Richard Thorpe was a director who epitomized the classic Hollywood studio system. He helmed a diverse number of films from the musical biopic Three Little Words (1950) to the Technicolor adventure drama Ivanhoe (1952). But it is in this latter genre that Thorpe did his best work. Bringing a classic Romanticism to the big scope of the classic event film.
The first Richard Thorpe film I ever saw was a western starring Burt Lancaster and Robert Walker, Vengeance Valley (1951). The narrative consisted of sibling rivalry, betrayal, and the frontier sense of Justice. There is nothing outwardly exceptional about Vengeance Valley, but it carries Thorpe’s signature style.
Thorpe embeds the rolling hills of grass and the Rocky Mountains with the picturesque specificity of a painting. In juxtaposition to these compositions are the dirty and rough details of the film’s interiors. The surroundings of the cowboy characters are as uncivilized as they are. This lends an authenticity to the environment. The outdoors are beautiful and poetic, the indoors are corrupt and worn out. So the contrast is that between the authentic and the idealized. Just as the actors play their characters to natural effect, the narrative moves with the grandiose sweep of American fantasy.
More interesting still is the lack of close-ups in Vengeance Valley. Thorpe only very rarely isolates an actor’s face in frame. Thorpe prefers a more theatrical approach, emoting the stage. In this respect, the performances become more organic, standing unadulterated before the audience. Thorpe must have trusted his actors, believing in their talents and abilities, encouraging them to helm their own scenes. It is from this that all the urgency of Vengeance Valley derives.
The second Richard Thorpe film I ever saw was The Knights Of The Round Table (1953). This film is decidedly more extravagant than Vengeance Valley. It had a bigger budget, and its narrative encompasses a grander scale, the legend of King Arthur. Focusing on Robert Taylor as Lancelot, The Knights Of The Round Table does away with vast portions of the classic tale, in favor of an action/adventure approach. The emphasis is on battle, sword fights, and duels.
Again, Thorpe employs wide shots almost exclusively. Every battle and duel becomes endowed with an operatic scope. If King Arthur was a legend before, Thorpe has ensured it is a legend still. But there is a child like idolization of the characters and the setting. The sentimentality present in The Knights Of The Round Table is absent in all of Thorpe’s other films, even the remarkably similar Ivanhoe. This makes The Knights Of The Round Table an exception in Thorpe’s filmmography.
Thorpe’s sensibilities and sensitivity have thusly assured him auteur status. Between Vengeance Valley and The Knights Of The Round Table there is a consistent technical style, and the evidence of an artist’s approach to the material. Those are Bazin’s qualifications for a director to be considered an auteur. Yet, Richard Thorpe is almost entirely neglected by film critics and historians like so many others. This is why it is a necessity to constantly re-evaluate and reconsider those films, which we often only hear about late at night watching Turner Classic Movies.
I would like to add that, although I did not know it at the time, Richard Thorpe is the first director whose career I ever charted as an audience member. And though I cannot find his influence in my own work, I do not doubt that Richard Thorpe is present there.