Westerns Dominate Postwar American Film

The classic Western films produced during the postwar era reflected major concerns of the time while revealing significant American values. The Western thus became an arena in which debates over the nature and meaning of those values could find compelling, widely circulated narrative representations, helping to shape a developing American culture.

Summary of Event

From the earliest days of the American film industry, the Western has been an important genre. In his first year as a director in 1917—also often thought of as the first year of the Hollywood studio system—John Ford, the great master of the classic Western, directed silents titled Cheyenne’s Pal and Straight Shooting, among other films. After some initial enthusiasm, the genre began to decline during the Great Depression and was largely ignored during World War II, although Ford made Stagecoach, Stagecoach (Ford) one of his most famous films, in 1939. (Orson Welles is said to have screened Stagecoach forty times while preparing to make Citizen Kane, in order to learn the conventions of Hollywood cinema.) Then, in the late 1940’s, a Western revival began. [kw]Westerns Dominate Postwar American Film (1946-1962)
[kw]Postwar American Film, Westerns Dominate (1946-1962)
[kw]American Film, Westerns Dominate Postwar (1946-1962)
[kw]Film, Westerns Dominate Postwar American (1946-1962)
Westerns (cinema)
Hollywood studio system;Westerns
United States;postwar popular culture
Westerns (cinema)
Hollywood studio system;Westerns
United States;postwar popular culture
[g]North America;1946-1962: Westerns Dominate Postwar American Film[01650]
[g]United States;1946-1962: Westerns Dominate Postwar American Film[01650]
[c]Motion pictures and video;1946-1962: Westerns Dominate Postwar American Film[01650]
[c]Trade and commerce;1946-1962: Westerns Dominate Postwar American Film[01650]
Ford, John
Hawks, Howard
Mann, Anthony
Wayne, John

Aside from the Western’s capacity for rendering and examining essential elements in American cultural life, there were several crucial factors contributing to this resurgence. First, the uncertainty, angst, and anomie generated by the Cold War, the revelation of an almost unfathomable evil spawned by the Nazis, and the uneasiness caused by the threats of nuclear destruction, international tension, and internal paranoia left many people groping for some basic values in the fabric of an older, more tradition-bound time in American history. In addition, the rise of urban centers on the Pacific shore marked the closing of the frontier and thrust the vision of a frontier into the mythic plane of artistic imagination. Finally, technological advances provided an opportunity for a wide-screen transportation into a realm of adventure where justice often triumphed after a thrilling and frequently deadly struggle.

None of these conditions would have been sufficient for a revival of Westerns without the presence of men like John Ford. Aside from his skill as a filmmaker, his vision of a stable community of interesting, eccentric, and basically decent people fit perfectly the Western mold of an isolated settlement surrounded by hostile forces. His belief in the necessity of a strong man to lead the citizenry with courage, modesty, and principle corresponded to the Western ideal. Other directors modified or challenged some of Ford’s ideas, but they knew how important his work was. No one escaped his influence, either as a positive force or as an ideological or stylistic presence to be reckoned with.

The era of the classic Western could be said to begin with Ford’s first postwar film, My Darling Clementine
My Darling Clementine (Ford) (1946), in which Wyatt Earp (Henry Fonda), much like many soldiers returning from combat, marries and begins a family following his defeat of the evil Clanton gang. The end of the era can be marked by The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance
Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, The (Ford) (1962), Ford’s meditation on the Western genre and historiography in which he depicts the open West of Tom Doniphon (John Wayne) giving way to the “civilized” Eastern ideas of the greenhorn lawyer Rance Stoddard (Jimmy Stewart).

Between these two films, Ford made his noted cavalry trilogy—Fort Apache (1948), She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949), and Rio Grande (1950)—which describes and celebrates service to one’s country as valorous and satisfying while showing the military as a kind of mobile utopian society. In the same year that he completed the trilogy, Ford also made Wagonmaster (1950), in which two young, directionless cowhands join a Mormon wagon train and become involved in the responsibilities of the group. Then, after a period of five years in which his vision of the West perceptively darkened, Ford made The Searchers
Searchers, The (Ford) (1956), a highly acclaimed, complex psychological adventure story in which Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) is involved in the relentless, obsessive pursuit of the Indians who have abducted his niece.

Ford returned to the cavalry Western with The Horse Soldiers (1959), transposing the setting to the Civil War in a return to the style of his earlier, more authoritative depictions of the necessity of resisting evil. He concluded his contribution to the classic Western with two films that anticipated the elegiac, almost tragic mood of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Sergeant Rutledge (1960) was a tentative consideration of the trials of the African American Westerner, while Two Rode Together (1961) contrasted Jim Gary’s (Richard Widmark) idealistic sense of moral action with Guthrie McCabe’s (Jimmy Stewart) somewhat more worldly and self-protective position.

