One-Eyed Jacks

[25K: 4000 words]


“One-Eyed Jacks”: production history


The story

“One-Eyed Jacks” and the western genre

The landscape






The hidden history


One-Eyed Jacks (1961), the only film directed by Marlon Brando, received mixed critical reviews on its release. It was nominated only for the cinematography Oscar (that is, for veteran Charles Lang), and apparently was not a financial success, but it became something of a cult classic. It can be seen as a forerunner of many of the ‘complex’ westerns of the next two decades, both in its length, elegaic tone, ‘realistic’ settings, use of regional syntax even for main characters, undogmatic attention to narrative, a complex view of character, and refusal to endorse many conventional judgements found in other westerns.

“One-Eyed Jacks”: production history

According to Baseline’s Encyclopaedia of Film, Sam Peckinpah in 1957 wrote the original script that “without his participation and with many changes” became the Marlon Brando film. This may not be accurate: the Peckinpah script was described as a reworking of the Billy the Kid legend. The Left-Handed Gun, bearing all the hallmarks of Peckinpah's scripts, including ignorant children amused at violence, appeared in 1958, drawn from a Gore Vidal television play.

One-Eyed Jacks turns many of the Billy the Kid clichés inside out without any obvious references to the myth, though Peter Manso’s biography of Brando says many incidents were taken directly from the life of Billy the Kid and that Brando had consulted many of the Kid’s bios before starting filming (1994:484). The Kid's arrest, incarceration and escape come close to the Western legend about Billy the Kid, as seen in Pekinpah's Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid.

In any case, it proved a difficult product to bring to fruition. Stanley Kubrick was first named as director and then fired by the actor-producer (Mr Showbiz). The budget went from $1.6 million to $6 million (Brandoland, 1997): “The budget got so ridiculous that Paramount Pictures stopped keeping a budget sheet in order to hide the mounting cost from the media. The film also ran almost a year over schedule” (ibid.)

The delays were attributed to Brando’s meticulous direction: “He once wasted a whole day of shooting waiting for the perfect wave to crash on the beach.” The final version edited by Brando ran to four and a half hours, which he then trimmed to three. “At which point Paramount Pictures heartlessly took the movie out of Brando’s hands, and lopped it into a marketable 141 minutes” (ibid). The same version of all these points appears in Manso’s biography (468-497).


The distribution history is not known. Manso said in 1994 that business was brisk from the start and it had grossed US$10-12 million, but was “nowhere near breakeven” when ancillary costs were taken into account.

However, the reviews can give some indication of its reception. Pauline Kael’s New Yorker review stated: “The picture is of variable quality: it has some visual grandeur; it also has some bizarrely brutal scenes. It isn’t clear why Brando made this peculiarly masochistic revenge fantasy, or whether he hoped for something quite different from what he finished with.”

Thirty years later Leonard Maltin gave it three of four possible stars and wrote: “Fascinating but flawed psychological western with outlaw Brando seeking revenge on former friend Malden, now a sheriff. Visually striking, and a rich character study, but overlong.” Nearly 20 years later Patrick Goldstein of the Los Angeles Times described it as “a solemn, self-indulgent failure” (Newsday, 26 May 2000:D04).

Brandoland, a WebSite that tracks all matters relating to Marlon Brando, noted: “One Eyed Jacks” is considered by many movie critics to be a classic. […] And in Europe, the film is a cult classic.” Manso focuses on its many good reviews: “The New York Daily News gave it four stars, calling the film ‘stunning,’ just as Time, the New York Post, and the New Yorker used words like ‘startlingly beautiful,’ ‘top-hole, forceful, and lively,’ and ‘spectacular…graphic and sickening.’”

A taste of the European reaction is given by a Swedish Web site that purports to gather Quentin Tarantino's selection of best films and provides translated commentaries in English, which are uncorrected here:

“You don’t have to judge One-Eyed Jacks as just ‘entertainment’, not like a couple of hours excitement and escape from reality. It comes up to scratch even without the forgiving attitude usually adopted when faced with the stereotypical characters used in a western” (Karin Michael, Aftonbladet).

“As a director Marlon Brando has strived to achieve an uncomfortable but therefore efficient realism. The right ending would perhaps have been an unhappy one. As it is the closing scene is illuminated by hope and happiness following all that blood.” (Jolanta, Svenska Dagbladet).

