Pretty far down on my personal list of Items of Negligible Interest – somewhere just above trade stats for Argentinian tomatoes and junior school netball scores from Uttar Pradesh – is the life of Marilyn Monroe, trashy, glitzy and tragic a phenomenon though she is.
It was even a while before I recognised her when I accidentally got caught up in her final completed film, John Huston’s The Misfits (1961). I was intrigued by the way the light fell on Clark Gable’s rugged visage, a certain amusement in seeing so young an Eli Wallach, a certain stilted grace in that period’s acting style, so theatrical compared to today’s naturalistic mumbling. But most interesting to me was the prominent role of the animals.
In the film, Monroe plays the role of Roslyn Taber, a troubled but vivacious woman who goes to Reno, Nevada to get a quickie divorce, as one did; and ends up under the wing of Gay Langland (Gable), a somewhat ageing cowboy who hoicks her off to a half-built house in the Nevada desert which belongs to ex-Air Force pilot and widower Guido Racanelli (Wallach). Later they are joined by another dislocated individual, Perce Howland (Montgomery Clift). Each nursing amorous designs upon the suddenly liberated Roslyn, they embark on a last manly adventure, running down some of the few remaining wild mustangs in the Nevada hills. Anything’s better than “wages”, apparently.
Much commentary has highlighted the way the film jibes with Monroe’s own well-known love of animals, which was less activist than adoring of pets – a basset, a parakeet, a seldom-ridden horse, and most famously a Maltese poodle, a gift from Frank Sinatra, which she named, because of the latter’s connection with that illustrious outfit, Mafia, or Maf. “Dogs never bite me,” Monroe is famously quoted as saying, “Just humans.” And again: “I like animals. If you talk to a dog or a cat, it doesn't tell you to shut up.” When, as late as 1993, the film’s screenwriter, playwright Arthur Miller (The Crucible, Death of a Salesman), received a Classic Film Award for The Misfits, it was Monroe’s love of horses he spoke about. Perhaps a little like Monroe herself, Roslyn cares, feels others’ distress as her own, “hooked into the whole thing,” as Guido says; her “gift for life” alternately infuriates and allows the men to open up, but also makes her preternaturally vulnerable, belonging nowhere.
The Roslyn/Monroe congruence is unsurprising, given that the role was specifically written for Monroe by Miller, then her third husband. Miller had himself gone to Reno to divorce his previous wife, and met up with some of those ageing mustangers. He had also written a vignette, “Please Don’t Kill Anything”, in which a Monroe-like character runs along a beach, picking up fish rejected by the fishermen and throwing them back into the sea. Monroe certainly stimulated in Miller this animal-saving theme, which he incorporated into a short story, “The Misfits”, published in Esquire in 1957. The story was subtitled “Chicken feed: the last frontier of the quixotic cowboy”, because the mustangs were indeed destined for slaughtering and rendering into dog and chicken feed. The last mustangers are “unreconstructed originals”, as James Goode called them, “the last real men left on this earth”, the film character Isabelle Steers (Thelma Ritter) says – “and as unreliable as jack-rabbits.” They were as much misfits as the straggling horses, the remnants of great wild herds that by 1946 had been reduced to handfuls. This was the basis for the screenplay which Miller worked up with Huston, though there would be significant differences. (Also set in this period, incidentally, was another Miller story, "The Bees", in which an upwardly-mobile house-owner battles to rid his home of bees, bombing them with DDT and sulphur dioxide; the mass poisoning was clearly a synecdoche of suburbia’s sprawling invasion of the natural world.)
Film critics have always been deeply divided about the quality of The Misfits – “a sparky but rather shallow story of emotional frailty”, Timeout opined; ecocritic Cheryll Glotfelty
considers it “an illuminating period piece, documenting the transition from a frontier to an urban West [and] a sensitive treatment of human ageing”. Most observers were as fascinated by its real-life back-stories: the already-crumbling Miller-Monroe marriage; her earlier miscarriage, her unreliability and rehab, and dissatisfaction with the rather dilly, patronising role Miller had penned for her; Huston’s alcoholism that put him to sleep in his director’s chair; tensions between Gable and Wallach. Most of all, the so-called “curse”: the fact that Gable was dead of a heart attack just 12 days after the film wrapped in November 1960, Monroe 18 months later of a barbiturates overdose, and Clift in 1965 aged only 46. (Wallach, in contrast, continued acting for decades, dying in 2014.) These prurient aspects overshadowed attention to the animal theme, though it has been pointed out that in its clear objection to animal cruelty the film was ahead of its time. There has also been some discussion about whether cruelty had been inflicted on the actual animals on set, especially in the climactic mustang-catching scenes, which I and many other viewers now find very hard to watch.
The mustangs have rightly preoccupied most studies. Their decimation has mostly been interpreted as symbolic or symptomatic of the waning of the legendary Old Wild West, overtaken by post-war disillusionment and mechanised modernity. The Misfits is an early anti-Western. Along with this goes the degradation of masculinity itself: the legendary rugged and weaponised self-sufficiency – which involves the unsentimental domination of land, animals and women alike – is becoming subordinated to impersonal machinery and effete gardening. Guido, for example, expresses his daring individualism and freedom in his rather creaky biplane, but in his one unguarded moment confesses to Roslyn that he’s haunted by the easy, depersonalised destruction of cities and people – and “puppydogs” – he meted out as a bomber pilot. Now he flies only to harry the last few mustangs to their ignominious end – and “Shame on you!” Isabelle Steers expostulates.
