Jul 1, 2020

On Blu-ray: Gregory Peck and Eva Marie Saint in The Stalking Moon (1969)

I went into the western thriller The Stalking Moon (1969) knowing nothing about it and came out the other side feeling unsettled. It is of its time in the deep certainty it shows in its morals, which can make it a difficult watch. The film recently made its Blu-ray debut on Warner Archive.

The Stalking Moon opens with a group of Army officers shooting into the air to waken a tribe of nomadic Apaches. As the men proceed to line up the abruptly roused group like cattle, a white woman (Eva Marie Saint) in the group speaks to attract their attention. They learn that she was kidnapped a decade ago and the silent boy beside her is her son (Noland Clay).

Frightened and barely able to speak, the woman identifies herself as Sarah Carver and begs to be taken away quickly, as she fears Salvaje (Nathaniel Narcisco), the notorious warrior who has fathered her child will come to harm her and take away their son. Sam Varner (Gregory Peck), a retiring Army scout, decides to take them with him to his ranch, where she can work as his cook. While they make it to his home in safety, Sam’s longtime friend, the half-Indian Nick Tana (Robert Forster) comes to warn him that Salvaje has been tracking him and that he has left a trail of bodies behind him in his rage-infused quest to find his son.

There were things in this film I found difficult to stomach that I could accept to a degree as an accurate depiction of the times, from the way the Native people were treated in the opening scene, to the assumption among the white people that Sarah’s young son would do better with them. Salvaje, who is presented as a speechless brute, was more upsetting. All that is revealed of him is that he is a killer. There is no character development or even more than a fleeting glance at his face.

As Salvaje rolls around on the ground with Peck in the climactic battle, dressed in a long vest made of bear fur, it is clear that we are meant to view him as an animal. Even coming out of decades of films with insulting Native stereotypes, this struck me as especially unpleasant. I haven’t read the T.V. Olsen book upon which the film was based, so I don’t know how much of this perspective comes from the filmmakers, but it is definitely enforced by them. I found this hard to understand, as director Robert Mulligan and Peck had worked together so effectively on To Kill a Mockingbird (1962).

Overall, The Stalking Moon is well-crafted and solidly-acted, with stunning scenery, but ultimately it is lackluster. Some of the best thrillers have voiceless villains and protagonists, but when so many of the key characters are that way a film needs to be exceedingly well-made to work. You begin to fully understand how dull the film is when Forster appears at the halfway point adding much-needed life to the proceedings with his wisecracking and lively patter. After enjoying a scene where he playfully attempts to teach Sarah’s son how to count in English, I wished I could have seen his story instead or perhaps get some insight into that little boy with the soulful eyes once he develops his own voice.

Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copy of the film for review. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.

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