Mar 15, 2014
‘The Misfits’ at 50: Honoring the Horse and an Iconic Western
Posted on Feb 13, 2011
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.
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:
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