Of all things the Bible says we are supposed to do, the injunction of pacifism found in Matthew 5:38-39 is the most problematic: “Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth: But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.” It hardly needs to be said that most people who call themselves Christian do not follow Jesus in this regard. But there have always been a few who do so. Typically, such people retreat from the world, say, by entering a monastery. There they can hide out from the world, hoping to be left alone.
In American Westerns, however, such people cannot hide, for by its very nature, the setting of a Western is fraught with danger. If there is any place where pacifism seems to be wholly out of place it is in the American West of the nineteenth century, especially as depicted in the movies. In some cases, the pacifist capitulates, taking up arms in the end, as in Destry Rides Again (1939) or High Noon (1952). In other cases, there is a community of pacifists, and they are able to remain true to their ideals by piggybacking off others who kill all the bad guys for them, as in Wagon Master (1950). In Friendly Persuasion (1956), results are mixed. There is some resistance to evil, but it is kept to a minimum, and the central characters (the Birdwell family) seem to survive mostly by luck, with their ideals mostly intact. Angel and the Badman falls into the same category as Wagon Master, except that in the latter, the religious community consists of Mormons, whereas in the former, the community consists of Quakers.
The “badman” in this movie is Quirt Evans. Since he is played by John Wayne, we wonder, “Just how bad can he be?” I mean, has John Wayne ever played a badman in the movies? It turns out, much as we suspected, that for all the talk about his being a badman, it seems to be just that, talk. Apparently, he once worked as a lawman for Wyatt Earp. Then he became a cattleman for a while. But one day, Wall Ennis, the man who raised Quirt like a father, was shot down by Laredo Stevens (Bruce Cabot) while another man grabbed his hand as he was going for his gun. That’s when Quirt sold his herd and began plaguing Laredo, hoping to goad him into a gunfight in front of witnesses. For example, when Laredo and his gang rustle some cattle, killing all the cowboys who were herding them, Quirt and his boys bonk Laredo’s gang over the head, knocking them off their horses. Then Quirt’s gang takes off with the cattle and presumably sells them. I guess the idea is that the cattle were already stolen, so what Quirt did was not really so bad.
Before that however, at the beginning of the movie, Quirt beats Laredo to some land he wanted. Laredo’s gang chases him until he collapses from exhaustion and a gunshot wound. A couple of Quakers help him get to a telegraph station to make the claim and then take him in so that he can convalesce. One Quaker in particular, Penny (Gail Russell), is the “angel” in this movie.
Dr. Mangram (Tom Powers) comes over to take the bullet out. He makes a snide remark about the way the wicked always seem to be able to survive gunshot wounds while the godly succumb to infection, and Penny’s father chastises him, saying, “You so-called atheists. You always feel so compelled to stretch your godlessness.” With this brief exchange, the movie expresses its attitude toward atheists. First, the atheist is rude and churlish, entering the house of a family he knows to be devout and mocking their religion. For a long time in the movies, atheists were never allowed to be congenial and easygoing, as in reality, many of them are. Movie atheists had to let everyone know just how much they despised religion. Second, this movie was made at a time when a lot of people believed that there really was no such thing as an atheist, that their denial of God’s existence was a self-deluding pretense. Hence the use of the term “so-called.”
Another feature of the stereotypical movie atheist is the emphasis on reality and logic, at the expense of sentiment and feeling. Dr. Mangram says to Penny’s mother, “You can carry this head-in-sand attitude just so far in the world of reality.” She replies, “We assure you that you will finally realize that realism untempered by sentiments of humanity is really just a mean, hard, cold outlook on life.” She is right, of course. But that is precisely the sort of thing David Hume might have said. In reality, atheists have as much sentiment as anyone else, but movie atheists tend to lack these feelings.
Anyway, Quirt and Penny fall in love. She is willing to follow him anywhere, but he is not sure he wants to be tied down. So this struggle goes on throughout the movie, while she acquaints him with the views of the Society of Friends, such as that a person can harm only himself, even if he appears to harm someone else. One day, she gets him to leave his gun behind while they go for a ride. As this is shortly after the cattle rustling incident, Laredo and his boys show up and give chase until the wagon goes over a cliff and into the water. Penny almost drowns. Quirt gets her back to the house and Dr. Mangram is sent for. When it looks as though Penny is likely to die, Quirt decides to kill Laredo.
Right after he rides off, Penny comes to. She seems to be completely well. Mangram is stunned. “I can’t understand it,” he says. “I can’t understand it at all. There must be some logical, scientific explanation. I am too old to start believing in miracles.” And thus does the movie refute the atheist.
A common feature of the Western is the gunslinger with a guilty past. He wants to hang up his guns, but there is one last thing he must do. Another recurring feature involves revenge. The hero relentlessly pursues his goal of getting his revenge against a man who killed someone he loved. But when the moment arrives, he renounces his revenge. However, the man he was pursuing somehow gets what is coming to him anyway.
And so it is with Angel and the Badman. Quirt rides into town and calls out Laredo, who is in the saloon with the sidekick who helped him gun down Wall Ennis. Suddenly, Penny’s parents ride into town in a wagon with Penny in the back. She gets Quirt to hand her his gun. Just then, Laredo and his companion step out into the street. Quirt turns around unarmed. And then Marshall McClintock (Harry Carey), who has been threatening to hang Quirt and Laredo throughout the movie, shoots Laredo and his friend, killing them both. Quirt tells McClintock that from now on he is a farmer.
It is worth noting that, although Penny and her family would have been disappointed with Quirt if he had killed Laredo, they are just fine with the way McClintock killed Laredo instead. And so, once again, pacifists manage survive in a violent world, because someone else was willing to do the killing for them.