Westerns 101 — Revisionism Before the Revisionists

Welcome to the fifth article in the Westerns 101 series on Lewton Bus. In case you missed them, here’s what we’ve done so far:

Most casual movie fans are aware of a major cultural shift in Hollywood in the late 1960s and early 1970s, as a new breed of rebellious, anti-authoritarian auteurs arose and started using their movies to express their skepticism and anger about American politics and society. The Western was not immune from this insurgency; in fact, as it was close to the heart of America’s self-image, it quickly became a central battlefield for the re-examination of not just the American legend but the entire impulse toward political and historical mythmaking.

These movies are so distinctive in their radical stylistic and ideological shift that a name was created for them: the “Revisionist Western.” The premise of this categorization and label is that until the auteurist revolution, the Western was a rigid, fiercely traditional genre, so dogmatic in its lore that it was incapable of introspection and self-critical examination, until the younger generation of freethinking cynics arrived to tear it all down.

It’s a good story. It’s also completely wrong.

The Revisionist Western is worth looking at, and we’ll have an article discussing this period and several of its key movies in the coming days. But it’s even more important to recognize that filmmakers in the Western genre were very aware of the rules and boundaries of the mythology they were building, and that they were asking questions and plucking pessimistically at the loose threads in the lore long before the era of so-called revisionism.

To be sure, many, even most, Westerns did, indeed, stick close to the center of the formula, programmatically repeating and uncritically reinforcing the comfortable fictions people had come to expect from their cowboy movies. But many early Westerns also took a hard look at the unwritten assumptions of their genre, refusing to take the reassuring rituals for granted.

Here are seven movies you should know about.

THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE (1962) — directed by John Ford

Summary: A tenderfoot attorney comes to a frontier town and discovers a lawless free-for-all. Despite his inexperience, he risks his life standing up to the threats of the town’s chief bully, leading a local farmer, much more seasoned in Western survival, to volunteer to mentor the lawyer and prepare him for the inevitable confrontation.

Why it matters: For the majority of its runtime, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance feels like a classic, traditional Western. That’s unsurprising, considering the director is John Ford, one of the masters of the form; per his usual preoccupations, he gives us a story of a world at a key moment of transition, where we see the explicit debate between those who prefer the ungoverned freedom of the wilderness and those who are bringing civilization to the West, in the form of statehood. The movie is quaintly idealistic, almost naïve, in how it portrays political argument and freedom of the press and the other trappings of modern society as having the power to tame the wild, both of landscape and of men. It’s even shot in beautiful black-and-white, years after color became common, as if to emphasize the feeling of being a throwback.

So when the lawyer walks out into the center of town to face his sneering, snarling nemesis, we know he’s badly outclassed, but we are also relieved and reassured to see him victorious, gunning down the villain in the confrontation of the film’s title (under a big sign that says “Elections,” no less). Sure, he’d never even picked up a gun until a few weeks ago, versus his opponent’s lifetime of casual murder, but he’s the good guy, the symbol of law and civilization: of course he’s going to beat the odds with a surprise win. That’s how the Western works.

And then, toward the end, the movie throws us a huge, knee-buckling curve ball — not just a plot twist, not just new information, but something that forces us to reconsider the entire context of the story and rethink the film’s intentions from the ground up. It’s one of the most famous late-film reveals in history, punctuated with an all-time quotable line, but I’ll leave it undescribed here, on the chance that you, as a viewer in a modern movie-watching landscape that has pushed Westerns to the margin, are unfamiliar with it, because it’s worth experiencing the gut-punch for yourself.

Because the more it sits with you, the more you realize how deeply the movie cuts, how carefully it sets itself up to look like one thing before tipping its hand and showing its true agenda. It’s not enough that the greenhorn lawyer bests the diabolical blackhat; he uses his newfound fame to launch a political career, eventually becoming a United States Senator (not to mention that he’s played by James Stewart, the professional avatar of American decency). And it’s no accident that the experienced local who clumsily tries to educate the lawyer in the ways of the West is played by genre icon John Wayne, a surehanded man on the frontier who will be unnecessary in the future and exits the narrative through a literal back door, destined to be forgotten by history.

“Look at it,” someone says to Stewart’s character, gesturing at the developing country outside a train window in the closing moments of the film. “It was once a wilderness. Now it’s a garden. Aren’t you proud?” His only response is a hollow, awkward change of subject, which is interrupted when a railroad attendant arrives to pat him on the back and twist the ironic knife even deeper.

