The “adult” Western – as it would come to be called – was a long time coming. A Hollywood staple since the days of The Great Train Robbery (1903), the Western offered spectacle and action set against the uniquely American milieu of the Old West – a historical period which, at the dawn of the motion picture industry, was still fresh in the nation’s memory. What the genre rarely offered was dramatic substance.
Yet the heart of the improved Western, while it had become less childish, hadn’t grown all that much more sophisticated. The movies were better produced, the storytelling more polished, but entries still tended to stress action and adventure over drama, and their collective image of the West remained sanitized and idealized, still rooted not in history, but in the kind of dime fiction tropes popularized by pulp novelists like Ned Buntline.
Change for the Western came with World War II. During the war years – and more markedly, in the postwar period – moviemakers began to explore the potential of the Western to deal with themes, stories, and characters with a dramatic heft equal to any other genre i.e. The Ox-Bow Incident (1943), a brooding, adamant indictment of vigilante justice; The Gunfighter (1950), a ruminative portrait of a gunman haunted by his bloody past; High Noon (1952) and its allegorical story of social responsibility and collective cowardice.
As the genre grew more popular and dramatically promising, any number and variety of directors assayed the Western: William Wyler turned out the epic-scaled The Big Country (1958), Edward Dmytryk gave the so-called “psychological Western” a try with Warlock (1959), as did Arthur Penn with his introspective spin on the Billy the Kid legend, The Left-Handed Gun (1958), and George Stevens delivered one of the most revered and referenced titles of the early adult Western period with Shane (1953). While many other noteworthy Westerns also came from one-time visitors to the genre, some of the most significant contributions to the adult Western came from a handful of moviemakers for whom the form was their frequent touchstone.
Though his filmography contains everything from broad comedy (Donovan’s Reef, 1963), to war stories (They Were Expendable, 1945), to a classic story of loyalty and betrayal during the Irish “troubles” (The Informer, 1935), Westerns were his first love. He once claimed that, given a choice, they were “…all I would make.”
Born in Maine of Irish immigrants, with no personal knowledge of the frontier, Ford unabashedly embraced a romanticized vision of the West. His sense of the mythic and the imagined showed in nearly every frame. His favorite setting was Monument Valley though it would’ve been impossible for the pioneers and ranchers he often idyllically pictured there to have eked out even the barest living from such a wasteland. His stories played out in openly sentimental broad strokes. His heroes were as majestic and outsized as the spires of Monument Valley, and as pure of heart and chivalric in their conduct as Round Table knights. His villains were despicably villainous; his Indians either ruthless or noble savages; his comic relief broad; male relationships were characterized by a sense of frat house high-jinks-leavened camaraderie; and it seemed a virtual mandate for his cavalry features to include a burly, hard-drinking career sergeant, and one or two bumbling junior officers. His female characters were often his weakest: tittering old biddies, stoic pioneer or soldiers’ wives, and pretty young things waiting patiently for the obligatory romantic subplot to resolve itself. Ford preferred action and plain-speaking men to sexual intrigue, and his on-screen male/female relationships avoided strong passion, resembling, instead, awkward high school romances.
If Ford’s West and its Westerners are fables, they are nonetheless fables with heart, set in an imaginary land, peopled by characters who may not be realistic but are nonetheless idealized reflections
All these elements fit together snugly in what is usually considered his best movie, The Searchers (1956). John Wayne, one of Ford’s favorite leading men, embarks on an epic years-long quest to find his niece taken by the Indians who slaughtered her family. Accompanied by a naifish Jeffrey Hunter, for whom Vera Miles endlessly waits back home with marriage in mind, Wayne’s Ethan is an Ahab-like obsessive, his hatred of Indians so bone-deep he slaughters passing buffalo on the chance they might provide the despised Comanche with food. It becomes a nagging question as to whether or not Ethan will actually save his niece (Natalie Wood), or find her so corrupted by life among her captors that he’ll write her off as one of the tribe and kill her. The ending is Ford’s sentimental side wielded at his expert best: Wayne corners Wood, grabs her small frame and holds her high as if to dash her down, but, instead, brings her down in an embrace; family survives all, good reclaims the damaged part of the heart. He returns her to her relatives where she is welcomed warmly, and then Ethan, perhaps too long on his quest to know anything but the pursuit, awkwardly turns his back on the off-screen reunion, and, framed by the dark doorway of the family home, heads back out into the glaring white sands of Monument Valley.
