Yellow Sky (1948)

William A. Wellman's Yellow Sky is currently showing in London as part of the BFI Southbank's Shakespeare On Film season to mark the quatercentenary of the Bard's death and is well worth seeking out if you're in the vicinity.

Very loosely based on The Tempest (1610), as Fred M. Wilcox's sci-fi classic Forbidden Planet (1956) would be eight years later, Wellman's Western is taken from a novel by pulp maestro W.R. Burnett and tells of bank robber James "Stretch" Dawson (Gregory Peck) and his gang, who wind up in the titular ghost town and become embroiled in the affairs of its only residents, an aged prospector (James Barton) and his tough granddaughter, known as "Mike" (Anne Baxter). Given the dilapidated state of Yellow Sky, the men realise the only reason Grandpa and Mike have stuck around is to safeguard the former's secret stockpile of gold. Dawson fancies a share of the spoils but struggles to rein in his ill-disciplined crew, at least one of whom lusts after Mike. Matters come to a head when dandy killer Dude (Richard Widmark) emerges as a serious challenger to Stretch's authority and an army of drunken Apaches appear over the horizon.

Reaction to Yellow Sky was highly positive upon its initial release, with the New York Times's Bosley Crowther noting thematic similarities with the previous year's Treasure Of The Sierra Madre (apparently Darryl F. Zanuck had the same idea and originally envisioned Walter Huston as Grandpa). Variety was also keen, praising the "earthy" script for demonstrating "an understanding of the hungers of men".

Yellow Sky is certainly surprisingly upfront about gang member Lengthy (John Russell) and his intention to rape Mike at the first opportunity, a constant threat hanging over the narrative from the moment he sets eyes on her. We have little doubt that Mike can handle her own and don't have to wait long before she floors Dawson with a jab to the jaw and wrestles him to stand-still in the dirt. She later brawls with Lengthy in a creek as it becomes clear that this "he-girl" in jeans has had to adopt a tomboy act in order to survive the West. Her falling for Dawson, ultimately a rather principled chap, is a matter of easing the repression of her femininity and learning to trust someone other than her elderly guardian in order to realise her true self and blossom. This process is capped, quite literally, at the film's close after the bad guys have been routed and Dawson has gone straight: he presents her with a floral bonnet, a gift she receives with delight. Civilisation has dawned on Yellow Sky and the future looks bright.

Wellman's film is crisply shot by Joe MacDonald - who would also serve on another Western reworking of Shakespeare, Broken Lance (1954) - and contains a number of memorable images: the gang's escape across the salt flats, starved of water; a toppled roulette wheel in the ironically-named Eldorado saloon spinning to a stop as Dude is killed; the pouch at his belt "bleeding" gold dust like the sands of time; Stretch's reverse bank robbery to square his debt to society.

The ever-underrated Baxter is especially lovely here as a gun-totin' Miranda and Peck as staunch and stoic as you'd expect. Widmark, of course, brings effortless menace, as the Punch cartoon above nicely conveys. Was there ever a leaner heavy?

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