I often find myself at a loss to understand why certain films get shunted aside and miss out on the attention that others seem to attract effortlessly. And I’m not talking about trite, derivative time wasters here, I mean quality movies that just get passed over and forgotten. One such case is The Wonderful Country (1959) which quite possibly contains some of Robert Mitchum’s best work. Actually, maybe I’ve answered my own question there; the 50s positively overflow with so many classy westerns it’s hard to keep count of them, and Mitchum was the kind of actor for whom the phrase “undervalued performer” might have been specially coined.
Martin Brady (Mitchum) is a gunman, an enforcer, in the employ of the Castros, a powerful Mexican family. On a rare sojourn across the border to purchase arms for his masters he meets with an accident and finds himself laid up with a broken leg. It’s during this convalescence that we learn a little about Brady’s past, and how he came to be a hired gun south of the border. This is his first time back in the US since his youth, having gone on the run following the killing of his father’s murderer. By this time Brady has become Mexican in all but name, dressing, speaking and acting like those with whom he has chosen to live. The kindness shown him (by the local doctor, a German immigrant, the local commander of the Texas Rangers, and most especially the wife of the garrison commander) causes Brady to reflect on his life thus far. Two things in particular colour his perceptions – the first being the fact that the Ranger captain informs him that he’s no longer considered a wanted man; the second, and more influential, is the attention he draws from Mrs Colton (Julie London), a woman trapped in an unsatisfactory marriage to a stiff-necked soldier. However, life’s never that simple, is it? When an argument with a local roughneck leads to a fatal shooting, Brady finds himself back at square one. There’s a nice piece of filming at this point as the camera zooms in on Brady’s face to catch the moment when he realizes he’s thrown it all away again – great naturalism and reaction from Mitchum. So, he’s left with no choice but to hightail it back to Mexico, the wonderful country, again. But if he thinks he’s left his troubles behind he’s mistaken. His return plunges him into a deadly power struggle between the two Castro brothers that will finally force this former drifter to decide where true allegiance lies. This, the question of where a man really belongs, constitutes the core of the film, and I’m not sure it’s completely resolved by the end. Throughout the movie, those from both sides of the border lay claim to Brady and try to entice him back. Brady himself professes to have no home, and at one point his enraged patron screams at him that he belongs nowhere. Surely that’s not true though – doesn’t every man have the right to find some place that he might reasonably call home? In the end, Brady makes his choice but, as he sets off on foot towards his new life, there’s still a lingering doubt as to whether he’s taken the right path.
The Wonderful Country is a real slow burner, beautifully directed by Robert Parrish. The contrast between the US and Mexico is highlighted by the filming styles adopted for the respective locales. While the scenes based in the US are framed tighter and more cramped, as soon as the action moves to Mexico the aspect opens out and thus gives a sense of freedom and space. The location work around Durango not only looks good but also adds to the feeling of realism and grit. Mitchum (who also served as executive producer) found in Martin Brady a role that fitted him like a glove. The character of Brady is a quiet, introspective one – an essentially lonely man (as I think all the great western heroes are) trying to find his place in the world. Mitchum was often, and to an extent still is, unfairly criticized for his apparent non-acting, but he was a master of underplaying and everything is there in the eyes and face. Brady isn’t a character given to showing off or expansiveness, and Mitchum subtly conveys all of his melancholy and uncertainty. I never thought Julie London was anything exceptional as an actress and she doesn’t really have much to do here beyond looking sultry and hungry, but she carries that off satisfactorily. Gary Merrill, as her husband, has a pretty one dimensional part as the cold fish army commander. Pedro Armendariz, on the other hand, gets one of the choice roles as Cipriano Castro, the initially sympathetic brother. In his few scenes he brings a marvellous urbanity to his part that seems at odds with his true ruthless nature. It’s also worth mentioning that Charles McGraw appears in what amounts to little more than a cameo role – a pity since it’s always a pleasure to see him rasping and swaggering his way through any film.
To the best of my knowledge, The Wonderful Country has only had two releases on DVD, one in Spain and one in Australia. I once owned the Australian disc but binned it, from memory it was a drained and blurry P&S mess. The Spanish disc from Suevia, however, presents the film quite nicely. The transfer is widescreen 1.66:1, though unfortunately not anamorphic. There isn’t any noticeable damage, colours are generally very good, and the image is sharp except for a very few shots. Oh, and subtitles are not forced on the English track. All in all, this release is acceptable and, bearing in mind this is a MGM/UA property, probably as good as the film is going to look on DVD in the foreseeable future. I’d rate this movie very highly as one of the top westerns of the 50s – in other words, we’re looking at a top-flight production here.