Everything is bigger in Texas. That includes the assholes.
“Hud” is one of the big movies of 1963. It was nominated for seven Oscars and won three, including Best Actress (Patricia Neal), Best Supporting Actor (Melvyn Douglas) and Best Cinematography. It also has a reputation that walks well ahead of it and it was one of the movies I was looking forward to, going into 1963.
It is a movie that in many ways delivers. It is exactly the A-movie you would expect. Acting, photography, direction and gravity are all of a very high standard. Add to that a beautiful score by Elmer Bernstein and the best black and white cinematography imaginable and it all starts to sound very promising.
Why is it then that this felt like a difficult movie to watch?
That is a personal question of course. Another person might have an entirely different experience. To me the answer is two things. First, this is essentially a portrait of a jerk, a Texas size asshole, in the shape of Paul Newman as Hud Bannon, the son of old rancher Homer Bannon (Melvyn Douglas). Hud does not care shit about anything or anyone but himself and his own gratification. He picks fight, drinks too much, sleeps with other men’s wives and treats everybody and everything in an underhand and selfish manner. He is a nihilist and an egoist and he is charming as hell. He is the central character of the movie and it is bloody difficult to have any sympathy for him or to root for him in any way.
Secondly, this is not a happy movie. On the contrary, it is a movie with a slow-moving doom that creeps in from the horizon and tramples everything underfoot. You can see it coming right from the start and you just know this will not end well. It is depressive as hell. Beautiful, important, intelligent and depressive. In many ways it reminded me of “The Grapes of Wrath” with that nostalgic pang of an era gone.
Homer, his son Hud and his grandson, through a now dead second son, Lonnie (Brandon deWilde), lives on a ranch with house keeper Alma (Patricia Neal) and a few hands. One day a cow falls sick and dies and the veterinarian soon has the entire herd in quarantine under suspicion of foot-and-mouth disease. That is a serious illness, even today. I remember outbreaks in Denmark where loads of cattle got killed on the slightest suspicion of mund-og-klov-syge, as it is called in Danish. It is no joke (my sister’s husbond is a cattle farmer) and for the Bannons it is complete disaster. Their entire life is based on ranching and without cattle there is nothing left. Homer is of the old school and he is watching his entire life’s achievement getting flushed down the toilet. Hud wants to sell the herd before it gets quarantined to get the money and then lease the land to oil drilling. Essentially he shits on all the honor and principles of Homer, which is perfectly in his character. Lonnie admires his granddad, but he also thinks uncle Hud is pretty cool. For him this is a life deciding moment: Does he want the life of the principled and honorable, but doomed grandfather or the cool, rebellious, but ultimately empty life of his uncle?
The doom of the ranch may be the backdrop, but the real drama is the rift between Homer and Hud, each representing opposing worldviews, with Lonnie as the observer in the middle. It is a mean and bitter conflict, all the more so because it is family. It actually hurts to watch, and I suppose that is a quality of the movie.
This may be a western, but it is a modern one. Modern not just in the time it takes place in, but also for the realism. These are not gun slinging cowboys robbing the bank, or a lonesome cowboy on the frontier. No, these are just ordinary people trying to make a living in dusty, dry Texas. In that sense it is a movie that points forward to the realism of the seventies and as such feels well ahead of its time.
Watching “Hud” is not sitting down for a good time, this is not Sunday afternoon watching, but it a rewarding movie with gravity that will make you want to kick Paul Newman and taste the dust of West Texas. It is not my favorite movie, but it is a quality movie and worth watching, definitely.