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

Posted on Feb 13, 2011

By Deanne Stillman

(Page 2)

It was men of this sort whom Arthur Miller met while living in Nevada and whose lives he wrote about in his Esquire short story, which he then adapted as a screenplay (the short story is excerpted at length in my book “Mustang”). The film version of “The Misfits” features the three main characters from the story—Gay Langland (Gable), Perce Ritter (Clift) and Guido Racanelli (Wallach), the men who plan to make a quick score by hunting down a band of wild horses. For the adaptation, Miller added a fourth character, a woman named Roslyn Taber. This part was a gift from Miller to his beloved Marilyn, whose well-known personal turmoil was interfering with her movie career, with some studios unwilling to cast her in further roles. The three men—Gay, the last of a dying breed of cowboy, Perce, a down-and-out bronco rider, and Guido, a pilot for hire—have met in a bar and formed a friendship born of immediate need, desperation and a lifetime of defying the conventional world. “I don’t want nothin’,” Perce says in the original short story, “and I don’t want to want nothin’.” “That’s the way, boy,” Gay tells him. Into their world walks Monroe’s Roslyn Taber, who has come to Reno for a divorce; she seeks truth and authenticity, and is appalled by the every-day brutality of life. Gay and Perce fall for her, and when she tends to Perce’s injuries after he falls from a bucking bronco, he asks her if she belongs to Gay. “I don’t know where I belong,” she says. Yet an entanglement with Gay has begun. Finding out that Gay and his friends are planning to round up mustangs and sell them to a rendering plant, she is horrified and heads to the trap site with Perce as Gay has just lassoed a mustang that has been harried onto the flats by Guido in his plane. Its lungs are screaming and heaving in the desert heat and its coat is slick with sweat. Gay is locked in a fierce battle with the horse, and Roslyn runs from the truck and jumps him, trying to stop the capture. With the horse bucking frantically, Gay throws Roslyn to the ground, tightening the noose as the stallion drags him until the mustang finally buckles and falls to the ground with the exhausted cowboy collapsing on his body. Recovering, Gay cuts the horse loose. The animal gallops away and joins the others, also set free by the cowboy to the dismay of his compadres.

“Go home,” Roslyn calls, watching mane and tail fly in the wind, “go.” 

She and Gay head home too.

“I gotta find another way to be alive,” he tells her, aiming his pickup for a star in the sky.


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Usually, a Marilyn Monroe movie was a huge success. But this one was dismissed by critics. And, strangely, most of the stars of the movie did not live long past the film’s completion. It wrapped on Nov. 4, 1960. The next day, Clark Gable had a heart attack. He died 11 days later. For the next two years, Marilyn Monroe degenerated, finally dying of a drug overdose—although the question of whether this was a murder, accidental overdose or suicide will forever be debated. In 1966, years of drugs and drinking finally caught up with Montgomery Clift and he too died of a heart attack, at the age of 45—one night when “The Misfits” was on television. Barrels of ink have been spilled in analyzing the problems that plagued the filming of “The Misfits” and perhaps led to a less-than-perfect movie. Generally Monroe is the scapegoat—she was “out of control,” “too crazy,” “strung out on drugs,” “late for calls,” “required too much reshooting.”  When it comes to the demise of its stars after the film wrapped, some blame Gable for jeopardizing his own health—“he shouldn’t have done his own stunts,” “he was too old”; and then there are those who blame the desert—everyone was “breathing too much dust.” When it was all over, Arthur Miller and Marilyn had split up; the script the playwright had written as a gift to his wife was not that at all and their marriage faltered and collapsed.   

As I see it, what doomed the cast was the story—the act of re-creating it, living with it and inside it, bedding down at night with the dark heart of the country, having coffee with it in the morning, and, in the end, not telling the truth. For as mighty as it was, “The Misfits” was essentially another Hollywood lie—the real ending was what Arthur Miller wrote in his short story:

The sun shone hot on the beige plain all day. Neither fly nor bug nor snake ventured out on the waste to molest the four horses tethered there, or the colt. ... Toward evening the wind came up, and they backed into it and faced the mountains from which they had come. From time to time the stallion caught the smell of the pastures up there, and he started to walk toward the vaulted fields in which he had grazed; but the tire [to which he was tied] bent his neck around. ... The cold of night raised the colt onto its legs, and it stood next to the mare for warmth and the other horses closed their eyes and slept. The colt settled again on the hard ground and lay under the mare. ... When the first pink glow of another morning lit the sky the colt stood up, and as it had always done at dawn it walked waywardly for water. The mare shifted and her bone hoofs ticked the clay. The colt turned its head and returned to her and stood at her side with vacant eye, its nostrils sniffing the warming air.

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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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Kjeld's avatar

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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