In fact, Brando had planned to have the heroine accidentally shot in the back by her stepfather as she rides off with Brando and then have Brando return with her body to the town (and presumed death), Karl Malden reports (Manso 491). Paramount insisted on having Brando and the girl survive.

It will become clear that the view taken of this film rates it much more highly than the US critics in virtually every respect, and for reasons that look very much like a contrast between an ‘artistic’ vs ‘commercial’ view of film and what it can achieve.

One exception was the most influential newspaper in the home of film, Hollywood Reporter. Reviewer Jim Henaghan started as a critic of Brando. After seeing the film he declared: “I think it might be the best western ever made, and surely a classic that will stand with most of the all-time great motion pictures; for it has taken the bones of cliché drama and superbly enhanced them with daring innovation….Brando must, indeed, be honoured as the father of this achievement” (Manso 496).

The story

As it finally appeared, One-Eyed Jacks is the story of “Kid” Rio (Marlon Brando), a bank-robber on the Mexican border who is abandoned to the police by his partner “Dad” Longworth. When Rio, now planning a robbery with another gang, tracks down “Dad” again, the older man has married a Mexican woman with a grown daughter and become sheriff of the small town of Monterrey, California, where the bank raid is to take place. Rio visits “Dad” at home and meets the step-daughter.

On the surface all is friendly, but on a pretext the sheriff, who suspects Rio’s motives, breaks the young man’s hands after a saloon brawl when protecting a Mexican woman from being mishandled. The punishment is both a public demonstration of his ability to preserve law and order and ensures that Rio can never again be a gunfighter.

Rio and the gang retire to a Chinese fishing village on the North-west Pacific Coast where he waits to recover use of his hands and broods of revenge. The daughter, now pregnant, seeks Rio out, declares her love for him and asks the young man not to go into town to face down her stepfather. Rio agrees, but other members of the gang determined to carry out the robbery send a message to “Dad” that Rio is coming into town, and carry out the raid knowing that “Dad” will go to head Rio off. The two men come to a gun battle, anyway. Dad is killed, but the step-daughter understands the circumstances that led to his death and leaves with Rio.

“One-Eyed Jacks” and the western genre

This summary emphasises the films similarities to other revenge westerns. However, it should be noted that Brando, born in 1924, was in his mid-Thirties at the time he was playing a character at least 10 years young. His career during this period has been described as an attempt to escape from the image of the rebel that made his name. In The Wild One (1954), he was the biker who replied to the question “What are you rebelling against?” with “Whaddaya got?” (Baseline).

Six years later, Brando does not play Rio as an innocent youth or instinctive rebel against the system. At the films opening Rio is not just loutish, prising gold rings off victims fingers in a bank raid. He is also seen exploitatively lying to a young woman in a scene where his glibness both amuses and horrifies.

Brando uses his star status to keep us watching. enabling him to go deeper into the amorality of his character than we might otherwise be prepared to accept without some knowledge of his better side. This scene is echoed later, to much more shocking effect, with the sheriff’s stepdaughter. It is then reversed when he confesses he was lying about everything but his feelings for her, and this latter scene by the seashore is reprised at the finale when they go off together.

Such echoing (also known as rhyming or chiming) is a common device in fiction to give depth to scenes and characterization. It can also be used, and often is in genre products, by omitting one part of comparison, after an expectation of this omitted part has been aroused in the spectator.

This, again, is a description of a technique rather than a guarantee of quality. The final scene of One-Eyed Jacks, for example, fails to achieve full closure because the film does not provide a convincing future for Rio and his partner, yet the closing is framed as if no questions remain about their happiness or what will happen to them.

Brando is recorded as having difficulties with the conclusion to the story (Brandoland and Manso 491): “The movie did not have an ending. Brando’s co-star and friend Karl Malden used to joke to Marlon: Which one of us is going to die today? It got so bad that Brando actually had the cast members vote on the storyline of their choice.”

