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Shepherd of the Hills, The

Kino // Unrated // November 3, 2020
List Price: $24.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Stuart Galbraith IV | posted November 13, 2020 | E-mail the Author
Originally on DVD as part of a five-movie set released by Universal, The Shepherd of the Hills (1941) is, to say the least, an unusual John Wayne movie though an exceptionally good one.

The film, directed by Henry Hathaway from Harold Bell Wright's novel, is one of Wayne's best from the post-Stagecoach / pre-Red River phase of his career, when the actor too often played second fiddle to bigger female stars or was saddled with semi-glossy but trite productions made at his home studio, Republic Pictures. Produced not long after his great success with Stagecoach, Wayne was clearly box office but not yet a huge star, and movies like A Man Betrayed and Lady from Louisiana, the two he made just before this, weren't doing him any favors.

But The Shepherd of the Hills provides Wayne with a good part well-suited to his talents, even allowing his acting to stretch a bit, and it's a first-class Paramount production all the way, Wayne's first in Technicolor.

Though he's top-billed, at least equal time if not more is given over to his two co-stars: screen veteran Harry Carey Sr., as a gentle, soft-spoken healer whose arrival in a tight-knit Ozarks community is initially met with suspicion and hostility; and Betty Field as "Sammy" Lane, a barefooted beauty in love with Wayne's Young Matt but also protective of the shepherd-like stranger.

In the Ozarks, Jim Lane (Tom Fadden), Sammy's father, is shot by an overzealous marshal while guarding the elaborate moonshine operation managed by the Matthews family. Daniel Howitt (Carey) appears out of nowhere, removes the bullet and saves Lane's life. His gentle nature and generosity win over Sammy, who tells the locals that Howitt is her uncle to help ingratiate him with the local, suspicious hillbillies.

Howitt announces his intentions to buy "Moaning Meadows" from the Matthews, land and a cabin where Young Matt's beloved mother lived and died years before, after Young Matt's father abandoned them. Further, the Mathews rigid, embittered matriarch, Aunt Mollie (Beulah Bondi) has imposed her superstitious beliefs on the entire unhappy family, insisting that the ghost of Young Matt's mother has cursed the family, particularly the injury that took away Mollie's son Pete's (Marc Lawrence) ability to speak. The curse, she believes, can only be broken by Young Matt's sworn vengeance: find his father and kill him. Unfortunately, Young Matt's gloomy destiny has all but put the kibosh on any relationship with Sammy. They clearly love one another, but Young Matt believes his commitment to murder precludes any commitment between them.

Howitt unheard-of offer of $1,000 for Moaning Meadows is too big to refuse, but Young Matt, outraged, threatens to kill the old man unless he gives the land back, though Sammy tries her best to convince her not-quite-boyfriend that Howitt is a good man, and that his living there can only help the community.

Though its big plot twist about halfway in is entirely predictable, Shepherd's attention to character detail, the performances, the delicate writing of many of its vignettes, and especially its three-strip Technicolor photography are all outstanding.

For those who think Wayne didn't learn to act until Hawks' Red River (1948) and Ford's The Searchers (1956) will be surprised by his very good work here in a role that has much the same kind of self-destructive determination as those later films. And if you ever wondered why Ford dedicated his 3 Godfathers (1949) to Carey, "Bright Star Of The Early Western Sky," The Shepherd of the Hills exemplifies the actor's extraordinary paternal appeal. His scenes with both Wayne and perennially barefoot co-star Field (Of Mice and Men) are quite mesmerizing.

For film buffs, one of the picture's great assets is that it's not only stacked to the rafters with great character actors, but that Hathaway uses most of them in unexpected ways. Marjorie Main for instance, usually the indomitably hardy and outspoken backwoods woman typified by her Ma & Pa Kettle films here plays a frail, blind grandmother. The late Marc Lawrence, the ultimate pock-faced movie gangster, is quite good as the mute, apparently feeble-minded son of Beulah Bondi's Aunt Mollie, whose lifelong bitterness is clearly written all over her face, a role far removed from the idealized, nurturing mothers and grandmothers she usually played.

W. Howard Greene and Charles Lang's Technicolor cinematography is among the finest of the early-'40s, artfully subtle yet vivid, making great use of the film's Big Bear, California locations (which don't much resemble the Ozarks), and which are supplemented by excellent glass paintings and matte shots.

Video & Audio

Kino's Blu-ray of The Shepherd of the Hills appears derived from the same master used in the DVD version. There's room for improvement as the Technicolor matrixes are misaligned in a couple of places, but mostly the image looks great, with superb color, detail, and contrast. The English DTS-HD (mono) audio is also above average. Optional English subtitles are provided on this Region "A" encoded disc.

Extra Features

Supplements are limited to a trailer and an interesting audio commentary track by critic and author Simon Abrams.

Parting Thoughts

Not your typical John Wayne vehicle but quite mesmerizing in its own way, The Shepherd of the Hills is Highly Recommended.

Stuart Galbraith IV is the Kyoto-based film historian currently restoring a 200-year-old Japanese farmhouse.

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Highly Recommended

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