Saturday, November 20, 2010

HUD (1963): Hoof and Mouth Disease as Theme

Hud is actually one of those movies that are better than the books upon which it is based.  As much as we like to tell ourselves otherwise, this happens much more than anyone acknowledges.  Gone With the Wind, proclaimed by many as one of the greatest movies ever made, was based on a disastrous novel by the same name.  There really are many more bad books than movies.  Even some adequate books often come across better on film.  One Flew Over the Cuckoos’ Nest, East of Eden, the detective novels of Raymond Chandler, James M. Cain and Dashiell Hammett, and even the riveting Kipling story, The Man Who Would Be King were in my opinion improved upon by a movie director.  Obviously, there are many examples where this has not been the case (The Great Gatsby in particular), but most of those movies that failed to live up to the book should have been forgotten.
Larry McMurtry is an able if somewhat overrated storyteller, and his novel, Horseman, Pass By is a good example of his writing.  Too many characters are crowded together and so we never get an intimate glimpse of the central ones.  When this novel was transposed to the movie screen and renamed Hud, director, Martin Ritt, and screenwriter, Irving Ravetch, did not make a similar mistake.  The movie centers in on four particular characters and is dominated by one, Paul Newman as Hud.  Hud is the out-of-control son of a rancher by the name of Homer Bannon (Melvyn Douglas).  Lonnie (Brandon de Wilde) is Hud’s nephew and is torn between his devotion for his uncle and for his grandfather, Homer.  The three live in ranch house on a cattle ranch owned by Homer in west Texas.  Taking care of them is Elma (magnificently played by Patricia Neal), a tough talking and good-hearted housemaid.  When Hud is not working on the ranch, he is out on the town getting drunk or seducing other men’s wives.  Homer does not approve of Hud.  Homer is an honest if not always practical businessman.  He has always tried to be honorable in all of his dealings.  When a cow on the ranch comes up mysteriously dead, Homer’s first impulse (which he follows through on) is to report it to the government.  Hud thinks this is sheer lunacy, but he has not yet manipulated circumstances to the point where he has put himself in charge of the ranch.  As we are later to find out, the cow has hoof and mouth disease, which means that every one of Homer’s cattle is going to have to be killed and buried in a pit.
In the meantime, we learn a bit about each character.  Elma used to be married to a gambler, who ran away with all of her money.  As much as she cares not to admit it, she can’t help sneaking a peak now and then at Hud.  Lonnie’s father was killed in a car accident when his brother, Hud, was behind the wheel.  Lonnie would like to get in bed with Elma, but at the age of seventeen he’s still not sure how to go about doing it.  Hud also wants to get in bed with Elma, but he doesn’t want to do it by becoming a decent and upstanding citizen.  Hud thinks Homer dislikes him because of what he did to his older brother.  Only later does he discover that this is not the case.  Homer has never cared for Hud’s careless lifestyle and his way of treating people like they were objects.  Homer is especially afraid that Lonnie will take after Hud rather than grow up to be an honorable lad.
As things heat up, Hud tries to molest Elma and is only prevented from doing this when Lonnie comes to her rescue.  The cows are all driven into a pit and shot.  And after all of the cattle are killed, Homer falls off of his horse and dies.  Elma and Lonnie leave town and leave Hud alone to take care of what’s left of the ranch.
Modern viewers are not always so sure what to make of this movie because in so many ways in feels like an “old fashioned” movie.  Filmed in black and white, which brings out the desolation of the Texas panhandle region, it almost seems like we are watching a movie out of the dustbowl era in the 1930s (Hud was actually released in 1963).  What is probably most grating for these same viewers is that the movie is so explicitly about good versus evil.  To the casual viewer, it would almost seem like evil had won.  Hud drives Homer to the point of despair where he does not want to live anymore.  What some observers miss is that Hud is not entirely devoid of worth.  In fact, Hud has the most potential of anyone in the movie.  That he wastes all of his talent is certainly a shame.  But beneath all of the piety of Homer Bannon there is also a great deal more.  In spite of all of his honesty, Homer is still a successful businessman.  He understands the ways of the world, and he understands Hud probably better than anybody else.  Because Homer treats everybody with decency, does not mean that he is a stupid man.  It’s Homer that puts the finger on Hud’s problem and is utterly aware of Hud’s feeling of alienation.  Hud’s problem, as Homer bluntly states, is that Hud does not “give a damn.” Homer also points out to Lonnie that Hud finds no satisfaction in his conquests.  Hud treats people like dirt sometimes only in hopes of scaring up a little real company.  “Even Hud gets lonesome sometimes.”
The one important critic that did not care for this movie was Pauline Kael.  I usually don’t have good things to say about her, but I will acknowledge that she is more intelligent than most of the other critics.  I’d admire her for being the sole dissenter on a movie like this if I was not aware that this is simply a part of her shtick.   While Pauline Kael was alive, she liked to scare up as much admiration for her views as Hud would scare away friendships.  She reviewed movies like H.L. Mencken reviewed books.  The problem is that a book is different from a movie, and that Mencken’s observations on books were not nearly so significant as were his observations on life.  Unlike Mencken, Kael had no real worldly experience.  Anything overtly masculine she automatically dismissed.  And for all of her swell sounding rhetoric, she never spoke of any character in a movie as having any depth.  She dismisses Homer Bannon as a simpleton and Hud as a good-looking conniver.  She was wrong in both cases.  She was so apt to dismiss most movies for lacking any substance (and she was usually right), that she sometimes missed a story in a movie that was intelligently portrayed.  Hud tells a not so simple tale of deceptively simple men.
Hud is in fact an all too modern tale about the nuances of morality.  Most movies and novels, unable to grapple with the issues of morality, simplify the matter by presenting characters of every make and model totally devoid of any morality at all.  There is such a thing as good and evil in Hud, but the sad fact is that good does not always win.  This is still not the same thing as saying that evil wins instead.  In a world without honor, nobody wins.  In the movie, Lonnie and Elma struggle with their own demons.  But through the example of Homer, they are at least able to liberate themselves.  If he had ever known, there would have had to been some consolation for Homer knowing this.
God only knows what is to become of Hud after everyone has left home.  He might settle down, but more likely he will strike it rich since he now has the means to dig for oil wells on the ranch he has taken over for his father.  Homer was a rancher and never would have abided oil wells being dug on his land.  Though Hud is undoubtedly a heel, we can well understand while watching the movie why so many people are attracted to him.  In the movie, Paul Newman as Hud has all of the good lines.  In fact, this is probably the best acting job that Paul Newman had ever done.  Like most characters that Paul Newman plays, Hud is a sensitive soul.  Unlike most of Newman's characters, Hud knows how to bury that sensitivity.  The few times that you see Hud experiencing tender feelings, he is able to talk it down through sarcasm and ruthless logic.  Hud is an example of great storytelling because it makes us focus closely in on one large personality.
May 22, 2007
© Robert S. Miller 2007

1 comment:

  1. Different sources suggest Hud is seen as a hero. That's hard to believe. He has no friends, no morals and cheats when it helps him win. With Homer gone, I'd expect Hud would put in oil wells and drink himself to death. All four leads are great. There's many great lines of dialogue in Hud.