The Western That Couldn’t Make It Past Censors or Religious Review Boards


The Big Picture

  • Duel in the Sun, a 1946 Western, challenges moral standards of the time by depicting sex, crime, and dysfunctional marriages, leading to its censorship.
  • The film failed to pass the guidelines of the Hays Code and faced heavy editing, resulting in several states banning it due to its raunchiness.
  • Despite its controversial reception, acclaimed filmmaker Martin Scorsese praised the film, acknowledging its overpowering nature and complex themes.

Few movies are as sadistic as King Vidor‘s 1946 psychological Western, Duel in the Sun. The characters have chaotic lives, forbidden romances, and dysfunctional families, and at the end of the film, each of them is in a worse place than before. The film even has an unhelpful gun-toting preacher who is supposed to help with the chaos. This Golden Age of Hollywood’s star-studded film, while brilliant in some areas, is perhaps a result of the post-World War II trauma. Jennifer Jones as Pearl Chavez particularly goes through immense suffering. Throughout the film, her life is paved with so much pain that the slightest glimpse of brightness blindfolds her into a sadomasochistic relationship. At a time when films were rated based on their moral standing, Duel in the Sun had no chance with the censors. It failed to pass the moralistic list of guidelines by the Hays Code and religious review boards at the time, and even after undergoing heavy editing by state censor boards before its release, several states still banned the film. The Oscar-nominated film acquired a reputation for raunchiness, earning it the moniker Lust in the Dust.

Duel in the Sun is a tragedy that follows Pearl Chavez, who is orphaned when her father, Scott Chavez (Herbert Marshall), kills her mother after tracking her down with another man. Pearl witnesses the homicide. Before he is executed for the crime, Scott asks Pearl to reach out to his second cousin and old sweetheart, Laura Bell (Lillian Gish), for upbringing. At the time, Laura Bell was married and living on a majestic baronial ranch in Texas. While there, Pearl, who lacks the finesse of an upper-class upbringing, faces the pressure to behave ladylike and is conflicted over a romantic choice between two estranged brothers with different personalities. This synopsis alone would have been enough to get Duel in the Sun in trouble with the film censors of the time.

Duel in the Sun

Beautiful, biracial Pearl Chavez becomes the ward of her dead father’s first love and finds herself torn between two brothers, one good and the other bad.

Release Date
November 21, 1947

King Vidor

Lillian Gish , gregory peck , Joseph Cotten , Lionel Barrymore

129 minutes

David O. Selznick , Oliver H.P. Garrett

Why Wasn’t ‘Duel in the Sun’ Given a Nod by Censors & Religious Review Boards?

At the time of Duel in the Sun‘s release, there were strict restrictions spelled out under the Hays Code on what could be displayed in films and on television. The film specifically broke two broad issues at the heart of the Code: sex and crime. The Code prohibited nudity and suggestive dances, and while it acknowledged that adultery and illicit affairs were sometimes necessary for the plot of a film, they were not supposed to be presented explicitly and in a way that justified them or showed that they were an attractive option. Duel in the Sun was guilty as charged on most of these demands. The film was heavy on sex, including a scene with a stallion in the mood that had to be tamed and even a rape scene. A scene in which Jennifer Jones’s character, Pearl Chavez danced seductively for Lewt (Gregory Peck) among others was edited out.

Still, Duel in the Sun retained a seductive dance by Pearl’s mother (Tilly Losch) who, again, committed adultery by going out with a man from the crowd she had wooed with her dance. The film also seemed not to uphold the sanctity of marriage as espoused by the code. It portrayed dysfunctional marriages like that between Pearl’s parents and her foster ones. In both marriages, the partners were unhappy, and at least one of them was in love with someone other than their marital partner. One killed another, and the other watched with hatred as his wife died. Even the film’s moral guide, Joseph Cotten‘s character, Jesse, marries a woman he doesn’t love. None of the marriages in the film is presented as desirable.

American Movie Censor Lloyd T. Binford Wrote a Letter To David O. Selznick About ‘Duel in the Sun’

On the crime scene, Duel in the Sun had plenty of what was deemed unacceptable — much to the chagrin of the censors. There were brutal killings on-screen shown in more than the accepted detail. The film also seemed to offend another requirement that films were not expected to ridicule: religion. While it wasn’t outright, the gun-toting Walter Huston preacher character, “The Sinkiller,” did little to protect the church as the Code hoped. But it wasn’t just the Hays Code that failed to give a nod to the film. Having been released without Hays’s approval in places such as Memphis, Tennessee, the film failed to secure approval for screening. In 1947, a man remembered for being the “Boss” of Memphis movie screens, and one of the toughest movie censors in America, Lloyd T. Binford, who was the chairman of the Memphis Board of Censors wrote to the producer of Duel in the Sun, David O. Selznick. He wrote, ”This production contains all the impurities of the foulest human dross…It is sadism at its deepest level…It is a story of jungle savagery which might have amused the people of Sodom and Gomorrah.”

