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The Western: An Overview

Page 1Page 2Page 3Page 4Page 5Page 6Page 7    by Gary Johnson -- page 4 of 7

John Ford Country: Monument Valley--the setting for
Stagecoach and several other classic Westerns by Ford.

The Rise of the Feature Western

Throughout most of the '30s, Hollywood provided few feature Westerns. Among the exceptions were The Plainsman and Wells Fargo. But then suddenly in 1939, with World War II developing in Europe, Hollywood turned out a spate of Westerns, including Union Pacific, Jesse James, Stagecoach, Dodge City, and Destry Rides Again. Stagecoach marked John Wayne's return to the "A" Western and firmly established him as a major star. John Ford even gave Wayne the type of on-screen entrance usually reserved for only the biggest stars: the camera zooms from a medium shot to a close-up of Wayne's face. Stageocoach is an exciting tale of pursuit across hostile Indian territory, filmed with visual poetry by John Ford. Andre Bazin described Stagecoach as "the ideal example of the maturity of the style brought to classic perfection" (Bazin, pg. 149). Although Stagecoach was a standout critically, it did only middling box-office business.

The biggest box-office returns went to the stories of outlaws--Jesse James and Dodge City. Jesse James established the badman biography as a major Western type and paved the way for films about the Daltons, the Youngers, Billy the Kid, and the James brothers. Dodge City established the town-taming Western, filled with brawling, expansive action, including a climactic fight aboard a burning train.

The Westerns of 1939 may simply have been a sign of the times: war was approaching and feelings of patriotism were on the rise. The Westerns helped the country as a whole look at the nation's history while we prepared to send men into battle. With themes such as "Winning the West" taking hold in the genre, the Western celebrated American values, and films such as Virginia City, Santa Fe Trail and They Died With Their Boots On soon appeared.

Poster artwork for The Outlaw prominently featured Jane Russell..
[click photo for larger version]

But as the war years wore on, Hollywood turned to new, less optimistic material. With The Ox-Bow Incident, a powerful attack on lynch parties, social themes came to the Western. And with Howard Hughes' The Outlaw, a censorship storm erupted over the movie's sexual content. A Maryland judge who banned the film described Jane Russell's breasts as hanging over the picture "like a thunderstorm spread over a landscape." Posters advertised "Action! Thrills!! Sensations!!! Primitive Love!!!!" Duel in the Sun followed in a similar vein. As David O. Selznick's attempt to create a Western version of Gone With the Wind, Duel in the Sun provided a sweaty eroticism, painted in throbbing tones of red and orange by director King Vidor and cinematographer Lee Garmes. It's a tale of mad, sadistic love told between cracks of thunder and evangelistic sermons. Critics simply labeled it "Lust in the Dust."

After the end of WWII as the House of Un-American Activities scoured Hollywood for communists, a darker vision of human nature took root in Hollywood, Westerns assumed a sharper, more violent demeanor, resulting in the luridly, Freudian Pursued and the film noir-ish Blood On the Moon. In Pursued (1947), the hero (Robert Mitchum) experiences flashbacks on his traumatic childhood, and in Blood On the Moon (1948) director Robert Wise and cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca created a clastrophic world drenched in shadows and brimming with violence.

John Wayne and Montgomery Clift duke it out in Howard Hawks' Red River.
[click photo for larger version]

As America's interest in psychology grew, Western heroes and villains continued to grow in complexity until they weren't that easy to tell apart anymore. Howard Hawks's Red River is a classic movie from this period. John Wayne plays Tom Dunson, a tough authoritarian cattle rancher who barks out orders and refuses to take anyone's advice. After his adopted son (played by Montgomery Clift) takes control of a cattle drive away from him, Dunson becomes insane with anger and leads a posse of hired thugs to retake the cattle drive. Red River is a stunning Western, filled with brilliant characterizations and powered by a taut, unnerving tension as Wayne and Clift struggle for control of the herd.

Henry Fonda as Wyatt Earp in John Ford's My Darling Clementine.
[click photo for larger version]

Optimism hadn't completely disappeared from the Western after WWII, as evidenced by the work of John Ford. His My Darling Clementine (1946) builds relentlessly toward the Gunfight at the OK Corral (with Henry Fonda as Wyatt Earp, Victor Mature as Doc Holliday, and Walter Brennan as Old Man Clanton), but the movie's overwhelming concern is the effect of civilization on the frontier, which Ford paints in wholly positive terms (as embodied by the sweet innocence of Cathy Downs as Clementine). But even Ford wasn't completely immune from America's darkening attitudes. In Fort Apache, for example, (the first film in Ford's magnificent trilogy of cavalry Westerns) Henry Fonda plays an arrogant, Indian-hating lieutenant who leads his troops on an unwarranted attack. After he and his troops are annihilated, his second-in-command (John Wayne) obscures the truth so that the cavalry's name isn't smeared--and in the process makes Fonda into a hero. Told against the stark beauty of Monument Valley, Fort Apache presents an enthusiastic portrait of cavalry life, but this enthusiasm is tempered by undercurrents of dissatisfaction with the men we call heroes.

page 4 of 7


Page 1 Introduction

Page 2 Beginnings

Page 3 The B Western

Page 4 The Rise of the Feature Western

Page 5 The Western Matures

Page 6 The Western Loses Its Way

Page 7 The Western Survives

[Works Cited]



Other Western articles in this issue:

The Western Menu Page

The Western: An Overview

The Silent Western as Mythmaker

Spaghetti Westerns

Western Web Links


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