William Wellman

By: Brian Berger
February 29, 2012

Irascible, irrepressible, demanding and frequently brilliant, WILLIAM WELLMAN (1896-1975) is perhaps the least understood great director in American cinema. Action, drama, crime, comedy, musical — Wellman did it all, often unsettling genres even as he helped define them. As for westerns, The Ox-Bow Incident (1943) remains a subversive masterpiece, Jane Darwell’s startlingly malevolent Ma Grier included — Ma Joad she ain’t! [see below] “The only thing in the picture that didn’t strike me as being real, Billie, was my brother Frank refusing a drink and making such a fuss about getting hung,” wrote John Ford in congratulation. “After all, most of his ancestors have been hung and I just can’t see Frank refusing a drink.” If the soft-headed Buffalo Bill (1944) was the price Wellman paid for Ox-Bow’s purity, Yellow Sky (1948), was another dark triumph, one presaging two further landmarks: co-star Gregory Peck’s turn in Henry King’s elegiac The Gunfighter (1950) and Wellman’s superb, woefully under-known feminist western, Westward The Women (1952). While Across The Wide Missouri (1951) — drastically cut by MGM without Wellman’s approval — is a tantalizing what-if, Track Of The Cat (1954) remains an audacious cipher: nature poem, domestic nightmare, feral allegory and a snow western approached only by André De Toth’s Day Of The Outlaw (1959) and Robert Altman’s McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971). How’d Wellman do it? “I’m the best goddamn two-take director in the business. One for the take I wanted, one in case something went wrong in the lab. Overshooting is asking for trouble.”


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