King Vidor’s The Sky Pilot (1921) finds the director coming into his own as Hollywood’s primary exponent of an “open-air religion” in the Emersonian tradition. The interpretive key to the film is contained within the title. “Sky pilot”, it seems, is western roughneck slang for “preacher”–and the narrative constitutes a sustained investigation of the proper role for (and identity of) a “person of faith” in the modern world.
As the introductory title card above makes clear, the minister from Montreal (protagonist Arthur Wellington Moore) goes West (to the Canadian Rocky mountain town of “Swan Creek”) on your basic “civilizing mission”. Of course, Arthur is no fire-and-brimstone type that Walter Huston might play. He’s clearly an Anglican (that’s Episcopalian in American)–and he’s enough of a man of the world to march straight into the settlement’s main “watering hole” (although he’s not enough of one to drink anything there but water).
We begin with some beautiful outdoor camerawork:
That figure on horseback is our dear Sky Pilot, whose arrival anticipates Jimmy Stewart’s famous 1939 ride into Destry:
He’s a gentle guy. A friend to animals. And he carries an umbrella at all times. He’s a rational believer in Christian virtue and “civilized” foresight.
This is a King Vidor character?
I mean… yes… he’s got “eponymity” goin’ for him–but the director actually cares a lot more about this guy:
[That’s cowboy Bill Hendricks, played by future director David Butler, interrupting a sermon on the loaves and the fishes to ask whether the Savior might be inclined to get the entire congregation lit, for free–on the (meeting)house]
[That’s cowgirl Gwen–played by the amazing Colleen Moore, just a little before she flappered her wings to stardom]
By bringing these three characters into collision, Vidor is able to restage the Transcendentalist manifesto of the 1830s within the already-familiar confines of an emergent popular genre of the 20th century–the Western. What is the Transcendentalist thesis? Well, for the long answer to that question, in all of its splendid complexity, I’ll refer you to Emerson’s Nature. The short answer is this: at some point, not too many decades after the American Revolution (basically THE single most successful political fruit of Enlightenment rationalism… you could argue that the French Revolution is more important–and I’d agree that it IS, but I’d also argue that it is better understood as a product of Romanticism), there weren’t ANY first-rate intellectuals of the Old Predestinarian Calvinist school left (in contrast, the greatest American thinker of the 18th century had been the ol’ Neo-Puritan himself–Jonathan Edwards). So hellfire was passe–but the new, mild humanism of liberal theologians had little in it to stir the blood of a passionate (Emerson called it “the corpse cold Unitarianism of Brattle Street). What was a literary and philosophical radical to do? Well, they (Emerson, Thoreau, Margaret Fuller, Theodore Parker–and even, in their less optimistic ways, Melville, Dickinson and Hawthorne) came up with some pretty interesting answers to that question, in the vicinity of Concord, Massachusetts, circa 1830-1855 (F.O. Mathiessen’s “American Renaissance”). Most of them involved the rejection of ALL doctrine (and all external moral authority), the sloughing off of supernatural claptrap, and the exaltation of human potential (both individual and, in some cases, collective) to hitherto undreamed-of heights.
How does all of that apply to The Sky Pilot?
Well, what we have, to start with, are a group of people whose capacity for spiritual greatness is seriously impaired by a pernicious metaphysical binary: the idea that humans must choose to be either mild or wild. The Eastern preacher believes that a month of Sundays’ worth of parables will settle his flock down, and reconcile them to the modern status quo. The Westerners (Bill and Gwen) are equally committed to an ethic of strenuous libertinism that aspires, at least, to complete amorality. For these characters, life is a test of strength, pure and simple, and a “Sky Pilot” can’t do anything but cloud the issue. Both Bill and Gwen respond warmly to him at first (Bill helps him to arrange a meeting at the saloon; and Gwen makes silent movie eyes at him–after rescuing him from a near-drowning experience); but each one reacts violently, in his or her own way, to Arthur’s “corpse cold” qualities. Bill starts at a fight at the very meeting he helped to set up (which he loses, by the way… however, characteristically of Vidor, mere physical prowess has nothing to do with spiritual greatness… so the preacher can box? So what? He’s still not worth listening to, if he’s just gonna stand up there and spout parables) ; Gwen banishes Arthur from her ranch, as soon as she learns his true vocation.
The (sledgehammer) irony of this narrative is that Arthur Wellington Moore does manage to affect his new congregation–whenever he steps down from the pulpit (or, cockpit?) It does achieve its ultimate effect in an interesting way though. The first half of the film plays out like a “straight” (pun intended) “buddy film”. Arthur and Bill seem to be falling in love–in that patriarchal opposites attract kind of way that homosocial action directors have been shoving down our throats for the past 90 years. However, as things move along, Colleen Moore’s spiritual crisis takes center stage.
When we first meet her, riding in to save Arthur’s day, she gives every appearance of being the first in a long line of Vidorian powerhouse females:
And she IS that, in a way. However, Vidor’s plot forces her to take two steps back (she loses the use of her legs and becomes an infantilized invalid–cradling dolls and looking simperingly at the camera after being trampled in a stampede engineered by evil rustlers–whom we really don’t need to talk about… but one of them is actually called “The Duke”), before she takes a transcendental leap forward beyond her body’s limitations in the finale… By “standing up for her man” (who is once again about to become–literally–“corpse cold”), Gwen enters a state of grace and emerges as the true protagonist of The Sky Pilot.
Again–this takes us by surprise–because Vidor leads us to believe that Bill’s behind-the-scenes plan to build a real church for his beloved pal Arthur is driving the narrative. Suitably impressed by the preacher’s man’s man skills around the ranch, Bill and all of the other guys relent and decide that, just as Paris was worth a mass to Henry IV, Arthur is worth a sermon. But Vidor’s handy “evil rustlers” once again intervene to save the film from its superficial tendencies–taking us from THIS scene:
To this one:
And opening the way for THIS transformation:
To paragon of heroism–powered not by “wild” faith in one’s own physical prowess, nor by a “mild” faith in rational progress, but by an influx of a purely human “Holy Spirit” born of concern for another being–and belief in the individual’s ability to overcome all merely contingent realities (without any supernatural intervention):
ONLY King Vidor, in Hollywood 1921, would have chosen to make a film about a woman’s accession to a state of grace (not through suffering, but through transcendent moral agency). And even Vidor couldn’t sell that idea without couching it in the buddy drama/civilizing mission narrative that I described earlier. However, I think it’s wonderfully significant that the “Sky Pilot” never does get to preach a sermon–and that Colleen Moore’s Gwen emerges as the true protagonist of the movie from the ashes of the newly-built church that seemed to provide a natural terminus for both of its “false plots”.
see you soon friends!