Making your main character an antihero can be a tricky thing. Audiences can get the wrong idea and think you’re celebrating the character you’re trying to decry; and if you make them too much of a heel, that just turns your audience off. If your antihero is played by someone as likeable and charismatic as Paul Newman, that just makes things even murkier.
Hud Bannon – the role Paul Newman plays in this film – wasn’t even the main character of the book which inspired it. But he was given top billing in this contemporary “revisionist Western”, the tale of the Bannon family and their ranch. Hud lives on the ranch with patriarch Homer (Melvyn Douglas), and Hud’s orphaned nephew Lonnie (Brandon deWilde). Lonnie idolizes Hud for being a carefree, charming ne’er-do-well most of the time, but also idolizes his grandfather Homer for his ranching skill and his honesty. Homer is also more compassionate than most – to everyone except for Hud, for reasons which both Hud and Homer refuse to discuss with him save for hinting that it’s something about how Lonnie’s father died.
The three have been living more or less peacefully – with live-in housekeeper Alma (Patricia O’Neil) helping to keep everyone settled – until the day Homer discovers one of their heifers has mysteriously died. Homer suspects foot-and-mouth disease and orders Lonnie to send for the vet to test the herd. But Hud stops him – a foot-and-mouth diagnosis would be devastating to the ranch, since they’d have to kill off the entire herd. And that would mean the ranch Hud’s due to inherit someday would be worth nothing. So instead – why not sell off all the cattle to all the other ranchers in town? Get some money out of it now while they still can? They don’t know it is foot-and-mouth after all…
The year before last, Roommate Russ told me a theory that with a really good film, you could look at just one early scene and that would tell you everything you need to know about the rest of the film. And for Hud, this conversation is that scene; it sets the rest of the film into motion, it is the first crack in the pedestal Lonnie has placed Hud upon, and it’s the moment where we learn Hud isn’t simply a loveable rogue but is selfish and cruel. We do eventually learn the story behind Hud and Homer’s feud, and Hud has even further to fall before the film’s end – in Lonnie’s eyes as well as our own – but this passing-the-buck moment, where he actually suggests selling their neighbors diseased livestock, is a damning character study.
In fact, the studio found Hud’s character so repellant that they tried to convince director Martin Ritt to change the ending and give Hud a last-minute redemption of some kind. But both Ritt and Newman agreed to leave things as-is, with Ritt flying to meet with studio executives and the producers personally to talk them out of it. Instead the studio tried to have things both ways with the marketing – posters featured nothing of the film save for a picture of Newman in a beefcake pose, next to a slogan that suggested his villainy was more cartoonish (“The Man with a Barbed-Wire Soul!”). Fortunately, even though the studio wasn’t quite ready for such a dark story, audiences were; some found it a refreshing change from older Westerns. Other critics even took the whole film as a warning about the evils of capitalism. And while there were a few critics who ultimately didn’t care for the script itself, everyone heaped praise on the performances.
In these post-Trump days, I’m inclined to agree with the critics who claimed this was a warning against unfettered capitalists – only because I’ve seen him make similar moves in real life, even from before the days he was president. But I’m more appreciative of their creating a more sincere anti-hero – admitting to the fact that sometimes some people are just shits, and sometimes they don’t get the real kind of comeuppance you want to see. They do lose some things, just not as much as we want to see them lose. And sometimes that has to be enough.