A number of the internal rhymes in the film are worth recording for the way they reflect on the use of genre conventions. Brando is credited here with all of the effects. Though they may originated in the script by Niven Busch, George Englund, Charles Norden, Sam Peckinpah as well as the eventual script-writers Guy Trosper and Calder Willingham, they reflect what is known of Brando’s own artistic and political views. They are recorded, so far as is possible, in the order they appear in the film:

The landscape: California and Mexico. In this western, the open spaces are scenes of threat. Early on we see Brando lying exposed on a cliff to the guns of the Mexican militia, followed almost immediately by the sight of two panting men stumbling away from prison in a risky escape. This is not a western of cattle ranches and open plains. Much of the film is set on the coast, sometimes even at the seashore, which likewise is not used for its openness to the world but as the place where the land ends. The major scenes of conflict occur in closed spaces and towns: bars, jails, homes and cramped streets that bear recognizable similarities to a modern town. Manso’s sources suggest all these aspects were Brando’s idea (469).

The film avoids the conventional contrasts between town and countryside, or the signification to be taken from such icons. See Colin McArthur, 1972, Underworld U.S.A. where the Western pastoral genre of simple farmers is contrasted with the technologically infused mysteries of urban anonymity and psychotic behaviour (18).

In what appears a deliberate variation on the genre conventions, we see Mexican townships and a Chinese fishing village by the sea as well as the town and Longworth’s house on the edge of town without being asked to treat them as signifiers of any subsidiary meaning. Rhe Longworth home gives us a picture of well-upholstered domesticity that contrasts with the rickety open-air feel of the fishing village where the outlaws hole up, but the Longworth place is suffused with buried frustrations.

The diferences seem a clear artistic choice. The cinematographer Charles Lang was also responsible for Ford’s Gunfight at the O.K. Corrall and The Magnificent Seven, two films in which scenery was used iconographically with conventional meanings.

Partners/enemies: the relationship between Brando and Karl Malden is the core of the film. Some reviewers called this a psychoanalytical western because the older character is named “Dad” and Brando is regularly referred to as “kid.” But the relationship between the older and younger man is not that of father and son. The opening scenes stress their equality despite the differences in age, and it is not suggested at any point that Rio’s thirst for revenge is as a spurned son. The name does, however, bring out the irony of Malden’s vicious behaviour. A number of echoes and contrasts within this framework should be noted:

Partnerships: Rio’s Mexican partner in the escape from prison ( Modesto) is the only featured character without a motivation: he represents the archetypal everyman (neither essentially good nor bad), the accompanying character in many folk tales, caught up in the drama and finally a victim of the others. Rio teams up with another couple of outlaws, Ben Johnson and Timothy Carey, who kill the Mexican partner when he tries to stop them from double-crossing Rio. Their betrayal, of course, simply apes Rio’s behaviour towards the women in the film, and the deviousness of the two main characters. This, the treatment underlines, is not a buddy movie in which relationships between men are seen as more reliable than those with women.

The sheriff and his deputy: Karl Malden plays the sheriff as superficially concerned with law and order; his deputy Slim Pickens who is barely under Malden’s control brutally flouts the law. But Malden, in a critical scene, turns on Rio without warning and conducts a sadistic flogging. These two lawmen are mirrored by the Brando and Johnson characters in the outlaw world of the film, representing to simplify for the sake of clarity corrupt law (Malden), brutishness (Pickens), corrupt brutish lawlessness (Johnson), and a bad character (Brando) who is finally redeemed when he encounters someone who refuses to join this world.

It should be noted these are not binary oppositions: the outlaws include Timothy Carey and Modesto. But they are contrasts that help fill out the range of moral positions this picture attempts to make us feel it covers.

Dress: Malden, at first an outlaw, is later seen in a waistcoat, then a frockcoat and stiff hat, entirely appropriate to the small-town where he lives and the respectable world he wants to inhabit; Brando appears in some kind of buckskins and floppy hat that gives him a Mexican air (he had played Zapata in Elia Kazan’s film of 1952). Rio as a name is ambiguously American/Mexican.

But these are not simple contrasts of cowboy versus rancher, city vs the range, civilization vs wilderness. Their meaning can be read on a realistic level as appropriate to the lives they lead, and reflective of Rio’s lower/outlaw status versus the respectability Dad Longworth has donned with an irony we are expected to appreciate in view of the history we know: that Longworth has stolen the money he should have shared with Rio and deliberately -- either out of cowardice or calculation -- did not keep his word to return to help the Kid.

None of these differences are insisted on, but they do contrast with most westerns where the hero manages to be better (or more fashionably) dressed than those around him.

