Welcome to a new feature at IceCream4Freaks: Problematic Film History! Each week, I’ll be discussing a well-regarded film of the past and the elements of that film which have aged the worst. This week: Duel in the Sun
Some films with problematic elements are simple to break down and are focused on a single issue. But every once in a while, a film comes along that does so much wrong, you don’t know where to begin. Such is the case with King Vidor’s Duel in the Sun; combining every possible element of racism and sexism to deliver a film that would make your skin crawl, if you weren’t preoccupied with being gobsmacked by what you are watching.
Jennifer Jones stars as Pearl Chavez, a half-Mexican half-white orphan, following her father’s execution for killing his unfaithful wife. Before his death, he arranged for Pearl to live with his second cousin Laura Belle (Lillian Gish) and her family on a Texas ranch. There, she is belittled by the family patriarch Senator McCanles (Lionel Barrymore), befriended by the eldest son Jesse (Joseph Cotten) and lusted after by the younger son Lewt (Gregory Peck). Laura Belle encourages Pearl to stay a “good girl”, which Pearl aspires to be.
As with many films from the early to mid-20th century, this film takes great liberties with cultural appropriation. Jones is an American, born in Oklahoma to white, American parents. Her heavily tanned, or made-up, appearance once again shows Hollywood’s inability to cast a person of color in a starring role. On top of that, most characters treat Pearl with outright contempt for her half-Mexican lineage. Senator McCanles rarely refers to her by name and mostly calls her “half-breed.”
Pearl’s orphan circumstances are also a problem. When her mother is discovered to be unfaithful, Pearl’s father finds a gun and shoots them in a fit of rage. Not only is the murders seen as righteous in many eyes, her father is still the hero he always has been to Pearl. The unrepentant sexism and sexual politics gets no better through the rest of the film.
Lewt attempts on more than one occasion to rape Pearl. The first few times, Pearl is able to avoid his assaults, but on one such attempt, she eventually acquiesces. Her characterization is defined by loving Lewt despite having zero reason to. At no point in the film is he is any way nice to her and leads her towards every bad decision she can make. In order to escape Lewt, Pearl becomes engaged to a man she meets at a dance, only for Lewt to shoot and kill him in a bar. Pearl is immediately back in the arms of Lewt, even as he is forced to go on the run for murder.
When Lewt returns, Pearl does everything in her power to hide him from the law and continues to express her love for him. Lewt is still the terrible human he always was and shrugs off any mention of marriage or running away together. When Pearl finally gets her opportunity to leave, she instead runs to the desert to defend Jesse from a vengeful Lewt.
At this point, 130 minutes have passed and there has yet to be the titular duel. Believe it or not, the duel is between Lewt and Pearl, with Pearl intentionally shooting Lewt and he accidentally shooting Pearl. The film ends with Pearl crawling over to a dying Lewt so they can be together for the dumbest reasons one last time. The pair die in each others arms.
I won’t get into the psychological impact of sexual assault (I am by no means an expert), but this film seems to want to celebrate and cheer for the potential of Lewt and Pearl ending up together. There is not a single solitary thing Lewt does of any decency, but Pearl is shown to be so damaged that she should love him anyway.
This is one of those few stories where the main couple end up dying in each others arms and I was cheering for that result. The entirety of Duel in the Sun is shockingly off-putting. When the next terrible thing happens, it makes you forget how bad the thing before was. I highly recommend seeing the movie at least once to let the affect of tasteless wash over you. It’s a truly rattling experience.