The Lusty Men (Ray, 1952)

Parades of Western glory open Nicholas Ray’s The Lusty Men, as crowds of people cheer on dressed up cowboys and Indians on horseback riding through the paved streets of a small town, a spectacle of a time long past. We shift to a montage of rodeo events; bronco taming, bull riding and the like. There’s an eire of commercialism in this sequence, a long respected occupation gleaned as entertainment for the masses, and it’s a motif that will infect Ray’s characters till the very end. The artificial nature off this beginning shifts into a standard western romanticism, with rodeo hero Jeff McCloud (Robert Mitchum) returning to his childhood home to reestablish himself. But his family lineage is long gone, his home owned by a man who purchased it at an auction. Under the house, McCloud finds two colt revolvers and a tin with two dimes, artifacts of his western childhood. Jeff gets hooked up with Wes Merritt (Arthur Kennedy) who finds him a job as a ranch hand. Wes recognizes Jeff as an icon, instantly looking up to him. Jeff sees talent in Wes and against the wishes of Wes’s wife Lousie (Susan Hayward), they decide to take a crack at the rodeo circuit. Teacher and apprentice, one reliving the glory days through the other’s raw talent. Of course they find success, and the vices, and the ego, and the consequences. The Lusty Men shows the affects of a brutal, rugged, and completely modern form of diversion, one based on the hollow shell of the western code of ethics and ideology. Ray shows how every aspect of the wild west has been tamed, corralled, and branded by a synthetic, unseen hand. His trio reject the stable, hardworking ranch for the fast paced, thrilling, and dangerous rodeo lifestyle. There are campers attached to trucks, hot showers, house parties, a saloon aching with retro feel, and most importantly characters obsessed with the glamourous lifestyle of celebrity. Mitchum’s McCloud has been through it before, yet he doesn’t act like a traditional western hero and save the day. He, like everyone else, becomes a part of the machine. Ray’s use of rodeo images infuses his picture with the detail of his other westerns, but it’s not a sign of nostalgia for the long lost west. Instead, the rodeo reflects the growing uncertainty in a changing relationship with the past, a whole way of life reforming into a commercial entity in order to survive. The Lusty Men revolves around this idea of survival, each of it’s characters deciding the right path to take in the face of a modern day faux western America. For some of Ray’s characters, playing cowboys is a lustful act, which leads to the typical cliches of demise. Actually being cowboys means hard work and dedication, most of all, a true understanding of why each is essential to the West.

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