Mar 9, 2014
‘The Misfits’ at 50: Honoring the Horse and an Iconic Western
Posted on Feb 13, 2011
February 1st marks the 50th anniversary of the release of “The Misfits,” the iconic and underrated film about Nevada mustangers who brutally capture wild horses so they can sell them to the slaughterhouse. Although panned by critics, the film is a powerful and enduring deconstruction of the western, although perhaps more play-like than cinematic in its formulation. Directed by John Huston and written by Arthur Miller, it starred Marilyn Monroe, Clark Gable, Eli Wallach and Montgomery Clift, with Thelma Ritter in a supporting role. To commemorate the film’s release, a special screening of it was held Sunday at the University of Nevada at Reno, in conjunction with the university’s “Honoring the Horse” exhibit. “The Misfits” alerted many people to the then little-known war against wild horses playing out in Nevada, and, in my opinion, contributed to the early demise of three of its four stars—Gable, Clift and Monroe—all of whom died after the film was wrapped; in Gable’s case, 12 days later.
“The Misfits” was based on a short story of the same name, also written by Arthur Miller and published in Esquire in 1957. Shortly after he met Monroe and fell in love with her, Miller went to Nevada to divorce his wife. He took a cottage at Pyramid Lake outside Reno, next to novelist Saul Bellow, who had also come to the quickie-divorce haven to break up with his wife. Every day, they wrote. Bellow was working on his novel “Henderson the Rain King.” Miller had met some cowboys who eked out a living by rounding up wild horses, and decided to write their story. He had just penned a story that was a precursor, called “Please Don’t Kill Anything,” about a couple who throw commercially caught fish back into the sea. “Nevada was full of misfits,” Miller would later recall, “people who did not fit anywhere. They knew it, they made fun of it, of their inability to function in the United States.”
Men like these had been coming to Nevada for a long time, barely managing to wrest a living from the extreme terrain. They were miners, drifters, day laborers, hardscrabble ranchers; at the end of the 19th century, when the frontier closed and old ways of making a living dried up, they turned to mustangs, whose day was over in the eyes of those who saw them simply as a form of transportation or carrier into battle. Vast herds were running the Nevada range and elsewhere across the West. They were descendants of mustangs that had returned to the land of their ancestral origin, linked by DNA, as we now know, to Ice Age horses that had evolved on this continent. They came with conquistadors, lived in the region for generations, mixing with horses that had escaped from or been dumped by ranchers, settlers, the Army, forming their own bands, finally left alone, until one day someone started running them out of the mountains to the slaughterhouse, where they were processed and shipped to dinner tables in France.
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