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The Western: An Overview

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

Through deserted streets, Sheriff Will Kane (Gary Cooper)
walks to meet the gunfighters who have arrived
on the noon train in
High Noon.

The Western Matures

In the '50s as the Cold War developed and the Korean War intensified, America looked to the nation's past for guidance. The traditional values of the Western provided prime material for this political climate and the Western exploded in popularity. However, the audiences now were more sophisticated and demanded more complex themes and subject matter than the simple horse operas of the past.

With these developments, the Western began to reexamine how Hollywood depicted Indians. Movies appeared such as Broken Arrow, Across the Wide Missouri, and Devil's Doorway (all 1950). The achievements of these movies now seem somewhat limited--featuring white performers in the Indian roles and regularly killing off the Indian women who dare to become involved with white men----but at the time, they served an important role in opening the eyes of America to the great injustice done the Indians.

With this questioning approach toward the past, the Western began to depict a hardened, at times even bleak, view of the West. In The Gunfighter (1950), Gregory Peck plays gunfighter Jimmy Ringo. He's tired of being challenged by every cocky up-and-coming gunslinger, and he wants to retire. But a gunfighter can never really retire. There is always some young punk ready to take a chance and say he killed the great Jimmy Ringo. And in High Noon (1952), a certain moral decay crept into the American frontier, as Sheriff Will Kane (Gary Cooper) must plead for help from townsfolk before the noon train arrives and Frank Miller, a vengeance bent outlaw, comes gunning for him.

Richard Jaekel lay dead after goading Gregory Peck into a gunfight in The Gunfighter.
[click photo for larger version]

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.

The Searchers

View an animated GIF of the final sequence from The Searchers (25 frames, 193KB).

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).

page 5 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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