Salvation & John Wayne

This essay was part of a project in 2004 called “Salvation and the Silver Screen“. It was intended to be a bunch of Orthodox bloggers watching old movies and then commenting on the theological content.

JMJ

I WATCHED THE BEST MOVIE last night (that is, in 2004), The Angel and the Badman (Republic, 1947). It is a John Wayne movie, and it is produced by John Wayne, thus I’m tempted to imagine we might learn a good bit more about Mr Wayne here than otherwise.

Synopsis

Wayne plays Quirt Evans, not the Badman of the title I think, but certainly, there are two badmen here – Quirt and his competition, Laredo Stevens (Bruce Cabot). The movie opens with a shootout between Stevens’ gang and Quirt Evans. The chase scene plays behind the opening credits and, just as the credits end, Evans’ horse collapses a few yards in front of a horse and buggy being ridden by Thomas Worth and his daughter, Penelope. They are Quakers and, seeing a sick man, they nurse him back to health. During his several days of near-coma, Evans mutters in his sleep. The Quaker family hear all of it – the shootouts, the bawdy times, the drinking.

Though it all the family doctor (Tom Powers) tells them this is a bad man they must toss out in the street as soon as they are able. The family refuses to, saying they would no more hurt a man just because he was bad than they would hurt the Doctor because he is of a different faith. “Build your house by the side of the road and be a friend to man” quips the doctor.

But of course if you’re determined to watch over him, Penny, you’d better take a pencil and paper with you. His first conscious words should be recorded. They may be of great interest to history…or more possibly the United States Marshal! Who knows what violence is involved with his battered frame and his bullet holes.

When Quirt comes to, the first thing he sees is Penelope weaving a garment on a loom. In short order, for a movie, she falls in love. But this feeling never seems to happen to Quirt. He is mystified by these people, he is awestruck by the beauty of the young woman who has fallen for him, but he can’t bring himself to stay.

The Quakers, of course, will not let Quirt bring his gun into the house. The chase finally catches up and armed men stand on the Worth farm. Quirt sits with an unloaded gun and negotiates with his rival. It is a tense moment, but it is Quirt’s first clue that something – other than the gun – might be stronger. The family never ceases to make light of his gun.

Penelope Worth: Surely you can walk to the barn without that!
Quirt Evans: What?
Penelope Worth: The gun!
Quirt Evans: Oh, well, it balances me. One leg is longer than the other. You know, the weight.

When he finds out that a neighbor, Frederick Carson (Paul Hurst) has damned up all the water, rather than use his gun against the enemy, Quirt uses his reputation – a bad man – to frighten the man into releasing the water. In return, the Worth farm helps Carson – a bachelor – with baked products, canned vegetables, and some home medicine. Quirt is struck by this act of charity – and by the healing it causes to pass in the neighbor rancher.

All through the movie the local marshal, Wistful McClintock (Harry Carey), wanders through the scenes, wondering if Quirt has broken any laws and why it is that he has not yet gotten into a gunfight with his rival, Stevens. McClintock is certain that one day Stevens and Evans will shoot it out and he (the Sheriff) will get to hang the survivor.

Territorial Marshal Wistful McClintock: When are you and Laredo Stevens going to get around to killing each other?
Quirt Evans: Laredo? Well, we water our horses at the same trough.
Territorial Marshal Wistful McClintock: Well, I’m sure looking forward to hanging the survivor.

The family invites Quirt along for a Sunday ride and, surprise, it turns out they are going off to a Meeting. The Quaker Community presents Quirt with a Bible in thanks for his actions that freed up the local water supply. As Quirt looks around he sees the walls closing in: the community standing around him, the young Penelope playing with a baby… He sees the trap about to be sprung and he runs away. Penelope is crestfallen, the family confused, and Evans is stranded.

Out in the world, he returns to bar fights and bawdy women – but he is haunted and distant. His partner in crime, Randy McCall (Lee Dixon), takes up reading the Bible and asking Quirt questions. They plan and procure a cattle heist – stealing a herd from his rival, Stevens, as they, themselves, had already stolen it. There is no gunfight, really, and no one is dead afterward. But Stevens is angry and he, again, sets out on a chase for Evans.

After a celebratory night in a hotel barroom fight, Evans and McCall end up in their room, women sitting on their laps and whiskey on their breath. McCall asks a Bible question and one of the women laughs, saying she never imagined that Quirt Evans would be carrying around a Bible. He picks her up off his lap and throws her on the bed and storms out – back to the Worth farm.

It’s only a day or so of reconciliations before the Stevens gang shows up – they catch Quirt and Penelope picking blackberries. There is a shootout and a chase. Quirt and Penelope fly over a cliff into a river where they hide in the cold water until the gang leaves. Pulling her from the water, Quirt finds that it has all been too much for Penelope who has swooned. Bringing her home, the family sends for the Doctor who announces that she’ll be gone soon.

