Pearl Chavez (Jennifer Jones) is half Indian and half white, and is forever insulted because of it. Her father (Herbert Marshall) constantly regrets marrying her mother, and when she is found with another man, he shoots them both and seems glad to go to his hanging. He sends Pearl to live with his cousin and former lover, Laura Bell (Lillian Gish). Laura Bell has two sons, Jesse (Joseph Cotten) and Lewt (Gregory Peck), who vie for Pearl’s affections. Pearl, however, is determined to remain a lady, helped along by Laura Bell who sincerely does have her best interests at heart. Jesse tries to respect her as best he can, but put quite simply, Lewt gets there first. Their father, Senator Jackson McCanless (Lionel Barrymore), hates Pearl because of her race and her father’s history with his wife.
People don’t really like Pearl; basically everybody treats her as if she is second class (which she actually is from the viewpoint of everybody in the film, given that she is half Native American) except Laura Bell and sometimes Jesse. Jesse’s attitude towards her is probably the hardest to figure out, because he’s obviously attracted to her but doesn’t know how to handle it. He eventually marries a nice upper class white girl, and this becomes a non-issue (thankfully). Lewt’s attitude is easier to figure out; he doesn’t mind keeping her around for whenever he wants her, but other than that he couldn’t care less about her, the ending notwithstanding.
There is a scene that is particularly illustrative of how men react to Pearl. As she walks along, minding her own business, they all sort of line up to bother her. First, the Senator makes derogatory comments about her race, and Pearl, in an effort to be polite, goes along with what he is saying. Then she meets Jesse, who she actually likes, and he likes her, but he only sort of shows it because he’s worried about showing it because he wants to do the right thing. He is only partially successful. Then comes Lewt and of course, she wants nothing to do with him but he forces himself on her anyway. It’s great how Vidor put these three encounters right next to each other; the differences and the similarities are plain to see.
Laura Bell does really care about Pearl and wants to help her. As such, she was just about my favorite character as she is basically the only decent one. She had some amount of growth over the film as well, she was able to stand up to her husband about Lewt. The Senator has indulged Lewt for his entire life and now he thinks he can get away with anything, which is basically true. That is, until Laura Bell steps in. Unfortunately she dies pretty soon after that, but the scene where she stands up to her husband is a powerful one nevertheless.
Like the entire rest of the film, the acting was a bit over the top but it worked for the most part. In my opinion, this style greatly benefits Gregory Peck who often overacts anyway. I thought it would be a stretch to see him as a villain, but actually it wasn’t at all. He pulled it off very well. Jennifer Jones has a few unbelievable moments, and definitely isn’t Native American (what else do you expect from 1946?), but she is good in her role as well. Again, her facial expressions might be a bit over the top, but she sure as hell gets the point across. Lionel Barrymore plays his usual grumpy man in a wheelchair character, and Joseph Cotten is able to bring a slight menace to Jesse when he is pursuing Pearl in the beginning, but in all other situations is appropriately righteous and principled. And last but not least, Lilian Gish, who along with Jones was nominated for an Academy Award that year. Similar to her role in The Night of the Hunter, she plays a sweet old lady with unexpected strength.
There were some interesting scenes in terms of the lighting and production design. They reminded me a bit of German Expressionism, but I’m not one hundred percent sure they are influenced by it or not. When Pearl’s father is stating his reasons for killing his wife and her lover, the scene is almost completely dark. This happens again when Lewt kills Pearl’s fiance. The lamps are on one side of the bar, so when the scene is shot a certain way, you can only see darkness. It makes the spaces they are in seem a lot larger and more threatening that they would otherwise. There’s also a great sense of depth in that seen because the bar is stretching from the front to the back of the frame. That type of depth happened a few other times in the film as well.
Duel in the Sun may be considered a failure by history, but not by me. It was a very entertaining film that had a lot of good points about how people try to fight against their true nature to varying degrees of success and also about relationships and how minorities and women (Pearl in this case) are treated in them. The characters were vibrant and were easily understood on the surface, but had contradictions within themselves that made them harder to understand.
“Neither your father nor I found happiness in this world, and I’m afraid neither will you.”