CAUTION: CONTAINS “SPOILERS”
It never helps a film when its own director distances himself from it, so when Elia Kazan put distance between himself and the 1946 western “The Sea of Grass,” after giving audiences a Spencer Tracy/Katharine Hepburn pairing that was anything but uplifting, the scales tipped against the film.
“The Sea of Grass” is fairly long for a 1940s western–123 minutes–and it’s not exactly action-packed. It’s the tale of a cattle-baron, but there are no “Red River”-inspired scenes of epic round-ups and cattle-drives. The closest scene to it occurs at night, in a snow-storm and involves panicky cattle trampling a farmer’s crops. “Western action” arrives only in final half-hour or so of the film when Robert Walker–testing the “bad boy” waters for the first time as Tracy’s strong-willed son–kills a man, goes on the run and is himself hunted down and killed by a posse.
So why is this film so special? Well, it’s the first ecological western. For all of Tracy’s faults–and there are more than a few on display–he has an honest and honorable love of the land–the sea of grass that sustains his cattle empire. He makes a crusade out of running off “nesters” because he truly believes that the New Mexico prairie land is unsuited to agriculture. He argues that the droves of homesteaders will exhaust and deplete the land. Hepburn as his gentrified St. Louis-raised wife suspects that these arguments are merely a rationale for her husband’s selfishness–an opinion that is fervently cultivated by Melvyn Douglas’ Eastern dude lawyer who makes his own crusade defending the homesteaders’ right to farm the land. Initially Douglas seems like the idealistic soul, tilting against the windmill of Tracy’s entrenched power. But once he lands an appointment as a federal judge, he becomes every bit as driven as Tracy was–only his drive is to dismantle and destroy Tracy’s empire. As all of this is played out we watch the town of Salt Fork grow into an almost-boom town, fuelled by commerce of the newly-arrived farmers. But Tracy’s “selfishness” proves prophetic as the farmers plough up the grass and exhaust the soil. A few years of drought turn Salt Fork into a near ghost town of abandoned houses and closed-up businesses.
“The Sea of Grass” offers a different slant on the “Cattlemen vs farmers” sub-genre. Generally these films take a decidedly Populist stance with the farmers representing virtue and The Little Men while the cattle baron is seen either as a bully or a heartless plutocrat. (Remember those wealthy Eastern ranchers with their Regulators and death lists in Michael Cimino’s “Heaven’s Gate”? Emile Meyer in “Shane”? Edward G. Robinson in “The Violent Men”? Even John Wayne has his manic moments in “Red River.”) Here, while Tracy is shown to be strong-willed and unbending, the farmers are shown as a distinctly improvident lot, ready to pick a fight at a moment’s notice, uncaring about the land that sustains them and all-too-willing to mock and gloat when Douglas’ newly-appointed federal judge delivers Tracy his comeuppance. The town of Salt Fork mirrors the bad effect that the farmers have, first growing more rapidly than the economics of farming can sustain, then when the land is exhausted, becoming a haven for the bored, restless farmers who can no longer farm. The tin-horn gambler who goads Walker into a gunfight could not have existed in cattle-raising Salt Fork. The population was too low, and the men were riding the range. When Hepburn first arrives from St. Louis, it’s a nice quiet place with empty streets. When she returns after a two-year absence, the place is crowded and rowdy. Business is booming. When she returns again after the death of her son, it quiet and empty again, because the life has left it, just as the life has left the land, and Tracy’s prophecy/curse has been fulfilled.
The film also functions as a prairie “Anna Karenina” with Hepburn entering into an ill-advised affair with Douglas that produces Walker–the son Tracy always dreamed of–but destroys the marriage. He doesn’t so much hold the adultery against Hepburn as he does her siding with Douglas and the farmers against him. “The Sea of Grass” thus becomes an adult drama of a failed marriage, a cautionary tale about the fragility of the land that supports us and, yes, a western about a proud cattle baron brought low by changing times and the actions of a spoiled and reckless son. That’s a lot to cram into a single film. Maybe that’s why when Kazan and script-writer Marguerite Roberts tackled Conrad Richter’s well-regarded novel, they needed 123 minutes to tell it.