- Based on the novel of the same name by Harold Bell Wright
- Directed by Henry Hathaway
- July 18, 1941
A stranger arrives in the Missouri hills and befriends a young backwoods girl, which upsets her moonshiner fiancé who has vowed to hunt down and kill his own father.
The Shepherd of the Hills is much more a drama than it is a frontier Western film. There are no big gun fights (though guns are involved in the story) nor is there a bad guy riding into town to cause harm to some innocent victim(s). We have plenty of emotion and drama involving secrets and emotional wounds. Wayne’s character of Young Matt for example is essentially an orphan but not really accepted by his family. Why becomes clear as the film goes on.
Strangely with John Wayne being the biggest name of the time on the marquee he is not necessarily the main character. Harry Carey Sr. as Daniel Howitt is much more of a central figure of the story then what Wayne’s character of Young Matt is. I find this a bit reminiscent of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and how Wayne was billed over Stewart but Stewart for a majority of the film was much more important.
Henry Hathaway was one of those directors that could pull a good performance out of Wayne. John Wayne wasn’t a terrible actor, but he needed somebody that would make him work. Henry Hathaway, John Ford, and a few others could get him to do that but too often whoever was behind the camera decided to let Wayne’s considerable star power carry the film to success rather than pull that performance out of him.
In the narrative Howitt is Young Matt’s father and it turns out the reason he has been away is because he’s been serving a prison sentence. One thing bothers me about this though and that is while the sum of money he’s tossing around may not seem like a lot today when this film was made it was. When this movie is set they were all even more so. If he’s been serving a prison sentence where did all that money come from? Either he worked for a while before going to the area or he had a lot of money sitting in the bank for all those years. This seems like something big that never got addressed.
Given what happened to the beginning of the movie you’re expecting moonshining to play a part in this movie but after that initial opener you’re hard-pressed to find an acknowledgment of it anywhere. Not a jug or a character taking a sip of it. Poof. Gone!
There’s a sadness throughout The Shepherd of the Hills. This is not a mythmaking film but rather a story about people. There is no deconstruction anywhere. There is no goofy lighthearted and misplaced humor here to relieve the tension. No exceedingly goofy characters.
The Shepherd of the Hills is not your typical Wayne film. At least it’s not what people think of when they think of him. It’s a heartfelt story with a strong emotional core with fine performances all around. If you haven’t checked it out I suggest you do. It is a fine bit of drama that will be enjoyed by all fans of finer movies cinema.