The Proud Rebel. Directed by Michael Curtiz. Written by Joseph Petracca and Lillie Hayward. Based on the short story, “Journal of Linnett Moore,” by James Edward Grant.
Release Date: November 2, 1958.
It might seem odd in a post-Glory world, but 20th Century pop culture often portrayed Confederate soldiers and veterans as beleaguered victims. Screenwriters defined these characters—usually protagonists—by their commitment to the Confederate service until the bitter end, making loyalty and toughness their primary traits. Think of Josey Wales, Johnny Yuma, or the narrator in “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.” The Proud Rebel takes this concept to an extreme by placing the beleaguered Rebel in the North and creates tension from the harsh way northerners treat him. This generates some predictable historical problems, made worse because the film largely loses interest in the concept as it goes along and eventually devolves into a fairly standard Western.
The hero of the story is Confederate veteran Johnny Chandler (Alan Ladd), who’s trying to cure his son David’s (played by Ladd’s own son, also named David) muteness, with their dog lance in tow. We later learn David’s condition is the psychosomatic result of his mother’s violent death during a Yankee bombardment of the family’s Georgia farm while Chandler was away at the front. The pair end up in the fictional town of Aberdeen, Illinois, where Chandler gets into trouble with the law after brawling with local scumbag sheep-herding family, the Burleighs (including a young Harry Dean Stanton as the clan’s slimiest member, Jeb). To prevent Chandler from going to jail and leaving David alone, a local woman named Linnett (Olivia deHavilland, Melanie from Gone With the Wind), hires Chandler as a sort of indentured servant. She owns a large farm coveted by the Burleighs, and the fight for that property becomes the film’s central conflict. Inevitably, Chandler and Linnett fall in love and the Burleighs force a final confrontation by taking Lance. Chandler kills two of the three Burleighs, saves Linnett’s farm, and David finds his voice to save his father’s life. The three form a new family and live happily ever after in Aberdeen.
All of this makes for a fairly pleasant watch, especially deHavilland’s performance, and the dog’s prominence gives everything an Old Yeller quality. However, it’s hard to really invest in the film when it contains some stark historical anachronisms. Chief among them is the sympathy we’re supposed to feel for Chandler every time he encounters northern prejudice. Everyone but Linnett treats him like a second-class citizen and the court system is purposefully stacked against him. Sound familiar? You’d think all of this would remind Chandler (and the screenwriters) of another social and political system designed to keep a certain class of people from rising above the lowest rung of the social ladder. The film doesn’t show an inch of self-awareness as it asks us to condemn white northerners for treating Chandler with scorn while ignoring that Chandler spent 4 years defending a much more brutal class system. Ladd’s performance adds an extra layer of absurdity because everyone instantly identifies him as a southerner even though he makes no attempt to speak or act like one. Both deHavilland and Stanton sound more like Georgians than Ladd’s apparent impression of an encyclopedia salesman.
Aside from the film’s dated take on sectionalism, there’s an interesting gender dynamic, especially because deHavilland’s presence inspires comparisons between Linnett and Scarlett O’Hara. Months ago I commented on the prevalence of strong southern women in Civil War popular culture, and for at least its first hour, The Proud Rebel plays like a refutation of this claim. The first time we see Linnett, she’s a fierce, smart, and independently capable northern woman. She’s the only character who seems to have any sense—rescuing Chandler from jail and standing up to the sweaty Burleighs. She’s convinced she can run the farm by herself and deHavilland plays her with such conviction that we believe it (just look at the poster! She looks totally badass!). In effect, Linnett begins The Proud Rebel in a state Scarlett only reaches by the end of Gone With the Wind. Unfortunately, the film spends its second half taking Linnett through an inversion of Scarlett’s arc, as she comes to believe her farm can only survive with Chandler’s help and spends an increasing amount of screen time primping herself in various mirrors. She never becomes completely submissive, but it’s clear by the end that this is Chandler’s story, not Linnett’s, which is too bad because her story (at least as it starts) seems much more interesting.
So, The Proud Rebel, like a lot of the popular culture considered here, mainly stands as a snapshot of the time that produced it, rather than the time it portrays. The first half is an indirect paean to the Lost Cause—vindictive northerners stifling the innocent and brave Confederate veteran’s attempts to heal his ailing son. The second half is a straightforward Western that largely ignores most of the interesting elements of the first half. I’d recommend the movie for deHavilland’s performance alone, but otherwise it’s probably just an also-ran in the crowded field of midcentury Westerns, unless you’ve got a thing for dogs. Lance is pretty cool.
- This is the last of my Amazon-led journey through old Hollywood. To celebrate the holiday, I’ll focus on two children’s books in December (plus a likely review of Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight).
- I’ve already mentioned Ladd’s extremely northern accent as a prominent anachronism in the film, but the film’s landscapes are equally absurd. They are obviously the brown and dry plains of the West, rather than the green prairies of Illinois. Everyone is also dressed like they’re in a Western, further hurting the film’s already limited attempts to focus on the postwar North and Confederate identity.
- Does it mention slavery? Not at all, nor does an African American appear in the film. That historical context certainly would have shaded the film’s sympathetic view of Chandler.
Next Entry: B is for Battle Cry