For a film with two settings and almost no action, The Petrified Forest is teeming with the opposites of the hopeful, the inspired, the disenchanted and the fatalistic, and holds your attention throughout. This 1936 film, stars Leslie Howard, a young Bette Davis, and a thirty-six-year-old newcomer named Humphrey Bogart.
The film opens in a dusty, wind-blown Arizona desert where a lonely gas station/restaurant sits totally isolated along an empty road. You can feel the dryness, heat, and the relentless sun baking everything to one gray color. The black and white film helps, too. (little joke).
Nowadays we would expect Bogart to appear in the beginning of the film, proud, arrogant, assured, but this is one of his early movies and he was unknown. Warner Brothers originally wanted Edward G. Robinson to play Bogart’s role as Duke Mantee, but it was Leslie Howard who insisted that Bogart be given the role he’d created on Broadway.
So Bogie doesn’t show up until halfway through, and instead, we are titillated by a young teenage Gabrielle (Bette Davis), a beautiful spark of life among the dreary surroundings, musing about poetry and art and yearning to see what the outside world holds.
She has many dreams, which she freely shares, but they’ve always fallen on deaf ears until Alan Squire (Leslie Howard) trudges out of the swirling dust. Alan is a burned out, homeless and penniless hitchhiker, yet he’s the first one to listen intently to Gabrielle, and encourages her despite his own self-criticism and cynicism.
Gabrielle is immediately infatuated by Alan’s calm European manner and his worldly experience beyond the Arizona desert where she has yet to venture. Alan answers her many questions about Paris with soliloquys on romance, intellectualism and his own failed writing career.
Alan was more than delighted to answer her questions but he’s reminded of his own dreams and failures. He tries to warn Gabrielle not to expect too much from life, as he had done.
Alan was headed for the Petrified Forest, a mile away, fascinated by the forest turned to stone just as his aspirations had done. At one point he says he’d like to be buried there.
Gabrielle’s obvious infatuation with Alan drives him to leave quickly and get on his way. He hitches a ride with a wealthy couple who’d stopped for gas, only to run smack into Duke Mantee (Bogart), whose getaway car had broken down. Duke and his henchmen were killers on the run from the law.
That’s when the film is reborn.
As the new chapter begins; all the characters are returned to the café, and this time Duke Mantee is holding all the cards. Duke and his men had already blazed into the café and now held Gabrielle, her grandfather and an ex-football player hostage as well as the wealthy couple and Alan while they wait for their accomplices including Duke Mantee’s girlfriend.
During this waiting game, conversations between the characters take on an other-worldly atmosphere as each character reveals whether their lives had turned out as they wanted.
Alan even asks the criminal Duke about his aspirations and motivations. When asked what his life had been like up to now, Duke Mantee says it was “great” – he’d spent most of it in jail. He knows his life is hanging in the balance: either he’ll be killed shooting it out with lawmen or hanged for his crimes. His future is already petrified – turned to stone – a tombstone.
The title of the film captures all elements of the story: petrification indicating extreme age- end of life, life turned to stone and becoming inflexible, a non-living forest, like the landscape around Gabrielle’s home. And there’s the emotion of being petrified, which pretty much describes the hostages in the café dependent on the whim of a criminal.
And, although they are opposites, Gabrielle and Alan become one in her dream of Paris and art and beauty, and they revel in her zest for life beyond the Petrified Forest. Alan’s (and Duke’s) redemption at the end I’ll not divulge, only to say that Alan ensures, through a most unselfish act, that Gabrielle will realize her dream.