THE SHEPHERD OF THE HILLS ——a lovely Americana fable set in the Ozark Mountains of Missouri in the early 1900s. Outsiders don’t venture into the backwoods region; the clean and beautiful hills are also more than a mite haunting and foreboding, home to clannish, rough ‘n’ tumble moonshiners, superstitions and blood oaths. When enigmatic but genial ‘Daniel Howitt’ (Harry Carey) wanders in, determined to buy an isolated parcel of land called “Moaning Meadows”, a place with a troubled history, his skill as healer and his generous nature wins over some of the locals, particularly young ‘Sammy Lane’ (Betty Field). He faces a harder time with the defensive, nearly hostile Matthews family, ruled by bitter matriarch ‘Aunt Mollie’. ‘Young Matt Matthews’ (John Wayne) sparks with the coltish Sammy, but labors under a vendetta he bears for his unknown father, who left Matt’s mother to die—in Moaning Meadows.
Though the screenplay is markedly different from the source novel, the 1941 film is quite well directed by Henry Hathaway, filmed in rich Technicolor by a pair of master cameramen, W.Howard Greene and Charles Lang Jr., who shot on location in California’s San Bernadino National Forest around Big Bear Lake. Hathaway had previous experience in the format and the area, having showcased the locale in the 2nd feature film in the new process, The Trail Of The Lonesome Pine. It was the first of six times Wayne, 33, would work for the hot-tempered craftsman, and he delivers a quietly strong performance of someone marked by grief and cursed by his bitter vow. It’s one of his best roles from the period, and it no doubt helped not only to have good material and a demanding director but guidance and support from stalwart and reassuring Harry Carey, 63, who was both a screen idol to and a father figure of sorts for the younger man.
Wayne’s billed first (having finally broken through with Stagecoach and The Long Voyage Home), but Carey has a larger part, and the story centers around his character, to which he brings his trademark easy warmth and gentle sincerity.
Betty Field, 25 in her 4th picture, was getting a good amount of play (Of Mice And Men was a notable success) and she fairly glows in this part: she never looked better than in some of the emotional scenes she plays with Carey. In stark contrast to the innocent, deer-like sweetness of Field’s yearning maiden, Beulah Bondi’s venomous scowling as the unforgiving tyrant queen of the Matthew’s sullen brood makes for one memorable crone.
Wayne pal Ward Bond is effectively burly and coarse; he and Duke have a furious brawl. The great Marjorie Main is on hand as another indomitable hill-woman, stricken by blindness, much kinder than Bondi’s unforgiving witch, who’s blinded by spite.
Marc Lawrence, 31, whose scarred visage and rough voice would ensure a career playing vicious gangsters, has a rare sympathetic role as a mentally handicapped member of the Matthews brood; mute, abused and bewildered. Hathaway gives him a marvelous moment of grace, sitting transfixed on the floor of his log cabin, trying to capture dust motes floating in rays of the sun.
Delicately scored by the prolific, unsung Gerard Carbonara. Adding flavor to the cast: James Barton, Samuel S. Hinds, Fuzzy Knight, Olin Howland, John Qualen and Dorothy Adams. Earning $3,200,000, it came in 73rd place among the crop from ’41. 98 minutes.
* The script by Grover Jones and Stuart Anthony takes only the title, locale and some names from the 1907 novel by Harold Bell Wright, a rustic 190-page favorite that one-time preacher Wright based on some tough and hardy people he knew in the Ozarks. It sold millions of copies. Set in what would become Branson, Missouri, the story had been filmed twice as a silent, and later would be staged live outdoors in Branson for decades, over 5,000 times.
On the film history side of the legend ledger, the ornery Hathaway would cuss and can-tanker Duke through Legend Of The Lost, North To Alaska, Circus World, The Sons Of Katie Elder and finally an Oscar for True Grit. First out of the gate, The Shepherd Of The Hills is a gleaming nostalgia nugget to uncover.