I must first admit that I very much enjoyed this movie; it is definitely one of my favorite Nicholas Ray films so far. It has many traditional Ray elements such as two men confronting each other, sizing each other up and taking stock of the other. Also, it is a male-male relationship which, though it ultimately descends into masculinity-testing contests and challenges and stand-offs, begins as Ray’s much loved mentor-mentee relationship between and older and younger man. Here, however, the particular valence becomes one of a seasoned, experienced professional, renowned and famous with a reputation that precedes him (people know/assume his name by sight, before being introduced to him) versus the young ingénue, a rookie with promise who we will see “get his feet wet” in the rodeo circuit, mentored by the older, more broken Jeff.
The film’s male relationships themselves are rather less interesting than the dynamic which exists between them and women, something which hasn’t really been true for most of the Ray films we have watched so far (except In A Lonely Place). Here, it is immediately very clear and expertly depicted in Ray’s literal framing and fragmenting of space that the male bonding and the formation of a buddy male couple is a direct threat to the wife Louise and her American notion of “home” (which is often merely a literal house) and thus “marriage.” From the first moment we see Louise and her husband, united in the front seat of their car and in their desperate eagerness to acquire the Jenkins/previously-McCloud farm, Jeff’s presence disrupts their unity and their established relationship. The two men are instantly coupled together, reflected off in the distance through the windshield, as Louise is left alone in the car, instantly suspicious and worried. Her husband darts off to talk to the famous Jeff McCloud, and this childlike eagerness towards his masculine idol and star of the dangerous rodeos should prepare us for his very quick seduction into rodeo-ing, his decision to leave “home” for the glory and prize money of the arena. This first shot of the burgeoning triangular relationship also shows the way in which Louise is always being left “at home,” in some type of domestic/domesticated space, confined indoors while her men go off into the world and perform daring actions (and drink and party, too). For instance, she is left in the kitchen doing dishes while the two men go outside to have their first after-dinner chat; she interrupts their conversation (about youthful macho ambition) to call them back into the confines of the house and the figurative confines of a full-time job, telling them to go to bed because they are both “working men” now (including the lone wanderer Jeff).
This also brings up the issue of Mommying which seems to run through the film and which was a cultural concern in relation to masculinity in post-war America. There is a clear comparison drawn between the role of wife as embodied by Louise and the role of mother, to the inhibition and detriment of “the man:” even as Louise proclaims not to want to mother her husband and even as the film and its characters, ironically or not, assert the fact the Wes is a “big boy,” a “grown man” who makes money and (therefore) can make his own decisions and be in charge of his own life. This latter statement specifically links money-making and the role of breadwinner to active, dominant notions of masculinity, and further associates it with having achieved maturity (Steven Cohan discusses the issues of momism, maturity and the hegemonic role of breadwinner in the 1950’s at greater length in his Masked Men). And yet, as Louise ultimately declares in her intense frustration at Wes’ regression to immature playboy, though he should be able to take charge of his life, “he isn’t.” His final acceptance of the maturity prescribed for men of 1950’s America, the taking on of the role of breadwinner, loyal husband who comes home to his wife, and importantly also home/ property owner, comes only with the death of Jeff, his idolized hero, the embodiment of all his (boyish) dreams of fame, glory, and riches; ultimately it is the man who brings Wes back to traditional domesticity, not his home-championing wife. Though this ending might fall into the more ironic category like that of Rebel Without A Cause, too rapid and with too-great reversals to be wholly believable or to sustain any notion of longevity, this man’s maturation process, his embracing (literally) of his wife and the conventional “home” she represents and asks for, and his Exiting the rodeo world for the American Dream idea of ownership of his own farm, working the land rather than playing at being a cowboy for a cheering crowd, remains the film’s final message.
As a sort of side note, I want to mention the many references made which equate women with horses, with particular implications for the way they are then treated and related to the men of this rodeo world. Women, like horses, are to be appraised and picked up, bought for their (breeding and performance) potential and their beauty. Just as Wes and Jeff peruse the pens of horses and cattle for sale, so too did Wes find his bride in a tamale shop, taking her home for her good cooking and her looks, making a sort of investment as you would with a horse. The old rodeo-er’s daughter Rusty (which could also be a perfect name for a chestnut horse) and Louise, as she sleeps in the car, are both referred to as fillies, and the men ogling Louise describe her physical appearance in the appreciative yet demeaning terms of horses, finally saying that they would love to “jockey” for her. Rusty’s father even tells Wes flat-out that “judging a horse is like judging a woman” and in the world of rodeo-ing, “there’s no ladies’ room, no ladies,” only the horse-like property of men (or independent trick riders like Rosemary, who ultimately succumbs to the confines of marriage too). Indeed, the sparkly-dressed trollop who tries to seduce Wes is first seen being lassoed by drunk rodeo-ers at a party; the film seems here to be condemning her loose morals by portraying her as liking the game, but more importantly it is visualizing an all-pervasive theme and prevailing notion of women in this world, applicable whether they enjoy playing the role or not. The innuendoes about “riding” continue in the verbal sparring between Louise and this woman (Louise tells her to “beat it, he’s got a horse”), and extend to “branding,” as they are appropriated by these two women and used to reference men, the men they “own” or seek to own. For ultimately, this metaphoric rhetoric reinforces a relation of ownership and possession between men and women and men and their horses; both women and horses here serve to support these men in their rodeo performances, whether cheering in the bleachers and preparing dinner afterwards or racing after a calf and slamming to a halt while the cowboy ropes him. And of course, this correlation between ownership and romantic relationships is further compounded by the excessive degree to which marriage in this film is equated with “owning” property, or some other financial compensation: Louise “got married for a home;” Wes sees himself as justified in dominating their relationship because he makes the money and she “didn’t have four quarters” when he “found” her; Jeff thinks he could have been more “productive” with his money if he’d had a woman/wife like Louise.