Westerns were dubbed horse operas for a reason, probably based on David O Selznick's grandiose ambition to bring the heightened emotions of Gone With The Wind, which he had produced seven years previously, to Texas in the 1880s. The result is hilariously overblown.

The plot includes every ingredient of the genre, with an added bonus of sibling rivalry. The cattle baron (Lionel Barrymore) opposes the advance of the railroad by force, until the US cavalry rides over the hill. "I once fought for that flag," he says. "I'll not fire against it."

His eldest son, Jesse (Joseph Cotton), trains to be a lawyer and argues with him about politics. His younger son, Lewt (Gregory Peck), hangs around the ranch with a guitar in his hand, perfecting the role of arrogant womaniser.

When the cattle baron's wife (Lillian Gish) takes in Pearl (Jennifer Jones), the "half-breed" daughter of a former boyfriend, after her father shot her mother in a passionate rage and then was hanged, sex rears its pretty head. Jesse behaves like a gentleman, Lewt behaves like a cad, Pearl behaves like a lunatic.

The performances are a match to the ensuing melodrama. Peck is an unconvincing bad guy, because you know his heart's not in it. He paints on a lecherous smile, sticks a fag between his lips and forces himself upon the squealing Jones, whose sexual chemistry burns up from over zealous exertion. Her acting is reminiscent of a squirrel in a sack.

Cotton is cool, calm and dull. Stuck with the role of liberal conscience, he cuts his hair short, wears unflattering breeches and knocks before entering Pearl's room. Coming from a theatrical background, he remains in character and avoids the general air of exaggeration.

Horses are ridden flat out. Bullets never miss. Barrymore can't speak without shouting. Selznick went through a number of directors, starting with King Vidor and working down, not to mention a handful of cameramen. His script is peppered with memorable lines, such as "He'll turn on a dime and give you change", but makes no sense as something that might possibly be true. In the annals of absurdity, the ending takes some beating. In fact, students of kitsch take note.

Reviewed on: 20 Sep 2001
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Duel In The Sun packshot
The sons of a cattle baron in Texas in the 1880s vie for the love of an untamed "half-breed".
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Director: King Vidor

Writer: David O Selznick

Starring: Jennifer Jones, Gregory Peck, Joseph Cotton, Lionel Barrymore, Lillian Gish, Walter Huston, Charles Bickford, Herbert Marshall

Year: 1946

Runtime: 138 minutes

BBFC: PG - Parental Guidance

Country: US

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