Ironically, Lloyd, with his high moral ground, also disapproved of films that had positive depictions of Black people. Films such as Vincente Minnelli‘s 1943 musical Cabin in the Sky bore the wrath of Lloyd’s prejudices. But often inadvertently, while criticizing the films, his strong language would spur curiosity among fans, leading to a reverse boom for the films in nearby theaters where they were approved. As a measure of Lloyd’s impact, the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art conducts screenings of movies that were censored to promote freedom of expression in art and culture. While there is only one film that was ever blacklisted in Hollywood, Duel in the Sun stands as one among those that never got the approval of the censors.

The History of the Hays Code, Movie Censorship, and Ratings in Hollywood

MPAA rating picture of a PG movie
Image via MPAA

The current rating system — which is based on providing as much information as possible about films so that the audience can make up their minds on whether the movies are suitable — came into effect in 1968, but this wasn’t always the case. The advent of motion pictures at the turn of the 20th century was mind-boggling. With it, came a moral question and debate within the American society on the depiction of sex and violence in the films during the pre-Code era. A flurry of Hollywood scandals involving subjects in their late teens and early 20s leapfrogged the creation of the censor Code. Religious leaders, notably from the Catholic Church, turned the heat on Hollywood to have the Code in place. Will Hays was the person that Hollywood studio heads chose to be their public relations head to convince the country that Hollywood was more than just scandals and would self-censor. In 1922, Hays formed the Motion Pictures Distributors of America, now the Motion Pictures Association of America (MPAA).

Hays’s efforts were futile as he was only a spokesperson with no power over the studios, a situation that was made worse by the introduction of sound to moving pictures. The pictures now had a voice, heightening their impact. Hays convinced the studio heads that the best and cheapest way to stop the mounting pressure was to accept the Code. That way, he argued, instead of paying to revise a film after the censor boards had refused to approve it, the studios would simply follow the laid-down Code. That led to the formation of the Hays Code, which acted as the censor guide between 1930 and 1968. In 1952, however, the Supreme Court ruled that films were a form of expression protected under The First Amendment. It wasn’t until 1968 that the current voluntary movie rating system was adopted. The ratings have undergone minor classifications over time, but the principle of divulging information about the movies to the audience to help them choose whether the films are suitable remains the same. Since 1990, the MPAA ratings — G, PG, PG-13, R, and NC-17 — have been unchanged though there is talk of introducing another category.

The rating would be between NC-17 and R and would highlight more mature subjects without poor public opinion weighing down viewership.

Martin Scorsese Rates ‘Duel in the Sun’ Highly

After the success of Gone With the Wind, Selznick was confident that Duel in the Sun would top that. He spent massive resources on both the production and advertising stages, but he could only break even in the end. Duel in the Sun‘s reception was full of criticism even though it eventually received two Academy Award nominations for Best Actress (Jennifer Jones) and Best Supporting Actress (Lillian Gish). But in A Personal Journey With Martin Scorsese Through American Movies, a documentary by the British Film Institute in 1994, the acclaimed filmmaker and director of the recently released Killers of the Flower Moon disagreed with the critics. Scorsese described Duel in the Sun as “Quite overpowering,” adding, “How could the heroine fall for the villain? The two protagonists could only consummate their passion by killing each other.” Despite Duel in the Sun‘s perceived failure, getting Martin Scorsese’s nod was quite something.

And true to Scorsese’s approval, if you have seen the film, you will agree that there are quite a few positives that its critics might as well agree on. But Duel in the Sun tackles so many themes that it feels somewhat disjointed, just like the chaotic drama of its censorship. From romance and betrayal to racism, revenge, family ties, and the utter cruelty of Western lawlessness, in the end, it fails to grab you by the seat. The film also has some cringe-worthy portrayals. Pearl is referred to as a half-breed because of her murdered Indigenous American mother. As a result, she is depicted as not white enough to be considered pure, and too wild to be considered a suitable wife. Although you might hope for her character’s redemption after all she has been through, she dies in a bloody embrace with the man who tormented her. The film features Gone With the Wind’s Butterfly McQueen, who plays Vashti, a slow-witted, talkative enslaved Black woman serving in the Senator’s house. As the only Black character in the film, her portrayal of Vashti is jarring, especially given the racial stereotypes at the time of the film’s release.

Duel in the Sun is a film that forces you to question the meaning of life. Its sadistic elements are unexpected in a film, but they reflect the harsh realities of the cards that life sometimes deals. Its censorship by the censors for violating their moral standards is a reminder of just how far the film industry has come.


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