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‘The Misfits’ at 50: Honoring the Horse and an Iconic Western

Posted on Feb 13, 2011

By Deanne Stillman

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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The men who waged these captures were called mustangers, and they devised ever more efficient ways to capture wild horses, which now came to be branded as “outlaws” and “demons.” Some mustangers became celebrities, pictured on the covers of adventure magazines. Often they regaled reporters from publications such as The New York Times with tales of hunting down “vicious” mustangs. At first these pursuits were carried out on horseback, but with the invention of the fixed-wing airplane, airborne hunts became the preferred method, and pilots made a tidy living chasing the fleet-footed animals down from the mountains and onto the desert flats of Nevada. Mustangers were so revered in some circles that one woman extolled the virtues of the practice in an article called “My Husband Is a Mustanger,” written for Desert Magazine in 1941:

Our roping horse, Rainy, short for Rainbow, nickered softly and followed me as I walked across the yard to the barn. He is a privileged character and has the freedom of the ranch. I found a bit of sugar in my pocket and patted his soft nose as he munched on the treat. It has been a long time since he ran on wobbly colt legs with his mother as they tried to escape the airplane that was herding them into a wild horse trap in the Owyhee desert of eastern Oregon. ... We are horse lovers. My husband, Lonnie Shurtleff, is one of less than a dozen qualified mustangers in the United States. ... When Lonnie first began his horse running career in 1938 there were truly thousands of horses. When we again set up camp in that area there were still great herds in 1946 and through 1951. However, by 1958, the horse herds had dwindled to only a few scattered bunches. ... The government decided during the early 1940s that the range land was needed for more beef cattle. The alternative to corralling the wild horses and shipping them for slaughter was to allow hunters to shoot them for $2 per head and leave the carcasses on the desert. We felt that slaughtering them humanely as they do the beef animals was the lesser of two evils. ...


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By john crandell, February 15, 2011 at 1:42 am Link to this comment

More like a play?  No, I don’t agree on that.

A movie about rounding up horses for slaughter? No, I don’t agree on that either. The horses are simply a device.

True that both Clift and Monroe had begun to come apart at the seams by then. 
The actor had had the car accident and had his face messed up as he crashed
while driving down Tower Drive after leaving Liz Taylor’s house above Beverly
Hills one night. His infamous vanity was shattered.

Irony: come July of ‘62, Monroe would be escorted to nearby Lake Tahoe by the
brother in law of JFK to spend a few days at the Cal Neva Lodge and there be
drugged out of her mind and raped by Giancana, Sinatra and who knows who
else, two weeks before her death.

Coroner Thomas Noguchi expressed concern over what he’d observed of the
condition of Monroe’s large intestine as part of his autopsy. Giancana’s
daughter eventually published a memoir and Noguchi’s concern is supported
by Ms. Giancana’s allegation that on the night she died, Monroe had been
administered a fatal enema by a team of hitmen organized by mobsters in an
attempt to maximize their leverage, their having bugged the actress’ residence
knowing of her contacts with the Kennedy brothers.

If indeed the tryst at Cal Neva did occur and if Ol’ Blue Eyes did indeed take
pictures as Ms. Giancana later alleged, whatever happened to them? Gee, maybe
they eventually were ground up along with Hoffa’s corpse… Ya think?

Peter and Patricia were turned away at the gates, weren’t admitted to Monroe’s
funeral. The way things have turned out for this country: well - I’d say that ‘The
Misfits’ is one VERY underrated flick. On second thought, the movie IS like a
play! A prelude to a Greek tragedy.

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By Inherit The Wind, February 14, 2011 at 11:59 pm Link to this comment


(yawn).  Conspiracy fantasies are a dime a dozen here—and most don’t have as many holes as this one.

When someone starts telling me about aliens from Xenu coming down 75 million years ago to kill people in volcanoes, I say “Thank you for the input” and book.

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By Gloria Picchetti, February 14, 2011 at 11:20 pm Link to this comment

The Misfits has always made me heartsick because of the horses.

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By Kjeld, February 14, 2011 at 10:56 pm Link to this comment

What’s the deal with the posting timestamps? Are the TD servers in Europe?

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By Kjeld, February 14, 2011 at 10:51 pm Link to this comment

Well, tip of the hat for the gesture TD. It was a fun read.

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By MeHere, February 14, 2011 at 4:42 pm Link to this comment

Thanks for honoring “The Misfits.”  It is a film with a great deal of artistic value—one of my favorite US films.

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By DONALD BARR, February 14, 2011 at 3:44 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)


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By rend, February 14, 2011 at 2:43 pm Link to this comment
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@ Inherit The Wind,

Did you read the whole piece or just the opening couple of paragraphs?

There was conspiracy plot in it..

Great piece TD, thanks for publishing it.

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By wageslave, February 14, 2011 at 2:27 pm Link to this comment

To me the film was about the death of a paradygme; an attempt to find a way to live in a world that had changed and left a number behind.  Hence Mr. Millers words:“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.”
I also saw the film as an ominous sign of things to come and have in fact come.  We are all ‘Misfits’ now.  Only we don’t have the smarts of the ones in Nevada to know it.  The modern age that replaced these average Americans has evolved and has now replaced us all.  But we are too self important, vain, fat and self-delusional to realize it…like the character played by Marlyn Monroe.  We are a nation of ‘Misfits’ now.

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By JDmysticDJ, February 14, 2011 at 12:23 pm Link to this comment

I’ll suggest that the reason the movie received such acclaim was primarily because it was concerned with aging stars, and their deaths. It was a passion play that was moving, but I think the horses were only an afterthought. Marilyn was the lovable heroine, but I can recall thinking Montgomery Clift was a fifth wheel.

I don’t suppose anyone wants to see Trigger, Silver, Champion, Scout, Black Beauty, my friend Flicka or any other pinto, golden palomino, mustang, or Beatlebomb put to death, but maybe we should concentrate on the nations slaughter houses before we get too maudlin about the pretty horses.

I’m looking to see Billy Jack give the Armour Company a few good roundhouses, chops, and kicks. Alas, if it’s not one thing it’s another. I guess Deanne Stillman has found her niche, but I suggest she find another, preferably a two legged one. I guess I’m just too homo-centric (not homosexual) to be much concerned, though she does have a point, a point that is nearly irrelevant in the grand scheme of things. Anyway, I had a dog.

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By Queenie, February 14, 2011 at 10:17 am Link to this comment

I saw this movie when it was released. I was too young to realize it at the time but it had a great impact on my philosophy in my own tortured path to becoming an adult.

What I wound up with, the message for me, was that my freedom was something that began and ended with only me. No one could grant it to me nor take it away as they did with those poor horses.

I have seen the movie as an adult, or rather, part of it. I turned it off because I could not stand the suffering.

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By Inherit The Wind, February 14, 2011 at 7:24 am Link to this comment

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.

Oh, shit.  Another crackpot conspiracy theorist.  Gable was dying of cancer.  He looked like hell in the movie, pure hell.

Plus, if there was a conspiracy to kill those involved how was it that Arthur Miller and John Huston, survived? Both were HUGE names, far more controversial in their politics—Miller had SHREDDED McCarthyism in “The Crucible”.  Eli Wallach is STILL alive and working.

Why does TD air such crap?

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