...John Huston's resonant ode to changing environment and shifting frontiers
There is a sense of tragedy, of the present and future, at the heart of John Huston’s the Misfits. While not quite the dimensions of a Greek tragedy, in terms of crumbling empires, individual failings and falls from grace as external forces gather overhead, the Misfits’ sadness is more immediately apparent and closer to home. It is felt in every frame, in the actions of its leading characters and the interplay between them. They all seem to be drifting or escaping, with nowhere to go as fate, circumstances and a rapidly changing world limit their options; they don’t have regular jobs with guaranteed wages; merely wandering around gives them an illusion of freedom in the shape of local bars, rodeo festivals and the ultimate machismo act of capturing wild horses in the Nevada desert. Along the way they find sanctuary in an empty home belonging to one of them outside Reno; here, two of them discover the unalloyed joy of the simplicity of life but they must move on, to the next thing (“May be all there is, is just the next thing”), before their quest is completed in the desert.
In a strange way, it’s a journey of self-discovery, of atonement, of a spiritual and physical understanding and awareness, of their purpose and worth, of whether they are on the fringes or at the centre of a rapidly fluctuating universe. These are characters who have lost all sense of time and perspective even as they contemplate being outsiders; the cowboy’s fierce adherence to a heroic code means change is no longer an option; they’re out of touch and obsolete. With the shrinking of the frontiers and diminution of the environment, the world has closed in on them.
More than mere symbolism, the film is a metaphor for death. It was the last film of its two leading stars, Clark Gable and Marilyn Monroe. Gable died ten days after the film was completed, after insisting on doing many of the dangerous stunts himself; the latter died in August 1962, barely eighteen months after him. In the intervening period, Gable’s contemporary and rival for the title of King of Hollywood, Gary Cooper, passed away. The deaths of these demi-gods signalled far more than mere endings of legendary, iconic figures; it meant cinema had lost its mystique, its mystery and romance, its lure of pure fantasy. Films replaced cinema, before they themselves were superseded by movies; the medium was now steeped in different grammar and lexicon.
Montgomery Clift and Eli Wallach make up the quartet of characters accompanying Gable and Monroe as they meet up in Reno, following Monroe’s quick divorce. Her character, Roslyn, is the heartbeat and conscience of the film; she is the benevolent, caring figure who is Mother Nature herself, in her hushed, gushing tone who teaches the men the value of preservation. “I bless you girl” says Gable to her at one point; the Wallach character, Guido, tells her that she has the gift for life where others are just trying to hide, in his home where his own wife had died, perhaps through his own fault. “You make the sun come up”, the Gable character, Gaylord Langdon, tells Roslyn; the inference is clear and transparent; three proud men, ill-suited to modern life and in thrall to the woman in their midst, learn a visceral and salutary lesson which will have a transformative effect on their lives. These misguided loners and their vanishing ethos; Roslyn inspires them to think outside their own space and zone, something which resonates today in our shifting world.
After the rodeo in Reno, the scene shifts to the Nevada desert and the ultimate thrill of capturing horses and selling them. It is here that the film reaches its apotheosis, with the excitement of the chase, the dangers of battling the ferocity and power of wild mustangs, of testing your physical skills against a proud and untamed animal; cinematographer Russell Metty captures the late afternoon denouement to telling effect as animal and man go head to head in the ultimate battle of capture and freedom, the editing bringing the beauty and the beast myth into play on the flatland of the desert which became famous as the “misfit flats”. Here the struggle for survival, on the surface of a dry lake in the summer, man and beast are like skaters on an ice rink, being pulled in all directions, falling and getting up in the face of danger, rolling away from it before confronting it yet again; no quarter is given, the protagonists are unyielding, the horses shrieking as they rise on their front legs to break free from their captors. Eventually, exhaustion sets in and the horses are tied with ropes. It is a stunning piece of film-making, exciting and heart-breaking in equal measure, with the viewers’ allegiance shifting back and forth, from the horses to the cowboys.
The men had hoped to round up a herd of horses as a way of making money. All they find is a small group, emerging from the canyons, consisting of one stallion, four mares and a young colt; the dwindling numbers, the shrinking frontier, the depletion of resources, the changing environment, all point to the extinction of a way of life. Man’s greed has reached such a level that scarcity is felt across all corners, from the urban conurbations to the open spaces. The round-up itself, part-machismo, part-heroism, seems rather pointless. From a herd to a small flock of stray mustangs, the drop in numbers affecting the profit margin, is disappointing for the nomadic cowboys In the end, the colt is released at the insistence of Roslyn; “Go, you are free”, she tells it in breathless tones. After watching them from a distance with horror, and accusing them of being “killers, liars and murderers”, the men come round to her point of view and set the horses free. Mother Earth has tamed their greed and reformed them. Gable’s penultimate act on screen is to set the magnificent stallion free, after tying the animal to the front of the truck. At the finale, he and Roslyn ride away in the truck, watching the animals gallop to freedom just as darkness falls. It is a striking metaphor, a moving paen to a bygone world and a breed of proud people coming to their senses.
“Just follow the star- the highway is directly under it”, Gay tells Roslyn in the truck. For the pair, the future is uncertain, but they have each other. In an ironic twist, Monroe always thought Gable was her father in real life; perhaps she really wanted an older, paternal figure for a soulmate. The Monty Clift character is left in the desert. He had only come along for the ride, for its temporal thrill and excitement; with the rodeo season over, he is a homeless wanderer. Eli Wallach’s Guido, though sincere, is too earnest and self-absorbed and flies in his small plane back to Reno to his car repair business.
From indifference to reconciliation via soul-searching and understanding, the film achieves a perfect symmetry. It would be a better world if it was built on the tripartite, symbiotic understanding of man, nature and animal; this is the film’s overarching message.