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance starts out as a conventional genre outing, an interesting but minor variation on a familiar tune, as an educated city boy is forced to reinvent himself and become truly masculine in the West — but at its close it has made a devastating reversal, savagely gutting itself and laying out the cynical machinery of mythmaking in plain view, nearly a decade before the ostensible “revisionist” period.

But it’s not the earliest example of a Western to look skeptically at itself.

WARLOCK (1959) — directed by Edward Dmytryk

Summary: The residents of a small mining town are fed up with the violence of a local gang of hooligans, so they hire a mercenary marshal to take care of them. But he and his partner may be more than the town can handle.

Why it matters: Warlock never tips all the way over into comedy, but there is clearly a sense of mischief and devilish glee in its persistent tweaking of the conventional Western formula.

It opens with that oldest of Western clichés, the main-street gun fight. Everyone in town scatters and hides at the shouted warning: “They’re comin’!” They bolt their doors and pull down their windowshades as the heavies ride in; then the leader strides forward, shouting for the sheriff to face him. In his office, the town’s lawman takes a deep breath, declines the deputy’s offer of help, and goes out, alone, to meet the scoundrel. As he assumes his position, he notices that the rest of the gang has surrounded him, aiming rifles at him from up and down the street.

And then, instead of a shootout, we watch the sheriff hightail it for his horse. Accompanied by the laughter and taunts of the gang, he heads for the hills and doesn’t look back.

The feeling that this is not your ordinary Western intensifies at the appearance of the gunfighter the town hires for its protection. He’s cold and dangerous, more of a thug than a professional enforcer, an easy killer kept in check by his much-friendlier partner. But then the gunfighter strikes up a romance with a local woman, provoking surprisingly bitter jealousy in his partner. Then an old romance of the partner, discarded and angry, rides into town, looking to stir up trouble; his reaction to her arrival reveals his true colors, as he’s just as violent and dangerous as the gunman whose leash he supposedly holds. And then one of the hooligans begins developing a guilty conscience about the gang’s antics, and he abandons them in favor of a nobler path.

And by the midway point, after you thought you knew who all the heroes and villains were going to be, the movie has flipped everybody all around, and you’re left wondering who you’re supposed to be rooting for in this scenario, and what’s going to happen next.

Sure, Warlock probably has too much plot and too many reversals jammed into its two-hour running time, and keeps you at a bit of a distance as you track all the relationships trying to stay ahead of the alliances and potential betrayals. But the cast is terrific, with Henry Fonda and Anthony Quinn outstanding as the gunman and his minder; they know these are meaty roles, and they dive in with enthusiasm. And this is the rare Western of this period to pay attention to its women; both the romantic interest and the jilted lover (played by Dolores Michaels and Dorothy Malone respectively) have depth and genuine agency beyond their functional roles in other people’s stories.

This is a little-known, under-appreciated Western, well ahead of its time, with much to offer a modern viewer.

And it’s still not the earliest film in the genre to bring psychological complexity, moral ambiguity, and wry self-awareness to the table.

NAKED SPUR (1953) — directed by Anthony Mann

Summary: In the remote backcountry, a bounty hunter tracks his dangerous quarry, and solicits help from an occasional fellow explorer. But far away from civilization, with thousands of dollars at stake, do honesty and honor have any value?

Why it matters: James Stewart is a much better actor than most people appreciate, especially those who think of him primarily in his good-hearted, aw-shucks everyman mode. He knew his own screen persona very well, and exactly how fans liked seeing him; but he was also a thoughtful, quietly political actor who delighted in occasionally subverting himself, using his natural charisma and decency to turn the audience’s expectations against them. In this, he found a natural collaborator in Anthony Mann, for whom he made seven movies, five of them Westerns, all hard-bitten and uncompromising.

Of these, I think Naked Spur is probably the best. Except for the wide-open setting, it’s essentially a chamber piece, with only five speaking actors; this gives you lots of time to study the characters and their relationships, and to understand the stone-faced cynicism on display. Stewart’s bounty hunter is supposedly our hero, but he’s a single-minded bastard who doesn’t hesitate to deceive and cheat anyone who can help him capture his prey. The allies he recruits aren’t any better, either; one is an ex-soldier who has been cheerfully carrying on the shocking abuses that got him dishonorably discharged. And then we meet the criminal Stewart is hunting, and he turns out to be more charming and intelligent than the ostensible good guys until he eventually tips his hand about what he’s truly capable of. This is a movie where we know hero from villain not by who’s good and who’s bad, but by who’s bad and who’s worse.