These gloomier themes made a poor fit with Ford’s poetic touch. In Sergeant Rutledge (1960), the story of a black cavalryman tried for the rape/murder of a little girl, the bird-like old ladies in the gallery, the thundering Judge Advocate, the ennobled accused, the hysterical breakdown of the real perpetrator on the stand all have the over-the-top flavor of Victorian melodrama; his Civil War tale The Horse Soldiers (1959) builds to an apocalyptic battle Ford cannot deliver; Cheyenne Autumn (1964), his most concerted attempt to sympathetically tell the Native American side of the conquest of the West, falters from an inability to truly understand the character of the people he is trying to ennoble.
Even in the best of his later works, Ford’s sentimental streak collided with the brutal reality he seemed to be striving for. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)
The Fordian romantic touch plagues the movie with contrivances: Wayne is such a take-no-guff character one constantly wonders why he doesn’t dispatch Marvin from the outset; the local law is the ludicrous, quaking Andy Devine, an incredible choice for a town terrorized by the likes of Liberty Valance. Stewart and Miles are too old for their socially awkward roles – especially Stewart – Ford ignoring their seasoned visages and seeing them, instead, in the kinds of roles they had played years (in Stewart’s case, a generation) before.
Ford was the best of the romantics, but hardly the only one. Prominent among the others stands Howard Hawks. Hawks did not visit the Western as much as Ford, but, like Ford, he favored manly tales, and his Westerns carry much the same flavor as his other actioners such as Hatari! (1962), Air Force (1943), and Only Angels Have Wings (1939).
Hawks believed in a harder, more violent set of myths than Ford, but which had just as little connection to the historical West. Hawks’ Western ethos reflected, rather, his own Hemingwayesque background as a hard-drinking outdoorsman, combined with a simple moviemaking agenda of entertaining an audience. He defined the Western simply as “…gunplay and horses…”
Like Ford, Hawks seemed more comfortable with men than women in his action movies. His on-screen romances have the same adolescent
Ford sold legends: Hawks provided entertainment. In opposition to both was, in the 1950s, an expanding school of Western directors attempting to inject the genre with a greater historical accuracy and/or dramatic honesty, looking for a successful blending of the audience-stirring mythic and the revelatory realistic. Though none of these moviemakers ever achieved the stature of Ford or Hawks, some of their work remains among the best in the genre.
The trademark of the Westerns helmed by Delmer Daves was a legitimately come by authenticity. Unlike the eastern-raised Ford, Daves was the grandson of pioneers who had crossed the West by covered wagon. His grandfather had been a Pony Express rider, and Daves had spent periods of his youth among Hopi and Navajo tribes. Whereas Ford had wanted to picture the West as he thought it should be, Daves wanted to capture the West as he knew it to be. His sympathies for Native Americans came through in Broken Arrow (1950), and his feel for the grittiness of the West showed itself in his depictions of ranch life in Jubal (1955), and particularly his harsh portrait of the cattle trail in Cowboy (1958). His acknowledged best work is the tense, psychologically dense 3:10 to Yuma (1957), its script by Halsted Welles seemingly designed to deliberately refute High Noon’s earnest lessons in social responsibility, and the Hawks myth of the gunman-as-knight-errant a la Rio Bravo.
