“The Bad Son”–a Westerns Archetype

One of the pleasures of long-lived film genres with deep roots is the variety of stock situations and character archetypes that they generate.  “The bad son,” as a type may not be as well-known as “the town-tamer” or “the gunfighter” but he is not without interest.

The daddy of all bad sons is Gregory Peck’s Lewt McCanles in the 1946 super-western “Duel in the Sun.” The film lays the groundwork for films to come in that it offers a bad son, a good son–that would be Joseph Cotten’s Jesse–and a strong but crippled father (Lionel Barrymore’s Sen. Jackson McCanles). Lewt is the apple of his father’s eye, while Jesse is disowned for siding with railroad interests over those of cattlemen, but it is Lewt who will be the ruin of the family, becoming an outlaw who dynamites trains for entertainment, goading his father and his allies into a confrontation with the U.S. Cavalry that they can not hope to win.

In “Sea of Grass” (Elia Kazan, 1948) we encounter a different type of bad son. Robert Walker’s Brick Brewton is a reckless charmer and is also the apple of his father’s eye. Yet Col. James B. Brewton isn’t Brock’s father, and the stigma of illegitimacy eventually leads to Brock’s shooting a tin-horn gambler who mocked his parentage. He too becomes a hunted outlaw, however his fall from grace isn’t actually the cause of the Brewton’s ruin. But three years later, in the 1951 Luke Short-derived “Vengeance Valley,” Walker offers a definitive rendition of the bad son character in Lee Strobie. Lee’s father Arch is also a cattleman and crippled, but instead of a blood brother, Lee has a adopted brother, Owen Daybright,  who watches over him and tries to keep him out of trouble. He even takes the blame when Lee impregnates a local girl, leaving Owen the target for her gun-happy brothers. While Brock was young and reckless, Lee is a genuinely curdled character. The knowledge that Arch relies upon his adopted son and treats him with the respect denied Lee breeds a hatred in him for both men. Thus he will encourage the brothers to kill the man who they believe dishonored their sister and will try selling Arch’s herd out from under him.  The fact that Walker was playing against Burt Lancaster at his most virile only helped highlight his physical and moral inadequacies.

In 1955 Anthony Mann’s “The Man from Laramie” developed this further and added a twist of its own. Wealthy crippled cattle baron Alec Waggoman has a son Dave, and an adopted son, Vic Hansbro. Alec relies upon Vic to attend to the day-to-day running of the ranch and to serve as a control voice over Dave, who is frankly psychopathic. Again casting was key with Alex Nicol portraying Dave as a vicious child-man while Arthur Kennedy’s Vic is the weary pragmatist tired of a spending a lifetime cleaning up Dave’s messes. Both are opposed by James Stewart’s cryptic “man from Laramie” who learns that Vic and Dave are actually partners in a scheme to sell rifles to the Apache. Here we have two flavors of bad son–Nicol’s uncontrollable psychopath and Kennedy’s coldly calculating killer. Neither brings much glory to the House of Waggoman.

This notion of the bad son who is bad by choice rather than through an absence of self-control is echoed in a lesser post-Civil War western of 1957, “Drango.” Here Ronald Howard plays Clay Allen, well-dressed well-spoken son of community leader Judge Allen, who secretly plots to re-ignite the war. He pretends to honor his father but ultimately shows his contempt for a man who fears to take up arms against the Yankees. That he would lead the townspeople into a slaughter never occurs to him, any more than it occurs to Vic Hansbro that the Apache will use those rifles against his own people–a fact that is all too clear to the demented Dave.

In the 1958 film “Saddle the Wind,” the bad son becomes the bad younger brother who causes a rupture between his brother Steve Sinclair, retired gunfighter turned small rancher, and Steve’s own father-figure, power rancher Dennis Deneen. (Incidentally, Alec Waggoman. Judge Allen and Dennis Deneen were all played by the same man, veteran character-actor Donald Crisp.) John Cassavete’s Tony Sinclair tries to ape his brother and in so-doing shoots Deneen and brings about a confrontation with Steve, the brother who functions as a father. Brian Keith’s Cole Wilkison in “The Violent Men” (1955) is a more conventional bad brother, seducing his crippled brother’s wife and plotting with her to murder him. Tom Tryon’s Beauregard “Cinch” Saunders is yet another brother with less than brotherly affections for Cole Saunders in “Three Violent People” (1956).

In the same year William Wyler’s “The Big Country” offered an especially baroque variation on this set-up with two sets of father-son relationships. Rufus Hannassey is plagued with a worthless son Buck, who lives to stir up trouble, while his mortal enemy Maj. Henry Terrill has a son of sorts in his no-nonsense ranch foreman Steve Leech. Buck is the ruination of the Hanassey clan, while the “adopted” Leech remains loyal to The Major, even when he clearly sees that the Terrill’s actions are questionable at best.

It occurs to the me that “the bad son” was the Western’s answer to the juvenile delinquent. In each this character points up the fraying of the old belief in family solidarity. In so many of these cases, the bad son insults or even assaults his father. He may not wear a leather jacket but he clearly seems to be in revolt against whatever his elders have got. But because the traditional western was conservative by nature, rather than viewing the rebellious son as a sympathetic or even an admirable character, it chose to paint him black. Lee Strobie and Tony Sinclair may have felt that their elders were tearing them apart, but neither is Jim Stark.


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One Response to “The Bad Son”–a Westerns Archetype

  1. Joseph A Shannon says:

    Hi Andy,

    Couldn’t get anywhere on the comment section so I am sending this brief email

    I enjoyed Peck in Duel in the Sun mainly because it is so rare to see him play a dark character (Moby Dick notwithstanding).


    Joseph A Shannon rameses19104@verizon.net

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