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From the Archives: William Wellman by Bertrand Tavernier

By Bertrand Tavernier on February 10, 2012

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This article was originally published as “Pioneer Spirit” in the Jan/Feb 2004 issue. A 42-film William Wellman retrospective runs through March 1 at Film Forum.

Universal City, 1969. A projection room. The film is former blacklistee Abraham Polonsky's Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here. The guests include fellow HUAC defier Adrian Scott, and directors Tay Garnett, Allan Dwan, and William A. Wellman. The man behind the screening, then-distributor and freelance publicist Pierre Rissient, seizes this opportunity to speak to Wellman about Polonsky's difficulties with the Hollywood blacklist. Wellman does not react well. Clearly, the mere mention of the word "communist" makes him see red. But after the screening, he rushes to Polonsky, showers him with compliments, urges Dwan and Garnett to join in the praise, and becomes Willie Boy's most enthusiastic supporter. And he goes even further: upon hearing that Universal chief Lew Wasserman doesn't believe in the film, he unhesitatingly calls to bawl him out and, Wasserman being unavailable, leaves an incendiary message with his flabbergasted secretary: "If that asshole motherfucker doesn't realize this is a masterpiece, if that bastard won't defend Willie Boy, tell him..." You can imagine the rest. The next day, he rallied Henry Hathaway and others to his campaign, creating a sensational uproar.

All of Wellman is contained in this contradiction. On the one hand, the militant anticommunist, the right-wing reactionary, full of anger at certain Democratic presidents. On the other hand, the anarchic fighter, the generous individualist who, when he liked someone or something, forgot his prejudices and principles. His son, William Wellman, Jr., in an article in the March-April 1970 issue of the Directors Guild magazine Action, tersely defined him as "the rebel director." Then he wrote what could almost pass for an epitaph:

Consider a man who:

Was a juvenile delinquent;

Played ice-hockey for a living as a kid;

Became a World War One flying ace at eighteen;

Was a lousy actor but a good messenger boy;

Became a film director and was fired from almost every studio in Hollywood;

Had many romantic misses before marrying the wife he has had for 36 years;

Has seven children and eleven grandchildren;

Earned and kept a fortune;

Quit after forty years at the top of his profession.

Let's add a few paradoxes:

  1. Wellman's high-profile, groundbreaking films are his most interesting and successful: Public Enemy (31), A Star Is Born (37), The Ox-Bow Incident (43). This isn't the case with other Hollywood directors—think of Ford's The Fugitive or Cukor's Romeo and Juliet.
  2. Said ambition is sometimes difficult to pinpoint. The films he produced himself are not among his best, nor are those he wrote (The Robin Hood of El Dorado [36] is, as a matter of fact, devoid of ambition). The sole exception in the latter category is A Star Is Born, whose sobriety counters the excess and over-the-top melodrama usually displayed by Selznick productions. The film even opens with a close-up of the screenplay, a dramatic device that now seems 30 years ahead of its time.
  3. Wellman was a former aviator, but his best war films were about the life of the foot soldier.
  4. We owe this very macho man some wonderful portraits of women, even some films that are surprisingly feminist in tone: Night Nurse (31), Safe in Hell (31), Westward the Women (51).

French critics in the Fifties and Sixties got it wrong when they heralded Wellman as a progressive, or at least liberal, filmmaker. Certain articles in Cahiers du Cinéma (which expressed surprise that he had made The Iron Curtain [48]) and in the leftist Positif need to be challenged. The Iron Curtain was not a studio-imposed job; on the contrary, it faithfully reflected Wellman’s principles (found again in 1955’s Blood Alley, the French-dubbed version of which spirited away all the anticommunist content)­­—which were closer to John Wayne’s than to those of Ford, who, at the time, was branded by the same magazines as the arch reactionary. These kinds of misconceptions abound, on both ends of the political spectrum, and have stigmatized other directors (e.g., Milestone’s supposed “militarism”). In Wellman’s case, it can be explained by one single word: realism.

Because Wellman made a relatively daring film on the subject of lynching, and a few ambitious and unusually authentic-looking war pictures, he was labeled a realist. The label is justified, provided one knows exactly what it means. The director of Wings (27) belongs to a generation of filmmakers who had become accustomed to being their own masters during the silent era. They often behaved like anarchists and would brook no interference. They had a reactionary bent, but that didn't keep them from challenging taboos and restrictions. The producer, with few exceptions (Selznick seems to have had a creative relationship with Wellman), became the enemy as soon as he attempted to meddle. Wellman sent the producers of Wings to a field without telling them he was about to begin shooting a bombing sequence there; they left him alone for the rest of the project. He is also said to have dumped cartloads of manure in front of a studio mogul's office.