Silence/explanation: Opacity of human motive, almost a cliché at the time with regard to method actors, is a major feature of One-Eyed Jacks, but the variety of ways in which people can mean something different from what they say or do not say what they mean is carefully orchestrated. In an interview after Parliament heavily cut the film, Brando protested at the distortions of his aim: “It’s a good picture for them, but it’s not the picture I made. In my picture, everybody lied, even the girl. The only one who told the truth was the Karl Malden character. Paramount made him out to be the heavy, a liar….Hypocrisy is not necessarily evil, and the audience understands this, […] Now the characters in the film are black and white, not gray and human as I planned them” (Bob Thomas, Brando: Portrait of an Artist, 1973, cited by Manso 494).

The main female characters, mother and daughter, are contrasted in this way: the daughter (Pina Pellicer) says all that she means and feels; the mother (Katy Jurado) is very quiet but means all that she says. Since the two women mainly appear in scenes where Longworth is hiding what he feels and Rio is feeling his way forward emotionally and in words, the distinctions are easy to pick up.

As a result of the opening scenes showing Rio’s callousness towards women, we are able to see that his decision to let Longworth go away with the booty from the first bank raid was a calculated act, despite his offhand words of trust.

Brando is photographed in almost the same position in which he is later captured, a device that underlines the betrayal as well as refers back to Longworth’s promises. Likewise, the silent calculation that Longworth makes before deciding to abandon Rio takes place in the presence of another person, a Mexican farmer. Such early scenes teach the audience that the surface meaning of words from most of the characters in this film are not to be trusted despite what we may have seen from heroes in other westerns.

The challenge to the filmmaker is to make those characters who do speak plainly convincing. They must appear as more than nave participants in the drama or sentimental versions of western stereotypes. When the daughter becomes pregnant, we see the mother managing the communication of this news to Longworth in a way that indicates that her plain-speaking has nothing to do with naivety. As for the daughter, we are asked to believe in her redeeming straightforwardness and willingness to take responsibility for her life. Pauline Kael no easy touch for a compliment describes Pellicer as “a lovely young actress”. Though the daughter sees her stepfather finally as an evil man, she acknowledges the good he has done for her. However, it is a rather one-note part.

Through its rhyming scheme, the film does give some shading to the final scene: the mother, too, had become pregnant and given birth to the daughter illegitimately. We can contrast the condescending way in which Dad treats his wife with the responsibility that Rio takes on gravely with the daughter but this still serves to reinforce our understanding of the character of the men rather than give us portraits of the women in any depth.

Racism/class: As a western, One-Eyed Jacks is one of the few films of its genre to treat Mexicans in more than a caricatural way (The Magnificent Seven is a prime example of the opposite). Brando has been a long-time supporter of America’s Hispanic population (see king040596+000.htm for an interview with Larry King on television on 5 April 1996 after a racial incident involving the police). Rosita (Rita) Moreno was credited as a technical advisor.

The Mexicans in this film clearly have different destinies than the white Americans but they are not viewed through the prism of racism-as-their-problem. Rio’s uneducated American syntax and language, quite different from Pickens’s “cornpoke” vocabulary, suggest that, even in a western, some kind of notation of class differentiation is possible (as against the Hawks/Ford westerns where the serious white characters are blessed with standard diction). It also offers some evidence, to an appreciative audience, for authenticity in the presentation of the Mexicans. And in contrast to many “social message” westerns, none of its points is made through sermons or sentimental episodes.

The hidden history

The conventional summary of the story, used by most critics, fails to make visible what today appears most prominently in the narrative: the situation of Mexicans. The first scene is a bank robbery in Mexico, the key scene that leads to the complication of the plot shows Brando defending a Mexican woman in a bar, the Chinese fishing village where Brando and his gang rest emphasizes the racial element by the contrast with the Mexican reality of California, and Brando’s Mexican sidekick provides a loyal contrast to Karl Malden’s sheriff.


Brandoland. 1997. Brando’s west:

Kael, P. 1991. “5001 Nights at the Movies” in Microsoft.

Maltin, L. 1996. “Leonard Maltin’s Movie and Video Guide” in Microsoft

Peter Manso. 1994. Brando. Hyperion. ISBN: 078688128-3.

Microsoft’. 1996. Cinemania 96. CD-ROM.

Mr Showbiz (1997):