This is a special guest post by Maegan @MaesMusings
If you’ve ever found yourself shipping Moses and Nefretiri, then you’ve probably wondered whether Charlton Heston and Anne Baxter ever teamed up again in a film where you didn’t feel so wrong for wanting them to be together. That’s how I found Three Violent People (1957). I expected little from this western starring the duo. I just hoped Baxter and Heston interacted a lot. There is plenty of that, but Three Violent People offers much more than their chemistry. It is a fine film—socially progressive and genre bending—with a timeless message about forgiveness.
IMDB says the film was released in 1956, but the DVD itself and most other sources say 1957. It was released after The Ten Commandments and Paramount was hoping to capitalize on pairing Baxter and Heston together again. I’ve never seen this film air on television, but thankfully, Paramount released it on DVD in 2005, it’s on Amazon Instant Video, and available for purchase via Paramount Movies on YouTube.
The film is set in post-Civil War Texas. A provisional state government is taxing its residents and on the verge of collapse. At the local level, carpetbaggers are running the show and have their eyes set on the Bar S ranch and its horses. Heston’s character Capt. Colt Saunders is on his way home to the Bar S when he meets Lorna Hunter played by Baxter outside a hotel. Lorna just so happens to get off a stagecoach filled with saloon girls and is insulted by a Yankee. Colt sees this, and being very southern and being very Chuck Heston, he starts throwing punches. But make no mistake, this is not a case of man defending woman in brute fashion while she sits helpless. No, Lorna is the one in control. After Colt gets knocked out, Lorna lies and says he’s her husband when Union officers arrive at the scene. And in case you’re fuming because you grew up north of the Mason-Dixon, the officers are kind and gentlemen, showing that not all northerners are bad. Once they bring Colt up to his room, Lorna steals a bunch of gold from her “hero.” See what I mean about her being in control?
After learning he’s superrich from Ruby LaSalle (Elaine Stritch), she decides she’d rather have a gold wedding band than a bunch of gold coins. It’s during this scene that we learn Lorna was a saloon girl and used to work for Ruby. She grew up well, however, but for some reason ran out of money, which is why she’s so good at playing the proper, prudish lady with Colt. In spite of Ruby’s warnings that the Saunders are stubborn and dangerous, Lorna goes back to Colt’s room with a receipt for the gold, having had it placed in the hotel’s safe. When Colt wakes up, he realizes his gold is gone. In very McLintock! fashion (James Edward Grant wrote that screenplay as well as this one), he ends up holding Lorna by her ankles, trying to find the gold. Now, the first time I saw this I cringed, but even this plays out well for Lorna because she gives him the receipt and makes him feel like a real tool. She also gets even—channeling a little Joan Crawford—slapping Colt real-well-and-good-and-bruising before storming out. You don’t see that in McLintock!.
Most of this portion of the film plays comedic, mainly because the audience is in on the fact that Lorna is duping Colt by pretending to be high society. The film’s tone completely changes after they marry, which happens quickly, and becomes dramatic. This is the film’s biggest weakness, but it doesn’t stop it from being good even if its tone is somewhat disjointed in the beginning. After they marry, the film maintains its dramatic course. Then, you see Colt falling in love with Lorna. The real Lorna. He loves her because she sees the best in people and their silent hurts. Likewise, Lorna really does fall for Colt the man and not just Colt’s money or the marriage ideal. The film does a decent job—though there could be more showing what it is about Colt that Lorna loves—of showing them fall in love rather than just telling us they’re in love.
The film’s plot revolves around two main points. The first is Lorna’s secret past as a saloon girl, which does come out thanks to one of the local corrupt officials. The second is the corrupt officials’ attempt to loot Bar S’s assets, namely the valuable horses. These plots are interwoven well, which allows the film to focus on its characters. It’s that focus that makes the film interesting and worth seeing. I’ll keep my plot discussion vague, so I won’t spoil the film, but there are some scenes that I just have to mention.