Less commented on have been the film’s other animal presences. There are the rodeo animals. Perce Howland enters the film as almost manically dislocated, dissolute, lost. With reckless drunkenness he tries to relive his glory days as a rodeo rider; he gets violently thrown by one bucking bronco, but despite his bruises takes on a raging bull. Though the emotionally demonstrative Roslyn seems at this stage more concerned for him than for the animals, the film pointedly has Guido show her (and the viewer) the painful straps which galvanise the animals into bucking frenzy in the first place. Those animals had to be hurting; and Perce’s foray into manhood is equally painfully unsuccessful. That’s why, it seems, he joins the mustanging expedition, for the sake of his battered self-image, not for the money.
In another telling scene Gay, trying in his way to adapt to a settled life commensurate with his age and times, finds that a rabbit has been nibbling his new lettuces: his response, in the frontiersman way, is to grab his shotgun, ready to hunt it down. Roslyn begs for the rabbit’s life; she’s happy to sacrifice a few lettuces, and “can’t bear to see anything killed”. He calls her “silly”; the argument rapidly spirals into one about mutual respect. There is a strong hint here and elsewhere that the subordination of women and animals go hand-in-hand. This brief but resonant and obviously symbolic episode serves as a precursor to Roslyn’s later response to the mustang-catching. Just before it Gay also mentions that some pilots like Guido are hired to kill eagles, because they take “so many lambs” – another instance of agricultural regimes overwhelming the wild.
No one I’ve read so far has explored the role of the dog, Gay’s rangy and enthusiastic Pointer, named (I think) Dooley. Dooley is Gay’s constant companion, his “friend”; Roslyn connects with the dog even before she meets Gay himself. When the group camps out in the moonlit desert, it’s Roslyn who notices that the dog is trembling violently and panting. He got “a whiff of the horses”, Gay guesses. When Roslyn leans down to comfort him, Dooley uncharacteristically snaps at her. It’s not the horses he’s afraid of, Guido asserts, “it’s us.” The dog identifies with the wild animals, knows what’s going to happen, and is “scared he’s gonna end up dead, too.” This is the point at which Roslyn learns the true fate of the mustangs, initiating a crucial discussion on kindness, the changed world, the place of death, the excuses for killing. The dog reappears, panting and moaning: “Shame on you, you old fool,” Gay tells him, “You be quiet now.” Emotion is to be denied. As the capture gets under way, the dog is tethered to the parked plane, sidelined, much as Roslyn is. After the whole event, a joyous reunion between Roslyn and Dooley presages the final hint of a reconciliatory, if uncertain future.
So the film advances to its climactic mustanging episodes. Guido asserts that there might be 15 or so mustangs up in the hills; the others are dubious that they’ll be worth it, but they go for it anyway. If this is meant to be a manly reprise of the Old West, it’s compromised from the start: it’s heavy on technology. First Guido locates from the air a small mustang group – a stallion, four mares and a colt – then uses the biplane to harry them down onto the wide desert flats. There the men, Roslyn and dog aboard, chase the mustangs down in a truck, roping them and weighing them to exhaustion with dragging tyres. The mustangs don’t stand a chance.
Two scenes I find especially rivetting and affecting. In one, the colt, who will not leave the side of its mother, is seen pawing desperately at the flanks of the roped, exhausted and fallen mare. This is close to the note on which Miller’s original story ended:
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 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.
The Esquire story thus ends dispiritingly, the horses awaiting their inevitable fate. The film ends differently. The second affecting scene is the turning-point: Roslyn runs away across the sands, and from a distance, the vast desert and distant hills behind her, screams and screams her distress: “Murderers!” she yells, “You’re murderers! Liars! You’re only happy when something dies!” It’s a genuinely hair-raising moment. Though Guido tries to disparage this outburst as just the usual woman being “crazy”, Perse responds to her sentiments, and begins to cut the mustangs free of the tyres they are roped to. “Go home!” Roslyn cries out to the mustangs from the truck cab, “Go!” Gay, incensed, then embarks on perhaps the only genuinely masculine effort in the film: he runs and catches up with the stallion, hanging onto the remaining length of rope round its neck through an exhausting and appalling duel. Roslyn, trying to intervene, is herself hurled to the ground. Though some shots are obviously studio-staged, others seem all too real: indeed, the effort Gable expended on this fight was later blamed for his heart-attack. Gay triumphs in the end, wrestling the sweating stallion to the ground, and lashing it to the truck bumper. Then, however, Roslyn’s “sentimentality” prevails even over him; having, presumably, proven his manhood in the traditional manner, he cuts the stallion loose again. Whether with conscious or unconscious symbolism, though, the rope remains around the stallion’s neck, trailing behind him as he runs.
Though for Marilyn Monroe’s sake (and Hollywood’s) Miller ended the film on this liberatory note, it strikes one now as just a little tinny. Though some protective legislation for mustangs took effect in the 1950s, their day was already well and truly over – another sad instance of the crushing advance of human civilisation, the very world of spiritless work these predatory cowboys hate.