Devil's Doorway

The movie, Devil’s Doorway, a fine Hollywood western released in 1950 by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, dramatically illustrates timeless truths about human nature, natural (higher and unchanging) law, and the State’s (man-made and evanescent) law.

The moral conflict

Lance Poole (Broken Lance), convincingly portrayed by Robert Taylor, is a Shoshone Indian returning to Wyoming and his tribal and family lands known as Sweet Meadow, a fertile valley. He is a decorated (Congressional Medal of Honor) veteran of the War of Secession. In the 5 years after his father’s death, he greatly builds up his cattle ranching business, using Sweet Meadow to graze and water his large herd. Entrance to the valley is through a pass known as Devil’s Doorway.

Louis Calhern plays a lawyer named Verne Coolan, Poole’s antagonist. However, the unstoppable forces that set the tragedy in motion and keep it going are the white man’s land hunger and its official emblem, the Homestead law, which touches nearly everyone in the movie.

Coolan makes no secret of his hatred for the Indian, but his motivations go deeper than antipathy and prejudice. Twice he speaks in glowing terms of Sweet Meadow as a home to go to, a place for one’s final rest. For Coolan has lung disease, which strangely neither seems to undermine him nor prevent his smoking cigars.

Coolan: "It’s a dream all men have when they ache for home." (Clap of thunder). And later: "It’s a place for home. I’d like to live there myself." (Wistfully, as if it will never happen.)

He jealously covets the place that Sweet Meadow is, not to farm or graze or use its land, not for money or gain, but as the Heaven that this Satan can never enter. For Coolan is the Devil of the story’s title and his behavior throughout is exactly that of a devil.

In the course of the story, Coolan pretends to be an angel to gain power, via offering to sign a petition in Poole’s favor, and by using the law against Poole. Through lies and promises, he recruits sheep farmers to travel to Wyoming to enter Sweet Valley. But without access to Sweet Meadow’s water, he knows that their sheep will soon die.

He lies to instigate an incident that places Poole in a bad light. He becomes temporary Marshall and recruits the sheep farmers to violence. He uses deceit and provokes Poole. Coolan mobilizes force, lying, fraud, snares and machinations, all classic workings of the Devil. His goal is an invasion of Sweet Meadow, and he succeeds.

St. Paul writes (Ephesians 6:12): "For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places." Poole wrestles with devilish men twice, physically not spiritually, the first time with Coolan’s henchman and the second time with Coolan himself whom he chokes to death. Both physical struggles bring out the fury and ferocity of a life and death conflict. Coolan succeeds in provoking Poole to malice. Poole is not a Christian, he is a warrior. He is a mortal man with mortal limitations, not a saint. Yet Poole is fighting, as we still are, against principalities, powers, rulers of this world’s darkness, and spiritual wickedness in high places. Nothing has changed.

Although Poole endures several encounters, including intrusions by the sheep farmers, he behaves maturely and with restraint to defend his land, using the least possible force, warning intruders, and not rising to anger. He continually stops short of senseless violence and gives the other side a chance to withdraw. He is basically not a man who likes violence, and he regrets having to use it. The War saw to that. However, in the last reel, when he one-sidedly kills Coolan with his bare hands, after Coolan has entered Sweet Meadow with a large band of men, he loses any pretense of restraint. In effect the Devil has won. Poole almost becomes corrupted. Although he fights for his land with good reason, he almost uses his power as patriarch to bring death upon all the remaining members of his tribe still with him. In the end, he relents.

He and his tribe are surrounded by an overwhelming force of soldiers. Their Lieutenant acts with admirable sense, forbearance, and conscience, clearly not wanting to slaughter innocent women and children. Poole then reciprocates, man to man, soldier to soldier, warrior to warrior. The brotherhood of soldiers that he felt during the late War returns. Mortally wounded, he goes to meet the soldiers, after donning his uniform and medal. He returns the Lieutenant’s salute after the man sees his medal. Poole is defeated. He wears the trappings of those who defeated him, their symbols of distinction, valor and heroism. But he stands proud. He goes out of this life as one proud soldier to another proud soldier, in honor. But not without a complete understanding of the irony of his final seconds on earth.

Lieutenant: Where are the others?

Poole: We’re all gone. (Falls down dead)

Would that our present day overstuffed military, the brutal DEA, the monstrous CIA, the Gestapo FBI, and our political officials, our cruel Albrights, our dictatorial Renos, our conniving Clintons, hypocritical Bushes and appalling Rumsfelds who give the orders, our cowardly legislatures that buy the bullets with our money, our shallow fellow voters who cheer them on, and our scheming and power-hungry Kristols would display the least little bit of conscience depicted here as a value. Instead their lips cheer on massacres and tortures that add to a century long list. The horror! The shame! "They are futile, a work of errors; In the time of their punishment they shall perish."

Natural law

Lance Poole, his father, and other Shoshones have lived in Sweet Meadow for a long, long time. Poole uses the land intensively for raising cattle. Several times in the movie, he makes it very clear that Sweet Meadow is his land, his property. In several instances, he defends it against intrusion. The story thus leaves no doubt that the Shoshones own this land by virtue of a natural right of true homesteading, meaning that they have been the first to mix their labor with the land, and that they did no one any harm in doing so. They have justly become the original appropriators of the land. The movie unambiguously depicts this working of natural law.

This rosy picture is disturbed by the man-made or statutory law, the Homestead law. A series of homestead laws dispersed Federal lands in 160-acre parcels under certain conditions, one of which was being a U.S. citizen. Since Poole is not a U.S. citizen, he cannot homestead his own land, which, by the way, is far more than 160 acres. The man-made law is on Coolan’s side.

