"The Shepherd of the Hills" is a 1941 movie notable for being John Wayne's first color feature. The script is drawn from a very popular book of the era, written by Harold Bell Wright, which had previously been made into 1919 and 1928 silent films. It is the quintessential early example of a simple story well told, and the director avoids regional stereotypes by imbuing individual characters -- and the isolated community -- with dignity and strength.
Harry Carey plays Daniel "Dad" Howitt. Carey arrives in the Ozark mountains, where local people are extremely suspicious of strangers, and expresses his intention to buy land and settle in the area. The people he meets grow to like him, as much for his mostly quiet and retiring nature as for the stories he occasionally tells of a wider world they have never seen. He becomes known to the community as "The Shepherd of the Hills" due to several kind acts of charity, among them the sponsoring of treatment for a blinded woman, whom he sends to a big city to be cured.
The John Wayne Role
Wayne plays Young Matt Matthews, who sells Carey his land and house at Moanin' Meadow. Wayne is in mourning over the loss of his mother in a house fire. He has sworn to kill the man responsible for her death; the target of his vengeance is his father. His hatred is nurtured by the self-deceiving aunt who raised him. As the movie progresses, he moves from being a stoic, embittered and bewildered potential killer to a lovelorn stranger to himself who cannot express his feelings because of the mission he feels he has.
"The Shepherd of the Hills" is essentially a movie about redemption and forgiveness. When Marjorie Main, playing the blinded character, has her eyesight restored, she recognizes "Dad" Howitt as Matt's father, who -- far from abandoning his family -- was sent to prison having been wrongly convicted of murder. The "Shepherd" has come to the area not by happenstance, but to attempt amends and reconciliation.
Actors and Director
Carey is the star of this movie, not Wayne, who was still a relatively new commodity. Carey was instrumental in developing Wayne from the handsome but otherwise unremarkable young stunt player into his persona as the Duke, for which Wayne gave him full and open credit; seeing the two work together is therefore a great pleasure. That said, Wayne's charm and sympathy breathe authenticity into a very difficult role; his conflicted and confused character was atypical of masculine roles in the 1940s. "The Shepherd of the Hills" was Wayne's first with director Henry Hathaway, who decades later would direct "True Grit," the film that won the Duke his only Oscar.
Film Buff Observations
The Hollywood definitions of good and evil are ritualistically notional and era-determined, but the quality of this story largely disguises that inherent failing. The movie unfolds at a leisurely, strolling pace that mimics the pastoral quality of the Ozarks well. The glorious use of Technicolor is comparable with "Gone With the Wind" and "The Four Feathers"; every outdoor shot is a landscape painting to be relished and lingered over.
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