Marlon Brando’s sole directorial credit is a messy but fascinating combination of Western and Freudian drama.
From the moment that it debuted in 1961, following months of negative headlines surrounding its schedule and cost overruns that all but sealed its fate long before it ever hit theaters, a debate has raged over One-Eyed Jacks, the jumbo-sized Western that proved to be the Heaven’s Gate of its day. It also marked the beginning and the ending of the directorial career of renowned actor Marlon Brando. Was it, as some people even back then noted, a one-of-a-kind masterpiece that dared to inject overt artistry and psychology into what was normally one of the most straightforward of screen genres? Or, as others suggested, was it a pretentious and bloated misfire that did nothing but underscore the dangers of letting an actor with overweening creative ambitions take charge of a project without any sort of controls?
For many years, the consensus towards the film tended to lean to the negative, though often for reasons that had little to do with its own qualities. As it began a period of box-office failures that would last for the next decade until the arrival of The Godfather, it was looked upon by many as the entry point to that stretch of misfires. Then there was the film’s unfortunate lapse into the public domain, which meant that when it was seen, it was in versions that were often missing scenes and which featured substandard transfers that did the lush Oscar-nominated VistaVision cinematography—the one element that even naysayers agreed was spectacular—absolutely no favors. Of course, it also didn’t help matters that the entire Western genre had pretty much fallen into disfavor by this point, outside of Clint Eastwood’s various excursions.
In recent years, however, its reputation has grown as people have gotten distance from the bad headlines that surrounded its initial release. More importantly, they are able to simply look upon it properly as well, thanks to a major 2016 restoration of the original, spearheaded by such notable fans as Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg, and its eventual Criterion Collection release. As a result, its status has improved to the point where many consider it to be either an enormously ambitious but uneven work at worst, or one of the greatest Westerns ever filmed, as well as one of the most fascinating one-and-done directorial efforts in Hollywood history.
Although Brando’s name is the one most commonly associated with it, a number of other well-known personalities worked on it as well, at least in the early going. Before creating The Twilight Zone, Rod Serling was hired to pen an adaptation of The Authentic Death of Hendry James, a novel by Charles Neider that fictionalized the Billy the Kid legend. After he left, Sam Peckinpah was brought in to rewrite the script. At this point, Brando signed on to produce and star in the film, and when he came aboard, he replaced Peckinpah with Calder Willingham and, later, Guy Trosper. No less a figure than Stanley Kubrick, whose The Killing Brando had loved, was hired to direct.
[It’s] either an enormously ambitious but uneven work at worst, or one of the greatest Westerns ever filmed, as well as one of the most fascinating one-and-done directorial efforts in Hollywood history.
While there are a number of explanations of what supposedly happened next—too many to get into here—the end result was that Brando fired Kubrick two weeks before production was supposed to begin, and wound up taking over the directing himself.
On the surface, the plot of One-Eyed Jacks doesn’t seem markedly different from a typical Western. Five years after being betrayed by his partner/mentor Dad Longworth (Karl Malden), and taking the rap for a bank robbery, bandit Rio (Brando) escapes from a Sonora prison and sets off to get his revenge on Dad. He discovers that Dad is now the respected and prosperous sheriff of Monterey, California, where he lives with his wife, Maria (Katy Jurado), and stepdaughter Louisa (Pina Pellicer). After reuniting with Dad and giving him a chance to try to explain his abandonment, Rio plans to both get his revenge on him and rob the town’s bank
When he meets Louisa, however, he gets sidetracked and contemplates putting his plans for vengeance aside and leaving town with her. Not surprisingly, this decision does not set well with Dad (who has already crippled his shooting hand for the crime of spending the night with his stepdaughter), duplicitous partner Bob Amory (Ben Johnson) or Lon Dedrick (Slim Pickens), Dad’s brutish deputy who has long had his own designs on Louisa. The story quickly descends into a storm of jealousy, violence and betrayal leading up to a final showdown between Rio and Dad that is among the least cathartic in the history of the genre.
So how did this seemingly straightforward narrative transform itself into the massive undertaking that is the final product? In an interview, Brando once described his acting style as “roomy”—meaning that he liked to have the freedom to explore different approaches as they came to him—and it turns out that his approach to directing was similar. He would shoot countless takes and indulge in long improvisation sessions with the other actors as a way of getting deeper into the moment and motivation. In one infamous episode, he reportedly kept everyone waiting to shoot on a beach for hours while waiting for just the right waves to serve as the background for one of the film’s key dramatic sequences.
This approach may have suited Brando’s artistic process, but it ended up giving agita to the executives at Paramount Pictures, who only saw a production going out of control. Over a production period that stretched more than a year, Brando reportedly shot over a million feet of film and printed 250,000 feet of that. Since he was using the expensive VistaVision process (the last time that Paramount’s in-house widescreen process would be utilized), which cost about 50 cents a foot, the budget soon ballooned from an initial $1.8 million (a fairly good-sized amount for the time) to more than $6 million.
When he unveiled his cut of the film, it clocked in at nearly five hours in length and studio executives—who had been terrified of getting on his bad side throughout the production—finally took the film away from him and cut it down to its final 141-minute-long running time. Additionally, they made several changes (including changing Brando’s bleak finale into something more hopeful) while Brando just went off and signed on to appear in a remake of Mutiny on the Bounty that would inspire its own horror stories of a product gone wild.
And yet, while we will never get to experience the film exactly as Brando had envisioned it, One-Eyed Jacks, even in its studio-mandated form, remains an absolutely fascinating and unique work that serves as a sort of bridge between the films of the studio era that had preceded it with the more personal style of cinematic storytelling that would emerge in the next few years. The film’s Freudianism is not exactly disguised—it is about a punk nicknamed “The Kid” who aims to get back at the Dad who let him down—and to see a movie from this time, let alone a Western, present its issues in those terms is undeniably fascinating. Likewise, Brando’s fascination with character development over the necessities of the plot adds an extra level of depth to the proceedings and also anticipates the similar approach that Sam Peckinpah would utilize in many of his own Westerns.
And yet, while we will never get to experience the film exactly as Brando had envisioned it, One-Eyed Jacks, even in its studio-mandated form, remains an absolutely fascinating and unique work.
What is especially notable—and what might have really given studio executives the willies—was the way that Brando, in another move that would anticipate Peckinpah, freely mixed together beauty and brutality. One-Eyed Jacks was a fairly violent film for its time and Brando, who seemed to enjoy showing himself suffering on screen, is at the brunt of a lot of it, most notably in the scenes in which Dad breaks his shooting hand and Dedrick vindictively beats him bloody in his jail cell. At the same time, there is a romantic sweep to the proceedings that is absolutely unexpected, and which serves as an effective counterpoint to the violence and vengeance on display elsewhere. It is clear that Brando, for all of the overruns and spiraling costs, truly had a unique and specific vision for this film that still shines through even in this ultimately compromised version of what he wanted to present.
One-Eyed Jacks did okay at the box office—though not nearly enough to recoup its astronomical costs—and earned Brando a Best Director nomination from the DGA, but he would never again direct another film. He would later appear in a couple of additional Westerns—the meh The Appaloosa and the fascinating flop The Missouri Breaks, where he teamed up with Jack Nicholson and director Arthur Penn. Do I think that Brando might have continued on as a director if he had been given a chance? My guess is no—I think it was something that he wanted to try and, having gotten it out of his system, had no burning urge to do again. Besides, considering how strong his debut was—and I assure you again that it is one of the great Westerns, filled with visual beauty, strong performances, exciting action, engaging drama and weirdo humor—it is hard to imagine him topping himself the second time around.