I’ve slowly been getting interested in the Epic genre. Lately, I have been hesitant to do so, mostly because of how much the word “epic” has changed over the last few years.
What separates an Epic from your average action/adventure story? That mostly comes down to the size and scope of an Epic. The cast is typically huge, the range which the film covers is grand and awe-inspiring. Even the simplest shots in an Epic have dozens if not hundreds of extras in the background or foreground.
There are many examples of an Epic movie, including “Ben-Hur”, “Lawrence Of Arabia”, “How The West Was Won” and more recently the “Lord Of The Rings” trilogy. The one that I wish to talk about today is one of the earliest examples of an Epic and one of the most beloved: “Duel In The Sun.”
I first heard about this film during one of the many documentaries that Martin Scorcese starred in, where he talked about some of his favorite films of all time. Scorcese discussed quite a few films, like “Citizen Kane” but the film that he adored the most was “Duel In The Sun” where he talked about the use of the sun as a transitional tool and the struggle of the main character being understandable yet heartbreaking.
Scorcese was right about that.
At it’s most basic thematic level, “Duel In The Sun” is a tragedy. Things start out terrible for the protagonist of our story, but things only get worse over time without ever getting better. Even when things start to look like they’ll get better, reality has to rear its ugly head and snuff out all light and hope in life.
Pearl Chavez (Jennifer Jones), working out of a bustling western town during the height of the old west, witnesses her White sheriff father kill her own Hispanic mother out of a moment of passion when learning that she had been cheating on him. Before he is hung for his crimes, her father wishes to give Pearl one last chance a good life and sends her to a cattle ranch run by Senator Jackson McCanles (Lionel Barrymore) and Laura Belle (Lillian Gish).
Upon arriving at the ranch, Pearl is smitten by their two sons, the kindhearted and smart Jesse (Joseph Cotten) and smooth talking lady’s man Lewt (Gregory Peck). Pearl and the two brothers then begin a struggle to overcome their own feelings and ambitions for the opposite sex, while Pearl tries to fulfill her father’s final wish to live a good and happy life, without giving into temptation and lust.
Right away, what sticks out about this film is the color scheme and how detailed and vast the background seem to extend. Shots of the rocky Texas terrain seem to stretch on for an eternity, while also having their own distinct colors. The first shot of the ranch which Pearl stays at throughout most of the film looks huge compared to their tiny bodies and even tinier with how little sky there seems to be above the house, like it stretches up to the heavens.
Even when these locales don’t seem larger than life, their colors speak for themselves. The main color you’ll end up seeing in this film is a very bright red, sometimes contrasted by a dark shade of blue. This works most effectively during the sunset or sunrise and the lighting is reflected off of the characters, putting them in an entirely new light.
As I mentioned earlier, this film behaves like a tragedy, but this is something that normally is not the case for an Epic. In most other grandiose films of this nature, it’s a story of triumph and overcoming impossible odds to make the protagonist as big as the film itself.
“Duel In The Sun” instead uses its Epic backdrop to tell a rather personal story of choosing between doing the right thing against giving into your primal urges. Pearl is constantly changing her mind on what she really wants out of life, ranging from settling down with a cattle herder, being the go-to love interest for one of the two brothers or going to school and learning. At times, this can be jarring and makes it look like she can’t make up her mind, but isn’t that just like anybody else? To think long and hard about what you really want out of your life and what it would mean to everyone around you?
If I did have a complaint to make about the film, it’s that there are several plot lines that drag on for far too long and aren’t nearly as memorable as Pearl’s transition through life. For example, Jesse’s story involves betrayal and regret and pursing goals that he didn’t initially see. Yet, this plot line is abandoned at one point in the film and isn’t brought up again. There is no resolution or ultimate realization for Jesse, so it doesn’t add much.
Oh, one other minor complaint is how long it takes to for the film the start. Traditionally, Epics will have an overture with just their score playing for three or five minutes before the opening credits start. “Duel In The Sun” however has both an overture and a prelude, which together is nothing but music that lasts at least twelve minutes. One overture is fine, but two? Then it just becomes a test of patience.
Overall though, “Duel In The Sun” is an interesting experience when compared to other Epics out there and how different in its story and structure it can be. Instead of telling a triumphant story of redemption and romance, the film decides to be tragic and personal. Oddly enough, this film came out before most of the classic Epics, like “Ben-Hur” or “The Ten Commandments” yet sticks out like a sore thumb when looking at those films side-by-side.
Final Grade: B-