The Stalking Moon (1968)
Directed by Robert Mulligan
Starring: Gregory Peck, Eva Marie Saint, Robert Forster
* Published specifically for The Atticus & Boo Blogathon hosted by Rebecca at Taking Up Room *
Sam Varner (Gregory Peck) has been a scout for the U.S. Army throughout the American Old West for the last fifteen years. Being tired and wanting to do something else with his life, Sam looks forward to retiring in New Mexico; a place where he owns a cabin and land with a small herd of cattle. His last job for the Army consists of helping round up a group of displaced Apache Indians who are suspected of having travelled up from Mexico to Arizona in order to avoid trouble. The tribe’s leader, Salvaje, is a notoriously ruthless killer who destroys anything in his path and has been on the run for some time.
As the Army officials are about to gather up the Indians, a white woman with a young child comes forward to be rescued. She speaks only a little English but it is enough to understand the gist of the situation. They learn that her name is Sarah Carver (Eva Marie Saint) and that she was captured a “long time” ago in the aftermath of a stagecoach attack in which everyone else was killed. Obviously she had been forcibly married off to someone within the tribe and had sired him a son. It is gathered that her family came from Columbus, Ohio, and that she will need to travel to Silverton, Colorado, so to travel there by train. (This is established without even knowing if her family and/or friends still remained in the area.)
Sarah and her son, Boy (Noland Clay), are promised a military escort in five days but that is not early enough for her. She repeatedly makes it known that they need to leave before it will be too late; though for what reason she will not say. The only person leaving before then is Sam who is finally going to be on his way to New Mexico. He initially refuses to take them to Silverton, which is completely out of his way, but has a change of heart. They go as far as a town call Hennessey where Sarah and Boy can catch the stage coach that will bring them to Silverton. During the night, Boy runs away but is eventually found by Sam and Sarah just in time as a big sand storm is about to hit. When they ride back to Hennessey, a gruesome sight awaits them. Everyone has been brutally killed. It is then that Sarah confides in Sam that Boy is Salvaje’s son and that he will do anything to get the child away from her. Salvaje’s killing spree is a warning of his constant presence.
Upon arriving in Silverton, Sam once again changes his mind and offers for Sarah and Boy to come to live with him at his cabin. He knows that they will be otherwise stranded and believes that the move will throw Salvaje off of their trail. The trio arrive in New Mexico and start trying to live a normal – albeit awkward and unfamiliar – existence. All goes well until Sam’s old scouting friend Nick (Robert Forster) surprises them with the news that Salvaje has found their whereabouts and is coming their way. Sam prepares for the ultimate stakeout and an inevitable, deadly confrontation.
A different kind of Western
The Stalking Moon is considered by some to be an unconventional Western. There is very little dialogue and it has a limited soundtrack, leaving many parts of the film silent aside from the sounds of nature. (The first 8 minutes or so of Once Upon a Time in the West are the same although the rest of the film is filled with plentiful verbal exchanges and a fantastic movie score.) In his introduction for the TCM premiere of the film, Robert Osborne notes that director Robert Mulligan shared that “doing this project intrigued him because it reminded him of a Hitchcock thriller.” Indeed, there is a heap of suspense as well as the sort of interesting camera angles that Hitchcock adored. One particularly notable instance of this occurs towards the end of the picture when Sam is running after Salvaje. The camera follows Sam like a predator with you, the viewer, being a direct witness to a possible attack. You get the impression that you are literally breathing over Sam’s shoulder due to the close proximity. In that moment, I had a stark desire to pull myself back, away from the danger. If it startled me on the small screen, there is no doubt that it would have your heart racing in a movie theater.
Set in the year 1881 and at a time when life in the Old West was very chaotic, the film largely takes a backseat to mimicking the blatant violence of the time. That year alone, Billy the Kid was shot & killed and the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral took place. The next year, 1882, would bring the deaths of Morgan Earp and Jesse James. Most of the killing in the film occurs off-screen, so there is no gun-slinging or duels occurring. Sam and his friends carry riles that are shot only at the end of the film during the final pursuit. Also, you only see two people die right in front of your eyes. All other deaths are either referred to after the fact without visuals or lifeless bodies are shown. This does not deter the factor of fear from being invoked, however.
There has been a fair amount of rejective panning of the film from critics who found the film too slow and/or anticlimactic. Roger Ebert even went so far as to dismiss elements of the story which he found outlandish. These reactions give me the feeling that this is one of those films that you other love or hate. When I saw it for the first time, I really enjoyed what I saw and The Stalking Moon stayed in my memory as a fine film. Not too many people talk about it today, which is very much a shame, but hopefully it will never fall completely into oblivion. The performances are strong and delivered beautifully by a very talented cast. There is also a very authentic feel that comes from the film’s set design which gives an accurate portrayal of how tough and uncomfortable life was in the Old West. It is quite something to see the tavern in Hennessey with dirt floors and hard benches to sleep on, most often in an upright fashion. Let us not even get started about hygienic conditions back in the day! So, feel free to enjoy this terrific picture from the luxury of your own 21st century home.
Gregory Peck as “Sam”
In the film, not much is known of Sam’s past especially in regard to his personal life. Whether he was once married or even ever in love is anyone’s guess. At least we know that Sam is a good, sturdy human being who was brought up with values that he wishes to pass along. This shows in the natural inclinations he displays towards Sarah and Boy. Sam goes out of his way to make sure they can leave Arizona and move onto their final destination, wherever that may be. This not only takes time and energy but also money. In fact, he sells his own beloved horse to cover the cost of their train tickets to New Mexico. He goes to great lengths to make sure they are safe and, moreover, happy. It is he who suggests that Boy will be happier living in the country rather than the city. Also, he allows Sarah to choose her own path, never forcing her to come with him or act in a certain way. As Sam comes back home after that first day in New Mexico, he looks comforted and pleased upon seeing the glowing lights in the house and smoke coming from the chimney. Perhaps he had always wanted a family of his own and now, in very peculiar circumstances, he seems to have just that.
While writing the above, I could not help but to wonder how much of Gregory Peck the individual was intertwined in the screen portrayal of Sam. In his private life, Peck was known to be a very loving, involved father and a cherished friend. Publically, he was a consummate professional who took his responsibility as an entertainer very seriously. He was a gentleman all the way. The scenes between Sam and Boy at the dinner table are particularly touching in the way that they interact with one another. Sam has a natural yearning to educate Boy not only to help bridge the communication gap between them but also to help him grow as a person. The behind-the-scenes closeness that Peck had with Noland Clay absolutely comes through to the audience. It is also likely that Sam acted a certain way with Boy because he wanted to somehow right the wrongs that Nick had faced as a half-breed. Peck ultimately shines in this film without vying to be the centre of attention or adding unnecessary overreactions. The Stalking Moon is a film for which he should be proud of his participation.