Nevada Smith: Henry Hathaway’s Western Starring Steve McQueen

Produced and directed by Henry Hathaway, Nevada Smith was executive-produced by Joseph E. Levine, from a story and screenplay by John Michael hayes, based on a character from Harold Robbins’ 1961 novel The Carpetbaggers.

Three outlaws, Bill Bowdre (Arthur Kennedy), Jesse Coe (Martin Landau), and Tom Fitch (Karl Malden) , rob, torture and brutally kill the white father and Indian mother of young Max Sand (Steve McQueen). Max sets out to avenge their death.

Fitch keeps a tobacco pouch containing deerskin decorated with Indian beads from Sand’s mother’s shirt. The tobacco pouch was made from the breast of Max’s mother, and it is a clue Max uses in his search.

Max cannot read or write and does not know how to use a gun. He tries to rob Jonas Cord, Sr. (Brian Keith), a traveling gunsmith, but Cord realizes that Max’s revolver is unloaded and too rusty to be of any use. Cord  takes pity on Max, feeds him and teaches him how to shoot.

Max hunts the killers, who have since separated. With the help of saloon girl Neesa (Janet Margolin), a woman from the same tribe as his mother, he tracks down Jesse Coe in an Abilene, Texas saloon, killing him in a knife fight inside a corral. A wounded Max is taken to the tribe’s camp by Neesa, who mends his wounds.

After recovering, Max leaves Neesa to continue his pursuit. He pulls a robbery and deliberately gets caught in order to be sent to a prison in a Louisiana swamp where Bowdre is serving time. Pilar (Suzanne Pleshette), a Cajun girl working in the rice fields near the camp, finds a boat to help him escape through the swamps. Max lets Bowdre join them and murders Bowdre along the way. The boat tips in the swamp and Pilar dies from a snake bite.

Going after Fitch, the last of the murderers, Max infiltrates Fitch’s gang, calling himself Nevada Smith. Fitch is aware that Max Sand is out there, waiting to ambush him. Though he accepts Sand into the gang, Fitch is suspicious. While riding out to do a robbery with the gang, Sand is spotted by Cord, who calls out “Max,” but Sand ignores Cord.

During the robbery, the gang scoops up gold, while Sand is alone,  looking down from a hill watching, uninterested in gold.  Realizing that  Nevada Smith is Sand, Fitch throws his share of the gold and runs for his life. Sand pursues and corners Fitch in a creek, and they trade gunfire. Fitch surrenders, but Sand continues to torture Fitch, firing bullet after bullet into his body. The outlaw begs to be killed, but Max decides not to, saying that he is not worth killing, before riding away.

There are lines and references in the movie indicating that the hero is a kid or teenager, yet Steve McQueen was 35 when he played the role.

Indeed, the movie emphasizes the process of socialization.  In the course of the story, Nevada Smith learns how to shoot from a traveling salesman, and his education also includes learning to drink, to play poker, and to handle whores.  This socialization process involves the transmission of technical skills as well as values, the most important of which are judgment, self-restraint, self-sufficiency, a moral code of conduct that befits a real man.

This may explain whay there is so much talk and not much action for what is essentially a revenge-driven Western.


Steve McQueen as Max Sand (Nevada Smith)

Karl Malden as Tom Fitch

Brian Keith as Jonas Cord

Martin Landau as Jesse Coe

Arthur Kennedy as Bill Bowdre

Suzanne Pleshette as Pilar

Raf Valone as Father Zaccardi

Janet Margolin as Neesa

Pat Hingle as Big Foot

Howard Da Silva as Warden of work camp

Paul Fix as Sheriff Bonnell