Yellow Sky (1948)

*. What? You mean Gregory Peck is playing a bad guy? Wearing a black hat and heading a gang of outlaws whose second-in-command is a sneering Richard Widmark? Is such a thing possible?
*. Well, not really. Perhaps his hat is actually blue, since he’s an ex-Union man. And just before the final battle, when you see him in the moonlight, the way the scene is lit makes it look like his hat has turned if not white then a lighter shade of pale. I wonder if that could have been deliberate.
*. And of course Peck does turn out to the hero. You knew that. You knew there was no way he wasn’t going to be pairing up with Anne Baxter in the end. That’s destiny, in Hollywood.
*. For a while though it seemed as though Yellow Sky really was going to be something different. And by different I mean dark. Peck not only has a dark hat and a chin full of stubble, he’s a sexual predator. Sure it’s just a question of time before “Stretch” (Peck) claims “Mike” (Baxter) as his woman (and their names revert to more traditional gender norms), but what he practices is more than rough wooing. And indeed Mike is threatened throughout with rape by the gang. There is an atmosphere of menace that follows her about from her first appearance and the men start commenting on her sensuous appearance (“when she tucks in that shirt . . .”), culminating in Stretch’s admonishment to “stop swingin’ your hips all over the place!”
*. The setting is also darker than the usual Western locale. There’s a punishing desert (shot on location in Death Valley) like we’d get in later spaghettis, and instead of the usual frontier town there’s a ruin (literally a demolished movie set built by Tom Mix in the 1920s).
*. The plot might have been darker as well. The men falling out over a woman and a treasure in gold recalls The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, released the same year. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is a movie that also takes a familiar Western narrative or myth and casts some shade upon it.
*. At one point I was hoping for the return of the Apache at the end in the role of the cavalry, saving Stretch and Mike and Grandpa from Dude and the gang. That, however, would have been a turn of the screw too far in 1948.

*. I was interested in seeing this one because I’d heard that it was considered to be an adaptation of The Tempest. At first glance I didn’t see much of a connection. A group of people stumble upon an isolated place where an old man lives with a young woman (his daughter in The Tempest, his granddaughter here). That’s basically just the old story of the farmer’s daughter. Aside from this, what connection is there? Where is the magic of The Tempest? The music? Where are Caliban and Ariel? Grandpa is a prospector, which sort of sounds like Prospero, but aside from that . . .
*. This made me curious to find out what the source was of this connection. The only reference I found was to an essay by an academic named Tony Howard. Howard’s essay, however, only mentions Yellow Sky a couple of times. The first is in passing, in a paragraph where he talks about how Hollywood basically “kept its distance” from Shakespeare in the 1940s and ’50s except to “use the plots as raw material for mainstream genre films” like Jubal, Joe Macbeth, and Yellow Sky.
*. The second reference is a little meatier. Howard says that in Yellow Sky the “elemental metaphors” of The Tempest “are reversed. Shakespeare’s sea gives way to thirst, and the magic island becomes a ghost town.” Hm. Well, I guess. But that’s not much. The only other connection made is that the film also deals with the “Caliban question,” which is presented as “Can any of these degenerates be redeemed?” This makes no sense to me no matter what angle I look at it. Was Caliban a degenerate in need of redemption? Is Stretch meant to be Caliban then?
*. I don’t want to make a big thing out of this though. I mean, Forbidden Planet is only slightly more related to The Tempest, and that connection has become canonical. For what it’s worth, Wellman himself apparently said that he had no idea there was any connection. And the thing is, Shakespeare basically adapted other people’s stories, using them as his “raw material,” but The Tempest has no known source. The reason being it doesn’t really have a story. It’s more just riffing on a couple of generic situations, of the kind that were popular in improv theatre at the time. It seems to me that what we’re dealing with here are the same basic tropes.

*. Given the talent involved it was hard for this movie to go wrong. With William Wellman directing and Lamar Trotti adapting a W. R. Burnett story you would know you were in good hands. Then you can sit back and enjoy moments like the wonderful shot of the gang coming out of the desert beneath Peck’s horse, or the dark, still portraits of Dude and Lengthy waiting for Stretch in the saloon. As with so many Westerns, it’s a final gunfight that is all anticipation. When the actual bullets start flying we cut, leaving Mike to discover what happened later, as at the end of Stagecoach.
*. Unfortunately, the film doesn’t end there. That would have been too dark. There’s a really silly coda as the gang makes good, returning the money to the bank they robbed at the beginning. Mike has a nice new hat that symbolizes her adoption of a more traditional form of womanhood. The West was safe, for now.

16 thoughts on “Yellow Sky (1948)

  1. Bookstooge

    Sometimes I think people try too hard to find a deeper meaning in movies and forget to just watch them for the fun of it.
    From your description I certainly don’t see how this could considered any sort of Tempest story.

    So did you enjoy watching it?

      1. Alex Good Post author

        The characters’ names in this movie (FULL cast) are:

        Mike (that’s the woman)
        Bull Run
        Half Pint

        I kid you not.

      2. Bookstooge

        Not even the stoners from Dude where’s my car could have come up with a cast of names like that!
        I’m guessing somebody felt snarky when creating those names.

      3. Bookstooge

        I thought it was hilarious the first time I watched it. The second, and last, time I watched it it was just stupid.
        However, if your library has it, it might be worth checking out just to help counter-balance all those culturally heavy Shakespeare movies 😉

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