Van Heflin is an impoverished farmer who takes the job of safeguarding outlaw Glenn Ford until a train can arrive to carry Ford to prison. Where Rio Bravo – and its loose remakes – ran on action, with Good Guys and Bad Guys engaging in a series of gun-blazing moves and countermoves, 3:10 is nearly all dramatic suspense. The duel here is a mental one, Ford working on Van Heflin’s increasingly fraying nerves. Oozing the same purring charisma he’d used on women earlier in the movie, Ford tries to seduce the farmer with bribes, alert him to the certainty of death, worry him with images of his wife as a widow and his son left fatherless. At some point, the psychology tips the other way, and Ford, coming to identify with the plight of the farmer, ultimately helps him escape his outlaw band and get on the train to Yuma Prison.
Budd Boettecher had spent a number of years in Mexico, some as a professional bullfighter, and, like Delmer Daves, preferred his Westerns with a rougher edge than Ford’s, and less glamorized than Hawks’. Boetticher was one of a number of directors who worked in the “B”-movie realm but gave their work an “A”-caliber dignity. He imbued his modestly-budgeted pictures with an emotional and psychological undercoat he considered essential. Though he would make a variety of movies throughout his career, ranging from The Bullfighter and the Lady (1950) to the stylish gangster bio The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond (1960), Boettecher would become particularly noted for a series of tough-hided little Westerns he made in partnership with actor Randolph Scott: Seven Men from Now (1956), The Tall T (1957), Decision at Sundown (1957), Buchanan Rides Alone (1958), Ride Lonesome (1959), Westbound (1959), and Comanche Station (1960).
By Boettecher’s own admission, the plots of most of his Westerns – often written by Burt Kennedy – were only variations on the same general storyline: the hero is on a quest to find his wife’s murderer. Where Boettecher excelled was in the nuance and depth he could build into these simple, repetitive plots.
According to Boettecher, one dramatic line he enjoyed exploring was the parallel between a Good Guy with his vengeance-distorted values, and a Bad Guy trying to break with his villainous past. He eschewed the sentimentality of Ford, or the macho swagger of Hawks, opting instead for a sharp-edged but underplayed quality. Unlike Hawks’ heroes, the protagonists invariably played by Randolph Scott are not professional gunmen and rarely win through superior gunplay. Scott’s heroes are average men driven to obsessive quests by trauma, sometimes to the point of self-destructiveness. Or, in another variation, they are pulled, by chance, into another character’s predicament which resonates with his own. As important as Scott’s combat with the Bad Guys in Boettecher’s Westerns, is Scott’s inner fight to avoid being utterly consumed by his monomania.
In contrast to Hawks’ perfunctory villains, Boettecher’s Bad Guys are usually the most interesting characters in his movies. These are fully-realized characters, not always completely reprehensible, sometimes – as in The Tall T – seeing, in Scott, the kind of man they could have been barring a bad turn or two. The standard Good-Guy-chasing-Bad-Guy form became, in Boettecher’s hands, a moral debate between the hero and his articulate doppelganger who had “…‘crossed over’ into the world of crime…” Boettecher compounded the gravitas given his villains by his scripts with shrewd casting, displaying a fine eye for rising talent: Lee Marvin, Richard Boone, James Best, L.Q. Jones, Claude Akins, Henry Silva, Pernell Roberts, Lee Van Cleef, and James Coburn all spent time facing off against Scott.
Instead of pioneer ancestors or an adventure-filled biography, Anthony Mann came to the movies from the New York stage where he’d been an actor and director. He may not have had Daves’ and Boettecher’s innate sense of the authentic, but his Westerns are more dramatically dense and marked by a sometimes disturbing psychological intensity.
Mann first made his mark as the director of several impressive “B” noirs, and he brought that same bleak sensibility and visual flair to a series of more upscale Westerns he made over the course of the 1950s, most memorable of which were several featuring James Stewart. Even compared to realists like Daves and Boettecher, Mann’s movies are striking in their consistent tough-mindedness, cruel violence, and disconsolate mood. Mann’s Westerns may be among the most disturbing and violent of the 1950s.
