A rundown of the gossip, rumors, and scandals surrounding Duel in the Sun could fill ten times this space, and then some. Ultimately credited to silent stalwart King Vidor, the film had no fewer than nine directors — including Josef von Sternberg, William Cameron Menzies, and producer David O. Selznick (the subject of a retrospective at Metrograph), who co-wrote the script as a star vehicle for his lover Jennifer Jones. Known popularly as "Lust in the Dust" (inspiring Paul Bartel's film of the same name), the most expensive film ever at the time went on to be a huge box office success, even earning Lillian Gish her only Oscar nomination.
The stately opening prelude over a Technicolor desert vista is followed by a voiceover by Orson Welles, someone who knew a little something about doomed productions. Jones stars as Pearl, the daughter of a white man and an indigenous woman. The film is racially insensitive — Jones is white, and clearly darkens her skin to play an indigenous woman. Adding insult to injury, the film starts with Pearl's "sympathetic" father murdering her mother in a fit of jealous rage. After the crime, Pearl is sent to live with a distant cousin (Gish), her Senator husband (Lionel Barrymore), and their two sons: the saintly Jesse (Joseph Cotten) and bad boy Lewt (Gregory Peck). Both young men fall for Pearl, and much melodrama ensues.
When Duel in the Sun is spoken of now, it's as a curio, a vanity project for Selznick and Jones, his own personal Susan Alexander. It's true, Selznick's name is everywhere in the credits, his fingerprints all over the film; but watching Jones give her everything as the tortured, doomed Pearl, you can understand why Selznick wanted America to fall in love with her like he had. It's a hell of a spectacle — as they say, they just don't make 'em like this anymore.