Her name is Rio and she dances on the sand
The Outlaw (1943): 4 out of 10: is a controversial western film directed by Howard Hughes and Howard Hawks, known for its scandalous promotional campaign and the sensual portrayal of Jane Russell’s character. The movie focuses on the entangled relationships between the legendary figures of the Wild West – Billy the Kid, Doc Holliday, Pat Garrett, a strawberry roan, and Rio, a fiery and alluring woman.
In this fictionalized account of “historical events”, outlaw Billy the Kid (Jack Buetel) finds himself pursued by Sheriff Pat Garrett (Thomas Mitchell). Meanwhile, the notorious gunslinger Doc Holliday (Walter Huston) is on a mission to hunt down Billy the Kid, who stole his prized horse. Simultaneously, the sultry Rio (Jane Russell) is hunting Billy the Kid who killed her brother.
Billy is unexpectedly shot and wounded during a confrontation with Garrett. Doc Holliday, seeking revenge for the theft of his horse, comes across the injured outlaw and takes him under his wing. While Billy recuperates, Doc introduces him to his enchanting and brotherless companion, Rio, who quickly becomes the object of the Kid’s desire.
As the story unfolds, the relationship between Billy and Rio takes center stage, sparking a dangerous love pentagon between Billy the outlaw, Rio, Pat Garrett, the horse and Doc Holliday. Loyalties are tested as Rio’s feelings for Billy grow after her rapes and tortures her, leading her to choose between her allegiance to Doc and her newfound love for the charismatic outlaw.
The Good: There is a lot of good in The Outlaw for a film with such notoriety. For all the faults in the script, I certainly cannot fault the acting. Jane Russell is more ripe than sexy in her role, but both she and Jack Buetel get a pass for some sizzling screen chemistry with each other.
The rest of the cast is fine with all the goofy stuff they are given. Special call out to Walter Huston, who saw the script, saw his oversized paycheck, and tucked a napkin in and chewed the scenery gloriously.
The Outlaw also pushes the boundaries of the Hayes Code and good taste. And I will stand up and applaud any film that goes there. And say what you want: The Outlaw goes there.
Gay Old Time
The Outlaw took me completely by surprise. I knew there would be plenty of cleavage and tight shirts thanks to star Jane Russell. I even pencilled in a wet shirt in the cold scene (The Kirsten Dunst in Spider-man special). The Outlaw, however, blew my expectations away.
I believe the last time I brought up the subject of projecting sexuality in a film that is not otherwise an LBGT+ joint was my glorious review of that sapphic classic Barbie & the Diamond Castle. Now I knew I was going to be revisiting this theme at some point because the MST3k version of The Girl in Lover’s Lane is in my queue somewhere and that film drips with projecting sexuality. To the point it is more a love story between a drifter and his ward/sponsor than the titular girl.
Let’s start with the relationship between confirmed bachelor sheriff Pat Garrett and western gunslinger Doc Holliday. Garrett is excited because his longtime partner, Doc Holliday, has come to town. Doc has two other loves in his life. A young girl, Rio, and his strawberry roan (Which is a horse that seems to drive men to zoophilia if my recollection of Gene Autry’s The Strawberry Roan is accurate). If you think I am exaggerating, I am not. The only relationship that does not seem to be romantic of the three is his relationship with Rio. He actually trades Rio to get his horse back at one point.
The strawberry roan is a dark horse (not literally, she is a strawberry roan after all) in this movie. Men fight for her. Literally sleep in the stall with her and wax poetic about her. (I am assuming the horse is a she. There is only so far down this rabbit hole I will go.)
In this already crowded tumult comes our ridiculously good looking Billy the Kid. Billy’s only love is Billy. He leads on Doc Holliday, (In one scene Doc invites him up to his hotel room to spend the night but Billy plays hard to get, preferring to bed down with the strawberry roan). He has Rio but trades her back to Doc Holliday for the strawberry roan. Billy gets into a gunfight with Pat Garrett because of the strawberry roan. You know, on second thought, Billy may have two loves.
The reason that Pat Garrett is so gung ho to take down Billy the Kid is that the kid stole his boyfriends affections. This is the key driver of the plot full stop. Just when you think you are reading too much into the relationship, Garrett blubbers like he was at a woman’s book club holding a glass of red wine.
The homosexuality is not a subtext in The Outlaw. It’s the bloody text.
Forget the long glances and suggestive dialogue lets talk bondage
I mean, bondage is a tradition in westerns. People are constantly being tied to chairs and lassoed from horses. Heck woman being tied to the railroad track is one of the most popular western memes. But a full on bondage/torture scene right out of a Bettie Page magazine? (Keep in mind Bettie Page’s bondage career was ten years after The Outlaw was filmed.). The scene with Jane Russell tied up between two trees using an old Indian trick of soaking rawhide in water to make it shrink to increase the pain until her arms are dislocated and removed.