All of these filmmakers—Wellman, Hawks, Ford, Walsh—were creating a new language, and their struggle was an apolitical one. Everything in this battle was of equal value: to shoot on location, to defy the Production Code, to direct a picture about lynching, to be the first to deal with taboo subjects. Aside from his admiration for Walter Van Tilburg Clark’s fine novel, when Wellman took on The Ox-Bow Incident he was equally attracted by the screenplay’s scathing content and by the notion of doing a different kind of Western­—one without women and whose violence worried executives at Fox.

A movie without women—almost. Two minor female characters are of capital importance: the unforgettable and awesome Jane Darwell, barbarism incarnate, and Mary Beth Hughes as Henry Fonda’s former fiancée, whom he meets in a beautiful, uncanny sequence, in the midst of the film’s central chase, after she has married someone else. One could almost say there are three female characters, since in the opening scene a saloon painting of a woman triggers a striking passage of dialogue.

For such directors, the artistic (if one may use a word they disliked) aim was a close mixture of a more-or-less-vague quest for "truth," a determination to avoid clichés, and the pursuit of "entertainment." They fought to shoot certain stories as much in order to break rules and challenge conventions as for their actual content, to introduce technical innovations (the rejection of rear projection and studio-bound exteriors) as much as to escape from routine. Their genius lay in their sometimes unconscious grasp of the fact that everything was linked. The setting up of an outdoor crane shot was as important as a screenplay's daring invention. As a result, many of them expressed a measure of pride in certain aspects of their films that, to us, seems (or used to seem) disproportionate. Wellman discussed at length a tracking shot set in the Folies Bergères (Wings) that was quite innovative, and he seemed to feel that Fonda’s way of reading the letter in Ox-Bow (in an extraordinary setup that hides his eyes behind the brim of his hat) was as important as the meaning of the sequence.

While critics noticed innovations in Wellman’s films more often than in those of other directors of his generation, they neglected some of his most original ideas in favor of flashier ones. The linguistic authenticity attempted in Across the Wide Missouri (51) was ignored, even though few Westerns had done anything like it at the time—the Blackfoot Indians spoke Blackfoot, the French spoke French (in the French-dubbed version, they even used a Bearn patios to distinguish between them).

Wellman's vigor is reflected in his often biting comedies and his tough, rugged action films and dramas. He attempted to instill them with the virility he boasted in real life, even directing love scenes while wielding a "suggestive" piece of wood. He also relied on literary sources that were not widely known. As a result, Wellman seemed more of an auteur, a man who brought his own vision of the world to his films. But confusing the use of realism with political commitment has been the source of many a critical blunder. Even George Bernard Shaw, in a famous analysis pitting Shakespeare against Ibsen, sides with the latter "because he is a realist." Realism is merely a method, not an end. For Wellman, it was an opportunity to more accurately and credibly depict the behavior of people he knew (soldiers, cowboys, flyers), not to analyze or criticize them. Thanks to his talent, the films sometimes go beyond their premises, and even contradict them. Again to paraphrase, Shaw said that he was depressed by how many people saw life realistically and expressed themselves romantically. Let’s apply this remark to American cinema. There is a whole category of directors (Dwan, King) who see life romantically and express it similarly. Others (Walsh, Torneur, Preminger in the Fifties) express it realistically. As for Wellman, he straddles both approaches; he is a half-romantic who films half-realistically. This may be why critics used to single him out. His ambition is immediately visible, as it lies in understating and pruning.

Many of Wellman’s screenplays are characterized by a kind of punctilious, down-to-earth verism that helps de-dramatize the subject's main thrust, while the direction goes counter to the initial point of departure. Not in the most obvious respects (choice of location, direction of actors) but in the internal dynamics. Thus there is a strange contradiction between the de-dramatized tone of some sequences in Yellow Sky (49) or 'The Story of G.I. Joe (45), and a mise-en-scène that often relies on studied, even aestheticized setups. In some of his films, the direction seldom coincides with what it is supposed to express. It remains mostly parallel to the subject. Wellman's vaunted spareness and sobriety seem curiously sidetracked by the visual style, or even the internal relationships between shots. In this respect, Yellow Sky, revisited, is a disappointment. The conventional script (according to Todd McCarthy, based on The Tempest) impedes the dramatic progression by visually emphasizing gestures that shouldn't have been underscored. It's like dismantling an engine to showcase its smallest and most expendable parts.