Like Boettecher’s heroes, Mann’s protagonists are obsessed, but where Randolph Scott was the epitome of stoicism, Stewart – under Mann’s direction — plays average men energized to extreme violence, showing flashes of barely repressed psychotic fury in stories usually stemming from a past wrong. Mann’s West is a place with no moral compass; each man sets his scale of right and wrong and attempts to balance it. It is this almost complete lack of moral restraint – even in pursuing a moral cause – which brands Mann’s Westerns so uniquely, and gives them their unremitting emotional brutality along with a fair measure of physical cruelty. In The Man from Laramie (1955), Stewart is dragged through a fire, then, while several of the chief Bad Guy’s henchmen hold him outstretched, is shot through his gun hand; in The Far Country (1955), he’s shot and thrown in a river; in Man of the West (1958), Julie London, taken by a barbaric outlaw band, is forced to perform a striptease for the Neanderthalish desperados.
Also striking are the plot constructions of Mann’s strongest efforts. He often seemed discontented telling a simple, linear story, and sometimes juggled several storylines of near equal importance. In
Mann had a feel for locations giving a visual power to his stories and themes; not in the sometimes sun-burnished sometimes elegiac golden and amber hues of John Ford’s West, but in images as stark and inhospitable as his characters. The climax of Winchester ’73 follows the two feuding brothers about a boulder-strewn mountain, their positions becoming ever more precarious as they scramble higher, the feeling being of a hunt taken to the edge of the world; the town of Lassoo, in Man of the West, with its supposedly cash-laden bank, is talked about throughout the movie as a kind of El Dorado, but it turns out to be a crumbling ghost town, the eerie setting for a final gunfight in which bandits die along with their dreams of riches, and sham loyalties finally betray themselves.
Sturges shared Ford’s penchant for deliberate pacing as well as his clean, unencumbered visual sense. Like Ford, he let his characters share the frame, let the audience watch relationships breathe, only rarely breaking up dramatic scenes with close-ups. But where Ford’s characters often wore their sentiments on their sleeves, Sturges preferred a more low-key, subdued, hard-edged style. As he grew more successful and independent, he turned away from the open-faced emotion of the more typical Hollywood stars of his early Westerns (William Holden in Escape from Fort Bravo; Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas in Gunfight at the OK Corral; Robert Taylor in The Law and Jake Wade) for a new kind of actor, a younger generation of physically economical performers who understood the big screen’s ability to convey as much with the right look as with dialogue i.e. Steve McQueen, James Coburn, Charles Bronson. James Coburn’s role as a Zen-like knife-wielding hired gun in The Magnificent Seven stands as the epitome of Sturges’ tight-lipped style; a major character established through weight of presence rather than the less than 100 words of dialogue he’s given throughout the picture.
Unlike most action directors of the time – including Ford, Hawks, and Mann – Sturges resisted obligatory romances, understanding the manly appeal of his movies. As his production independence grew, he increasingly refused to compromise that appeal, minimizing intrusive romantic elements (in The Magnificent Seven, the chore is delegated to a secondary character) or eliminating it altogether.
Where Ford found majesty and grandeur in a setting like Monument Valley, Sturges – in Escape from Fort Bravo and The Law and Jake Wade – took similar terrain and saw it as a scabrous, lethal place. Ford’s frontier forts are the first colonies of a taming civilization; Fort Bravo, on the other hand, is a far-off island in a hostile sea of desert and raiding Mescaleros to which settlers, Union soldiers and Confederate prisoners desperately cling for safety. The ghost town at the climax of Jake Wade, picked over by Indians, shows colonization not as an assured process, but a tentative one easily undone by the elements, native hostiles, weakness of will.
In Hawks’ fashion, Sturges’ protagonists are professionals: William Holden’s harshly self-disciplined cavalry officer in Fort Bravo; Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas, Robert Taylor are supremely
Like Mann and Boettecher, Sturges’ villains are full-bodied creations. Bandit leader Calvera (Eli Wallach) in The Magnificent Seven bemoans the fact that neither the Mexican farmers on which he preys nor the gunmen hired to drive him off sympathize with his paternal obligation to his men. During his first confrontation with the Seven, he’s confounded by his American counterparts’ loyalty to their campesino employers. He asks if “…men of our profession…” can afford that kind of thinking: “It might even be sacrilegious!”
