The Stalking Moon

Director:Robert Mulligan                        
Gregory Peck, Eva Marie Saint, Robert Forster

I admit this is a little unusual for The Unknown Movies - that is, reviewing a movie made by a major Hollywood studio with a big star. However, an unknown movie is an unknown movie, and I have reason to believe this movie has pretty much been forgotten, despite starring Gregory Peck, and being made by the same people who did the film adaptation of To Kill A Mockingbird. Besides, I was in the mood to watch and review a western, one of my favorite genres. Too bad that it wasn't a better one that I picked. I chose this one because its story had some resemblance to Duel At Diablo, one of my favorite sleeper westerns. Rent that one instead.

Actually, it gets off to a good start, setting the situation up fairly quickly yet giving us enough of what we need to know. The mood is set by Fred Karlin's opening credits music, a wonderful piece that combines the piano and whistling. In Arizona, the U.S. Calvary is busy gathering up the Native Americans to transport them to reservations. Among them is Varner (Peck), an aging scout who one morning sneaks into a small native campment to disarm the members of the tribe on guard duty before the rest of the cavalry comes in to gather the tribe up. The raid (fairly suspenseful) goes well, with the cavalry capturing the tribe without anyone getting killed. To the cavalry's surprise, they find one of the tribe is Sarah Carver (Saint), a white woman who had been captured on a raid ten years earlier, and has a half breed son. Varner prepares to return to New Mexico for his just commenced retirement, but a number of circumstances along the way eventually find him at his New Mexico ranch with Carver and her son. Already, they know that the boy's absent father - a ruthless native warrior named Salvaje - is ruthlessly looking for his son, destroying everything in his path. It seems only a matter of time before he'll find where he is.

Up to the point where Varner prepares to take off from the cavalry to head to his New Mexico ranch, nothing is really wrong with the movie. But when he's saddled with Carver and her son, the pacing bogs down, and is only sporadically relieved by a swift action sequence. Just the journey to New Mexico takes an unbearable time, including almost pointless (and lengthy) interludes at a train station and in a sandstorm. Yes, even the sandstorm isn't very exciting. Once they get to New Mexico, the movie pretty much stops dead in the water, with the main crisis not rearing its head until around the halfway point. Before that halfway point, incidentally, there was only one short sequence where the characters seemed to be in any danger. In a movie with a premise like this, you need to not only have a constant feeling of tension, but one where the feeling is strong. The second half does deliver a few scenes that do give what the movie really needs - there are several attacks on the cabin (including a great one that's done completely in silence) that are tense and filled with action - but even then it's sporadic, eventually retreating back to a feeling that the characters aren't in any real danger.

There is also a problem with the characters, both in how they are constructed and in their interactions with each other. Gregory Peck plays Varner as...well, Gregory Peck, with his typical aw-shucks attitude, throwing in the occasional tense expression that makes him look like he's passing a kidney stone. I can't really blame Peck for basically playing himself, because there is no background to his character or any explanation for his decisions. All we learn about Varner is that he raised and trained a half-breed scout (Forster), and that he wants to grow onions on his ranch. Saint's character is hampered by her struggle with remembering the English character, making her long, drawn-out speeches frustrating to sit through. There is a sense of frustration throughout this movie, best illustrated by the dinner sequence, when a struggling Varner tries to initiate conversation with Sarah and her son. He can hardly draw a word out of her, and what he does draw out doesn't really encourage further conversation. Her son throughout the movie almost never says a word (and never in English), making him more of a plot device than a character. As a result, the characters and their weak interactions never bring up any kind of interest, making it hard to care about them or the situation.

Forster actually gives a good performance with the little he's given. He gives his character's lines a kind of bitterness to them that's almost sarcasm, making us at least sense that's there's more to this character than he lets on. And whenever the character of Salvaje directly or indirectly is involved with what's happening onscreen, things pick up. The strange thing about this character is that, until near the very end, we either don't see him or don't get a good look at him. I assume director Robert Mulligan was trying to make Salvaje almost a kind of supernatural figure, but it's at the expense of not making him a real character. I think that if Salvaje, who is a real sadistic warrior, was actually directed in a way that showed him to seem more human than supernatural (including maybe giving him a chance to talk), he would be scarier, because he would be more believable. As it is now, if Salvaje was substituted with a wild bear or cougar, little rewriting would be needed. Some of Salvaje's actions in the movie also don't make sense. In one scene, he manages to kidnap Sarah, taking her into the mountains, beating her up, and dumping her there to be later found by Varner. There seems to be no point to him taking this risk.

The Stalking Moon isn't a terrible movie to watch, it's just essentially an ordinary tale told in a kind of slow manner, and with no surprises. People who don't like westerns certainly won't like it, and die-hard fans will hardly think it's worth it. Peck fans might appreciate seeing how fit and handsome Peck still was at 52 years old, but that's about it for its potential audience. Actually, maybe there is a larger audience for it after all. This is one of those movie misfires that makes it easier than usual to show its shortcomings, and people wanting to feel superior to a Hollywood production will find plenty of opportunities to say to themselves, "Why didn't they do...." or "I could have done that better." If that's what you think while watching this movie, I know for certain you are right.

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Check for the original Theodore V. Olsen novel
Check Amazon for "Gregory Peck : A Biography"

See also: Bad Company, Cheyenne Warrior, The Legend Of Alfred Packer