At that Quirt grabs his gun to storm into town. The doctor advises him that this would not be a good idea – Penelope may be in a coma, but she’ll know. He’ll never be able to think about her again without knowing how she would feel about these actions. Off rides the angry Quirt. At that, Penelope wakes up. The doctor finds her dressed and healthy and pronounces it all to be a miracle. But the doctor and the family are sure that Quirt has ridden off to perdition.

Dr. Mangrum: If I felt cynical, this would be a good opportunity to observe that we’re about to see a perfect example of an eye for an eye. Unfortunately, I can’t quote chapter and verse.

As Quirt calls out into the street the Stevens gang, there is a long few moments in the bar when the gang prepares itself with extra whiskey. Then the entire town clears out of the streets for fear of the shootout that is about to happen. As he leaves his corner and walks through the dusty street to the saloon door, Quirt is called from behind: the Worth family, with Penelope laying in a pile of blankets in the back of the buggy. Quirt walks over to see the miracle and stands there in awe. Suddenly Stevens comes out of the bar and, finding Quirt with his back to them, they move to shoot.

Two shots ring out.

And the Stevens gang drops. Quirt and the Worths spin every which way finding, at last, the Sheriff standing there saying, “I always thought I’d get to kill the one leftover…”

Quirt rides off with the Worth family in the back of the buggy, holding Penelope. Before he can get in, she takes his gun from him. As they drive away, she drops the gun into the dust.

Commentary

Ok, I’m sorry if this seems too obvious but it’s all there. All of it – salvation and the Holy Mysteries. There is confession – in the long scenes of comatose babbles when his past comes out and in several scenes when QUirt recounts his past to Penelope. There is the teaching of the faith to the Catechumen – from the very moment he wakes up:

Quirt Evans: Is that Quaker stuff?
Penelope Worth: Uh huh.
Quirt Evans: You mean that nobody can hurt you but yourself?
Penelope Worth: That’s a Friend’s belief.
Quirt Evans: Well, suppose someone whacks you over the head with a branding iron? Won’t that hurt?
Penelope Worth: Physically, of course. But in reality it would injure only the person doing the act or force of violence. Only the doer can be hurt by a mean or evil act.
Quirt Evans: Are there very many of you Quakers?
Penelope Worth: Very few.
Quirt Evans: I sort of figured that.

There is a believer’s baptism, in the river. There is communion in its most basic form: the Worths constantly feed Quirt and give away their food to their neighbors. There is even ordination in that marriage makes man the priest of his household and the Community has recognized (in the Bible scene) that Quirt and Penelope are a couple, and there is, really, marriage at the end.

I noted that I didn’t think Quirt was the “Badman” of the title. I think the “Badman” is Stevens. Quirt is torn between the path of Life represented by Penelope and the deadly path of Stevens. Whistful McClintock is, really, the serpent in the garden here. The sheriff walks around tempting both men to acts of evil so that, in the final scene, the sheriff may get both of their souls. Quirt’s final choice for Life rather than Death results in the end of temptation – not a very Orthodox teaching, but certainly a valued point in that it ends the movie.

I was several times struck with the odd parallels between Orthodoxy and Quakerism (at least as this later tradition is presented in the movie). The lack of judgment, the insistence on the good of people, the forgiveness, the humility, the service – the parallels were numerous. Parallels ran hand in hand with the perpendiculars though:

Quirt Evans: I thought you weren’t allowed to work on Sunday.
Penelope Worth: Oh, Quirt, there’s nothing we’re not allowed to do. It’s just that we don’t believe in doing what we know is wrong.
Quirt Evans: Well, that makes it pretty much each fella’s own guess.
Penelope Worth: But each fella knows inside.
Quirt Evans: Well, there’s a lot of gents I wouldn’t want to give that much leeway to.

What starts out as a good solid Orthodox idea (“nothing we’re not allowed to do” – which I’m hearing in the same way that I know that breaking the fast is not a breaking of the Law from which we are freed) quickly turns into individualistic western silliness – everyone can do it. John Wayne sees the fault right up front, though.

But it is Quirt’s choices, despite his temptations, despite his giving in to them, that bring about his salvation. He is saved finally because he works it out in fear and trembling: he knows what’s right, he’s even tasted of the heavenly banquet, but in the end, he almost caves in. It is the voice of his love that calls him back though, and in the final shot, it is the bullets of the evil one that bring the curtain down on evil as Love rides off into the sunset.

Author: Huw Richardson

A Dominican Tertiary living in San Francisco, CA. He feeds the homeless and is studying to be a Roman Catholic Deacon. He enjoys cooking, keto, cats, long urban hikes, and SF Beer Week.

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