Often, Sturges’ movies lack a defined villain at all. In Escape from Fort Bravo, there are no Good Guys or Bad Guys: just two honorable forces in opposition – Holden and Forsythe – joining forces at the end of the movie in a desperate defense against an attack by the Mescaleros. In Last Train from Gun Hill, Douglas’ opposition is not the man who killed his wife, but the killer’s father (Anthony Quinn), an old friend torn between the son he knows is a failure (and whom he’s failed as a father), and the friend for whom he’d do anything except the one thing he demands: giving up his son for the hangman.
The one aspect where Sturges’ cinematic voice was always clear from early on was in his use and understanding of violence. Ford doled it out sparingly, but almost always found the glory and grandeur in dedicated men fighting – and dying – for a cause, even if the dying – as in the case of Fort Apache – was unnecessary. For Hawks, on the other hand, violence was simply action: choreographed and played for antiseptic entertainment value, ladled out in strong, regularly applied doses. Sturges was as sparing as Ford in his use of violence; for a moviemaker characterized as an “action director,” it is surprising how little physical action there actually is in his movies. Sturges himself once said, in self-appraisal, “I’ve no objection to being called an action director…but I don’t think people realize how much they’re laughing, how many lumps in the throat there are in my films.” In his most imitated (and often poorly so) picture, The Magnificent Seven, there are less than 15 minutes of action over the course of a 126-minute running time, nearly all of it in the first major combat between Calvera’s band and the Seven over halfway into the picture, and in the third act climax. Instead of regular action installments, screen time is invested in a meticulous foundation-laying of character and plot so that Sturges’ climactic fights can be as emotionally compelling as they are viscerally exciting, and exciting they are.
Not even Boettecher and Mann, nor even Hawks at his best, could surpass Sturges’ ability to choreograph an action sequence. Where Ford hid the last stand of a cavalry troop in Fort Apache
In Sturges’ movies, violence is about emotional as well as physical pain; there is loss, resolution without triumph. There is no glory in victory, even for the just cause. Sturges’ protagonists are never immune to the wastefulness and tragic nature of what they are compelled to do. At the end of Gun Hill, Douglas is forced to kill Quinn but can only feel sorrow; throughout the finale of Fort Bravo, the sentiment is one of sadness as, one-by-one, the Confederate escapees now fighting alongside Holden are killed.
Sturges is also aware of the “hidden costs” of a life of violence, a point of introspection which never occurs to Hawks’ glib killing machines. In The Magnificent Seven, after Seven leader Yul Brynner’s Chris punctures the glory balloon of young, aspiring pistolero Chico (Horst Bucholz) saying, “It’s just a matter of knowing how to shoot a gun. Nothing big about that,” Chico responds disbelievingly, “How can you say that? Your gun has got you everything.” The veterans in the Seven begin toting up the rather empty value of that “everything”: “Wife: none. Children: none. Prospects: zero.” The youthful Chico misunderstands: “That’s the kind of arithmetic I like.” “So did I at your age,” says Chris ruefully.
At the end of the movie, after Calvera is killed, his outlaw band defeated, and despite early talk about settling down and perhaps putting their guns away, the three survivors of the Seven – Chris, Chico, and Steve McQueen’s Vin – prepare to ride out. One of the village elders says of the farmers, “They would not be sorry to see you stay.” To which the insightful Chris answers, “They won’t be sorry to see us go, either.” The trio stop on a rise just outside the village, Chico turns back to rejoin his fellow campesinos. Chris regards the farmers working their fields, Chico hanging up his gun to join them, and, in what might be the epitaph for every man of the West who opted for a life of the gun, says to Vin, “Only the farmers won. We lost. We always lose.”