Torrence may be best know to silent film fans as Buster Keaton's dad in Steamboat Bill Jr. Here, in his second film role, he's a hulking hayseed lunatic. In an interview included on the Image DVD, King makes clear that he envisioned Luke Hatburn as a kind of psychopath. He recounts instructing Torrence about his character, explaining that Luke doesn't act out of hate but out of a perverse enjoyment of violence. Having crossed the state line, Luke has to be restrained from shooting the sheriff. He doesn't want to kill the lawman, King told Torrence; he just wanted to see if he could knock the man from his horse. Throughout the film, Luke is a creature of uninhibited impulse, killing David's dog just for running past him, nearly killing David's brother with a rock moments later, and nearly raping his cousin, David's girlfriend, later in the picture. Torrence's facial expressions fit King's conception of the character, which he claims to have come up with independent of Edmund Goulding's screenplay: a savage, scarifying idiot.
Ralph Yearsley as Saul "Little Buzzard" Hatburn.
Tol'able David is like a more serious and brutal version of Harold Lloyd's rural idylls like Grandma's Boy or The Kid Brother. Barthelmess takes what looks like a huge beating in the climactic showdown, redeeming himself more in his own eyes than anyone else's. His mother would not allow David to seek revenge on the Hatburns for paralyzing his brother and indirectly causing his father's death by heart attack, because David was now the provider for the remaining family and could not risk his life in what looked like a suicide run on the villains. From random village comments David assumes that he's regarded as the coward of the county, and King does a good job of understating this to the point where you could believe that this is more David's opinion of himself than anyone else's. David is a well-constructed story that treats the rural characters with respect rather than as hillbilly stereotypes. I think it would retain its dramatic power with audiences today if they'd give it a chance. The villains, Torrence especially, are a big reason for that, as they are probably the most familiar element in the film for modern viewers. Torrence is so good as a villain, in fact, that he helps Tol'able David retain its status as a silent classic.