“I always thought I had as much inspiration and as much tenderness as anyone in the business. I always thought I could do better.” Robert Mitchum
Robert Mitchum tends to be remembered for the two irredeemably evil characters he portrayed so convincingly: the murdering con man, Preacher Harry Powell, in “The Night of the Hunter” (1955), and the sadistic rapist, Max Cady, in “Cape Fear” (1962). Mitchum also led, putting it mildly, a colorful life off-screen. These two facts create an image that is inconsistent with the majority of Mitchum’s film work. As critic Philippe Garnier says, “Mitchum was never better than in those instances in which he played a vulnerable, confused man.”
Martin Brady, the character Mitchum portrays in “The Wonderful Country” (1959), is an example of this type of role. Brady is a man struggling with his identity, a man without a home. He has spent the majority of his life living in exile in Mexico, working as a hired gun for the powerful Castro brothers. Stranded on the American side of the border after breaking his leg, Brady begins to imagine a new kind of life. He learns that he will not be punished for the murder of his father’s killer, the event that precipitated his flight to Mexico. Events soon overtake him, however, and he flees back into Mexico. When Cipriano Castro (Pedro Armendariz) orders him to assassinate his brother, the General, Brady definitely breaks with his patron and his adopted country.
Cipriano refers to Brady as a “gringo”. Brady is stunned by this, replying “I am a gringo to you?” Cipriano responds with “It is not easy to wipe out the heritage of the blood.” Brady’s sense of identity is also symbolized by the clothing he wears. On the American side, he wears a new set of clothes but refuses to abandon his sombrero. Back in Mexico, he is upbraided by Cipriano for dressing like a Texan. While Brady remains ambivalent about his identity, the other characters are always demanding that he choose a side.
Brady’s love interest is Helen Colton (Julie London), the wife of an Army Major. In a typical Western, the protagonist is saved by the love of a virtuous woman. “The Wonderful Country” avoids this cliché. Helen is as damaged as Brady, saying “We all fail ourselves,” and “I’ve been betrayed by hope.” In the same remarkable scene, Helen tells Brady that she has been unfaithful throughout her marriage and that she wants him.
“The Wonderful Country” is also distinctive for its depiction of an all-black cavalry unit, although Native Americans are still assigned the role of villain. The majority of the film was shot on location in Mexico and director Robert Parrish wisely avoids the use of process shots, enhancing the sense of realism. Mitchum’s performance is what anchors the film, however. Parrish seems to have been cognizant of the fact, given the way he frames Mitchum’s face. In numerous close-ups, Mitchum silently articulates Brady’s pain more effectively than any dialogue.
“The Wonderful Country” was not released on DVD in the US until 2012. The opening credits state that the film was assembled from the best source material available. The quality of the image is good, but a full restoration is in order. The color looks somewhat faded, and the focus is sometimes blurred. I watched the film at my own expense.
The Philippe Garnier quote is from “Film Comment” magazine, Vol. 50, No. 6.
The Robert Mitchum quote is from “People” magazine, 1983.