Iron Mistress, The (1952): Gordon Douglas’ Fictionalized Biopic of Jim Bowie, Starring Alan Ladd and Virginia Mayo

From the Archives:

Gordon Douglas directed The Iron Mistress a fictionalized and mythic biopic, starring Alan Ladd as Jim Bowie.

(In the movie, the tale ends with Bowie’s marriage to Ursula de Veramendi,  and does not deal with his death at the Alamo Battle in 1836.)

See John Wayne’s 1960’s The Alamo (for another screen version).

It was the first film Ladd made at Warner after a decade at Paramount Pictures.

In early 19th century, Jim Bowie leaves home in the Louisiana bayou to sell lumber in New Orleans. He offends Narcisse de Bornay by defending the future famous artist James Audubon. Challenged to a duel, he charms his way out, and Narcisse becomes his friend.

When Narcisse’s sister Judalon has caught Jim’s eye, he is concerned, knowing how spoiled she is. Henri Contrecourt, a man courting her, kills Narcisse and challenges Jim to a fight, his sword versus Bowie’s knife.

To the surprise of everyone, Jim kills him. Later on, blacksmith creates a special new knife for Bowie, made from the remains of a meteor.

When Judalon rejects his proposal to marry wealthy Philippe de Cabanal, a disappointed Jim returns home and gets into the cotton business, which upsets Juan Moreno, the wealthy Mississippi cotton grower.

Meanwhile, Judalon says she wants to divorce Philippe and hints she would then marry Jim, if he could help them erase gambling debt Philippe has incurred to Bloody Jack Sturdevant.

Jim learns he has been betrayed by her again, that Judalon intends to wed Moreno for his money. In a fight, he kills Moreno, upsetting her. Jim is wounded and nursed to health by Ursula Veramendi, daughter of the Governor of the Texas province.

Philippe and Bloody Jack Sturdevant come to kill him, but they accidentally end up murdering each other.

In the end, realizing that Judalon only wants money, not love, Jim begins a new life with Ursula.

Paul Wellman’s novel, a blend of legend and fact, was published in 1951 to good reviews and became a best seller. Warner bought the film rights and Errol Flynn was mentioned as possible star. However Alan Ladd had also signed a contract with Warners; he read a copy of the novel and wanted to do it.

During filming a fire swept through the Warner lot but the unit for Iron Mistress was on location at the time.

Gordon Douglas later said he favored the scene where Ladd duels in a darkened room.

Alan Ladd injured his knee during the shoot and broke his hand on the last day of filming.

Alan Ladd as Jim Bowie
Virginia Mayo as Judalon de Bornay
Joseph Calleia as Juan Moreno
Phyllis Kirk as Ursula Veramendi, Bowie’s wife and daughter of Juan Martín de Veramendi
Alf Kjellin as Philippe de Cabanal
Douglas Dick as Narcisse de Bornay
Tony Caruso as “Bloody Jack” Sturdevant
Ned Young as Henri Contrecourt
George Voskovec as John James Audubon
Juanita Moore as Juanita – Judalon’s Maid


Directed by Gordon Douglas
Written by James R. Webb, based on The Iron Mistress, 1951 novel by Paul Iselin Wellman
Produced by Henry Blanke
Cinematography John F. Seitz
Edited by Alan Crosland Jr.
Music by Max Steiner
Production and distribution: Warner
Release: November 19, 1952
Running time 110 minutes
Box office $2.9 million (US rentals)