Welcome to the fourth installment of Westerns 101 on Lewton Bus. Our first article introduces the series, explaining what we’re doing and why; our second article provides some important background on the historical scope of the Western genre in film; and our third article defines what actually makes a Western a Western.
To recap that definition, a Western typically reflects four qualities:
- The setting is remote and isolated, separate from civilization.
- We feel the omnipresence and danger of the surrounding wilderness.
- Justice, immediate and personal, is more important than the abstraction of Law.
- Characters observe (or consciously disregard) an unwritten code of honorable behavior.
So let’s look at some classic Western movies that illustrate the framework of the genre.
THE GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY (1903) — directed by Edwin S. Porter
Summary: Armed bandits knock over a telegraph office, then hijack a train, ransack its valuables, and escape into the woods. The telegraph operator wakes up and seeks help; a posse quickly forms and tracks the bandits to their forest hideout.
Why it matters: Yes, as a silent film more than a century old, it’s primitive by modern standards, shot mostly in static medium setups and acted with vaudevillian exaggeration that makes today’s audience snicker. But it’s also only twelve minutes long, and it’s well worth that much time for you to recognize the basic Western taking unmistakable shape very early in cinema history. Scholars also credit this film with certain technical innovations that have become so familiar modern viewers won’t even notice them (e.g., cross-cutting between parallel action), but for the purposes of our survey, just seeing the prototypical Western story in its embryonic form is enough.
The Great Train Robbery is in the public domain. You can watch it on YouTube here.
STAGECOACH (1939) — directed by John Ford
Summary: A motley assortment of travelers boards a stagecoach to cross dangerous territory, and becomes even more motley as they add passengers along the way.
Why it matters: This is it, the granddaddy of all famous Westerns, the Star Wars of its day, and one of the most influential movies ever made. Its DNA has filtered down through cinema history all the way to the present, and will likely continue to resonate as long as movies are made.
The genre’s formula was well established by this point, but it was the runaway success of Stagecoach that accelerated the Western boom of the 1940s, made John Wayne a star (and John Ford a star director), and cemented the landscape of Monument Valley as the quintessential Western setting. It also demonstrated the ideal balance of character, action, and comedy that movies have been chasing ever since, and is clearly the originator of the style people today short-sightedly blame on Marvel Studios. Stagecoach is truly a landmark film.
Stagecoach has all the Western trappings, from the geographic isolation (the title setting is a microcosm of a microcosm) to the dangerous environment (including an improvised crossing where they are forced to float the coach across a river, and lots and lots of hostile Apaches). In particular, the film features a low-key rumination on Law versus Justice: Wayne’s character, the Ringo Kid, was in prison but escaped to pursue vengeance for the murder of his family and is now a fugitive, but he is viewed more favorably by the other characters than passenger Gatewood, a banker who is fleeing with embezzled money. And pay special attention to the movie’s treatment of its character Dallas; she’s a prostitute who’s being booted out of her town by its moral police, but she’s treated with surprising sympathy by the story.
The movie is problematic to modern eyes, of course, with its waves of attacking Indians being regarded as little more than savages, and with numerous horses injured onscreen in now-illegal trip-wire stunts. Even so, it’s difficult not to be swept up by the interplay of the amusingly mismatched characters in the coach as they get to know one another on their journey, and especially by the rousing, relentless action in the movie’s back half. There’s no arguing with its status as a classic.
SHANE (1953) — directed by George Stevens
Summary: A mysterious stranger arrives in a valley town and discovers a wealthy rancher is pushing lawful homesteaders off their land. He volunteers to help them resist, to the delight of his host’s young son, who is desperate for a hero.
Why it matters: This is another of the big ones, well-known by general reputation even if many people haven’t seen it and don’t know the particulars. If you’re one of them, you probably know the famous last lines, but you just as probably don’t know the context and don’t understand why it’s important and why the movie uses those words as its conclusion.
Like Stagecoach above, Shane checks all the boxes for the classic Western framework, with a remote setting that allows evil men to operate unchecked, and a hero who is apart and alone even in the already isolated community. And, even more than Stagecoach, Shane explicitly foregrounds the contrast between Law and Justice, acknowledging that while violence may be terrible, it is also sometimes distastefully necessary on the frontier.
Beyond that, though, the film has a remarkably mature and sophisticated approach to its theme, especially if you think of Westerns as uncomplicated battles between shining White Hats and dastardly Black Hats. Consider: the title character accepts a job offered by a rancher to help push back against the nefarious cattle baron who’s trying to steal their land. The rancher’s wife criticizes Shane for his gunfighter past, and lumps him in with the general lawlessness of the West; she’s horrified when her young son begins to idolize Shane, following him around and begging to learn his ways. Shane reluctantly agrees, but repeatedly warns the boy of the moral compromise inherent to this path. The boy ignores these lessons, focusing on Shane’s quiet courage and the power of his six-guns.