With the help of lawyer Orrie Masters, played by Paula Raymond, Poole files a homestead application that is turned down. She then suggests circulating a petition, but Coolan foils this plan. Miss Masters, while very sympathetic to Poole, has a strong loyalty to "the law", her father having been a lawyer.

Her interchanges with Poole bring out the heart of the conflict between natural and man-made law. The first such interchange is this.

Masters: It’s the law and we have to abide by it.

Poole: I see your point.

Masters: Do you? Oh, I hope so.

Poole: Sure. I envy you, Ma’m, your being a lawyer. You’ve got a faith, something to go by, like a religion. With you, it’s the law.

Masters: My father wanted me to study law. It means a great deal to me.

Poole: Yes, it must. (sarcastically) I’ve always wanted something like that, something to tell me what’s right and wrong.

Masters: (innocently) I’m glad you feel the way you do.

Poole: (bitingly) Because you don’t have to bother about your conscience. It’s written out for you to follow, no matter what it does to people. It’s the law.

Here we have exceptionally fine writing, developing the conflict between man-made or political law and the natural law of conscience. Pope Benedict XVI in 1991 wrote in a similar vein: "The separation of politics from any natural content of law, which is the inalienable patrimony of everyone’s moral conscience, deprives social life of its ethical substance and leaves it defenseless before the will of the strongest."

Here we have also a contrast between a higher law to which man can turn versus worship of a graven image, law, the State’s handiwork. Kafka saw this law as a heartless bureaucratic machine that swallowed up and ruled even its operators, turning on them to engrave their hides with the law. Can man worship any handiwork of man without soon turning against those who do not share that worship?

The second interchange is this.

Poole: Do you believe deep in your heart that they have a right to my land?

Masters: Lance, I believe they’re human beings. I believe everyone has a right to live.

Poole: You didn’t answer me.

Masters: What can they do?

Poole: Do you think they have a right to my land?

Masters: Yes! Yes! To a part of it anyway.

Poole knows his natural rights, while Masters is a socialist who could today be confirmed as a Supreme Court justice. She is willing to abandon original appropriation and the definiteness of an a priori ethical rule for an exercise in taking property ex post. She takes her side with the godless State or with utilitarians who are willing to measure the wealth counted in sheep against the lives of the Shoshones. By contrast, Poole sides with his Creator, and the script elsewhere carefully brings out the holy and soulful attachment of Poole, his father, and the other Shoshones to the land they have lived on all their lives. The wavering and unsure Masters, drawn to Poole, in the end comes back to her own life’s center, the law, which she cannot get beyond. Javert, faced with a similar dilemma, threw himself into the Seine.

Poole’s relationship with the sheep farmers brings out another facet of natural law. The head of the sheep farmers is Rod MacDougall played by Marshall Thompson. After being enticed by Coolan to Wyoming and finding that the only water is on land held by Poole, he refuses immediately to do battle with the Shoshones. The farmers have had one minor skirmish already, and he recognizes a determined man in Poole when he sees one. His deference to the Indians’ rights is another factor that makes him reluctant to invade Sweet Meadow. Although the law is on his side and the sheep need water, he is not intent on lording it over Poole. Instead he attempts to make a deal with Poole to rent, buy or lease water and grazing rights – an admirable free-market and natural law way to solve the conflict by a man whose conscience and offer recognize Poole’s natural rights.

After a short hesitation, Poole agrees to negotiate if his petition works out. Due to Coolan’s maneuverings, the petition fails and the war breaks out. Although good people of goodwill abound in the story and have workable solutions, the fact is that the law keeps raising its ugly head and preventing cooperation and reconciliation. It fosters and facilitates the conflict in the presence of a few evil people like Coolan.

Worthy of note is the strong parallel between an eminent domain taking of land for another’s private use and the belief of Masters that the sheep farmers have a right to Poole’s water so that they do not lose their sheep. Also in passing, notice that the homestead laws, despite their name and seeming relation to Locke, were social engineering, designed to produce a nation of small farmers.

Film notes

The Devil’s Doorway was historically a narrow pass used by the Nez Perce Indians to escape toward Canada in the Yellowstone area where odious geysers merited the name "Colter’s Hell".

The screenplay, written by Guy Trosper, was nominated for a Writers Guild Academy Award.

Good writers do not choose character names at random, and I believe the names in this movie carry meaning. Lance is a pointed rod used by a knight. Of course, Broken Lance signifies the crushing of Poole (and all the Shoshones) by their great father, (the ironic term used by the Creek Chief Speckled Snake in response to President Jackson’s address to them as their Father). Verne means alder tree, a hardwood tree, or someone who lives near a grove of alders. Hence, the two first names of the antagonist and protagonist are similar, signifying two hard opposing forces of nature. The name Poole comes from someone living near a pool of water. Coolan apparently is from Cullen or Killen, which means either to kill someone off or "neck of a lake" from cul (neck) and lin (lake). The struggle of the movie centers on the year-round water in Sweet Meadow arising from the mountain ice melting, while Wyoming gets little rainfall. Meanwhile, the head of the sheep farmers has the surname Rod, yet another obdurate element in the story’s progress. And the name Masters is probably no accident for a character who makes the law her master and a story in which the law is everyone’s master.

The director, Anthony Mann, and the cinematographer, John Alton, teamed up to make some other wonderful film noirs, such as Raw Deal, T-Men, Border Incident, The Black Book, and He Walked By Night. Devil’s Doorway’s black and white images are similarly matchless.

The acting is of uniformly high quality. Despite the fact that a number of plot details are revealed above, they cannot possibly do justice to the film’s many moments of compelling story-telling.

TCM shows this enjoyable movie on occasion. Keep your eyes open.

The helpful comments of Dorothy Gruber-Rozeff are gratefully appreciated.