Ranking: #76/111

Director: William A. Wellman (USA)        

Genre: Western

Yellow Sky is one of cinema’s greatest Westerns. Some have seen it as the first noir Western, drawing on themes and stylistic elements common to Film Noir.  It is set in 1867 in the post-civil war period in America when the West was not much more than a vast, lawless frontier.

Shot in stunning black-and-white cinematography, William Wellman has gone to great lengths to ensure a beautiful placement of the characters and the story in the landscape, out-Fording John Ford himself, creating, in the process, a visual masterpiece.

At the same time, the director is very economical with sound and imagery, using what could be described as a silent, clinical camera to construct his narrative with minimum fuss. The crisp camera work is complemented by punchy, incisive dialogue. The acting is gritty, too, especially from Gregory Peck, in one of his finest performances. Anne Baxter and Richard Widmark deliver fine performances, too. It’s a beautiful, rugged, highly believable Western.

The screenplay concerns a gang of outlaws, led by Stretch Dawson (Gregory Peck), who are chased by soldiers as they flee after robbing a bank. To avoid capture, they are forced to cross 70 miles of salt flats in Death Valley. It’s a daunting prospect, to say the least, but Stretch, a brusque and, at times, brutal, leader, simply tells his men, “It’s a place. A place can be crossed.”

The grim passage across the salt plains is graphically evoked. It’s an incredible landscape and a memorable journey to watch. Dehydrated, and ready to collapse from heat exhaustion and sun stroke, they finally arrive at an abandoned mining town called Yellow Sky. Its only inhabitants are two prospectors, an old man and his tough-minded granddaughter, nicknamed Mike. Later, it transpires that she was raised by an American Indian tribe. She is gun-toting and feisty but, as we find out later, not immune from falling in love.

As they recover from their terrible journey, conflicts start to emerge, driven by the lust of some of the men for the only female around, as well as greed to find out what gold the prospectors might be hiding. In addition, tensions arise between Stretch, who doesn’t take kindly to challenges to his authority, and the rest of the men, stirred up by the gambler, Dude (Widmark). All of this narrative conflict creates very interesting scenarios for the viewer to enjoy.

With Wellman’s obsessive attention to detail, the movie has PLAUSIBILITY written all over it. It’s a story told as all stories should be told: from the ground up.

As Stretch and “Mike” fall in love, the long-lost softer side of his character gradually emerges. He forms a bond of trust with the grandfather and explains how he grew up with the Good Book, on which he then swears that he will follow through on a deal they make regarding the gold. This pact puts him at odds with the core of the gang members and a gun battle ensues. Stretch also explains that the civil war upset many things and caused the “boys” in his gang to become outlaws.

The story allows for some redemption as Stretch recovers his better self, repenting of the bank robbery and returning the money to the startled bank manager and staff.

Yellow Sky is a quintessential Western, a classic of American cinema, a primordial story of greed, lust and conflict told in fulsome, living detail.