Wellman returns to the western genre with Yellow Sky and works with another of the great Hollywood actors of the time, Gregory Peck. The film very simply follows a group of bandits led by Peck’s ‘Stretch’ Dawson as they stumble across the desert to an abandoned town. They discover two residents, a shrew-like woman and her grandfather, but are to come to realize a secret is inside the surrounding mountains.
Outside of the painful biopic Buffalo Bill, Wellman’s westerns have been much simpler than the standard classical western of the 40s and 50s. We are still a few years from the multi-layered The Searchers (the greatest western of all time…), but Wellman doesn’t seem all that interested with horse chases, native wars and gun fights. Yellow Sky does contain elements of all three, but the film, like The Ox-Bow Incident, is much more focused on character development and psychology. This doesn’t necessarily mean a better or worse western, but it is fairly fresh to go into a film that doesn’t feel like the worn-over fare.
Wellman’s two best westerns also share an element not often (or ever) seen in the classical western: we aren’t exactly following the “good guys.” This is a little more complicated in The Ox-Bow Incident, as we spend the film with a lynch mob, where the burden of “goodness” lies with the viewer. In Yellow Sky, Stretch’s mob are bank robbers by trade and throughout the film, members of the group remind us that their major motivations are money related. Outside of Stretch, who gets a redemption by the end of the film, I wish the other characters weren’t so obviously bad, but as a classical western, this is usually an obvious fact. Especially toward the end of the film, when we are reaching the final conflicts, I couldn’t help but wonder why Stretch so easily decided to become good while his gang turned on him. Could it all be for love? Considering that he was the leader of these bank robbers, it’s not to outside the box to think of him as the baddest baddie, but being such an obvious softie doesn’t help build the tensions the film needs.
Of course every western needs a hero, and here we have Gregory Peck, who I don’t think I’ve ever seen in a western. Although he doesn’t have the realistic tone or power like fellow stars of the genre Henry Fonda or John Wayne, I was pleasantly surprised by his performance. He wasn’t quite the wooden statue line reader that I’ve come to know him as. His relationship with Anne Baxter’s Mike, although troubling, was mostly believable from both parties, which is a major need for the film to work in any way. He also seemed tough enough, looking the part of the rugged western man, even if the script mostly denies him the realism of being this group’s leader.
The film was a reasonable, harmlessly entertaining film, but doesn’t hold the importance of The Ox-Bow Incident, and for that, feels like a minor film. Yellow Sky certainly doesn’t reach The Treasure of the Sierra Madre levels in any message on what gold can do to a man, which hurts the third act a bit. Although what is on screen is entertaining enough, Wellman doesn’t push the story or his characters to the limits. I don’t know if I can fairly blame a film from 1948 for this, but I was wanting something more. I have to say, though, with fairly solid performances all around and its Hollywood simplicity, Yellow Sky ranks in the top tier of Wellman’s pictures and his best work since Beau Geste and that other western film I keep comparing this one with.