When it comes to villains, Elliott Marston is among my favorites. During my recent rewatch of Quigley Down Under in preparation for my Cinematic Chiasmus article, I noticed that Marston is surprisingly sympathetic. I’m not saying he’s a paragon of virtue. He does plenty of villainous things. I’m just saying that his vices are outweighed by his virtues. Here are four reasons why the villain of Quigley Down Under isn’t such a bad guy.
His Response to Threats Can Be Seen as Justifiable
I can see how Elliott Marston justifies every murder he commits as an act of self-defense. The first ones we see are definitely not cruel. He tries to show mercy to a couple of deserters from the British Legion. But when they reach for guns to put Marston and his men in danger, he doesn’t hesitate to shoot them dead. That’s the pattern for all of his actions in the film. He reacts with the same level of force being used against him. He could have shot Matthew Quigley for violently throwing him through a window, but he doesn’t. He responds in kind, allowing his men to rough him up before dumping him in the Outback to die of dehydration. It’s a grisly death, but it shows he’s not a coldblooded killer, and he even offers Quigley a chance at life, however slight that might be. That will come into play in a big way at the end of this article.
In the second half of the film, he knows that Quigley is coming to kill him, but he refuses to run and hide. He stays at his ranch and waits for Quigley to come to him. When he finds that Quigley has an insurmountable advantage over him, thanks to his long-range rifle, he sends his men to do a sneak attack and take Quigley alive.
He Has a Tragic Past
Marston tells Quigley the sad story of how his mother and father were murdered by aborigines when he was just a child, robbing him of a proper upbringing. They attacked so quickly that his mother was still holding her sewing. His desire to kill aborigines, at least at the start of the film, comes across as a reasonable response to a malevolent and unpredictable danger. It’s only after Quigley spends some time with a group of aborigines that we as an audience get to see them as simply misunderstood.
Perhaps Marston is blinded by his childhood trauma. Whatever the case, his cruelty against aborigines is tinged with tragedy on both sides. It’s hard for me to put all the blame on him, even though his hands aren’t entirely clean.
He’s an Equal-Opportunity Employer
Despite Marston’s traumatic history with aborigines, he employs three of them on his ranch. And he trusts one of them in particular as his closest servant. I don’t recall hearing how he pays those servants, but there’s no reason to suspect they’re treated any differently than his other employees.
To be fair, the aborigines don’t look happy to be where they are. And as soon as Quigley kills Marston, they leave his ranch to return to their own people. So perhaps his employment of aborigines is less about giving them an opportunity they wouldn’t have had otherwise and more of a power trip to show that he is above them. Whatever the case, he’s not just a bloodthirsty villain out to kill aborigines indiscriminately. He’s rather humane, all things considered.
He Shows His True Colors at the End
One final fact demonstrates Marston’s most admirable quality. And I think it makes up for his many flaws. After all the hearsay of Marston poisoning aborigines and sending his men on missions of murder, he gets one last chance at the end of the film to show his true colors. He gives Quigley a revolver and engages in a duel with him. Before I point out why this shows he’s not such a bad guy, I should mention a few things:
- He believes Quigley has never used a revolver before
- He’s never met anyone quicker on the draw than himself
- The duel is 3-to-1 in his favor
He thinks he has a stacked deck that all but ensures his victory. But the one fact that overshadows all of those seemingly underhanded tactics is this: the revolver he gave Quigley was loaded! He could have cheated and given him an empty gun, but he didn’t. A sense of honor compelled him to offer Quigley at least a faint chance of winning. A truly monstrous villain never would have done something like that to put his own life in jeopardy.
Someone will probably tell me in a comment that the Joker, in The Dark Knight, is a monstrous villain, but he handed Harvey Dent a loaded gun and put his own life in peril. But that’s not entirely accurate because he held the hammer down, preventing Dent from firing, even if he had gotten the coin-toss result he wanted.
A Good Bad Guy
Elliott Marston is no ordinary villain. He’s generally fair-minded and rarely acts out of spite. He sees himself as the good guy because everything he does is in response to what he reasonably perceives to be injustices done against him. His last words include, “Some men were born in the wrong century. I think I was born on the wrong continent.” Indeed, from a different perspective he could be seen as the tragic hero of his own story. I still think he’s not such a bad guy in Quigley’s story. It’s just impossible for him to match Quigley’s pristine honor and goodness throughout the film.
It was bold of the filmmakers to make their villain so sympathetic and nuanced. The only reason he lost is because of his hubris. He didn’t think anyone could beat him in a fair contest. He was wrong, but that doesn’t make him anything worse than an imperfect, complex man.
This is the Deja Reviewer bidding you farewell until we meet again.
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