Directed By: King Vidor, David O. Selznick and 5 more
Starring: Jennifer Jones, Joseph Cotten, Gregory Peck
Tag line: "Emotions . . . As Violent As The Wind-Swept Prairie!"
Trivia: The role of Pearl was originally written for Teresa Wright, but pregnancy forced her to drop out
The opening shot of the film is of the blazing sun, which is appropriate, seeing as Duel in the Sun, directed by King Vidor (among others), managed to generate a good deal of heat when it was first released. With saucy, sexual dialogue and some racy situations, Duel in the Sun caused quite a stir back in 1946, and the picture was attacked from all sides by the moral majority. Yet, despite the uproar, the film’s feisty producer, David O. Selznick, refused to bend to the pressure, and released Duel in the Sun relatively uncut, a decision that would pay off in the end.
Following a family tragedy, Pearl Chevaz (Jennifer Jones) travels to Texas, where she moves in with her father’s second cousin, Laura Belle McCanles (Lillian Gish), whose husband, Senator Jackson McCanles (Lionel Barrymore), owns the spacious Spanish Bit ranch. Because she’s one-half Native American, Pearl is treated with some hostility in Texas, especially by the gruff and bigoted Senator. However, it’s the Senator’s youngest son, Lewt (Gregory Peck), who gives her the hardest time. Lewt is a tough, uncontrollable cowboy, and he lusts after Pearl with a blinding passion. Pearl initially rejects Lewt’s advances, yet finds herself strangely attracted to his brutish personality. an attraction that grows stronger with each passing day.
Jennifer Jones is electric in the role of Pearl, capturing her character’s down-home naiveté and combining it with a sexuality that is red hot. Gregory Peck matches her intensity as the sinister, undisciplined Lewt, a thug who, despite his ruffian ways, successfully steals Pearl’s heart. In one of the film’s most notorious scenes, Lewt, who'd just returned home after being away for several days, finds the ranch deserted with the exception of Pearl, who's too busy scrubbing the floor to notice his arrival. Lewt takes advantage of the situation by quietly walking up behind Pearl, closing the door, and grabbing her violently. Pearl tries to resist, but eventually succumbs to Lewt’s passionate kiss. This is but one example of the film's sexual fire, and a key reason Duel in the Sun was given the rather unflattering nickname “Lust in the Dust”.
The stimulating nature of Duel in the Sun raised the ire of the Legion of Decency, a religious organization that took it upon itself to establish a set of moral guidelines Hollywood was expected to follow. As you can imagine, Duel in the Sun fell far short of even their most basic requirements, so much so that the Legion threatened to condemn it outright unless six minutes were cut from its final print. The movie was also banned in the District of Columbia, and censor Lloyd Binford of Memphis, Tennessee, would comment that Duel in the Sun “contains all the impurities of the foulest human dross”. But instead of hiding his movie away, or succumbing to outside pressure, Producer David O. Selznick took advantage of this free publicity, opening the movie in over 200 theaters around the country, an uncommon practice in those days. In spite of the negative hype surrounding it, Duel in the Sun would take in over $10 million at the box office.
Even as far back as 1946, sex sold.