So, I finally got around to watching Hud for the first time. It was about a month or so back that I popped a copy into the disk player. I didn’t know what to expect really, but I’d heard it described as one of Paul Newman’s rebellious best. So, I sat back and prepared to watch him take on the world for the umpteenth time in my viewing history. He does of course, just as expected.
What I didn’t expect was that this time I’d be rooting for the world.
We meet Hud as he emerges from the house of a married woman, angry to have been interrupted by his nephew, and not the least bit remorseful about where he spent the night, not even when her husband arrives before Hud and his nephew can quit the scene. Not to worry though, Hud lays the blame on his nephew and they hightail it out of there. It’s a pretty damned low move, but just the sort one might expect from a devil-may-care young character Newman has played before. Still unwise to the story that would unfold before me I sat back waiting to see what Hud would do to make us forgive him for such flaws. To be sure, this character had the usual mixture of charm and seemingly forgivable flaws you might expect from such a role. I couldn’t wait to see where the plot would take him.
Make no mistake, however, this is not a film about redemption, reform, or freedom from convention. Quite the contrary.
So what is the story here?
Hud stands to inherit a ranch from his father, but a likely outbreak of hoof&mouth disease creates a dilemma for the family and their ranch-hands. Hud wants to sell the cattle before the veterinarian can diagnose it. His father (Homer) won’t hear of it. It isn’t simply that the two men disagree; they genuinely don’t like each other and their conflict over the cattle considerably widens the rift between them. Hud believes his father’s distrust to be the result of an accident resulting in the death of his brother (Homer’s other son). Hud had been driving, and yes, liquor had been involved. But Hud’s father tells us that wasn’t the source of the problem. Something about Hud had always bothered him, something about the way Hud treated others. Hud’s response to this new crisis served only to make Homer that much more uncomfortable with his remaining son, and with the prospects of his own legacy, the ranch.
As Hud takes ever greater liberties with those around him, I couldn’t help but side with his father. In time, all the more decent characters will leave Hud. His father dies’ a prospective love interest leaves town (for damned good reason!); the ranch workers are let go because there is nothing for them to do; and finally Hud’s nephew abandons him in the final scenes. I couldn’t help but cheer for each of them that got away, and in the final scene, as Hud slams the doorway of the ranch-house leaving us outside, I couldn’t help but feel a trace of relief to finally get away from him myself.
It was an awesome performance.
This is a film about conflicting values. Hud sees his many years working on the ranch as an investment, and he expects a return on that invest in the form of an economically viable property. The outbreak of disease now threatens that return, and his father’s moral scruples aren’t helping much in his view.
Over the course of the film it becomes ever more clear just how little Hud sees in that ranch besides the money it may one day provide him. His failure to find any meaning in the work he does for the ranch itself is matched by his failure to connect with those around him. Hud has his moments of course. Here and there, we could almost hope to think him human, but this character was made to disappoint us at every turn. It’s only fitting that he should end up with the ranch and nothing else. no cattle, no family, no friends, nothing living around him. There is little doubt that he will somehow make the ranch work, and still less that he will do so utter alone. In the end, that is the choice Hud has made, and he seems quite content with the results.
I can’t help but see in Hud a perfect avatar of homo economicus as libertarians seem to understand him, a perfectly functioning rational agent out to maximize his pleasures and minimize his pains. He sees in work nothing but the exchange value of his products and in other people only the chance to cash in those values for direct personal pleasure. The bottom line in his thought is pure profit, nothing more.
And so, he’s a villain, so what? Who today could possibly oppose such an approach to a business venture? Who but a communist? …or worse, a liberal!
…or Hud’s father, a cultural conservative in his own right. Hud’s father, Homer, isn’t looking to redistribute wealth, but he understands the value of work itself, something not entirely reducible to the dollar value of its products. Homer understands that in working men also produce themselves and their communities, and that this has a value, one that cannot be reduced to profits. The issue becomes most clear when someone raises the prospect of drilling for oil. We’ll let Homer speak for himself:
Hud Bannon: My daddy thinks oil is something you stick in your salad dressing.
Homer Bannon: If there’s oil down there, you can get it sucked up after I’m under there with it. There’ll be no holes punched in this land while I’m here. They ain’t gonna come in and grade no roads so the wind can blow me away. What’s oil to me? What can I do with a bunch of oil wells? I can’t ride out every day and prowl amongst ’em like I can my cattle. I can’t breed ’em or tend ’em or rope ’em or chase ’em or nothing. I can’t feel a smidgen of pride in ’em ’cause they ain’t none of my doing.
Hud Bannon: There’s money in it.
Homer Bannon: I don’t want that kind of money. I want mine to come from something that keeps a man doing for himself.
So, I watch this film and I see in Homer a vision of generations that seem well past in the present day political landscape, generations who say capitalism as it is practiced to day as a threat their own way of life, a force that would destroy the conditions under which they would work and earn a living. It has been far too easy for far too long to assume that the opponents of capitalism have always been communists. What too many people seem to miss is that moment in history when the juggernaut of modern corporatism first threatens to take away the livelihood of those content with free markets, a moment in history when some at least might have known the difference.
Irony of ironies!
It seems many of the film’s viewers didn’t see the difference themselves. Apparently, in 1963. Apparently, a good portion of the American audience saw Hud just as I had expected to. They loved him. they saw in Hud precisely the rebellious hero that i had hoped to, and not the merciless villain I felt the film had actually shown me. Film critic Pauline Kael even went so far as to argue that the audience was wiser than the film-makers insofar as they rejected its critique of capitalism and celebrated the villain as if he were a hero. That’s one way to look at it. Another would be to take that as a measure of just how much modern America and its sensibilities had in 1963 already been shaped by men such as Hud.