MAY / JUNE 2016: BY RACHEL KOVACINY
One of the things I like best about stories set in the Old West is the endless possibility for diverse characters to encounter each other. Characters from every imaginable background, ethnicity, ideology, religion, and lifestyle can very naturally get thrown into contact with one another because, in real life, western settlers really were a diverse bunch. You had immigrants from Europe, Civil War veterans, Chinese railroad workers, Native Americans, and Mexicans all rubbing shoulders with families coming out from the eastern United States. And whenever you have that varied a mix of people, you get conflict. And when you have conflict, you get dramatic stories.
Angel and the Badman (1947) tells you right in the title that it’s about the pairing of two very different people. An angelic woman and a bad man—what could they have in common? How would they meet? What kind of love story might they create together, and how could it be anything but doomed to failure? Bad men don’t get to marry angels, do they?
No, they don’t. Unless, of course, one of them changes.
Quirt Evans (John Wayne) is not an outlaw. He’s got a reputation for being fast with a gun, but isn’t wanted for any crimes, though he’s suspected of being involved in some. A stubborn U.S. Marshal (Harry Carey) is convinced that Evans is up to no good, and he keeps an intermittent watch over him to see if he strays from lawful pastures. And, at the beginning of the film, it seems Evans may have done just that when he engages in a gunfight we see only a fraction of. Wounded in the abdomen and leg, he literally falls into the hands of a kindly Quaker family, the Worths.
Mr. and Mrs. Worth believe in helping all people, all the time. The local doctor patches Evans up for them but insists they are exposing themselves needlessly to danger by harboring a dangerous man. At the very least, Evans could be a bad influence on their lovely adult daughter, Penny (Gail Russell), and their young son, Johnny.
And it seems like the doctor might be right. While he convalesces, Quirt flirts with Penny, has long conversations with Penny, and generally takes a great interest in her. Penny reciprocates. He may not remember it, but the first day he was under their care, he collapsed in Penny’s arms and then kissed her as if by reflex before passing out. From that moment on, she became increasingly smitten with him, very obviously and with a kind of innocence that makes her forthright declarations of affection sweet instead of over-bold.
Yes, Penny comes right out and tells Quirt Evans she loves him even though she disapproves of his former life of violence and suspicious activities. Her family invites him to share their life as long as he wishes, and, for a time, he seems content to do so. It appears he has changed his ways.
But eventually, Quirt’s past catches up with him. A friend turns up to tell him how he can find the men he believes killed his foster father. And Quirt realizes that he hasn’t changed after all. He still wants to use his gun to wreak violent vengeance on those men, something that his pacifist friends would never condone. He leaves. The habits and desires of his past have too strong a hold over him. The affection of a comely naif can’t break them, because he doesn’t truly desire to change.
Quirt goes back to a former girlfriend who works in a saloon, engages in some rustling, and generally throws himself back into his former lifestyle. Penny mopes around her house, all the joy gone from her young life. She has another suitor, but he is hopelessly dull when compared to Quirt Evans. For a bit, it seems like their accustomed ways of life will separate them for good.
But Quirt’s old flame tells him he’s less romantic, more absent-minded, and not nearly as fun to be around as he used to be. He tries to convince her, and himself, that he’s still just as wild and carefree as before. But when she teases him about the Bible his Quaker friends had given him, he storms out angrily. The next thing we know, he’s back at the Worth’s farm, where he promptly proposes to Penny.
And not only does he propose, but he agrees to stop carrying his gun. Penny, with her gentle words and immovable beliefs, has convinced him to try to change for real. But when his old enemies return, Quirt finds he must choose between vengeance and love. Either he can avenge his foster father, or he can marry and settle down to a peaceful life. He can’t have both.
And the violent, desperate, occasionally bad man finally discovers that he’s not nearly as strong as the gentle, peaceful woman. Nor does he want to be. In the end, it’s his own desire to change that breaks him free of his past ways, not her begging or telling him to do so. His change had to come from within in order to be complete.
And so the bad man gives up his old ways and becomes a good man, one who can build a life with a good woman by his side. ♥
Rachel Kovaciny passes the time by writing, reading, baking, watching movies, crocheting, blogging, and homeschooling her three children. She blogs about books, and also has a personal blog that talks about movies and other important things.