This is done to her by Billy the Kid, who has raped her multiple times by this point and is also her love interest. Yeah, that is going to need its own category.
Let’s play a game I call what movie is this quote from.
Okay, I see a hand up. Endless Love? no. Lets try another clue
Oh, more hands up. The Accused? No, but good answer. I Spit on your Grave? I see where we are going with this, but no. Alright, one more clue.
‘What are you waiting for? Go ahead.” “Say, that sounds real nice. I like to hear you ask for it. Keep it up. Beg some more.” “What would you like me to say” “Well, you might say please very sweetly” “Please.” “Will you keep your eyes open?” “Yes.” “Will you look right at me while I do it?”
Okay, pencils down final answers only. Okay, we have a Last Tango in Paris, a couple of 9½ Weeks, one Eyes Wide Shut and what is this? Earnest goes to Camp? Always a joker in the room.
Nope, these are actual quotes from The Outlaw between Billy the Kid and Rio. And these are not funny out of context quotes either. The first rape is where the “Lady you won’t have much dress” quote comes from. It is filmed dark, but it does not fade to black. Hearing the rape without being able to clearly see it makes it that much more horrifying. Keep in mind other theatrical releases would show sex on screen with stock footage of a train going into a tunnel for the next twenty years.
Blame it on Rio
So Billy the Kid rapes Rio, trades her for a horse, possibly sleeps with her man, and then after all that he goes full Ramsay Bolton on her. So guess who she rides off with at the end of the film. No, not the damn horse. Well, technically the damn horse, but with Billy the Kid in the saddle.
Most times when the hero rapes a woman who then falls in love with the hero, it is because they were drunk (Sixteen Candles), fooled by a Darth Vader mask (Revenge of the Nerds), or they were shagged by Sean Connery (Thunderball). I can’t recall a time it was a violent rape at gunpoint.
As someone who likes his entertainment occasionally on the edge, even my eyebrows were stored safely away and were in the upright position.
The Bad: I’m glad Doc Holliday pointed out that Pat Garrett wintered a little fat cuz yeah he did. I was thinking the same thing and I’m not saying that Sheriff’s need to be in like tip top shape like a retired Arnold Schwarzenegger or anything, but you know in the Old West they had to ride horses and stuff.
Of course, part of the problem was that not just did the real life Pat Garrett look nothing like actor Thomas Mitchell. Garrett was only 31 when he shot Billy the Kid. Thomas Mitchell is so old he was in high school when the real Pat Garrett died.
Doc Holliday gets an even worse treatment. He was only 30 when Billy the Kid died and I assume he read about it in the paper because as far as historians can tell, he and Pat Garrett had never met. Holliday got played by an even older actor (Walter Huston) who was born in 1883 only two years after the events of the film.
Which begs the question why did Howard Hughes use such old actors? I mean the plot is all fanciful nonsense, so I am not criticizing on historical accuracy here. I just think the stories and romances would work better with some thirty something actors rather than ones pushing seventy.
So Billy the Kid kills Jane Russell’s brother and rapes her and Rio’s servant Guadalupe (Mimi Aguglia) basically can’t wait for Billy to die for the brother thing (She doesn’t know about the rape.) Then the next thing you know, Billy is flirting with Guadalupe calling her lollipop. And now we have a comic relief chicken in the middle of all this. Tonally, this is not a good sign. Though in all fairness, Jack Buetel is fantastic looking and there is not a single character, including the strawberry roan, that does not try to bed him. Or as Guadalupe says “He can charm a bird right out of a bush.”
The Ugly: Reading above, you might wonder why I don’t recommend The Outlaw. Sure, it is a goofy train wreck that is tonally all over the place. But hell, that is my jam. There is one answer to this question. The soundtrack.
The Outlaw has the worst soundtrack I have ever heard. In the history of film, I doubt there is any musical score that has so undermined what is going on screen. It just does not commit one sin. Oh, no, Victor Young’s horror terrorizes every frame in a multitude of ways. It is way too loud. It overwhelms both dialogue and action. It is a relentless train of pain.
Young uses Tchaikovsky mixed in with his own nonsense. Nothing says western romance more than Symphony No.5 in E Minor, Op.6 second movement during the Cuckoo Clock episode.
Then when it’s time for comic relief, out comes the slide whistle and the wha wha wha effects. There is not a single scene in The Outlaw that the soundtrack does not do its best to ruin.
In Conclusion: If someone releases a new version of The Outlaw with a different soundtrack (Perhaps the already recycled Ennio Morricone score from The Hateful Eight or hell, I will take the John Morris score from Blazing Saddles.) I will double my score of four to an eight.
Because outside of the soundtrack, this is a stupid fun film. And considering it has been in public domain since 1969, I am at a loss how the boys at RiffTrax have managed to not take a swing at it. The Outlaw is perfect RiffTrax fodder. The Outlaw may occasionally not be that much fun to watch. But it is certainly fun to talk about.