The wide open expanse and often harsh climate of the western American frontier usually necessitated some mode of external transportation for those seeking to cross it; in film, the cowboy’s trusty horse and the clattering wheels of the stagecoach became as much a part of the Western aura as blowing tumbleweeds or the high-noon duel. In Duel in the Sun, director King Vidor associates the different modes of transportation to further distinguish the characters along lines of modernity, progress, and loyalty.
The film begins as Pearl Chavez (Jennifer Jones) is sent to live with the family of her father’s old sweetheart Laura Belle, at a sprawling, secluded ranch known as the Spanish Bit. The ranch is governed by Jackson McCanles (Lionel Barrymore), who is known as “the Senator,” along with wife Laura Belle (Lillian Gish), and their two grown sons. The older son, Jesse (Joseph Cotten), is the first McCanles that Pearl meets, and she’s immediately smitten. She sees him as a good, proper man—if a bit emotionally distant and overly moralistic, though she tends to blame herself for inspiring those negative traits. The other McCanles son, Lewt (Gregory Peck), is more or less Jesse’s polar opposite: he’s wild, brash, and has a cruel streak that ranges from flirtatious teasing to murderous assault.
Even from the beginning, the brothers are defined and divided, in part, by their relationships to different modes of transportation. Lewt is most closely identified with his horse riding, showing off for Pearl by doing silly tricks, overpowering a wild stallion, and challenging her to ride bareback. Jesse, on the other hand, we first meet driving a carriage. After Jesse becomes alienated from his father and is ultimately banished from the ranch, he is even seen traveling by train.
The train takes a particular thematic importance in part because of the ranch’s isolation from the outside world—a specific point of pride for the Senator. The ranch seems to have been operating in near-perfect seclusion, its own working ecosystem without major influence or calls for accountability from anyone outside. That lifestyle was possible for white homesteaders at this time, who could build their own informal communities as the US expanded claims to territory. But their ideals of independence were threatened as long-range transportation improved and gave more people the opportunity to travel westward as well—without expending the sweat, blood, and tears the frontiersmen had shed and spilled.
In Duel in the Sun, the threat comes to a head when the Senator gets word that the train tracks for the new railroad are fast approaching the perimeter of his property—with the intent to go directly through it. He gathers up a crowd of ranch hands, and elder son Jesse, and rides them all to the edge of the barbed wire fence. The government railroad administrators are embodiments of the soft city types who clearly wouldn’t be anywhere near this vicinity if not traveling by the relative luxury of the train. Confronted with the appropriately rugged, macho men from the Spanish Bit (and their rifles), the railway lawyer can barely stutter out the fact that the government actually does have a legal right to continue construction. But he’s not overly convincing or confident in his delivery, and the McCanles men stand firm. The situation reaches an uncomfortable impasse when the Senator threatens to shoot anyone that crosses over onto his property. The railway men seem unwilling to call his bluff, but also unwilling to abandon an important national railway project due to the isolationist preferences of one citizen.
Moralistic Jesse forces the situation into motion by crossing under the fence, in support of the railway administrators (and against the Senator’s overblown threats of violence)—literally positioning himself on the side of the train, and in direct opposition to his father. His move allows the train to continue its construction, but the Senator also bans Jesse from returning to the ranch as a punishment for his disloyalty to the family. Luckily, the nature of Jesse’s betrayal also offers him with an easy exit to the outside world, where he, perhaps, was already seeking to go.
Lewt, meanwhile, misses the excitement at the fence, but Jesse’s banishment means there is an opportunity for him to claim status as his father’s favored son. He chooses to earn that favor by planting explosives on the new train track and blowing it up, delaying the potential encroachment of the cityfolk, as well as destroying the symbol of the outside world. This action, though supported by his father, also establishes him as an “outlaw,” further restricting his potential options for ever leaving the ranch, and tying his future to its survival as an independent community.
But one explosion can’t stop the train tracks from coming any less than it could stop the progression of the entire flock of westward bound travelers; even Jesse ultimately returns home by train, with a sophisticated new city wife on his arm. Jesse’s alignment with the urban, educated elite of the outside world puts him at odds with the independent, frontier values of Pearl, his father, brother, and the ranch itself. Yet by film’s end, it’s clear that he’s aligned himself with the future, as those stuck in the past are ultimately undone by their own commitment to their isolation. Pearl’s world, in particular, seems entirely bound by the confines of the Spanish Bit; if any character desperately needs a train ticket to see what the rest of the world has to offer—and the knowledge that she’s not just limited to the handful of marriageable men within present spitting distance—it’s Pearl Chavez.
Emily Rauber is a connoisseur of shirtless Paul Newman, and writes about classic movies at her blog, The Vintage Cameo.