“They changed things around, dam’em…they smeared it with blood. I’ve just gotta find another way to live, that’s all,” says Gable in the last movie he ever made. Almost by default in order to be the counterpoint to the three men’s lifestyle, Monroe champions the mustangs who Gable and his pals used to capture so they could be trained as riding horses, and now, as the naive Marilyn finds out, they’re captured to be sold by the pound for dog food. A really subtle touch is that, the night before, their pet dog begins to shiver. The Gable character tries to downplay the reason, but Eli Wallach, the pilot, states it plainly: the dog knows that they’re going to be the predators, and the horses are going to be the prey. Dogs are predators by nature but they defer to greater and bigger predators, so the dog acts like prey when he snaps at Marilyn, a well-meaning but very visible member of the predator genus.
“Things got changed around. None of us is in charge in this world,” argues Gable as he tries to explain to Monroe that he’s still doing his thing; it’s just that his thing–chasing and lassoing mustangs for a fee–now goes to a different and bloody end. Right up to very nearly the movie’s end, though, he maintains his position by dominating the herd stallion. “It’s just that I don’t want anyone making up my mind for me,” he says just after he sets the stallion free. Exhausted and bloodied from his mano-a-mano with the stallion, he’s realized that the means might be palatable, but the end has now become indefensible, unjustifiable. Ya gotta like that kind of epiphany: hard-won and self-referring.
The acting throughout the entire movie was exceptional. Even moreso when you consider that Gable deplored Marilyn’s lack of professionalism on set, often arriving late and suffering from mood swings and depression, probably complicated by an array of ill-advised prescription drugs.
Years ago, I’d read that real mustangs were wrangled for this movie: that doesn’t surprise me. Hundreds of horses were injured or died in the making of old westerns. I’ve seen “The Misfits” at least seven times in my life and I still find it hard to watch, but it’s a cautionary tale on so many levels–not the least of which is that when old ways of life die, stubborn stragglers and hangers-on (like Eli Wallach) are the ones who suffer, whereas those, like Gable’s and Clift’s characters, move on, move away, get away clear, get clear away. In short, they skip all discovered errors and continue.