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Entered World War I, Wellman, who never lacked a sense of adventure, went overseas as an ambulance driver and soon joined the aviation unit of the French Foreign Legion. , who—impressed with both Wild Bill’s war exploits and youthful good looks—offered to help get him started in the film business as an actor. But, after acting in one role in a 1919 Fairbanks western called The Knickerbocker Buckaroo, Wellman was—as he recounted later in life—so distressed watching himself on screen that he immediately left the theater and vomited.

Bruno in Safe in Hell, to Frank Conroy’s Major Tetley in Ox-Bow—abound in Wellman’s work. Finally, a subject Wellman explored repeatedly during his career is justice and judgment. What responsibility, if any, do we as individuals or as a society have in addressing economic and social injustices? We see this idea explored in films such as Beggars of Life (1928), Heroes for Sale (1932), and Wild Boys of the Road (1933). And who decides what’s just and what’s unjust, and ultimately who is entitled to pass judgment on people accused of crimes or socially unacceptable behavior?

And an interesting footnote is that all the key people involved with it—Wellman, 20th Century–Fox production head Darryl Zanuck (who green-lighted the film), writer/producer Lamar Trotti, star Henry Fonda, and others—also knew this going in. But they all believed in the story, they all went ahead with the project anyway, and they all accepted consequences. As part of the bargain to even do the film, Wellman—to help the studio recoup anticipated losses—agreed to do two additional and far more marketable (and forgettable) films for Zanuck.

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