The movie does pull its punches a bit toward the end, softening Stewart’s character by giving him a backstory to explain and justify his ruthlessness and foregrounding a romantic subplot that doesn’t quite convince. But it doesn’t lose the thread entirely and avoids collapsing into mawkish studio-mandated pap; it puts its characters through the wringer and sends them out with a decidedly bittersweet conclusion. Naked Spur is not just a recognized classic: in many ways, it feels remarkably modern.

(If you enjoy this one, you should also check out the other Westerns Mann made with Stewart, particularly The Man from Laramie and the structurally audacious Winchester 73.)

And still, we can continue reversing the clock, going back even further.

BROKEN ARROW (1950) — directed by Delmer Daves

Summary: A white man with sympathetic feelings for the local Apache tribe attempts to broker peace between their reasonable leader and the U.S. military, while extremists on both sides look to sabotage the deal. Based loosely (very loosely) on actual events.

Why it matters: Of the movies we’re discussing here, this one is probably the most problematic — it’s seriously dated on a number of fronts, and, also, from a filmmaking standpoint, it feels fairly blunt, almost deceptively inartful. It’s directed by Delmer Daves, a writer-turned-filmmaker whose simple, uncluttered style served him well across multiple genres, but whose directness of eye sometimes feels too obvious; he’s kind of like a less angry Sam Fuller in his preference for just pointing the camera at the action and letting the audience figure out what it means. All this has left Daves overlooked and somewhat forgotten as an auteur, despite having made well-regarded movies like Destination Tokyo and the original 3:10 to Yuma.

Broken Arrow is certainly of a piece with Daves’s filmography: the frame is clean and competent but unremarkable, the editing is functional, the pacing appropriate, the performances professional. The art direction is routine for the time, with slightly-too-clean cowboys, buckskinned Indians (no feathers, thankfully), and Hollywood-style Western sets. It’s in the casting where the limitations of the period production really grate: Apache chief Cochise and tribal-maiden-slash-love-interest Sonseeahray (uh-huh) are played by Jeff Chandler and Debra Paget, respectively, who couldn’t be more obviously white in their roles if they were replaced by John Justin and Scarlett Johansson.

And yet, despite these shortcomings, Broken Arrow is still an extraordinary milestone in the Western genre, because of its presentation (apart from the casting) of its Indian characters. They are not dangerous warlike barbarians, a force-of-nature threat to be feared and destroyed; neither are they noble savages, wilderness mystics with supernatural grace and open-sky wisdom. They are simply people, complex and individually specific. They may have a separate culture, an unfamiliar lifestyle, but they have lives. Some of them want to make war on the whites, but they have good reasons, and others seek to avoid conflict if possible. None of them wants to attack and kill white people simply out of animalistic bloodlust. And while the movie does build to a superficially upbeat closing statement, it’s tinged with a tense, uneasy sadness, having repeatedly acknowledged that peace is difficult, the white man was untrustworthy, and the history that follows will be uncomfortable.

As an ahead-of-its-time expression of empathy for the dilemma of American natives, the importance of Broken Arrow cannot be overstated. Its flaws may be significant for a modern viewer, but look past the distractions of the obnoxious casting and the perfunctory production, and marvel at a Western from the heart of the classic era that refuses to take the conventional historical assumptions of its genre for granted. For every moment of the romantic subplot that makes you roll your eyes with its soapy ridiculousness, there are two other moments whose forward thinking and thematic complexity will drop your jaw. This is not a perfect film, but for what it has on its mind, it’s frequently stunning.

(Also, note that James Stewart shows up yet again in the lead, as the white peacemaker. He was one of the first major stars to exercise his power to choose roles in projects that had a social or political point of view; he chafed against the studio contracts that required him to play roles without regard to probable quality or thematic intentions, and was an early breakaway from that system, taking jobs one at a time, whenever possible, based on their merits. As a rule of thumb, whenever Stewart shows up in what seems to be a genre-formula piece, there’s usually something of interest to recommend it.)

And we’re still not done. Broken Arrow isn’t even the only Western from 1950 that actively questions its own storytelling foundation.

THE GUNFIGHTER (1950) — directed by Henry King

Summary: It doesn’t matter that the celebrity gunslinger wants to lay down his pistols and retire; in every town, he finds another challenger demanding a shot at the title.

Why it matters: The weary warrior who cannot escape his violent past is a well-worn cliché, not just of the Western but of movies in general. See if you find this story familiar:

In the middle of a tense situation, a mysterious stranger arrives. At first, he doesn’t want to get involved. But then, someone discovers his buried history as a fearsome lawman or vigilante. They plead with him to help — or, possibly, the villain, having learned his impressive past, mockingly challenges him. Eventually the stranger surrenders to the inevitable, embracing his dark gifts one last time to set things right. And even if, in the end, he gives his life to the cause, there is still the satisfaction, the redemptive catharsis, of his having allowed himself to be who he truly was at heart. Roll credits.

