The Bravados (1958) & the best of CinemaScope
The Bravados is a “vengeance” Western starring Gregory Peck and about as far removed from a “popcorn” Western as can be. Peck plays ‘Jim Douglass’, a brooding and unhappy cowboy, who journeys to a small town in order to watch the hanging of four outlaws. Why>? Well, Peck believes they raped and murdered his wife. When the outlaws break free of the town jail the stage is set for the quintessential chase for which many films in the genre are known.
Peck gives a tormented turn as a man completely consumed by ill will. That alone is worth the running time but there are a number of reasons why this movie is so different to standard horse-opera fare. The film was shot in CinemaScope and looks emaculate. The lighting and set-design is out of this world; with much of the action taking place at night the utilisation of blue-filters gives the picture an atmospheric hue which is more or less unparalleled in the genre. There are some perfectly composed shots which frame our characters beautifully in this kind of light. The first half an hour is nothing less than an exercise is the display of ravishing visuals, set to a haunting score.
The depth here is also unusual for the time – there’s a strong theme of Catholic retribution and soul-searching which pours out of the film’s late plot twist: our four outlaws are actually not responsible for the death of Peck’s wife, despite the fact that Peck has already executed three of them. These outlaws are well-cast; Stephen Boyd is the nastiest of the bunch, although when he meets his end at the hands of Peck’s unforgiving gun in a Mexian cantina, he has the look of a frightened boy. Genre stalwart Lee Van Cleef plays the villain most on-edge and casts a woefully-panicked figure as he is blown away whist praying at Peck’s feet. Henry Silva is the most sympathetic of the group whose unflinching honesty – surrounded by his young family – finally convinces Peck of the gang’s innocence.
Parts of the film are near incredulous, most obviously the huge church which looks more like a small cathedral than a house of God in a dusty border town. Joan Collins is also rather unbelievable as Peck’s old flame – she never could act – but these are minor gripes. This is an alluring and resplendent picture, which can be sold on its aesthetics alone.