Have None, Will Travel: The Villainy of Economics in ‘Blood on the Moon’

Blood on the Moon Movie Film

The nefarious consequences of poverty has inspired stories since the onset of filmmaking, a sad fact and reminder of how financial struggles have been a constant even after the industrial revolution promised abundance for all. Classics of both Italian Neorealism (Bicycle Thieves) and Golden Age Hollywood (The Grapes of Wrath) told wrenching stories of good people ruined by broken economies, and it would seem drama, with its somber storytelling, was favored over genres more locked into their modes of expression in conveying these tragedies. “Serious” stories, should they want to be perceived as such, should not include cowboy hats or space suits. 

But Robert Wise’s 1948 western Blood on the Moon is exactly that: a story of how the struggle to keep our heads dry and stomachs full forces us to do things we thought we’d never do. It’s a sharp societal critique wearing a 10-gallon hat and pointing finger guns at populists who wreak havoc with their lies. Blood on the Moon is also a sympathetic film, even as it rages against injustice, which is all the more remarkable coming at a time when the genre was still mostly for cheap thrills. 

Robert Mitchum plays Jim Garry, who first appears huddled on his horse, tired and windswept, trudging through a downpour. He sets up camp and takes off his soaked boots to dry them by the fire, earning a moment’s respite until, suddenly, chaos: a stampede of cattle bursts from a cluster of bushes, chasing him up a tree, bootless, to watch helplessly as his every possession is ruined. Garry, miserable and downtrodden, is set to meet Tate Riling (Robert Preston), an old friend who offered work. When Garry finally makes it to town, Riling inquires “I heard you haven’t been breaking too good lately?” Garry admits his herd and livelihood died of fever, but Riling tells him there’s money to be made in a scheme he’s plotting against a local rancher named John Lufton. 

By colluding with a government official and manipulating neighboring ranchers, Riling  plans to trap Lufton’s herd on reservation land where it’ll be seized, so that he can buy it way under price and then sell at full value. Riling tells Garry “the ranchers will fight because they think they’ll be fighting for their own range… but they’re fighting for me.” All Riling needs is a little muscle. Enter Garry. 

With the whole dirty business laid out in front of him, Garry, with the coy tone of a debutante, tells Riling he’s never been hired for his gun before. Riling shoots back: “Can you afford to be particular?”

Blood on the Moon Movie Film

It’s the driving question of Blood on the Moon: What would you do should your own existence be at risk? At the film’s outset, Garry is prepared to do the worst, namely kill for cash. Understandably, his foes see him as a despicable lowlife, but even his supposed allies look down on him, because they at least are fighting for something — their land. Garry agrees. While Riling wants to paint him as an equal partner because of his lavish payout, Garry lumps himself in with the gunmen who paid less and up front, saying the “only difference is price.” 

Garry’s a pariah because the frontier society in Blood on the Moon is at its core a good one where strangers get the benefit of the doubt, and even sworn enemies are on a first-name basis. A hired killer is abhorrent in this decent world caught in an indecent struggle.

It takes a special actor to bring to light Garry’s internal moral struggle as a self-reliant and formidable man undone by forces beyond his control, and Mitchum once again shines by portraying a complicated man. He was a star at this point after his Oscar-nominated breakthrough in Story of G.I. Joe in 1945, and his strongman credentials were certified 1947 by starring in Raoul Walsh’s Pursued as Jeb Rand, an unflappable soldier who shoulders every adversity thrown his way. Mitchum sheds all that character baggage riding into frame in Blood on the Moon. 

Garry’s rain-soaked introduction is a stark visualization of his dire situation, but it also serves to distance him from the indefatigable tough guy archetypes of the genre like those portrayed by John Wayne and Gary Cooper. Early on, Mitchum’s character is held at gunpoint by Lufton’s daughter Amy, and he freezes. Terrified, Garry turtles his head between his shoulders, with his mouth hanging open and hs eyebrows flying up his forehead as if trying to escape. Garry is no thrill chaser or gunslinger, he’s just an ordinary man under duress.  

It’s clear that Garry doesn’t want to be doing what he’s doing. It proves too much at one point, and Mitchum’s character leaves. From this point forward, Garry becomes the typical Western protagonist: a skilled fighter, courageous and, above all, righteous. Wise sums up the character’s transformation in a single sequence when Garry steps in to defend Lufton from two of Riling’s henchmen. 

Blood on the Moon Movie Film

After knocking one of the men cold, Garry walks towards the other, with the camera taking his POV, zooming in on the squirming gunslinger. Cutting back to look at Garry, Wise’s camera shoots from below, giving Mitchum’s imposing frame its proper due. When Garry finally raises his voice, telling the henchman to get lost, the other man scurries away without a second thought.

Through Garry’s duality, Wise suggests that no one is safe from ruin, no matter who they are. But beyond just focusing on the vulnerability of the individual in this world, the director broadens his scope to show how susceptible the wider community can be to populism when times are hard.

How else would Riling, an outsider, succeed in convincing hard-working farmers that he’s got their interests at heart? He portrays himself as an underdog and calls himself “a poor man who’s fighting for what little he’s got.” Riling’s not completely lying, but his fear-mongering is enough for the farmers who are looking for a leader instead of their equal. It’s a mistake that proves disastrous for some. One member of Riling’s gang is Kris Barden (Walter Brennan), an old farmer who joined because he “figured their fight was my fight.” He pays dearly when his son is killed in a raid on Lufton’s herd. Garry delivers the news, devastating Barden, who’s now lost his family’s future over “a bit of graze.”

Blood on the Moon’s conflict is resolved when Riling’s plot is uncovered and he’s paid in lead rather than gold. Lufton and the farmers sit down to hash things out amongst themselves, and Garry gets a new lease on life by marrying Amy Lufton, a formidable woman every bit his equal. 

Despite the happy ending, there’s a dark warning at the heart of Blood on the Moon that still rings true today. Riling is a prototype of today’s vulture capitalists, swooping in on a distressed business to buy assets for way less than they’re worth, laying off workers and selling off valuable parts for a profit. For the average person, volatile economies and eroded safety nets makes life precarious. The real world’s dynamic of have and have-nots has only worsened, meaning that people are still tested like Garry, forced to consider what they can afford to be particular about. 

Mikkel Frederiksen (@mikkelfred) is a writer who lives in Montreal. You can find his opinions on films big and small at mikkelfrederiksen.com.

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