Due to shortage of male stars during WWII, John Wayne, who was not drafted, was able to get better roles and work for bigger studios than Republic under the helm of more skillful directors. Among other qualities, this was Wayne’s first film in Technicolor, and viewers were able to see how handsome he was at the time.
Made at Paramount, Henry Hathaway’s Shepherd of the Hills was based on Harold Ben-Wright’s 1907 best-selling novel, though the scenarists took many liberties in their adaptation (see below).
The supporting cast includes such talented pros as Harry Carey Sr., Ward Bond, Beulah Bondi, and Marjorie Main.
John Wayne plays Matt Matthews, a hotheaded mountaineer obsessed with hatred for his father, who he has never met. Believing that his father has disgraced the family’s name and caused his mother’s early death, Matt is determined to seek revenge.
At his mother’s grave, Matt reaffirms his commitment, “one of these days I’ll find him, him that never came back to you.”
However, Matt’s thirst for vengeance is an obstacle to marrying his girlfriend, Sammy Lane, (Betty Field), who will not confer her love so long as he is committed to his blood oath, but that does not halt him.
Matt learns that his father (Harry Carey Sr.), now called Daniel Howitt, is the stranger who the mountain-folk call “The Shepherd of the Hills,” because of his kind acts for them. It’s Sammy who first notices the physical resemblance of father and son.
Turning point occurs when a blind woman (Marjorie Maine) is given back her vision, which leads to her observation that the two men have similar faces.
At the end, however, Matt’s father clears the way for his son’s marriage, after a shootout between them, in which Matt learns that his father has always been a kind, though misunderstood, man. It turns out that Howitt has killed a man for which he was sent to prison, thus preventing him from returning home to Moaning Meadow.
Though set among the superstitious mountain folk of the Ozarks, Wayne, assisted by Hathaway’s aproval, insisted on wearing (anachronistically) a Western costume–cowboy hat, suspenders, and all.
Matt represented one of Wayne’s richest characters to date, calling for a psychological transformation from an inarticulate and immature guy, blinded by his need for revenge, to a more mature and thoughtful man, who declares at the end, after recovering from a near-fatal wound, “I ain’t lost from nobody no more,” thus restoring peace and stability to the community.
Ward Bond provides some necessary comic relief as Wash Gibbs, a man angry at the decline of sales of moonshine liquor, caused by Hewitt. The tension between Matt and Wash leads to a well-staged brawl between the two amidst a flock of sheep. Sammy interferes, but inadvertently swings a flower sack at Matt (instead of Wash), knocking Wayne down with a bewildered look on his face.
The film departed markedly from the book . Old Matt, the community’s patriarch, mill owner and influential person, is presented in the movie as a fool henpecked by his wife, Aunt Mollie. In the novel she’s a nurturing, kindly, loyal wife and friend, but in this film she is shrill and nasty.
The “Shepherd” of the title, a cultured, sympathetic visitor from Chicago who contributes to the society he’s visiting, in this film is an aging gunfighter with a guarded past and, in total odds with the book, is Young Matt’s father, with a shootout.
The film is well directed by Hathaway, who is good with the plot, the action (especially the confrontation between father and son, in which Wayne’s Matt is wounded), and atmosphere, which makes the most of the striking locations.
Hathaway would direct Wayne in several other films, including True Grit, his 1969 Oscar-winning movie.
Produced by Jack Moss.
Directed by Henry Hathaway
Camera; Charles Lang
Editor: Ellsworth Hoagland
Art Direction: Hans Dreier and Roland Anderson
Running time: 97 Minutes
Release date: June 18, 1941
John Wayne as Young Matt
Betty Field as Sammy Lane
Harry Carey as Daniel Howit
Beulah Bondi as Aunt Molli
James Barton as Old Mat
Samuel S. Hinds as Andy Beele
Marjorie Main as Granny Becky
Ward Bond as Wash Gibbs
Marc Lawrence as Pete
John Qualen as Coot Royal
Fuzzy Knight as Mr. Palestrom
Tom Fadden as Jim Lane
Olin Howlan as Corky
Dorothy Adams as Elvy
Virita Campbell as Baby