As a result of this lack of an overall vision, the notion of hero, or protagonist, is undermined—a rare occurrence in American cinema. But Wellman's rejection of individualism is not always counterbalanced by depictions of community, except in the most conventional sense, as in Island in the Sky (53), The High and the Mighty(54), Call of the Wild (36), Robin Hood of El Dorado, the very disappointing Beau Geste (39), or even much of Wings. This is a far cry from Ford’s exaltation of community or Hawks’s self-contained groups of professionals. Wellman underplays what many have seemed to clichéd in Hollywood cinema (the romantic hero, overdramatized action), but this spareness reveals, in his bad films, an equally conventional worldview. Hence the strange impression created by a film like Buffalo Bill (44): what was taken as a critical intention was actually a side effect of Wellman's style, and resulted in a kind of overall dullness from which no real content arose. Clichés are toned down or eschewed, but nothing takes their place. As a result, Wellman seemed more "artistic" and ambitious than Dwan or Henry King.

Wellman's approach is particularly fruitful in his war pictures. The at-times tedious austerity of G.I. Joe or Battleground (49) paradoxically makes them fascinating, as the disintegration of dramatic structure, added to the down-to-earth, realistic tone, gives these narratives the flavor of distanced reporting. Wellman's soldiers march, eat, pee, dig holes, march again, dig holes again, and never understand what's going on. Since no one stands out as a hero (not even Mitchum, although excellent in G.I. Joe), the dominant impression is akin to the vision of the Battle of Waterloo by the uncomprehending protagonist in Stendhal's The Charterhouse of Parma. Wellman's intention was to show "daily heroism" in the tradition of British cinema, but his direction ended up canceling out heroism altogether. In Battleground, there are sublime sequences thoroughly devoid of excitement; even the gags generate no feeling of euphoria. When confronted with the highly original qualities of such films as Battleground, Westward the Women, Track of the Cat (54), G.I. Joe, or Across the Wide Missouri, one gets the feeling that Wellman, as Manny Farber brilliantly put it, wants to tell stories about men “standing around—for no damned reason and with no indication of for how long.”

Such a definition, which could apply to some of his Paramount films of the Thirties (for example, 1930's disastrous Dangerous Paradise), is thoroughly contradicted by most of his Warner-produced pictures of 1931-33 that I have been able to see. They include several daring, brilliant masterpieces in which Wellman's best qualities blossom. Some are justly famous, like The Public Enemy, in which Cagney's superb performance is just as modern as the dialogue by Harvey Thew. Others, such as The Hatchet Man (32), are based on delirious premises, but brilliant direction (at the beginning, a funeral procession turns into a panicked stampede filmed in a series of breathtaking crane shots interspersed with close ups of painted dragons and histrionic exchanges) transcends the mind-boggling plot twists and questionable casting. The closing sequence is staggering: Edward G. Robinson throws a hatchet through a painting to prove he is the Chinatown executioner. The blade pins the bad guy to the wall. For a while we think he's still alive, because his body and head move, but the movement is due to the fact that the hatchet is being pulled out of the wall.

Wellman's social-problem films are among the genre's most radical and violent. Hal Wallis had several shots deleted from Wild Boys of the Road (33) because he deemed them unbearable for the general public; to Wellman they expressed the realities of the Depression. The scenes of gangs of children running after the trains are both spectacular and poignant, and superior to Nikolai Ekk’s 1931 film Road to Life, Wellman’s original inspiration. The word “communism” is even uttered—most daringly. Of course, in Heroes for Sale (33), the Marxist character is co-opted by the System, and Richard Barthelmess tries to prevent the striking workers from rioting. But in addition to brutal repression Wellman shows police-like militias chasing the Reds, and he does it in a critical fashion. It is one of the few films, to my knowledge, that alludes to the existence of communists. The ending is thoroughly uncompromising: the victims of the Depression are still on the road, begging in the rain.

Night Nurse and Safe in Hell are also remarkable films, among the major successes of the Pre-Code period. They give us detailed portraits of the world of labor, and they tackle any number of topics that would soon become taboo. In Night Nurse, a splendid, very sexy Barbara Stanwyck, often seen wearing nothing but her slip, confronts a wealthy, grimacing doctor (probably a cocaine fiend) who, aided by his diabolical right-hand man (a black-clad Clark Gable), tries to starve two children to death in order to seize their trust fund. There is an abundance of provocative lines ("I'm a dypsomaniac, and I like it") and exchanges ("Why can't my son have a screen round his bed?"—"It's against the rules."—"What about this one?"-"He is dying, madam"). No cop or judge comes along to reestablish Law and Order. Stanwyck protects a wounded bootlegger who will "take care" of the bad guy at the end, although in a nonchalant, elliptical manner. One line suggests what may have happened to Clark Gable and is confirmed by the closing exchange, worthy of Rowland Brown: “The guy inside was taken for a ride.”—“The Bootlegger?”—“No, he was wearing a chauffeur’s uniform.”

