The Shepherd of the Hills
Drama / Western
Directed by Henry Hathaway
Cast: John Wayne as Young Matt
Betty Field as Sammy Lane
Harry Carey as Daniel Howitt
Beulah Bondi as Aunt Mollie
James Barton as Old Matt
Samuel S. Hinds as Andy Beeler
Marjorie Main as Granny Becky
Ward Bond as Wash Gibbs
Marc Lawrence as Pete
John Qualen as Coot Royal
John Forrest 'Fuzzy' Knight as Mr. Palestrom
Deep in the Ozark Mountains in Missouri, a superstitious and haunted community exists, looked over by the Matthews clan, a family of moonshiners. Young Matt is a brash youth filled with anger and contempt for his father, who left when he was very young, which Matt feels contributed to the early death of his mother. Young Matt was raised by his Aunt Mollie and his uncle, Old Matt, who believe the community is haunted and cursed by the spirit of Young Matt’s mother, Sarah.
Jim Lane is shot by marshals while defending the still owned by Young Matt, but is saved by the intervention of a stranger who helps Jim’s daughter, Sammy, nurse him back to health and hide from the authorities. The stranger, Daniel Howitt, remains with the community as a force for good, helping those that need it and persuading the community to tone down the rampant drinking and swearing that abounds. Young Matt is distrustful of the stranger, and his distrust is helped along by the fact that his girlfriend Sammy seems so taken with the older man.
Young Matt gets even angrier with Daniel when Matt’s aunt and uncle sell Daniel a piece of family land known as “Moaning Meadows” due to its haunted reputation. As Daniel settles into his new home, tensions grow between the two, and Young Matt even goes so far as to threaten to kill the man.
The situation comes to a head when Young Matt’s elderly neighbor, Granny Becky, who has been blind for a number of years, returns to the community after a visit to a city doctor for her eyesight. The entire community attends the unveiling of her bandages, and is overjoyed to find that her eyesight has returned. She promptly shatters the celebratory atmosphere when she announces that Daniel is really Young Matt’s estranged father. Young Matt becomes incensed, and begins to wrestle with his younger cousin, Pete, for his gun so he can kill his father as he has vowed to do. Sammy attempts to urge peace while the bitter Aunt Mollie encourages Young Matt to gun Daniel down. Pete resists Mollie’s attempts to give the gun to Matt, and in the scuffle, the gun goes off, mortally wounding Pete. Pete’s mother Mollie rushes to her son and Pete, who has remained mute since the tragedy that claimed Matt’s mother Sarah, finally speaks as he is dying, claiming that the clan is not cursed by Sarah’s ghost, but rather by his mother’s hate and anger. Mollie, overcome by grief and guilt, builds a funeral pyre for her son inside her cabin and lights it, sitting in the burning building as they both are consumed by flames.
Young Matt goes to Moaning Meadows to confront his father Daniel, and Daniel is forced to shoot his son. After surgery to remove the bullet, Daniel goes to Matt and explains the situation. Daniel was once as consumed with anger and rage as Matt is, and killed a man, as Matt was attempting to do. For his actions, Daniel was arrested and imprisoned, and could send no word to the family. He saw much of himself in Young Matt and was afraid that history would repeat itself, so he had to stop Matt from making his mistakes. Hearing his father’s story, Matt’s anger dissipates and he forgives Daniel. Matt abandons his oath of vengeance and prepares to settle down with Sammy.
This was John Wayne’s first movie that was filmed in color.
The Shepherd of the Hills is the third cinematic version of the book of the same name, written by Harold Bell Write in 1907. Previous silent versions were filmed in 1919 and 1928. This version was the first “talkie” version filmed.
The film differs dramatically from the book. In the book, Old Matt is a respectable member of the community, and in the movie he is portrayed as a henpecked old fool. Aunt Mollie is portrayed as mean and vengeful, while her character in the book is nurturing and kind. In the book, the kind “shepherd” is not Young Matt’s father at all.
Ward Bond starred with John Wayne in several pictures, including The Searchers, Rio Bravo, The Quiet Man and Hondo. It is not surprising that Wayne and Bond starred in so many movies together as they were good friends from playing football together at the University of Southern California.
The film was principally shot in Big Bear, California, about 50 miles to the east of Los Angeles.
Beulah Bondi was an accomplished actress and renowned for playing motherly figures. She portrayed Jimmy Stewart’s mother in four movies; Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, It’s a Wonderful Life, Of Human Hearts and Vivacious Lady.