If you enjoy the late Beery westerns made for MGM (Bad Bascome, Jack, etc) then this will be a particular pleasure. Mercifully free of the cute moppets that blight some of Beery's other starring vehicles, 20 Mule Team provides excellent entertainment value, as well as surprising quality.
As Beery grew older and took on more westerns, so he came to look much more of a natural western star. His face become more lined and resigned, until by the time of the 40's his exterior (and acting abilities) gave his western roles a weary gravitas - recalling that achieved by a similarly ageing Randolph Scott in his acclaimed cycle of film with director Budd Boetticher a decade or so later (The Tall T, Ride Lonesome etc.)
20 Mule Team must be one of those few westerns which deals with borax transportation and exploitation as a central plot point. But don't let this put you off as, despite a somewhat melodramatic plot (evil stranger preys on local virgin, claim jumpers & etc) the weaknesses are more than offset by the strength of the location cinematography for the exterior scenes, and Beery's presence and range. Here he has the opportunity to display his talent to the utmost, playing by turn a hard nosed villain, sentimental buddy, comic louse and clumsy lover all the while as the camera revels gratefully in his lumbering presence.
Overall the characters in the film are dominated by the stark landscape of desert and rocks which lays outside the Borax mining town ... a contrast of light and shade, black and white, that reflects back in turn the stark moral choices open to the inhabitants.
In the most impressive scene in the film, Beery resigns himself to death in the desert after a shoot out with the villain. His friend (played throughout with characteristic irony by familiar Beery side kick Leo Carrillo) has been mortally wounded, and dies while he watches. Wounded himself, he settles down on his own, into the scorched sand and curses the blasted landscape believing (as we do then) all hope lost. The camera watches Beery, blankly verbally assailing the wilderness condemning him for a long minute, slowly tracking back in a single take. This movement is both beautiful and moving, emphasising the starkness of his fate. Whether intended or not, this powerful scene also recalls the end of Stroheim's Greed, and is an extraordinary moment in a studio product of this sort.
Beery's Westerns are overdue for reassessment.
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