In the even stranger Safe in Hell, a crime melodrama gradually turns into a wry, sarcastic fable. The heroine, clearly a prostitute, believes (mistakenly) that she has killed a man and is wanted for murder (the opening sequences are stunning, their openness and pace still amazing today). She seeks refuge on a Caribbean island from which criminals cannot be extradited. There she must deal with a collection of characters who represent, more or less, the most depraved aspects of civilization. The film at times brings to mind Jean Genet's The Balcony. In Pre-Code Hollywood, Thomas Doherty writes that Sinclair Lewis felt that the cabaret singer played by Clarence Muse was one of only two exceptions to the demeaning portrayal of blacks in Hollywood films (the other being Clarence Brown's doctor in Arrowsmith).

In Other Men's Women (31), another great achievement with remarkable energy and vitality, real locations and elements of every day life are integrated with the plot twists without regard for rules and conventions, making it closer to Renoir than to Lloyd Bacon or Ray Enright. The opening sequence, a bantering exchange between a railroad engineer and his girlfriend in a depot cafe, is paced to the passing of a real train, the man counting the cars as he sweet-talks the girl and drinks his coffee before jumping aboard the last one. Even more impressive, an argument on the railroad tracks between the engineer and his other girl is filmed in one continuous shot. When the girl walks away, Wellman keeps the man framed as he calls after her louder and louder, and she answers off-screen. Cagney, once again, is outstanding.

Toward the end of his career, Wellman returned, less efficiently, to a relaxed, laid-back tone, at least in his war films. In quick succession, he directed two exhilarating, rambunctious movies using young TV actors under Warner's contract: Darby's Rangers (58) and Lafayette Escadrille (58). In the third shot of Darby's Rangers, two guys bump into each other as they look at a recruiting poster. This is the prelude to a series of gags and comical adventures climaxing with a bawdy scene in which Etchika Choureau is hosed down by soldiers in charge of wartime delousing. A number of scenes between Choureau and James Garner involve a bed whose springs are constantly checked and rechecked. Although uneven, the film ends in a fine, fog-bound battle sequence, with a superb lateral tracking shot that ends on a group of Germans lying ready in ambush.

Lafayette Escadrille is even more lighthearted. Ostensibly paying tribute to the American flyers killed in France during WWI, the film actually deals with a gang of pranksters more interested in picking up girls. They must endure French officers who deliver rapid-fire instructions on how to handle the planes, although the Americans don't understand a word of French. They botch everything, drive Marcel Dalio crazy, play the banjo during inspection, nail the sentries to their sentry boxes. One shot suggests the tone of the entire film: when it's announced that the U.S. has entered the war, a young soldier jumps up enthusiastically—and hits his head on the ceiling. Wellman sneaks in two extraordinary shots. Tab Hunter, an actor Wellman was understandably reluctant to use, escapes from a French prison and is seen running in the distance under a stunning stormy sky. Filmed in silhouette against the horizon, he knocks out a sentry and steals his uniform. Earlier, Hunter has met Choureau. A group of soldiers are chatting near a bar. The camera frames the girl's face while everybody around her is talking; Wellman holds the shot for a long time. She simply looks at the camera, while people talk, laugh, walk past. This daring, modern approach leaves you speechless. Such moments make up for the flaws (including the ending, disowned by Wellman) of a ramshackle but very youthful, high-spirited movie.

One might think, then, that Wellman feels most comfortable when he lets himself go, as is the case with many American directors. The truth is more complex. A comedy like Magic Town (47), written by Robert Riskin, is thoroughly anonymous, with only one delightful scene—James Stewart and Jane Wyman competing in a poetry recitation contest (he reads The Charge of the Light Brigade, she Hiawatha). On the other hand, such ambitious, dramatic projects as Westward the Women (from a subject by Frank Capra) and Track of the Cat are outstanding.

