Yellow Sky (1948) is a movie about outlaws’ greed for gold and for a girl, directed by William Wellman, written by Lamar Trotti and based on a story by W.R. Burnett. Its plot draws from Shakespeare’s The Tempest, it’s a strong character-driven film with impressive imagery and deserves to be better known as a fine western and one of Wellman’s best movies.
Gregory Peck plays Stretch, leader of an outlaw gang that robs a bank as easily as stealing from “a kid’s piggy bank.” In fact it’s too easy to be true, and they’re chased far into the desert by the Army. After a seemingly endless trek, and almost dying from thirst and infighting, they come upon the ghost town Yellow Sky, once the fastest growing in the territory thanks to a silver lode. Those days are long gone, and the only people left are tomboyish young woman Mike (Anne Baxter) and her crusty Grandpa (James Barton). She’s kind enough to save Stretch and his men by leading them to a spring, but shrewd enough to keep them at the business end of her gun most of the time. When Dude (Richard Widmark) figures out that Mike and Grandpa are there for gold, the gang stays to find and steal it, the sleazy Lengthy (John Russell) is intent on assaulting Mike, and Apaches come wandering into town, all while Stretch’s innate nobility emerges and his defense of Mike and Grandpa cause a deadly rift in the gang.
The plot of Yellow Sky doesn’t rely on surprises or twists, or even that much action to hold your attention; it features strong and well-built characterizations and great acting. Peck is perfect as the cool Stretch, a determined, curt dictator who has no patience for whining or wasting energy on infighting or rebellion. He lays down his law, won’t allow voting and drives the men hard. His unwillingness to compromise initially makes him seem the meanest of the bunch, but increasingly becomes his redeeming quality, a product of honour and principles and a way to keep these real evildoers under control. As his curiosity about Mike turns to respect and then love, Stretch’s influence weakens, and he’s unable to divert Widmark from the gold or keep the gang together.
The girl named Mike is stubborn, scared of nothing, tough as a pine nut, raised with Apache, and has a mean right hook. When she decks Stretch she surprises him and us, and wins his respect, or at least a more careful approach. When Stretch gets grabby, Mike admits she doesn’t hate it, but still she puts her foot down, or better to say she puts a new part down in his hair, demonstrating some impressive sharpshooting. At this point you know they’re made for each other: he claims he only grabbed her to prove he could easily overpower her, and she says she only grazed him to prove she could easily kill him. For such toughs, the way they insult each other has an appealing schoolyard taunt sound to it: you don’t look like a girl, says Stretch, and you smell bad, says Mike. They both hit nerves. She gets flustered about that dress she’s been wanting but doesn’t own, and he goes off to wash, shave and puts on some smell-good. By the time they share their real names (James Dawson and Constance) Stretch is on the right path, committed to defending their lives and grandpa’s dream of a vibrant Yellow Sky.
Widmark’s smart, calculating, bitter realist Dude creates tension right from the start and is a tenacious enemy because he’s as determined as Stretch, motivated by huge life losses and a grudge that won’t be satiated by the money they get with bank robberies and 6-way splits. He’s the one who figures out there must be gold anchoring a girl and her grandpa in such a dead territory and he’s the one who’ll put up the toughest fight against Stretch. The other outlaws fill in the usual gang roles and good actors make them memorable: Bull Run (Robert Arthur) the youth eager to please and prove himself, Walrus (Charles Kemper) the complainer, canteen thief and general jackass, Half Pint (Harry Morgan) who’d kill anyone mean to animals, and the aforementioned Lengthy, an aggressive lech whose ogling becomes attempted rape.
Yellow Sky has so many great scenes and images that convey who holds power, what the characters’ suspicions, loyalties and desires are, and what they’re capable of. When the gang files into a bar under Stretch’s leadership they’re orderly and behaved in a way the desert and gold fever will disrupt. I love how glasses are slid across the bar to each one the same way, and how quickly we see who’s who by the way they react to the ridiculously posed woman on horseback depicted in the bar’s mural. One of the first things we see in the film is a prospector’s skull with an arrow through it, a sign the men read as the danger of Apache country and one that also foreshadows the deadliness of greed (this movie makes a good double bill with The Treasure of the Sierra Madre on that theme).
Other unforgettable scenes include the long pursuit by the Army, the gang seen as tiny dots trudging across that windswept, apocalyptic landscape, the dour, uncaring faces as they impatiently listen to Grandpa’s history of Yellow Sky and urge him to just get to where the gold is, and the way they line up behind Dude to show they’ve chosen him as new leader. There’s also a fascinating image during a gunfight, a shot down the barrel of Mike’s gun, which looks exactly like the opening credits of a James Bond film. Baxter and Peck get so many nice scenes together in the moonlight, and suspense is created during the final shootout in the El Dorado bar, which we only see and hear from the street. When Mike storms in to survey the aftermath, we’re just as curious about who, if anyone survived.