John Wayne put himself on the map, shaking off almost a decade of B-westerns and serials that seemed to be at the time, his future. So what to do next? You've gotta find that next successful part. Wayne struggled for a stretch. He was in some pretty good movies but not necessarily great roles for him. One of those in-between flicks? That's 1941's The Shepherd of the Hills.
In a tight-knit mountain community in the Ozarks, families on their farms and their businesses go about their lives as normal. Well, almost normal. High up in the mountains, the Matthews family, including matriarch, Aunt Mollie (Beulah Bondi), and hen-pecked Uncle Matt (James Barton), has quite the reputation over the years, full of hate and anger as they sell their moonshine. A young woman, Sally Lane (Betty Field), living with her father has always been on good terms with the Matthews, especially their nephew, Matt (Wayne), but the delicate balance with the community and the moonshining Matthews could change when a stranger (Harry Carey) arrives in town. The man, Daniel Howitt, wants to buy a piece of land that has the legend of being cursed. Who doesn't want him to buy that land? That would be young Matt Matthews with his own reasons for revenge.
Based on a bestselling novel from author Harold Bell Wright of the same name, 'Shepherd' was aired on Turner Classic Movies in....April as part of a John Wayne tribute. Yeah, it took me a little while to get around to it, but here we are just the same. Reading into comparisons between the film and the novel, it sounds like the only thing in common is the title and setting itself. Director Henry Hathaway's film is content to march to its own tune. Is that a good thing? Eh, we'll get to that (read: No, not especially). What is positive? This is a beautiful film, just drop dead gorgeous. 'Shepherd' was filmed on location in Big Bear Valley, California filling in quite nicely for the Ozarks. Filmed in Technicolor, it is a doozy of a visual film, the colorful, natural landscapes absolutely filling the screen. What a movie to watch, appreciate and enjoy.
Now jumping off from the stunning visual look....well, it doesn't. In an effort to bring the mountain life into 3-D real life, I felt like 'Shepherd' simply tries too hard to make the story, setting and characters authentic. You want to get that backwoods, homespun feel across, but as several other movies have shown, it's tough. Think of Tobacco Road or God's Little Acre, movies that end up making stereotypes of its characters and settings. Yeah, that's pretty much the case here. All the people living in this mountain community are too folksy. They believe in voodoo, crazy grudges and are just too 'Gee golly' for their own good. Stretched out over a 98-minute movie, it all gets to be a little much for my liking. Just present the story and characters and see what happens. When their backwoods folksiness is shoved down our throats, the end result is highly disappointing.
So that John Wayne fella? In an ensemble cast, Wayne ends up being more of a supporting player. His Young Matt Matthews is a key character who simply isn't in the movie much. His reasons for revenge provide the jumping off point that takes quite awhile to get going. Instead, the story focuses on countless different characters, Carey's Daniel at the front of that list as he affects the lives of so many. Carey (Harry Carey Jr.'s father) delivers a solid performance, pleasant and easygoing, trying to buy land in this mountain valley where no one else will. Field is pretty good too as the innocent Sally, trying to introduce Daniel to the community. Bondi is pretty evil as Mollie and she's good at it. Also look for Ward Bond, Marc Lawrence, John Qualen and Tom Fadden in supporting parts.
This is one of the few John Wayne movies I hadn't seen a single second of. From the early 1940s, it's one of his flicks that isn't particularly good or particularly bad. Not especially memorable, 'Shepherd' is okay at best, rough at others and with some wasted potential in others. You especially see the potential in Wayne, still figuring himself as an actor but clearly on the right track. As a movie on the whole, it struggles to find a rhythm, a tone, a pace. A disappointing end result, probably still worthwhile for John Wayne fans to see an early post-Stagecoach entry that doesn't receive much buzz.
The Shepherd of the Hills (1941): **/****