We shouldn't forget the excellent Across the Wide Missouri, a film that was reportedly as badly butchered as Huston's Red Badge of Courage, which accounts for several continuity mistakes and some weird ellipses. Despite these flaws, and an obnoxious dubbed-on commentary, the film has a relaxed, meandering narrative style that equals Hawks's in The Big Sky. Wellman, much more at ease with Indians than Hawks had been, depicts them with sly humor: the appearance of the chief clad in a suit of armor is one of the richest moments in Westerns, and Gable's wedding night with his Native American bride makes up for many a racist movie. Wellman reacts with spontaneous generosity to racial minorities—he is closer to Ford in that respect. In his evocation of pioneer life, he yields to a Rousseau-esque romanticism seldom seen in his earlier works, and not devoid of dignity. Even the film's cruel Indian (played by Ricardo Montalban) is presented with simplicity and without any striving for effect. It's actually not him, but a white trapper, who starts the battle in which the Montalban character kills an Indian chief, and his death—he's stabbed with a rifle's bayonet—is one of the most beautiful shots in any Wellman film. After this violent outburst, the movie settles into a melancholy serenity: "Fallen trees rot on the ground; men are buried where they died," the commentary says, and we can be sure this is the kind of death Wellman yearned for.

This gentle touch would not be found again in a Wellman film, except in the little-known Good-bye, My Lady (56), a nice piece of Americana, as Films in Review might have put it. This modest coming-of-age drama takes place in the Mississippi bayou and deals with a double education: that of a dog called Lady, and of her owner, a young boy (Brandon De Wilde) who is being brought up by his uncle (Walter Brennan) with the help of a black man (Sidney Poitier). This sort of thing had little chance of pleasing the critical intelligentsia, which looks down on family dramas, even though many directors have made masterpieces within the genre. The film is not flawless—a few sequences involving the dog and various minor characters are rather nondescript. But several scenes between De Wilde and Brennan (who is fantastic-watch how he keeps inventing new ways of walking) are extremely powerful. I particularly love the moment in which the boy reads to his uncle as he gradually falls asleep. The accomplished, highly risky ending has a quality worthy of Capra or McCarey.

Track of the Cat remains a truly bizarre movie. The narrative thread is reminiscent of Yellow Sky (but with more of a Dreyer touch) or the outlandishness of Ford's 7 Women. Writer A.I. Bezzerides's reservations are understandable: out of enthusiasm, Wellman allegedly shot the first draft of the screenplay without waiting for rewrites. The dialogue is verbose and heavy-handed at times, while at others one wishes some elements were more developed. A little more action and drama wouldn't have hurt the subject's ambitions (slaughtered Indians are supposedly reincarnated as a mountain lion).

Wellman's refusal to show the cougar, even as a mere shadow, is unduly dogmatic, and fails where Tourneur so elegantly succeeded in Cat People. The director acknowledged his mistake but added that he would have had to show the cat devouring Mitchum—not an easy task. The option he chose, however, weakens the construction (he didn't show the dead animal): the scene where Tab Hunter kills the cougar looks more like an editing trick to mask a filming error than an aesthetic choice, and thus loses much of its power. The repetitive shots of the mountain, instead of enhancing the atmosphere, end up calling attention to the lack of variety in the choice of locations.

As often happens with Wellman, however, the flaws have a way of turning into virtues—or at least the distinction between the two becomes fluid. The static talkiness of the beginning (Lee Server in his Mitchum biography calls it “summer stock O’Neill”) becomes fascinating and truly daring at times. At any rate, Wellman happily tramples on all the rules of Hollywood narrative—identification, emphasis on action, rapport between the audience and the main character. The result is not necessarily successful, but the toughness of the endeavor and the director's obvious personal commitment are admirable and enthralling. The family Wellman and Bezzerides present us with is evil in an everyday, nontragic way. They are mean and petty, full of envy, frightening Puritanism, jealousy, possessiveness, machismo. The mother is atrocious in her very banality. The father's alcoholism is neither picturesque nor joyful but pathetic. As for the Tab Hunter character, he is a terribly passive hero (a trait worsened by the actor, who is wretchedly directed here).

There are astonishing lines of dialogue, such as the father's comparison of women to clothespins ("All my life, I've lived with a clothespin") or when Mitchum, admirably rigorous and never trying to tone down his character’s harshness, reads and then burns a volume of Keats’s poems. The film is extraordinarily formalist, and not only in its sparse use of color. The narrative gains power from the stark yet self-conscious severity of the setups, which also makes the studio shots more palatable. All the shots around the coffin during the wake (here, again, Wellman, who always favors subtracting, conceals the body) are quite amazing and make up for the heavy-handed repetitions, such as the fumbling for bottles of booze.

I hope the above makes you want to see more Wellman films. I do, and that's all that counts, for one must write primarily for oneself. This article has helped me realize how limited my knowledge of Wellman was. One must have the courage to reexamine one's memories and not feel sorry for oneself. I suspect Wellman never did. His rebellion may have been confused, romantic, sometimes ineffectual. Yet it was necessary and, with all the limitations I have tried to delineate, useful. Incidentally, it was also magnificent.

This article was translated by Jean-Pierre Coursodon, revised from an earlier piece that appeared in Positif.

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