In Rachel and the Stranger, William Holden plays David Harvey. David is a pioneer farmer living with his young son Davey in the Ohio wilderness. David's wife Susan died the previous year, sinking him into depression. It's only after finding Davey using a page from one of his school books as a sail for a toy boat, that David resolves to find a new wife. Not for love, but because he knew how important it was to Susan that Davey not grow up "woodsy".
David travels to the nearby stockade and consults the Parson. The Parson suggests David buy the contract of a bond woman named Rachael. David likes the idea of a servant. A woman but not a wife.
But the Parson says, "Decent church folk don't live together, man and woman, under the same roof without marriage." So David marries Rachael and takes her back to his farm.
Though he is distant, David is not cruel to her. She sleeps in the bed, David sleeps in another room on the floor. Rachael is timid, but works to endear herself. David takes no notice.
Davey, however, is downright cruel. When she tells him she was brought there to give him his schooling and sort of mother him, Davey spits back, "The devil it was! You're a bond slave is all!"
Things change when Jim, a family friend played by Robert Mitchum, arrives. Jim's a hunter and tracker. He was a one time suitor of Susan, and both he and David were surprised she chose David over him. Jim, it seems, has decided to settle down, and takes an instant interest in Rachel.
Jim is attentive and charming. David gets jealous. Both men begin to vie for Rachel’s attention, culminating in a fist-fight that leads to Rachel leaving them both. They go after her. There's an obligatory Indian attack, then it's over.
The three leads are solid. Young and Holden are convincing, and Mitchum is great as a laconic woodsman. But this is not a good movie. It takes us for simpletons incapable of picking up any subtlety.
Consider when, after arriving in the cabin, Rachael is clearing the table. David and Davey are talking. Davey says he won't be getting any music lessons. We see Rachael pause. This should have been it. Instead, the film cuts to a drawn-out close-up of Rachael. We see her look off screen, open her mouth to say something, then close it and look down at Davey. Davey looks back, daring her to talk. She doesn't and walks away. It's a ten second scene that should have played out in an instant.
The script is clumsy too. Consider the scene where David and Davey are out working. They hear a turkey call. Davey whines abut wanting to go take a shot at the bird. David grabs Davey and dives to the ground. The turkey call is the signal of the Shawnee Indians, he says. Of course, it's just Jim, but when he steps out of the woods to greet David he tells them there's signs of Shawnee up to the north. We haven't heard a thing about Indians up to this point, but now the script mentions Shawnee four times in the span of two minutes. There isn't a mention of them again until they attack in the finale. This scene, like the Indian attack itself, feels tacked-on and forced.
But that's how most of this film works. Characters don't act organically, they act conveniently. Rachael is a reserved mouse until Jim and David get into a fight, then she announces she's leaving. Rachael has to leave so that David can win her back. Davey spends most of the film spitting venom at Rachael, but after she makes him a meal one night, he's happy to have her as his mother. Davey has to like her to allow David to fall in love.
And speaking of Davey, he's an awful character. He's whiny and obstinate. We're given no reason to like him. Yes, he misses his mother. But the way he's presented, one suspects he was annoying long before Susan departed this earth.
There's a kernel of a good story here, and the three leads are more than capable of pulling it off. But the hackneyed melodramatic fable they're given to work with is frustrating at best, and annoying at worst. The adult themes of intimacy and emotional neglect belie a trite narrative that's presented in a condescending manner. Given the talent involved, we deserve better.