While one does not dismiss that the antagonist is a vicious killer, no attention is put on the feelings of a father who has had his son taken away. Furthermore, the son wants to remain with his father and tries more than once to go to him.
It must have been a thin script because there's very little dialogue,...another western staple, isn't it? Yup. Nope. There's even an amusing mealtime request by the scout for everyone to talk more. The woman explains at one time that she didn't speak for most of the ten years of her capture. It is now difficult for her to become chatty simply because she is free of her captors.
Peck has said he was delighted with the story, which he no doubt took some part in shaping. He wanted to get away from the Hollywood studios and to work in the great outdoors again. His character was most reluctant to escort the woman and her child to safety, feeling the army would do that for her. He wanted to retire to his ranch and live the easy life. But she was insistent and he gave in because he saw the honor in doing so. He learns early on the name of the man pursuing them but feels he will give up. It isn't until the woman reveals the Apache will not stop trying to retrieve his son that the scout realizes the danger they're in. The actor brought his usual moral strength and compassion to the role.
Saint, in a decidedly unglamorous role, aces both the fragility and vulnerability of a victim and the fierceness of a mother. It is a well-written character despite almost no dialogue and the writers remained faithful to her throughout the film.
Forster gives a bitter and sarcastic quality to his character, a half breed named Nick, but he's a good guy and a devoted friend. This was only his second film and after I flipped over him in the first one, Reflections in a Golden Eye, I was anxious to see him again. I was not disappointed in what I saw (what a hunk) but unfortunately the part was small.
I detected not a false note in any of the supporting roles.
This is a bit of a forgotten film. Over the years, when mentioning to friends westerns I've very much liked, many had not heard of this one. Have you? If you like to saddle up, here's one, somewhat unusual in theme, that you should catch. Here's a preview:
Would Someone Pass the Muffins?