During the '50s, the Western's biggest competition came from the plethora of horse operas on television. As a result, Hollywood looked for ways to make their products even more attractive and entice audiences out of their living rooms and into the theaters. Color soon became an essential part of the Western. Wide-screen Westerns such as Vera Cruz and Broken Lance emphasized the majestic terrain of the West. Even 3-D came to the West in movies such as Hondo and The Charge at Feather River.
|Alan Ladd and Brandon De Wilde in George Steven's Shane.|
[click photo for larger version]
Director George Stevens, however, pushed the Western in a different direction with Shane in 1953. The most popular Western of the decade, Shane provided an aesthetic vision of the West, combined with a shocking portrayal of violence, as when Elisha Cook, Jr. is knocked backwards by a gun shot from Jack Palance. Some critics, however, attacked Shane. Andre Bazin claimed that other Westerns "extract explicit themes from implied myths" while Shane is all myth (Bazin, pg. 152). Robert Warshow said Alan Ladd is an "aesthetic object" unlike Gary Cooper or Gregory Peck who "bear in their bodies and their faces mortality, limitation, the knowledge of good and evil" (Warshow, pg. 84).
For Westerns of this period, Bazin coined the term "super Western," meaning a Western "that would be ashamed to be just itself, and looks for some additional interest to justify its existence . . . in short some quality extrinsic to the genre and which is supposed to enrich it" (Bazin, pg. 151). In this view, High Noon injects the Western with a social critique of contemporary orientation and Shane self-consciously strives for the mythic.
|Jimmy Stewart gets dragged through hot coals by angry cattle ranchers in Anthony Mann's The Man From Laramie.|
[click photo for larger version]
Other directors were content to work within the conventions of the genre. Anthony Mann and Budd Boetticher were two such directors. They each made highly regarded Westerns in the '50s that are filled with reverence for the land and the decisions that men must make. Working with Jimmy Stewart and later Gary Cooper, Mann created a magnificent view of the West, tempered by the bitterness of his leading characters, in movies such as Bend of the River, The Naked Spur, The Man From Laramie, and Man of the West. . Bazin said "Each of Mann's films reveals a touching frankess of attitude toward the Western, an effortless sincerity to get inside its themes and there bring to life appealing characters and to invent captivating situations." Bazin lauded Mann for "that feeling of the open air, which in his films seems to be the very soul of the Western" (Bazin, pg. 156). The same could be said of Boetticher's films (made in collaboration with producer Harry Joe Brown and writer Burt Kennedy), where Randolph Scott played a hero obsessed with revenge. This brilliant series of Westerns began with Seven Men From Now in 1956 and concluded with Comanche Station in 1960.
John Ford started the '50s with the optimistic and lyrical Wagon Master, but by the latter half of the decade a tone of desperation, anguish, and bitterness began to seep into his films. Whereas Wagon Master had endorsed civilization's encroachment upon the wilderness, The Searchers cast a questioning gaze upon the men we call heroes and the place that society reserves for them. Before The Searchers, Ford had never questioned the rituals of society, as he allows Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) to do in this film. While a funeral is in progress, Ethan mutters "Put an Amen on it" so that he can begin searching for his brother's kidnapped daughter. The land itself--the towering buttes and the scorched terrain of Monument Valley--echoes the absurdity of Ethan's never-ending quest. Occasionally his rage explodes, as when he madly slaughters buffalo. "They won't feed any Comanche this winter." As the film's justly famous final shot shows, Ethan will forever remain apart from society, forever to search.
Howard Hawks created Rio Bravo as a reaction against High Noon. He didnít believe a self-respecting sheriff would go running around town asking for help. Instead, John T. Chance (John Wayne) actually refuses help from townsfolk. With only a small group of men to help him, Sheriff Chance must remain holed up in the jail, waiting for the marshall to arrive and pick up the prisoner, while the prisoner's friends wait in the bar down the street.
As the '50s wore on, Westerns continued to twist and bend the genre and, in the process, challenged our conceptions of heroes and myths. As a result, they also shook the audience's faith in Hollywood to provide the simple yarns it was accustomed to receiving. "Once the man with the gun was given a psychological dimension and confronted with problems that couldn't be solved by the speed of his draw, the simple appeal of the Western was in doubt" (Hardy, xiv). For a country with a long standing love affair with guns, doubting the efficacy of firearms to bring us civilization meant the world was much too complicated a place for the Western heroes.
William Wyler's The Big Country plays to these concerns. Gregory Peck plays a representative of modern society who enters the West to make it respectable, to change its laws of honor. He is in opposition to a world that judges bravery by the willingness to fight--"He called you a liar." When the time finally comes for punches to be thrown, the camera pulls back, showing the fighters on a wide plain and emphasizing the futility of their action. The men get tired during the fight--rather quickly at that--scrambling in the dirt. "What did we prove, huh?"
To round out this era of the Western, John Ford gave us an introspective tale about the nature of Western myths, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, and Sam Peckinpah gave us an elegiac tale of the passing of the Old West, Ride the High Country. Ford's film suggests we used men like Tom Doniphan (John Wayne) to tame the West, but we didn't give them a place after civilization was established. Like Ethan Edwards in The Searchers, Tom Doniphan never finds place in society. He never marries and he dies alone. And Peckinpah's Ride the High Country shows the gap between the Old West (gloriously embodied by Joel McCrea and Randolph Scott) and the New West (which is filled with horseless carriages and white trash miners).