Even during his most pessimistic moments, Ford rarely moved into the almost film noir vision of the West embraced by Anthony Mann. The prolific Mann cast Jimmy Stewart against his boyish image in five consecutive Westerns: Winchester ’73 (1950), Bend of the River (1952), The Naked Spur (1953), The Far Country (1955), and The Man from Laramie (1955). In each film, the protagonist is presented as a man possessed with obsessions, self-doubt, and emotional eccentricity. The reluctant hero eventually is moved to correct human violence against a natural moral order, but his decision always is difficult and his actions rarely are completely conclusive. On the other hand, while Howard Hawks conceived of a Western hero who was much more isolated than Stewart in Mann’s films, he also suggested in Red River (1948), The Big Sky (1952), and Rio Bravo (1959) that a certain completeness and mature dignity was possible. The comic element in his work extended and humanized his protagonists.

No other director of the era brought the cinematic competence of Ford, Mann, and Hawks to more than a few Westerns, although Budd Boetticher developed a distinct style and outlook in a group of lesser-known B-films. Many directors whose primary achievements were in other genres made noteworthy Westerns during the period. Among the most prominent were George Stevens Stevens, George , perhaps best known for his serious social dramas, who made Shane
Shane (Stevens) (1953) and Fred Zinnemann Zinnemann, Fred , a versatile and politically astute director who made the first definitive anti-Western, High Noon
High Noon (Zinnemann) (1952), a film in which the villain is the only cowboy wearing a white hat. William Wyler, whose work ranged from the epic Ben Hur (1959) to the feathery Roman Holiday (1953), made The Big Country in 1958. Arthur Penn Penn, Arthur , who went on to make the revisionist Little Big Man (1970) began his career with The Left-Handed Gun
Left-Handed Gun, The (Penn)[Left Handed Gun] in 1958. Samuel Fuller Fuller, Samuel , an inventive maverick with a singular style ventured twice into Western territory with I Shot Jesse James (1949) and the idiosyncratic but prophetic Forty Guns (1957).

In a demonstration of the relevance and flexibility of the genre, lesser-known directors also found the Western congenial ground for some of their better work. Among them were Delmer Davis with 3:10 to Yuma (1957), Henry King with The Gunfighter (1950), and Robert Aldrich with Apache (1954) and Vera Cruz (1954). John Sturges Sturges, John united serious character study with superb action sequences in Bad Day at Black Rock
Bad Day at Black Rock (Sturges) (1955), Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957), and his worthy adaptation of Akira Kurosawa’s masterpiece Shichinin no samurai (1954; The Seven Samurai), rendered as The Magnificent Seven (1960).


One of the primary reasons that the classic Western had such an impressive impact on American cultural life was that the original West identified America as it existed in the minds of Europeans. That West was a dream of space, freedom, wilderness, and plenty. At its most inviting, the myth of the West is the equivalent of the myth of America itself, and from the beginning, the Western film has reflected the aspirations of people attempting to build a new society on a huge, open continent and has expressed the desires of people determined to escape the influence of “kings and priests,” the powermongers Thomas Jefferson warned against.

During the 1950’s, Western films gave this vision its most vivid and complete expression; the devastating disappointments of the late 1960’s were still a part of an unforeseen future. In its most optimistic form, Shane offered Alan Ladd riding out of a pure mountain mist, dressed in golden deerskin perfectly tailored to his lithe and powerful physique, arriving in time to rescue the decent, humble farmers from the corporate villainy of the corrupt cattle barons. Before killing the reptilian Wilson (Jack Palance), Shane is a perfect brother to Van Heflin, ideal lover for Jean Arthur, and athlete/hero for Brandon deWilde. Their life on the farm appeals to him, but like most Westerners, he is defined ultimately by the necessary use of his gun, and he knows that he cannot settle down. The resonance in the story enabled Clint Eastwood to repeat its basic structure in Pale Rider (1985) without much alteration.

Shane and the earlier Ford films were made with such skill and conviction that their somewhat unrealistic conceptions of frontier life created a fantasy West that overwhelmed historical fact. A large audience ready to accept the legendary configuration matched the filmmakers’ conception was the key to the films’ popularity. Even later Westerns of the 1960’s such as Sam Peckinpah’s Peckinpah, Sam
The Wild Bunch
Wild Bunch, The (Peckinpah) (1969), which undercut many of Ford’s (and Stevens’) assumptions, still had to respond to such archetypal motifs as the grandeur of the landscape and the personal honor of the heroic participants.

