Blood on the Moon (1948)

Directed by Robert Wise; Written by Lillie Hayward

For a few dollars more...

For a genre that stereotypically features one man asserting his will on society with a hail of bullets, I’m often caught off-guard by westerns that surprise with a socially conscious streak, telling stories of arm-twisting socioeconomic realities in a society that can still only loosely be defined as such. Blood on the Moon is one of those westerns, featuring devious politicians, honest folks taken advantage of, strong-willed women, and a leading man who isn’t a kill-em-all gunslinger, but a man down on his luck. 

No actor is more well-suited for such a balancing act than Robert Mitchum, and to explain why, I ask you to consider his eyes.

Recognizability aside (Mitchum’s soul windows are up there with Steve Buscemi and Bette Davis), his lookers have expressed the inner lives of a vast range of men: jutting out and hungry for blood in Night of the Hunter, languishing in aloof indifference in Out of the Past, or tightening in cruelty in Home from the Hill. In Blood on the Moon, they sink in the sockets of a downtrodden man, and Mitchum appears on screen rain-soaked and tired, only to be chased up a tree by a onrushing stampede. John Wayne or Clint Eastwood, icons of the genre, would never be seen to be brought low by anything or anyone other than themselves, such is the towering indomitability of their image. Mitchum, formidable in his own right, can still project a vulnerability brought on by misfortune.

But that is the fate of Mitchum’s Jim Garry, an unemployed farmhand who becomes a gun-for-hire in a feud between an old friend and a local cattle rancher, only holstering up because his own attempt at farming was cut down by a virus that killed his cattle. A disaster falling on a well-wishing, earnest man. Perhaps that’s why he quickly begins to sympathize with the rancher, and sees a new lease on life in the shape of Amy, the rancher’s daughter, who is played by a formidable Barbara Bel Geddes, taking up the screen with unbowed presence and a trigger finger not afraid to assert itself.

Gunfights, fistfights, horse chases provide thrills, but they all get their nerve from a profound sense of mortality: every dead man is someone’s boy, fighters fight as if there’s something at stake, and a man pushed to his limit doesn’t just brush the hair out of his face, do a shot at the ruined bar, and saunter along after the dust settles. While it has all the trappings, there’s a grounded modesty to it all. 

Perhaps that’s why there’s no outsized villain, only a government-backed capitalist wreaking havoc and turning people against each other and their own interests. It’s almost worse than brute villainy, these bold-faced liars bleeding good people dry in collusion with those sworn to protect us. Good thing that’s all in the past, right? 

Blood on the Moon sees no monolithic heroes and dastardly bandits trading shots in deadly shootouts and instead contemplates the good honest people usually just caught in the crossfire. A compassionate film that seems to know that there are many worse ways to go than by a bullet, and much greater treasures than what you can scrape out of a blown-apart bank vault.

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