When it’s on: Friday, 13 July (12.35 pm)
Whether there’s some conscious scheduling of good movies on Friday or I just happen to chance upon the right one, the end of the week often serves up a bit of a treat and today’s no different. I hadn’t heard much about Henry Hathaway’s The Shepherd of the Hills before watching it and, in truth, didn’t expect a lot going off its history of heavy pre-release cuts, liberal deviations from the novel and reviews suggesting I was in for a slushy 100 minutes. How nice to be so pleasantly surprised, to have found myself really enjoying a well made picture that features a fine cast, solid storytelling and some quite ravishing photography.
The 1941 film was the third version of The Shepherd of the Hills. It was based on Harold Bell Wright’s novel, published in 1907 and going on to fly off the shelves in selling over a million copies. A minister based in Missouri, Wright resigned and became a full-time writer after the success of Shepherd, and eventually turned his hand to film-making following an adaptation of his seventh novel, The Eyes of the World, which dissatisfied him. The resulting picture, which Wright scripted and directed, was the only one he ever produced, and he spent the rest of his days cussing later efforts to bring his work to the screen, especially as the deal he signed in selling the film rights allowed whoever adapted his work to change anything they wanted within the source material.
Hathaway’s version, with its screenplay by Grover Jones and Stewart Anthony, gutted the novel, changing entire characters and retaining little save the title, location and basic premise. I haven’t read the book, indeed Wright’s star has slipped into obscurity and his works aren’t the easiest to pick up. What I have gone through is the Wikipedia plot summary, which confirms the smash and grab job that was committed for the film. And a good thing too. The novel’s story is one of redemptive melodrama with strong Christian overtones. It bears little resemblance beyond certain names to the somewhat dark and melancholic plot that develops in the film.
The film’s shepherd is Daniel Howitt (Harry Carey), an old man who turns up at a remote, Ozark community in order to buy Moaning Meadow. The homestead lies empty and abandoned, and many within the populace believe it’s haunted by the ghost of a woman whose man walked out on her years ago. Howitt doesn’t care. He’s willing to pay the extortionate price demanded by Mollie Matthews (Beulah Bondi), who inherited the Meadow from her dead sister and has left the place to rot, like any good haunted house casting a dark shadow over the region. Howitt’s motives in buying the place, like his past, remain largely a mystery. How he acquired his wealth is a further question mark, yet pretty soon he starts gaining the community’s sympathies by saving people. A man whose been shot after falling foul of federal agents hunting moonshiners has his wounds tended to by Howitt. A sick girl is brought back to health; her blind grandmother is sent away for the cure, all paid for and overseen by Howitt, who asks for nothing in return. By his good deeds, he becomes the shepherd of the title, but it’s a mission of atonement. Some unspoken past compels him to do good, and whilst it’s easy enough to work out his reasons, the way they evolve is fascinating.
The wildcard is the dead woman’s orphaned son, Young Matt (John Wayne). For years, Mollie – who has taken on the matriarchal role – has been instructing him to one day kill his father, the man who upped and left and caused his mother’s demise, and sure enough he fixes on Howitt, who turns out to hold exactly the identity viewers will have guessed he holds. Wayne puts in a strong performance as Matt, holding the camera’s attention whenever he appears on screen. His breakout turn in Stagecoach had already turned him into a star, but he was still some years away from settling into the traditional ‘Wayne hero’ and there are dark intentions to Young Matt that wouldn’t resurface in his playing until The Searchers.
The name-dropping of two John Ford classics has some relevance in the sense this brought together the star from Ford’s early days and the one he would go on to produce some of his best work with. Carey, who commanded massive clout during the silent era, gives every impression of passing on the baton to Ford, never more so than in the film’s tender fishing scene, which has far greater resonance beyond the screen’s borders than the familial bonds it is intended to depict.
But the real pull of The Shepherd of the Hills is neither actor. Betty Field owns the floor as Sammy Lane, the young woman who befriends Howitt and obviously adores Young Matt. You get a real sense of the community by watching Sammy, who’s sufficiently cut off from the wider world to be ignorant of such everyday items as cheques, yet she’s part enough of her own environment to ‘get’ everyone who dwells within it. Added to the mix is an almost otherworldly beauty. Field is never less than gorgeously shot, like Hathaway knew just what a captivating screen presence he was filming and photographed her to perfection. Touching is her attachment to both men, to the rising tension between them, all blended with a lovely, naive attitude to Moaning Meadow, to which she won’t travel without speaking a blessing and covering her eyes.
The Shepherd of the Hills was shot in California’s Big Bear Valley rather than relocating to the Ozark Mountains, but this never becomes a problem. Every shot is ravishing, taking in the panoramic, natural splendour whilst suggesting how cut off and insular the community is. The dialogue, a rural dialect all of its own, similarly implies a separate body of people and exacerbates the ‘outsider’ in Howitt. Hathaway lamented in later years the ruthless editing of his picture. Despite positive test screenings, the scissors were applied again and again to his film, until so much was excised that extra scenes needed to be filmed. By now, the director was off the project and someone was drafted in to shoot some linking scenes in a studio, which included the economical happy ending. I’m left to wonder what a two-hour edition of the film – all Hathaway’s scenes included – would be like. In the meantime, we’re left with 98 minutes of drama that’s time well spent. It’s a marvellous film.
The Shepherd of the Hills: ****