In Shane, one of the conflicts is between North and South, with Wilson the gunfighter described as a “Yankee” and Shane, like many cowboys, as a displaced Southerner seeking a new start after the Civil War. The ridiculous and inaccurate idea of the “showdown” on Main Street, with its bizarre chivalric concept of not drawing first, stems from the idea of honor. In a larger sense, one of the most enduring aspects of the Western involves a man’s (heroes were almost exclusively male) attempt to define himself and live by a code he has developed and must follow to maintain personal integrity.

High Noon, for example, pitted a lawman (Gary Cooper) Cooper, Gary against an outside menace to his town, in which people were too complacent or frightened to assist him. The film has been perceived as allegory to communism and McCarthyist red-baiting. Carl Foreman Foreman, Carl , the blacklisted writer of the screenplay, maintained that it was written as just such an allegory. At the core of the conflict, the sheriff must balance his individual responsibilities with his social obligations. John Wayne disliked the film because he thought it betrayed the “frontier spirit.”

The theme of a man “torn ’twixt love and duty” suffering the internal debate of a troubled conscience was also a part of Mann’s films with Stewart and was epitomized by Peckinpah’s Ride the High Country
Ride the High Country (Peckinpah) (1962), another film from the conclusion of the Western era, ending that era on a note of nostalgia as the Western code was recalled one last time by two old friends. The value of the code also was stressed by Henry King King, Henry in his presentation in The Bravados
Bravados, The (King) (1958) of an aging gunfighter, Jimmy Ringo (Gregory Peck), who has outgrown his wild days but cannot find an escape from the destiny he has previously created. In each case, a hero must sacrifice personal safety in order to act properly.

Similarly, somewhat offbeat films such as Arthur Penn’s The Left-Handed Gun, which told the story of Billy the Kid (Paul Newman) from an almost existentialist perspective; Samuel Fuller’s Forty Guns, which anticipated television’s The Big Valley by placing Barbara Stanwyck at the head of a line of riders; or Sturges’s Bad Day at Black Rock, which put a disabled stranger (Spencer Tracy) amid the unreasoning bigotry of a small town, depended upon the implicit acknowledgment by the filmmaker and audience of a series of shared values and moral principles. Being out of step with a limited society did not make the protagonist unsympathetic but instead made him (or her) a version of the antihero whose rejection by a flawed social order contributed to an admirable posture of singular strength. Even Howard Hawks, who shared Wayne’s dislike for High Noon, used humor when the conventions of the Old West began to seem strained for a modern audience, gently undercutting the most rigid formulations as well as casting for contrast by pairing the sensitive, introspective Montgomery Clift with John Wayne in Red River (1948) and teen idol Ricky Nelson with Wayne in Rio Bravo (1959).

Both its range of possibility and its potential for political parallels with the present were significant reasons for the predominance of the Western in the postwar era, but the paucity of other useful forms, with the exception of film noir, was also a factor. The rise of the New Wave in Europe, the revisionism inevitable in the turmoil of the 1960’s, and the maturing of American films were all aspects of changes after 1962 that took the focus away from Westerns. Westerns (cinema)
Hollywood studio system;Westerns
United States;postwar popular culture

Further Reading

  • Bogdanovich, Peter. John Ford. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978. An affectionate and knowledgeable tribute by an accomplished filmmaker, combining anecdotes and factual material with interviews and analysis.
  • Fenin, George, and William K. Everson. The Western. New York: Grossman, 1973. A comprehensive history of the genre. Detailed and thorough, with intelligent commentary and many illustrations.
  • French, Philip.“Westerns: Aspects of a Movie Genre”; and “Westerns Revisited.” Manchester, England: Carcanet, 2005. One of the first studies to consider the Western in a totally political and sociological perspective. Reprinted along with the author’s second work, reconsidering his conclusions from the original.
  • Kitses, Jim. Horizons West: Directing the Western from John Ford to Clint Eastwood. New ed. London: BFI, 2004. Intellectually provocative and lucidly explained, Kitses’s theories tend toward rigid categorizations that are useful in developing an overview of the genre.
  • Lenihan, John. Showdown: Confronting Modern America in the Western Film. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1979. Contains a strong chapter on the 1950’s as well as a list of Westerns from 1939 to 1978, a bibliographical guide to collections, and a lengthy bibliography.
  • Tusca, Jon. The American West in Film. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1985. A very solid study, with critical and analytical commentary on films, plentiful inside data on directors, many interesting photographs, notes, an extensive bibliography, and an index with film dates.

Hollywood Studio System Is Transformed

Premiere of High Noon

Shane Premieres

Debut of Gunsmoke Launches the Adult Western Drama

Premiere of The Searchers

Bonanza Becomes an American Television Classic

Leone Renovates the Western Film Genre