The Petrified Forest

Lawrence Russell

The Petrified Forest (1936) dir. Archie Mayo writ. Charles Kenyon and Delmer Daves (from the play by Robert Emmet Sherwood) cine. Sol Polito star. Leslie Howard (Alan Squire), Bette Davis (Gabrielle Marples), Humphrey Bogart (Duke Mantee), Genevieve Tobin (Edith Chisholm), Dick Foran (Bowes)

The 30s, the Depression, the Arizona desert, wind, dust, tumbling sage. A man with a backpack and a tall stick walks a dirt road, the horizon fading endlessly before him. This is Alan Squire (Leslie Howard), a hobo "writer" who lived in France for ten years, and is now trekking west "trying to find something to believe in." He arrives at a roadstop, a "Last Chance Fill Up" gas station and cafe run by a sullen World War One vet whose war bride abandoned him and returned to France. He meets Gabby (Bette Davis), the owner's poetry-loving daughter who dreams of one day travelling to Bourges to reconcile with her French mother. Destiny? No doubt about it. A tragedy in the making? No doubt about it.

The tragedy is as universal as it is personal. Once again the artist is the barometer of civilization, the sensitive who recognizes the impending collapse, the moral decay before the killing. In this rendezvous with destiny, the Poet confronts the animal within -- this time in the persona of the bank robber and killer, Duke Mantee (Humphrey Bogart). Mantee and his gang are on the run in the vast uncivilized desert plateau of Black Mesa, fated to make their last stand in the Petrified Forest, an ecology of stone trees, effigies of Nature freakishly preserved as memorials to itself, and a metaphor for a civilization in collapse. Robert Sherwood's funny yet somber play exists in the umbra of T.S. Eliot's famous narrative poem The Hollow Men, that neurotic monologue of inter-war despair and self-loathing.

The other "animal" -- a sort Mr. In-Between -- is the gas jockey, a failed quarterback who wears number 42 on his back like a prediction of America's reinvolvement in genocide. Although he was out by a year, Sherwood was right about a number of things: the impending global killing, the desecration of Nature, the revolt of American women... but he was clearly wrong about the obsolescence of the artist and the desperado.

Squire: (to Duke Mantee) I'm planning to be buried in the Petrified Forest -- it's the graveyard of the civilization that's been shot out from under us.

So the Poet makes a pact with the Devil -- he gets Mantee to agree to shoot him in order to satisfy his fantasy of sacrifice and contrition. A wastrel who by his own admission was little more than a toy-boy for a wealthy woman in France, he sees his arranged suicide as a payback to Nature and the next generation -- his insurance policy (handy in his backpack) for five thousand dollars is signed over to Gabby in order that she can go to France, be an artist, recover civilization. Wildly romantic, of course... and infectious. The banker's wife, smitten by Squire's scenario, begs Mantee to take her with him to Mexico.

But Duke is waiting for another woman, his lover Doris who is out there in the desert with the other half of the Mantee gang. The fact that she betrays him in the end operates as a moral irony to the blind love that Gabby has for the itinerant writer and self-professed "Hollow Man", Squire. But Gabby has ascended into the ivory tower (as dramatized when she and Squire climb the water tower to see her paintings) and her fate is sealed.

Atmospheric, rhetorical, symbolic, a Western by any other name. No cows, no horses... but the characters are drifters and some are armed, ready to play. Duke Mantee is like Grampa Marple's hero, Billy The Kid, an individualist in a world without moral authority:

42: He's a gangster and a rat.

Gramps: He ain't no gangster -- he's a real old-time desperado... wait till the Sheriff finds out he's here, then we'll see some real killin' -- won't we, Duke?

The ending is an unfortunate piece of stagey excess in which Squire motors in pentameters as the gunfight with the posse keeps them all low to the floor, the sort of thing that makes you call out for his death sooner than later. When he dies in Gabby's arms, it's quite fitting that his passing is ignored by everyone else. But this is a minor weakness in an otherwise powerful gun drama with vital characters driven by forces more mysterious and elemental than simple greed and psychopathic expression.

The difference between The Petrified Forest and its post-war successor Key Largo is in the character of the Poet: without an intellectual in a central role, Largo lacks the argument, becomes mere name-calling, leaves you with a stage littered with bodies and nothing much to think about afterwards except should you or should you not pack a gun on your next holiday.

*of related interest: Bad Day At Black Rock

© LR 73/99


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