The Gunfighter doesn’t play any of those predictable notes. There is no righteous cause at all, only the foolish pursuit of glory dissolving into the endless grind of survival. The title character’s reputation is not simply an uncomfortable burden; it’s almost literally a curse, a prison of bitterness, regret, and despair. Instead of enjoying triumphant release when circumstances compel him to accept yet another confrontation, we feel the crushing emptiness of his life, and the inexorable approach of his pathetic, pointless death. The story unfolds as a slow burn, letting us see the life the gunfighter gave up, teasing him with the hopeful possibility of its resumption, and then crushing him with its unattainability. This is like no Western you’ve ever seen, embracing a hard-boiled cynicism that occasionally verges into outright existential horror, with an unmistakably clear message: the legend of the wandering gunman as benevolent knight-errant is total bullshit.

Without a doubt, the movie knows exactly what it’s doing. Director King shoots in high-contrast black-and-white, giving the image a texture and palpable darkness more like urban-set film-noir than a typical backlot oater. Star Gregory Peck, in one of his best, yet least-heralded, performances, leans hard into his established screen persona, a rock of moral authority untethered from any actual morality or purpose, masculinity without direction or meaning. And the film builds to a stunning climax, a thematic twist worthy of Serling or Hitchcock, whose pessimism and trenchant scorn for Western conventions will knock your socks off.

The Gunfighter is almost unknown to modern audiences; it failed at the box office, was dismissed by critics, and faded over time. But over the decades, adventurous genre fans have come to know it’s truly one of the great Westerns, a secret classic long overdue for rediscovery.

(If you like this one, you may want to check out The Fastest Gun in the West, starring Glenn Ford, which starts with the same basic setup but then takes it in a very different direction.)

And yet, even this early, it’s still not the first time the Western took a hard look at itself.

THE OX-BOW INCIDENT (1943) — directed by William Wellman

Summary: An impromptu posse goes after a couple of cattle thieves, and learns the difference between lawful justice and the vigilante version.

Why it matters: As we previously discussed, you don’t need cowboys and horses for a Western. Take away all the cosmetic elements, and what’s at the heart of the genre is basically an ideological myth: in a lawless world, there will always be good lawless men who protect us from, and enforce justice against, the wicked ones. Conventional Westerns — formula, mainstream, popular — embrace and affirm this myth. The revisionists, by contrast, reject it outright. And in between those two extremes are many mature and thoughtful Westerns which consciously examine, question, and challenge the idea. They may or may not agree with it in the end, but they at least don’t take it for granted.

All the way back in 1943, fully two decades before Peckinpah and Leone started finding their perpendicular groove, and only four years after the ultimate crowd-pleaser Stagecoach sent Johns Ford and Wayne galloping into immortality, The Ox-Bow Incident put its finger directly on the core belief of the American Western… and then blew it up.

In 1885, the people of Bridger’s Wells, Nevada, have a problem with cattle rustlers. When the thievery escalates to murder, the townsfolk agitate to hunt down those responsible, ignoring the local judge who warns them to stay within the law. It doesn’t take long to find the outlaws, and since the men are obviously guilty, the group decides to proceed directly to a quick, informal frontier trial, with punishment by hanging to follow. There are objections, including from two newcomers (Henry Fonda and Harry Morgan), but they’re outvoted. And then the possibility arises that the captured men are innocent, and the posse is making a mistake.

The Ox-Bow Incident emphatically disagrees with a staple conviction of Western mythology, that lawlessness can be countered by strong-willed justice; rather, the movie says, it just leads to more lawlessness. And for taking this position, especially at such an early date, it’s noteworthy that the movie got mixed reviews, and underperformed at the box office: the audience just wasn’t ready for its escapist entertainment to grow up yet. But with the distance of time, we can clearly see that this was one of the first efforts at deliberately dissecting and deconstructing a category of entertainment whose questionable thematic and ideological foundation had too long gone unexamined. The Ox-Bow Incident is now a recognized classic that was uncomfortably far ahead of its time.

So now that you’ve absorbed the Essentials, and have seen above how frequently thoughtful moviemakers were using the genre to ask questions about itself, you’re ready to tackle one of the giants of the field.

THE SEARCHERS (1956) — directed by John Ford

Summary: A damaged man spends years obsessively hunting for a lost family member.