And when the movie finally gives us our messy, ugly confrontation, we see that the boy’s adoration for Shane and the black-and-white heroism he supposedly represents is not just simplistic, it’s literally childish. In a genre where we usually just want the good guys to kill the bad guys and be celebrated for their strength, this is a sobering takeaway.
MY DARLING CLEMENTINE (1946) — directed by John Ford
Summary: The Earp brothers are bringing cattle west to California when they run into the Clanton gang outside Tombstone, Arizona. The Clantons kill one of the Earps and steal their herd, setting up an eventual showdown at the OK Corral.
Why it matters: Of all the movies listed in this article, this is the one the casual modern fan is least likely to have seen, or even to have heard of. That may be surprising, considering it’s an early take on the famous “gunfight at the OK Corral” (not the first, though: that honor goes to Frontier Marshal in 1934), before it was known by the public by that name. Here, it’s heavily fictionalized, departing from messy historical fact even more than is usual for this story (which is saying something), in favor of a familiar good-guys-bad-guys vengeance story.
Even with the conventional narrative structure, this is an unusual Western in its details and in the nuance of its presentation. It takes the showdown between the Earps and the Clantons as a symbolic hinge point in history, as the West transitions from ungoverned anarchy to lawful civilization. Wyatt is deeply invested in personal payback against the Clantons for the murder of his brother, but he first seeks the marshal’s badge to ensure his revenge is blessed by a fig leaf of legal authority. And there’s a reason the movie spends so much time showing us excerpts from Shakespeare and the prescribed movements of a formal dance: these are the influences of civilized society, pushing out the madness of men gone wild on the edge of the world.
The movie also makes lots of time for people in general, thoroughly exploring the humanity of its characters in between the bursts of violence, using action less as spectacle and more as punctuation to the developing tensions between parties. Observe, for example, how the movie is content to simply sit and watch the way Wyatt tilts his chair back and forth on a main street porch. Or look at how a potential gunfight between Wyatt and Doc Holliday is averted by a simple action loaded with subtext: how many Westerns promise the audience a shootout, and then abandon it in favor of character building?
My Darling Clementine shows director John Ford at the height of his considerable powers, following the genre playbook to the letter, but simultaneously creating something that is somehow more than just a simple Western. Yes, the modern viewer may be annoyed that the women in the story are shortchanged as little more than plot devices, and yes, the character of Chihuahua strays uncomfortably into the territory of broad Mexican stereotype. But if you want a classic Western that will surprise you with its thoughtfulness and character-first approach, My Darling Clementine is a rich feast of a film.
RED RIVER (1948) — directed by Howard Hawks
Summary: A stubborn, angry old rancher leads a huge herd of cattle on a lengthy drive from Texas to Missouri, and his unreasonable demands and authoritarian style push his accompanying crew, including his adopted son, to the edge of rebellion.
Why it matters: Red River is remembered more for its iconic moments than for its overall story, which can be kind of lumpy here and there (the victim of numerous rewrites during a troubled production). The most famous scene, by far, shows cowboys whooping with glee as they start their cattle drive; it’s a masterclass in cinema as pure emotion, with the story stopping dead for nearly a full minute to exult in the joy and exhilaration of men embarking on an adventure.
Not quite as famous, but just as thrilling, is the scene where the camp cook’s clumsiness triggers a full-on stampede, and the cowhands scramble to control the herd before they plunge into a nearby canyon. Watch:
The sheer filmmaking prowess on display here is awe-inspiring: the use of rapid-fire close-ups to build suspense, the effortless editing between tightly-shot faces and wide views, the smooth cuts from location-shot action to studio-shot rear-projection inserts, the staggering physical scale of the cattle herd and the stunt performances threading through it, the breathtaking musical score… This is bravura cinema.
What’s particularly interesting about Red River, and what makes it useful for this series, is the way it explicitly sets up its conflict as an unusual variation on the Western formula. The cantankerous rancher with the herd (played by John Wayne in one of his best performances) is an old-school Texan, his way or the highway, take it or leave it. During the long drive, he butts heads with his adopted son (Montgomery Clift, making his film debut), who is more thoughtful and pragmatic and open-minded. What we have, then, is a collision between two aspects of the Western Code — on one side, Honor Thy Father, and obedience to the patriarch no matter what; and on the other, practical leadership and common-sense realism about what it takes to survive on the frontier, even if it means mutiny.
Finally, you should see Red River so you can have an opinion about its controversial ending. Fans have been quarreling for seventy years about whether it’s an entertaining, well-earned, satisfying twist, or if director Howard Hawks is lazily resorting to his beloved fast-talking dame archetype in order to solve the conflict with a cheap, too-easy cop-out. There’s no right answer here; both sides have passionate arguments. See the movie, and decide for yourself.
