The Films of Delmer Daves

Were one to run a poll on the best or most influential directors of westerns during the classic era, I feel sure that the “holy trinity” of John Ford, Anthony Mann and Budd Boetticher would come out on top. That, of course, is fair enough given the quality of work produced by that trio. Were the range to be widened to take in directors in general from that era, I feel less confident of predicting the outcome, although I would be surprised if Ford didn’t feature prominently once more. And while such exercises are fun and provide a useful launch pad for discussion and debate  among aficionados, there is that tendency for certain names to dominate and a corresponding likelihood of others getting swept aside or at least shunted further down the line to a point where attention among participants has faded or their enthusiasm has grown muted. All of which leads me to Delmer Daves, a director I have grown to regard as a personal favorite, and the subject of a new book by Douglas Horlock, The Films of Delmer Daves – Visions of Progress in Mid-Twentieth Century America.

As the title suggests, this is a study of the films as opposed to a biography of the man. It is also a book which takes a broadly academic approach too, which is consistent with the author’s background as a former history and education lecturer. This means there are copious footnotes and references to the writings and views of assorted academics, critics and commentators, including Joseph McBride, Andrew Sarris, Blake Lucas, Jim Kitses, and Pauline Kael to name just a few. It is divided into four main sections concentrating on the films in general, the political and social values represented, race, and gender.

Horlock opens with an overview of the films, those directed as well as those scripted by Daves, and takes a look at the critical response to the body of work. There is a presentation of some of the more dismissive or less appreciative critical reactions and an attempt to root out the reasons for such views. There is too an acknowledgment of positive responses, a viewpoint which is shared by Horlock and supported by reference to some of the most memorable and cinematically effective scenes in his films. Horlock also discusses the character of Daves and how he fostered a sense of positivity on the set, something I feel shines through in many of his movies.

Horlock examines Daves’ technical prowess, from his framing and spatial awareness in CinemaScope productions to his carefully rationed use of the subjective camera in Dark Passage. He takes pains to convey how Daves’ use of technical innovation was always backed by the need to create or enhance the humanity of what he was putting up on the screen. He also addresses the criticism sometimes leveled at the director’s endings, an area I once regarded as problematic myself. To my horror, it came to my notice that Bosley Crowther, the prince of critical curmudgeon, took such a view. In my defense, however, I’m pleased to say I have grown beyond that position. Thankfully.

“Daves’s stories are about physical or spiritual regeneration and redemption, and how characters can be fulfilled and benefit their community as well as be served by a society that has the potential for tolerance and benevolence. His films focus on the innate goodness of humans and their potential to make the world a better place, bringing together communities and individuals separated by prejudice and intolerance.”

The whole thrust of the book is, as its subtitle indicates, an effort to link the films of Delmer Daves to the mores and attitudes prevalent at the time they were made. Thus we have a detailed analysis of his war films, such as Destination Tokyo and Hollywood Canteen, and the way they reflect the war effort during WWII, as well as a title like Pride of the Marines, which tackles the difficulties of rehabilitating veterans in the aftermath of the conflict.

Personally, I found the sections which look at the director’s portrayals of both race and gender to be the most absorbing, possibly due to the fact there was increased scope for analysis of his westerns. Drum Beat, Broken Arrow, The Last Wagon and White Feather are all given in-depth and appreciative treatment in the section on race. The chapter on gender has interesting points to make on the way Daves portrayed men and women and their interactions on screen, with his late career melodramas being well represented as well as major works such as 3:10 to Yuma.

All told, the book offers a comprehensive analysis of Daves’ body of work, both as a director and as a writer. It’s fully indexed and sourced and it is at its best when Horlock is presenting his own theories and views, where the writing has more of a flow to it. Where it does feel drier and less readable (or less enjoyable at any rate) are the quoted sections from the writings of some academics. There are a smattering of black and white photos throughout and I feel a few more would have added to the visual appeal. As a fan of the director’s work,I enjoyed it for some of the insights presented and some of the background information I hadn’t been aware of, and it has to be said the author’s research is thorough, not least his use of Daves’ own papers.

The Films of Delmer Daves – Visions of Progress in Mid-Twentieth Century America by Douglas Horlock

242 pages Published 2022 by University Press of Mississippi

(Photos used in this article are for illustrative purposes only and, with the exception of the cover image, do not appear in the book)