Episode 23 of 52: In which Tracy and Hepburn make a Western because why not?
A lone figure looks out over a vast, unending prairie. A wagon traverses rocky desert trails. Virgin land, a justice-seeking posse, a citified lawyer who brings civilization riding on his pinstriped coat tails. The Western dominated American film for over half a century with images like these. It stands to reason that two American stars and a director on his way to becoming a (controversial) American legend himself would take aim at the genre. The Sea of Grass, the resulting collaboration between Elia Kazan and the Tracy/Hepburn team, is an epic story covering multiple generations in the New Mexico Territory. It’s a Western, but not struck from the same heroic mould that John Ford was making them in Monument Valley. The Sea of Grass is meaner, more melodramatic, and ultimately a maverick mess of a movie.
The Sea of Grass comes so close to being a great film. Spencer Tracy plays Col. Jim Brewton, a rancher who’s spent his life herding cattle on the millions of acres of untouched prairie that spread across New Mexico. He marries a St. Louis girl named Lutie (Kate Hepburn), who loves him but can’t love his untamed wildlands (not a euphemism). She tries to bring the people to the prairie, or her husband home to bed, but she can’t tame nature or the Colonel. These are familiar archetypes to anyone who’s watched more than two Westerns: the Lone Hero and the Prairie Wife. He is the champion of the settlers, she is his pure-hearted moral compass. Right? Well sure, up until the part where Jim causes the death of a few farmers, and Lutie runs away to sleep with the Judge (Melvyn Douglas) and bear his illegitimate son. And that’s just in the first hour. Suffice it to say, John Ford would not approve.