The full-color “Duel in the Sun,” released in 1946, offers the unbeatable combination of King Vidor as the Director and David O. Selznick as the producer. Made at the Selznick Studio for a massive $8,000,000, the film does not skimp and epic scenery, hammy star turns and potentially epic confrontations. However, since the plot centers on the magnetism of Jennifer Jones as Pearl Chavez, who manages to burn up the screen in every one of her scenes, a lot of the resultant complications come across as silly and unnecessary.
Jones’ Pearl Chavez begins the movie in a Mexican border town, where her white father Scott Chavez (Herbert Marshall) gambles and keeps an eye on his wandering wife while she dances in a ginhouse. One night, Scott catches his wife committing adultery with a cowboy and ends up killing them both. Before he authorities execute him, Scott sends Pearl off to live with cousins on a ranch in Paradise Flats (“The Paris of the Pecos”) Texas. The Texas ranch is run by the rich and unusually cranky Senator Jackson McCanles. Others in the ranch house include McCanles wife Laura Belle (Lillian Gish), and sons Jesse (Joseph Cotton) and Lewton (Gregory Peck).
Jesse immediately notices the feisty and sexy Pearl in town, and the two engage in a long argument before Pearl realizes Laura Belle sent Jesse to fetch her. At the ranch, Pearl pledges Laura Belle that she’ll be a good girl, but the two sons immediately start lusting after her. She really meets her match when Lewton shows up. He’s crass, rude and unapologetically lustful, and waits for an opportunity to take advantage of her. Vidor and Selznick, who wrote the screenplay, play the lust to a high level, and Jones’ smolders impressively throughout. Peck’s Lewton is a very bad son, and Jones’ presence seems to drive him to a new level of nastiness.
The other plot complication concerns the arrival of the railroad to Paradise Flats. Barrymore’s Senator McCanles vehemently opposes it, and even drums up a small army of armed ranchers to fight the railroad before it can lay tracks into town. Barrymore rides around in a wheelchair and employs Lewton and some nasty ranch hands to enforce his will. All this makes things very unpleasant for Pearl and good son Jesse, who thinks the railroad might bring the town some culture and wealth.
We learn more about Pearl’s true character than anyone else in the film, since Lewton doesn’t change much at all and Jesse is just a good son. Some of the sultry looks Jones directs to the camera are remarkable, especially for a color film released in 1946. Even if the film doesn’t make much sense as a compelling love story, it’s worth seeing for Jones’ performance.