Sunday Read: Kent Jones on Robert Mulligan’s The Stalking Moon

by |
03/22/2009 9:00 AM |

Of the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s current Robert Mulligan tribute I’ve only caught The Stalking Moon (though some other selections look good; Nick Pinkerton can usually be relied upon to separate the justifiably from the unjustifiably obscure with a mercilessness that’s less consumer-advocate than discerning cinephile), which screened but the once. It is, however, like much of the series, Netflix-able, and you should add it to your queue. But don’t take my word for it; here, in the FSLC’s house organ Film Comment, Kent Jones pays tribute to this minimal, beautifully landscaped ’68 Western — in which retiring cavalry scout Gregory Peck allows the white bride and half-breed son of a marauding Indian warrior to stay in his edenic ranch, and protects them from him — for its graceful visual language, unspoken virtuousness, and unfashionably earnest grappling with the subject of parental guardianship.

Westerns, being American origin myths, are generally concerned with How the West Was Won; The Stalking Moon is more concerned with Why; as Jones suggests, it’s for the sake of the formation of a family and a home. (This is never more clear than in its last shot, a visual and thematic reversal of The Searchers.) The movie The Stalking Moon most closely resembles — in terms of content; it couldn’t be more different in terms of form — is The Last of the Mohicans, another movie wrapped up in the process of tracking, and which with its obsession with bloodlines similarly address the formation of America through the vessel of the family. And both movies feature a near-mythic avenging Indian as the major villain, standing in both for primal terror of the other and colonial guilt over the treatment of same.

Speakinawich. In most ways this is a movie that was made in 1968, but looks more like it could and should have been made some time between 1938 and 1958. Except that The Stalking Moon is actually pretty progressive and sensitive in its racial and gender politics — it’s aware of the problems inherent in the Western genre’s conventional structure of the wildness tamed and the homestead defended.

Anyway. This is by no means a cool movie, but it is cinematically eloquent, consistently suspenseful and engaging, rich upon reflection, and in general pretty valuable and well worth rediscovery by you, the viewer.