A borderline mythic and legendary tale in the vein of the great wandering hero stories, Nevada Smith reminded me of a lot of stories I’ve loved over the years. It has the young hero on a quest, several old sages who instruct him on his path, and the growth of the boy to manhood as he contemplates the meaning and worth of his life.
A young farmhand sets out for a quest of justice that will take him years of his life to see through.
Half-breed Max Sand (Steve McQueen in his mid-’30s playing a teenager) gets a good look at the three brigands who ride onto his farm and brutally murder his mother and father. The aftermath is horrendous, and it scars Max deeply to his core. He sees red and wants nothing but to kill the three men – played by Karl Malden, Arthur Kennedy, and Martin Landau – no matter what. How he’ll get his justice is another thing entirely: He’s ignorant of the ways of the world, he’s illiterate, and he’s never been outside of his farm, but he has the basest of survival skills to get him from one place to the next across a sprawling wasteland desert, but it’s just not enough to see him through. After almost killing three men – the wrong guys – Max is robbed of his horse and gun and staggers for days and is rescued by a gunsmith (played by Brian Keith) who is charmed by Max’s complete innocence and takes him under his wing for awhile, feeding him and teaching him how to shoot. He drops Max off at a crossroads and lets him choose his own path, and off Max goes to seek his vengeance. He eventually finds one of the three guys and kills him after a daring knife fight, and months (or years?) later he purposefully gets himself thrown into a prison so that he can encounter the second man on his list. He’s interred into a hard labor camp in the swamps where he gets friendly with his quarry, and it takes months (years?) for him to gain the other man’s confidence, and when they make a mad dash to escape in a daring plan, Max is able to exact his justice on him. Later, the third man (Malden) has become a cunning criminal with a cutthroat gang, but he’s become wise to the fact that Max is coming for him. Expecting Max, the man is not surprised when a young drifter named Nevada Smith (who’s Max, using an alias) comes looking for a gig, but Smith puts his fears at ease when he passes all of his initial tests. With a big heist approaching, the man and his gang get ready to pounce, which is the perfect time for Max to get his revenge, except things don’t go the way anyone would expect.
A borderline mythic and legendary tale in the vein of the great wandering hero stories, Nevada Smith reminded me of a lot of stories I’ve loved over the years. It has the young hero on a quest, several old sages who instruct him on his path, and the growth of the boy to manhood as he contemplates the meaning and worth of his life. It might as well be a Conan story with guns instead of swords. It’s very episodic and well told, but its central flaw is that McQueen, while good in the role, was way too old to be playing a kid at this stage of his career. Clearly he saw value in this story and I can’t blame him for trying, but he was too mature to be playing an ignorant dimwit kid in the first half of the movie. Henry Hathaway produced and directed, while John Michael Hayes adapted the book “The Carpetbaggers” by Harold Robbins.
Kino Lorber’s new Blu-ray contains a new HD transfer from a 4K scan of the 35mm original camera negative, and there’s a commentary by western movie authority C. COurtney Joyner, film historian Henry Parke, and producer Mark Jordan Legan.