Wikipedia defines cult as "a cohesive social group and their devotional beliefs or practices, which the surrounding population considers to be outside of mainstream cultures. The surrounding population may be as small as a neighborhood, or as large as the community of nations. They gratify curiosity about, take actions against, or ignore a group, depending on its reputed similarity to cults previously reported by mass media." It goes on to say "In common popular usage, cult has a positive connotation for fan groups of art, music, writing, fiction, and fashion devotees." Cults also have religious connotations as well, but cult in these senses is outside my frame of reference.
One-Eyed Jacks has, though, for a long time been referred to as a "cult classic" by critics and movie historians. I've always thought this was because, though the film isn't often cited as an example of good movie-making, it still commands a dedicated audience, who regard it as a wonderful piece of entertainment, perhaps because, or in spite of, its evident cinematic qualities. In other words, a film may be a "cult classic" for reasons that set it apart from the usual criteria that are applied to films. This is rather like saying that a book may become a cult classic, even though it is badly written, or misuses history, or is distorted or misshapen in some other way.
One of my college English professors once said, in defining the meaning of the literary form novel, that it was a book that "had something wrong with it". That's a cute way of saying that a novel contains a seed or germ of paradox or contradiction that doesn't easily resolve into a fixed or accepted meaning. Books, or movies, which don't readily "fit" into any accepted modes of traditionally accepted forms, may be described as having "novel" characteristics. The word novel obviously comes from the Romance Language root for "new" or "newly made" or "intriguingly new" (invented). Thus, any "novel" or film which strikes us as different (perhaps in a new way) could qualify as a novel work, as, in the sense above, a "movie that has something wrong with it".
Well, then, what does One-Eyed Jacks have wrong with it, and why might its wrongness be somehow beside the point, or might it even be interesting because of its wrongness? How might its difference by the cause for interest, and even celebration?
The movie is based on a Western Genre novel by Charles Neider called The Authentic Death of Hendry Jones . I'm unfamiliar with the book (I don't generally read Westerns), but Neider would be familiar to general readers as the editor of a number of books by and about Mark Twain, in addition to books of fiction and non-fiction. Neider was not a classic academician, but more of a popular freelancer who turned his hand to many subjects.
The script was worked on by Guy Trosper and Calder Willingham, as well as by Brando himself. The story of the development of the original idea, and Kubrick and Brando's efforts to make a film that would serve as a suitable vehicle for his talents, is a complicated one, which I can't detail here.
Brando had little to prove, at this stage in his career, as an actor, having already taken not only the theatrical world by storm, starring in the Broadway production of Tennessee Williams's A Streetcar Named Desire (and in the film version of 1951), but Hollywood as well, acting in a string of notable efforts which included Viva Zapata! , Julius Caesar 1953], The Wild One , On the Waterfront , Guys and Dolls , Sayonara , and The Young Lions . His fame gave him the license he needed to experiment on a script that interested him, and he made the most of it. Indeed, it may be seen that the making of this film signified a turning-point in his career, which went into free-fall for several years, before bouncing back with The Godfather in 1972.
The most obvious observation to make about the narrative as a whole, is that the movie is an incomplete or slightly awkward adaptation, partly because the novel itself, by Neider, is also an adaptation--of the Billy the Kid myth.
The opening sequence of One-Eyed Jacks poses an obvious dilemma. Rio, played by Marlon Brando, is seated on a counter "insolently" eating a banana. To his left is a scale. After throwing the half-eaten banana into one tray, he tosses a glove into the other, and watches for a moment, but he looks away. The camera draws back to reveal that this is a bank robbery in progress, and that the scale is in a bank. The scale, a symbol of justice, has been exposed as a device for measuring precious metals--ironically, a banana and a glove. The image of the scale introduces the dilemmas that characterize Rio's later moral struggles between revenge and forgiveness, lust and love, evil and good.
Rio, a typical ruthless "fast gun" with an atypical sulky, sensitive demeanor, and his partner Dad Longworth (played by Malden), manage to escape from the bank robbery, but are pursued in due course, and pinned down on a desert bluff, filmed at the Zabriskie Point overlook in Death Valley. The pair split up, and Brando is caught, while Malden escapes, betraying his partner and riding away to freedom. After years in a prison in Sonora, Rio escapes, shackled to another prisoner, and vows to track down Longworth--whom he discovers has betrayed him--and secure his revenge. Rio falls in with a gang of soulless criminals. In a Faustian bargain, he agrees to help them rob a bank in Monterey, California, since the sheriff of the town is--Dad Longworth, now passing in the world as a reformed man, living the straight life with a wife (Katy Jurado) and adopted daughter. Rio confronts Longworth, pretending friendship, but there is an obvious suspicion and tension between the two which we know can only end in violence. To complicate matters, Rio is attracted to Longworth's daughter Louisa. Longworth needs no "excuses" to motivate him to get rid of Rio, but after Rio kills a man in a local tavern, and deflowers Louisa, he ties Rio up to a hitching-rail in town and smashes his right hand with the butt of a shotgun, seemingly rendering him unable to wield a pistol. Eventually the two shoot it out in town, with Rio killing Longworth, and riding off into the sunset (headed for Oregon) with Louisa, across the white dunes near Carmel.
Brando's performance as the psychologically damaged hero is classic genre material. He exudes a smoldering, barely restrained rage as the revenge-seeker, while being charming and seductive when the spirit moves him. Malden's Longworth is brilliant as the immoral, duplicitous lawman who'll stop at nothing to keep his betrayal secret and his fake public identity intact.
As with all movie Westerns, One-Eyed Jacks is a cartoon of actual life as it was lived in the frontier towns of Western America. We accept the hackneyed cliches and conventions of a form that have become so routine they almost require no suspension of disbelief to work. It's all a game. But what makes this movie different is the complexity of the characters, who aren't cardboard people at all, but real individuals with contradictory natures--neither all good nor all bad, but mixed-up, like all of us.
Getting back to our discussion of what "cult", and a movie "that has something wrong with it" means, I guess the thing that is "wrong" with One-Eyed Jacks is Rio's divided nature. He's capable of love and dedication to an optimistic view of life's potential, but he's burdened by a huge resentment which is the source of his violent anger and ruthlessness. The pursuit of Longworth dramatizes this division: He knows that if he kills Longworth, he'll always be on the run, with a price on his head, but he can't resist his deep rancor. Despite the jeopardy in which he willfully places himself, there is the possibility that he may be able to escape into the landscape of the wide-open West, an option that is one of the chief qualities of the Western Genre myth: That one can literally escape one's identity and make a new life. Longworth fails to escape, and is discovered and made to pay the ultimate debt. Rio, who has vanquished his demon, may yet renounce his badness and find happiness.
On balance, One-Eyed Jacks is in fact a superior Western. Released at the dawn of the 1960's, it may once have stood for the awakening of the rebellious Generation that renounced the platitudes and conventions of the 1950's, fulfilling the "outsider" part of the "cult" designation. Is One-Eyed Jacks an "outsider" movie? In one sense it is, of course, since it glorifies, or at least focuses our attention, on the fate and salvation of a criminal type, an obvious outsider. It was followed by a long string of similarly conceived movies, each of which shared this theme of the misunderstood or neglected passionate misfit, glamorous in defeat, heroic in victory, but always on the outside, looking in.