The Misfits, a flawed but moving meditation on the vanishing spirit of western independence, opens in theaters on February 1, 1961.
The Misfits had all the right ingredients to become a truly great western. The director, John Huston, was one of the most talented in Hollywood. The screenwriter, Arthur Miller, was a celebrated playwright. The three stars—Marilyn Monroe, Clark Gable and Montgomery Clift—were among America’s brightest. Yet when the film opened in early 1961, the reviews were mixed, and the public largely ignored the film.
Audiences disliked the film in part because it failed to offer a clear-cut hero with whom they could identify. The Misfits tells the story of a four rootless losers trying to survive in the modern-day West. Monroe plays a frightened divorcee who falls in with an embittered rodeo rider (Clift) and an aging cowboy (Gable). These three improbable friends join a cynical cowboy to help him round up wild horses in the Nevada desert to sell for dog food.
In some of the films most memorable and stunning scenes, the four misfits are shown careening across the Nevada desert in an old pickup truck. Clift and Clark are swinging their lassoes, as if they had returned to the long-passed era of the Open Range. Yet, the jarring juxtaposition of the classic cowboy in a beat-up truck rather than on a noble steed suggests the film’s real theme: the days of the Old West were over, and misfits could no longer find freedom and sanctuary there. For Miller, the four characters belonged to a vanished age, and they stood as symbols of the many others left behind by progress. Like another similarly dark film that came out the following year, Lonely are the Brave, the heroes of The Misfits are doomed to loneliness and spiritual death. They are unable to fit into the modern mechanized world.
In the years to come, The Misfits would find a more appreciative audience, in part because the film was the swan song for Gable and Monroe, who both died shortly after it was released. The Misfits was a Western that was ahead of its time, a dark film that America found increasingly relevant during the turbulent years of the ’60s and ’70s. As overcrowding, pollution, war, and political scandals rocked the nation in these later decades, the film’s message of alienation and a longing for escape to the pre-modern world of the Old West found an ever more appreciative audience.