When Colt and Lorna arrive at Bar S, Lorna and all of us meet Innocencio and his many sons. Innocencio is played by Gilbert Roland. Roland gives one of the best performances in the film. As Innocencio, he is Colt’s confidant and moral compass. In one of the most moving scenes in the film, Innocencio calls Colt out on not manning up and forgiving. It’s what the audience wants to say to Colt. It’s not what we expect a Latino character in a film made in the 1950s to get to say to Colt. It is a wonderful moment.
We also meet Colt’s brother Cinch at Bar S. Cinch is played by Tom Tryon. Cinch is handsome and bright but gets the black sheep treatment from Colt. Part of that is out of guilt because while playing as kids, Cinch’s arm got caught in a windmill and Colt had to amputate it to save him. The other reason Cinch gets treated like an outsider is simply because he doesn’t love Bar S the way Colt does. Cinch is a practical man. He is not sentimental and does not cling to a code of honor like Colt. Instead, Cinch thinks progressively, believing a woman’s point of view in important decisions like whether to fight the carpetbaggers should be heard. It’s not a point of view that’s shared by the other men in Three Violent People. Though, Colt, to his credit, does ask Lorna what she thinks. It’s this outsider treatment that bonds Cinch and Lorna, who aren’t perfect, which is what Colt seems to expect from both of them, maybe because Colt so desperately wants to be perfect himself. Baxter and Tryon share some great scenes. When you see Lorna showing how good of a drinker she is to Cinch, something she wouldn’t necessarily show Colt, you wonder whether they would be happy together. But, unlike Cinch, Lorna values Bar S, maybe because it’s a claim to something tangible, which she doesn’t seem to have ever had in her life. And, after Innocencio’s speech to Colt, you realize just how much Colt needs her to become the best man he can be. No, Colt and Lorna belong together, and Cinch is once again left an outsider.
At first, I ridiculed a certain scene in the film because I felt like it was senseless and made Colt look like he was recklessly indifferent to life, but as I wrote about the scene, I realized something fascinating—it makes Lorna’s best dialogue in the film apply to me as a viewer. The scene comes about after Lorna and Cinch leave the ranch with Colt’s horses (there’s a reason but I’ll won’t spoil it). Colt learns Lorna is pregnant and chases after her. Instead of being sensible about it, Colt decides to charge down this big ol’ hill and scare all the horses and cause a stampede. Because, y’all, ain’t nobody ever lost no baby bein’ bounced around on a wagon durin’ a horse stampede. It’s this reckless indifference to life that really irks me. Lorna does not lose the baby and isn’t bedridden or anything. No consequence for the ignorance. The sequence makes it hard for me to like Colt, but that’s why it works. After he learns of her past, Colt is struggling to forgive Lorna for lying to him. After I see that stampede business, I’m struggling to forgive Colt. I don’t even want to. I just want to be mad at this idiot for nearly killing his wife and unborn baby. I suspect every viewer is at this point in the film. And then, Lorna, during Baxter’s most powerful scene in the film, tells Colt, me, and all the rest of us viewers a thing or two. Lorna explains to Colt that their son will make mistakes and that when people make mistakes they hurt too. Silently. Inside themselves. Colt must find it within himself to forgive their son when he falls short of perfection. He must forgive. And so must I.
Whether James Edward Grant who wrote the screenplay or Leonard Praskins and Barney Slater who wrote the story it was based on meant for the audience to engage fully with the text of this film, I do not know. Maybe the stampede scene was just put in to add action and remind the viewer that the film was in fact a western and not just a melodrama. Maybe the film’s director Rudolph Maté just wanted to show the audience the horses the characters kept talking about. I don’t know. In Roland Barthes The Death of the Author, Barthes argues it’s the reader, the spectator, who consumes literature, interprets it, and makes it what it is—not the author. Applying his theory, it doesn’t really matter what the authors of this film intended. What matters is how we, the audience, interact with the film and what we learn from the film. Like those three violent characters, Lorna, Cinch, and Colt—I learned about forgiveness.
On the off chance I haven’t convinced you to see this film yet, here’s the trailer:
Thanks for reading and a special thank you to Aurora for hosting this post. Comments welcome.