HIGH NOON (1952) — directed by Fred Zinnemann
Summary: A lawman on the verge of retirement discovers that an old enemy is returning to town to kill him. He must decide whether to accept the advice of his fiancée, and the townsfolk who refuse to help him face the threat, and escape before his nemesis arrives, or if he should stand up to the villain and his gang alone.
Why it matters: A towering milestone in Western cinema, High Noon has been claimed for its mythical, metaphorical meaning by viewers of every ideological persuasion ever since its release. Is it a liberal polemic against the Communist witch hunts of its day, showing how ordinary people can be so blinded by stress and panic that they abandon a hero to his doom? Or is it a conservative treatise about the need for a strong authority to stand in defense of the people, even those who are too selfish and chicken-hearted to deserve defending?
The movie is too stripped-down and raw to clearly support either reading, whatever the filmmakers’ intentions; what you get out of it is largely determined by what you’re already bringing with you. It’s unsurprising, therefore, that High Noon has been named as the favorite Western of American presidents from Eisenhower to Clinton, all of whom said they identify with the plight of the lonely man who forges ahead with his duty despite the frustrating unwillingness of the people to get behind him.
Taken purely as a Western, High Noon is both a crackerjack example of the general form and a major departure from its standard format. The standard Western themes are front and center — the remote setting, surrounded by insulating wilderness, and the isolated hero within that setting; the tension between Law and Justice; the danger that looms when the unwritten codes are discarded. Structurally, though, High Noon is notably unusual in that it features almost no violence for its first hour-plus, instead using that time to build an almost unbearable level of suspense, and saving all of its fireworks for the confrontation of the finale.
And in the aftermath of that finale, what exactly is the movie saying when the lawman’s badge is thrown onto the dusty ground, and angry glares are met with guilty silence? Does the movie even know?
Which is why our next movie is…
RIO BRAVO (1959) — directed by Howard Hawks
Summary: A confrontation involving a formerly great but now drunk and broken-down deputy leads to a promise of reprisal from a local land baron. The sheriff, an old friend of the deputy, tells him to get himself straight, and assembles a team to face the incoming threat.
Why it matters: As the great French filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard once said, the best way to criticize a movie is to make a movie of your own. And so it is that Howard Hawks and John Wayne teamed up to make Rio Bravo as a deliberate rebuttal of what they saw as the argument of High Noon, which they both famously hated. (Wayne actually called it “anti-American.”)
Watching High Noon and Rio Bravo back-to-back is a terrific way to open the window on the idea that all of these filmmakers were talking to each other with their work, watching one another’s films and then responding with their own films that either amplified or repudiated the ideas they were seeing. And by doing this, by underlining and repeating some concepts and rejecting others, the Western’s core mythology was constructed, expanded, refined, and revised over the years. That the Western can easily contain both a grim, cynical, and minimalist work like High Noon and a boisterous and self-indulgent romp like Rio Bravo is testament to the genre’s scope and flexibility.
The plot of Rio Bravo is kind of meandering and undisciplined, with a few narrative threads that peter out without much payoff and probably two too many narrative twists for its own good. (At over two hours and twenty minutes, this is one of the longest Westerns of its period.) As just one example, “Feathers” is a terrific character, wonderfully played by Angie Dickinson as an unusually smart and tough woman on the frontier who effortlessly holds the screen against Wayne, but the movie runs out of things for her to do about halfway through and she spends the rest of the story just twiddling her thumbs.
But a smooth, well-oiled plot is not why we watch a movie like Rio Bravo. This is kind of a hangout movie, where we just want to see John Wayne do his tough cowboy with a heart of gold thing, and Dean Martin play his patented hangdog charmer character, and Walter Brennan twitch and totter his way through yet another crusty old eccentric, and so on, with some jokes and gunplay and a happy ending. It’s all as thin as gunsmoke, and dissipates just as quickly when it’s over, but while it lasts, it’s as entertaining as it gets.
So, there you have it — half a dozen classic Westerns that illustrate the basic functional machinery of the genre while also revealing its surprising breadth. You could, of course, say thousands more words about any one of these movies, and many critics and commentators have (e.g., in Red River, are the filmmakers aware of the homoerotic subtext behind the gun-comparison scene?), but for the purposes of this series, the introductions above are sufficient. If you watch these movies from the angle and with the perspective as described, you’ll definitely start to get a handle on how the Western, in general, works.
In our next article, we’ll see what happened when filmmakers started taking a hard look at the mythology of the Western, exploiting the audience’s expectations to flip the genre’s tropes on their ear and ask difficult, uncomfortable questions about American history and identity.
You can see if the movies discussed above are available for rental, purchase, or streaming in your region by checking JustWatch.