Why it matters: Most people who watch The Searchers, I believe, come to it too early. Someone feels curiosity about “the great Westerns,” and observes that this one rates highly not just on genre-specific surveys but as an all-timer regardless of class. “Okay,” this person says, “sure, sounds good, I’ll check it out.” And if you don’t have a lot of experience with Westerns, or with movies of its period generally, it is, frankly, hard not to be underwhelmed. It certainly feels like a cowboy movie, with a two-fisted hero facing down wild Indians as he rides across vast landscapes. Sure, there’s some moral murk involved in his quest, but then there’s this weird tonal whiplash as we keep checking in with a romantic-comedy B-plot. This is considered by many to be the greatest Western of all time? Really?

Yes, really. And now that you’ve gotten to this point in our Westerns series, and you’ve watched most or all of the movies we’ve discussed so far (and you are planning to watch these movies, right?), you have the experience and background necessary to understand and recognize why The Searchers stands so far above almost everything else in the genre.

Because if there’s anything that sets the movie apart from its kin, that testifies to its complexity and depth, it’s that, sixty-plus years since its release, we’re still arguing about what it means. When we think of the typical Western, we assume moral simplicity, or at least clarity — that no matter how convoluted the plot or deep the psychology, we will see, in the end, a distinction between right and wrong. Even something like The Ox-Bow Incident, with its slow-burn spiraling trap of a plot, does wind up revealing its moral perspective; it upends the conventions of the genre, but only to show how the classic story form, and our unexamined assumptions about it, can lead us off the righteous path. The Searchers, by contrast, asks whether there is a righteous path at all. It’s positively drowning in contradiction and ambiguity; it leaves you with many more questions than answers, and the few answers you can discern are veiled behind an almost defiantly obscure point of view.

To wit: How aware is the movie of its ostensible hero’s race hatred and broken, festering soul? Does the movie entirely condemn his prejudice and cruelty, or are we expected to see it, on any level, as justifiable? Should we perceive him as a hero at all? What exactly are his feelings for his brother’s wife, and does that imply anything about his relationship with her daughter, his niece, the subject of his years-long search? Is his endless pursuit a sign of dedication, or madness? When he finally finds her, are his actions intended to be a repudiation of his violence, and a redemption of his character, or does it represent his imposition of will on her, disregarding her choices and erasing her agency, without having learned anything about his own vicious anger? In the film’s famous final shot, are we supposed to mourn civilization’s snubbing of a stern but loving man, or celebrate it as the rejection of an unrepentant savage? Is the casting of Western icon John Wayne in the central role supposed to influence our positive perception, or work as counterpoint? And how much of this was consciously baked into the movie at the time, or are we inappropriately reading into it from a modern perspective?

No matter how many critics and cultural commenters take a whack at these questions, no two of them have fully agreed, or ever will; and none of them can offer a compellingly definitive claim about the film’s intentions and proper interpretation. The Searchers is slippery, thorny, confounding. For every reading that gestures emphatically at something in the film for support, you can find evidence at another point that argues against it.

I would even argue that this applies to the lightweight courtship storyline that parallels the search for the missing niece. Most critics seem to dismiss it as director John Ford indulging in his usual love of cornball frontier antics, and ignore it to concentrate their analysis on the significance of the darker A-plot. (Ebert said famously that everything in this part of the movie is “without interest.”) But that misses how there are small reflections of the so-called hero’s anger, fear, and racism threaded through the secondary story, sometimes disputing his view, and sometimes echoing him but contrasting his ferocious extremity. Yes, it’s possible that the thematic juxtaposition was intentional but that Ford overshot the mark on tone, making it too fun and boisterous. The inverse is also possible, that he didn’t intend the primary pursuit story to be so dark and morally fraught, but that once he got into it he realized how powerful it would be, and followed his instincts. Or, maybe, it’s balanced exactly the way Ford planned, and the unsettling effect is deliberate. No matter how you perceive it, though, I think it’s a mistake to simply handwave away the B-plot as irrelevant.

That’s just my opinion, though, and others will disagree. Yet, the fact that there even is this disagreement — indeed, a fierce and ongoing debate — about this genre classic, dating back to the middle of the last century, argues for the movie’s continuing vitality, its essentiality, in the cinema landscape.

And beyond that, it demonstrates that the Western, way back in the middle of its golden years, was fully capable of much, much more than the casual observer seems to know. If you really want to know the Western, you owe it to yourself to take a long, hard look at The Searchers — and you will slowly realize the movie is looking straight back at you.

You can see if the movies discussed above are available for rental, purchase, or streaming in your region by checking JustWatch.

Coming up next in this series: The Spaghetti Western.