Arguably Robert Mitchum’s best Western, The Wonderful Country has been enjoying a reevaluation of late, maybe due to its new availability on cable and DVD. It’s the story of a man without a country. Mitchum plays Brady, an American pistolero in the employ of powerful Mexican patrón Cipriano Castro (Pedro Armendáriz), who sends him on a mission across the Rio Grande. When Brady breaks his leg falling from his horse, Texas Ranger Captain Rucker (Albert Dekker) gives him the opportunity to clear his name of the murder rap he has been fleeing since avenging his father’s death as a boy. Other things,
like his attraction to Ellen (Julie London), the unhappily married wife of a Cavalry captain, and, above all, his desire to find a place to belong, lead him to remain on this side of the border. Events beyond his control, however, force him return to Mexico, where he must at last take a stand against Castro and start reinventing himself.
It’s more than an hour into the picture when Brady says “No, patrón” to an incredulous Castro, who has just asked him to kill his brother Marcos, a general. It’s the first and only time that Mitchum’s character takes a stand—most of the time he remains passive as events unfold. In his long career, Mitchum was never better than in those instances in which he played a vulnerable, confused man, as in the underrated Going Home (71), or The Friends of Eddie Coyle (73). Here, the best scenes are those in which he defers to Dekker (who looms over him either as threat or salvation) or, almost abjectly, sombrero in hand, to Armendáriz.
Robert Parrish’s 1959 Technicolor picture is striking for its massive, physical beauty: the land, Brady’s giant black stallion Lagrimas, the way people move and fall. Its pace is leisurely, almost meandering, something that was unusual in a Western and not appreciated at the time of its release. That is what makes the film feel so modern today, though critics found it overly episodic and confusing. Variety’s review aptly sums up the picture’s reception: “The Wonderful Country is a wonderful western. The color photography is beautiful, the casting is accurate, the writing is tasteful and realistic and the characterizations unusual. Mitchum and Julie London provide the marquee value. Yet it will take some selling, because it’s moody.”
“Moody” figures in half of the movie’s reviews, quite perceptively as it turns out. At the end of a decade rich in masterly Westerns, this brooding, almost philosophical entry remained unloved, even by its makers. Tom Lea, who wrote the novel it was based on, didn’t like it. Even Parrish, for whom the project had been a labor of love, admitted being disappointed with the final result. In a letter to composer Alex North, only weeks after the picture’s release, he wrote: “Thanks to you I am finally getting some pleasure out of The Wonderful Country. Your album is number one on the Hit Parade in our house. It is played constantly, affording Peter Parrish perfect cues for acting out the scenes and affording me a beautiful Walter Mitty version of what the picture might have been. It’s beautiful. And exciting. And much more rewarding to me than it was when accompanied by the rather confusing celluloid.”Parrish’s wistful appraisal is difficult to understand today, when the picture appears so impressive and original. The shoot in Mexico was pleasant enough, if a bit unruly for some, but the road from novel to movie had been arduous and frustrating for Parrish and Lea.
The Wonderful Country was Lea’s second novel, and it was greatly informed by what he knew of northern Mexico. His familiarity with its terrain, social mores, and politics was both privileged and heartfelt. His father, Tom Lea Jr., a frontier judge who bore an unsettling resemblance to Walter Huston, had been Mayor of El Paso for years and had once put Emiliano Zapata’s wife in jail for smuggling money and weapons, thus incurring the generalissimo’s wrath and death threats. Tom Lea III had made a name on his own as a painter and illustrator during the Depression, and then for his coverage of World War II. He parlayed this career into one as a writer, striking gold right out of the gate in 1949 with his well-received novel The Brave Bulls, which Robert Rossen soon made into a movie for Columbia. Brought in by the studio to write his version of the script (which was quickly jettisoned, in the grand Hollywood tradition), Lea enjoyed his California stay, but soon soured on the place and the movie business. His distaste grew even fiercer when it came to The Wonderful Country, on which he made very little money.
It has always been assumed that the wonderful country of the title refers to Mexico, such is the pain-staking exactitude of Lea’s descriptions of the landscape and his ear for local speech. But a line in the third draft of the script, possibly carried over from Lea’s version, throws the viewer for a loop: after Brady kills his scarred Mexican nemesis Rascón (a silent, spooky Chester Hayes) and shoots Lagrimas, “Martin stands on the shore [as he did in one of the opening scenes] looking across to the ‘wonderful country’ he has finally achieved. He wades into the water as we fadeout. THE END.”
Lea may have had issues with the slick finish applied to his story by veteran screenwriter Robert Ardrey, who came on board when Parrish and Mitchum could not find financing for Lea’s version of the script—but in the end the movie did not betray him. The naturalistic photography of Floyd Crosby and Mexico-based Alex Phillips, and the sets and costumes by the great production designer Harry Horner together contribute to an uncommonly authentic look. Lea was friends with influential people such as Ray Bell Jr., son of the owner of the immense cattle ranch Hacienda de Atotonilco near Yerbanís, in Durango, and the picture was shot in the vicinity, as well as in San Miguel de Allende.
The only thing that Lea valued from the Brave Bulls experience, and subsequently from this production, was Parrish’s friendship. The latter had been Rossen’s editor and had often sided with Lea during his many clashes with the production. When The Wonderful Country was published, Lea and Parrish made a handshake deal. But after they tried in vain (thank goodness) to attach Gregory Peck to the project, Mitchum’s company took over, and, in Lea’s view at least, Mitchum’s lawyer saw to it that only the star and United Artists saw any of the profits. This is the reason Lea has a small speaking part in the picture (he plays the barber): Parrish confessed that it was the only way he could get him any money. On the Durango set, Lea liked Mitchum well enough to make him a present of the antique sombrero the actor wears throughout the picture, but was put off by his rowdy ways and obscene jokes, even though Charlie McGraw and his famous cases of beer handily upstaged the star in Durango. As the truculent Doctor Stovall, McGraw also steals every scene in which he appears.
What’s more, Mitchum is often dwarfed and upstaged by the landscape and by the imposing figure of his black horse. Brady is repeatedly humiliated by the two Castro brothers, whose name should perhaps be taken into account: in crippling him early, Parrish symbolically castrates Mitchum just as Don Siegel did Clint Eastwood in The Beguiled (up to a point, until he is handily healed by London). Meanwhile, Armendáriz does such a great turn as the almost comically legalistic villainous oligarch (echoing so many politicos down through Mexican history) that the picture could never be released south of the border.
Strange fate for a film that is all about borders: Brady belongs to neither side and is constantly reminded of this by Rucker. The story is one of self-discovery and transformation that reaches the tipping point when Brady defies Castro’s orders. He does so fully aware that he may have signed his own death warrant. Of course Brady escapes, leading us to the movie’s most eventful and spectacular sequence.
The final part of the movie is considerably compressed, to great effect, and this is where it differs most from the novel. During Brady’s flight from his employer into the Sierras, Lea’s novel philosophizes like a Cormac McCarthy crone about the simple pleasures of life and the need to belong somewhere. The prose is wonderful, but the action sags. In the film both plot and characters are swiftly dispatched, the Army Major and his Apache prey die, and Brady returns to the river. To which life? To which “wonderful country”? There are plenty of Westerns in which the pistolero lays his gun aside for good, but none as laconic and as touching as this one.