Duel in the Sun: Lust in the Dust

Featuring sex in large doses, David O. Selznick's notorious production encountered the censorship opposition, which helped make this Western a blockbuster in 1946, and one of the top-grossing films of all time, if inflation rate is factored in.

A massive undertaking, the production of this Western was dominated, fragmented and ultimately destroyed by its obsessive producer, who first bought the best talent to work on the film, and then proceeded to interfere with it. Reportedly, Selznick wanted to outshine his previous success with “Gone With the Wind” and to turn Jennifer Jones into a mega box-office star; judging by the results, he failed on both counts.

Director King Vidor shot at least half of the film, before being fired by Selznick due to “artistic differences.” The film was completed by William Dieterle, and some scenes were shot by Josef von Sternberg, second unit directors Otto Brower and B. Reeves Eason, and Selznick himself, who further tempered with the footage in the editing room. As a result, it's hard to tell whose signature the movie bears.

Nicknamed in the industry as “Duel in the Dust,” and “Duel for My Sins,” the saga tells the story of a half-breed girl named Pearl Chavez (played by Jennifer Jones, Selznick's wife) who causes trouble between the McCanles brothers.

“Due in the Sun” is a quasi-biblical Cain and Abel allegory, about a good son (Joseph Cotton) and a bad one (Gregory Peck). The casting of Gregory Peck, who usually played noble and heroic parts, changed the notion that only villains could be sexually aggressive. Jones is romantically involved with two men: Cotten represents Soul, while Peck stands for Lust. Jones' heroine takes her mixed blood and her sexual attraction to Gregory Peck as evidence of her “bad blood.”

The secondary characters are impressively cast and played by Lionel Barrymore, as the Texas cattle baron-patriarch, and Lillian Gish, as his all-suffering wife, driven to drinking due to her husband's brutality.

The ensemble also includes the always reliable Walter Huston, Herbert Marhsall, Charles Bickford, and Butterfly McQueen (who also appeared in Selznick's best-known production, “Gone With the Wind.”

Overheated and often silly, “Duel in the Sun” lacks narrative flow and is incoherent in texture and mood, though individual scenes are marvelously staged and photographed. The final, preposterous encounter between the two lovers–Peck and Jones exchange bullets, then a final bloody caress, after which they expire!–was much discussed at the time due to the excessive display of emotions and visuals.

Reviewed scornfully and sarcastically, the film was not taken seriously. Nonetheless, due to overkill publicity, during and after the shoot, the critics proved irrelevant and, as noted, the movie became a sweeping box-office success.

It has been documented that Selznick had hired a former FBI Washington agent to find out who was writing the poisonous pen letters to film critics who did like the picture–the main suspect was Sheila Graham

Over the years, he film, and especially its climax–Peck and Jones shooting each other and dying in an orgasmic embrace–have become high camp scenes; at the time they evoked the irk of the Catholic Church. The glorified Western is now known as “Lust in the Dust,” or better, “Duel for My Sins.”

Director Alert

King Vidor made other Westerns that placed emphasis on sex, such as the better and more coherent, “Man without a Star” (1955), with Kirk Douglas.

Oscar Nominations: 2

Actress: Jennifer Jones
Supporting Actress: Lillian Gish

Oscar Awards: None

Oscar Context:

In 1946, Olivia de Havilland won the Best Actress Oscar for the melodrama “To Each His Own,” and Anne Baxter the Supporting Actress for “The Razor's Edge.”

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