"This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact,
print the legend." This famous line,
spoken by the local newspaper editor to James Stewart’s character in the final
scene from "The Man Who Shot Liberty
Valance" (John Ford, 1962), sums up the effect of Hollywood Westerns on our
popular conception of the American West. The Western movie created the
legendary lawmen, brave, selfless and incorruptible, who tamed the wild and
lawless frontier boom towns and made the streets safe for decent, law-abiding
The Western movie gave us the
image of the American Indians as murderous savages standing in the way of
civilisation, attacking railroads, wagon trains and frontier homesteads,
killing and scalping the brave, hard-working, peace-loving homesteaders and
pioneers who, undeterred, continued their drive Westward until the ‘West was
Won’. And we must not forget the heroic 7th Cavalry, forever charging onto the
screen at the last minute, bugles blowing and sabres drawn, just in time to
rescue the fort/wagon train/ homestead from the bloodthirsty Apaches.
These images, given to the
world by countless Hollywood Westerns, have created a widespread, idealistic
but completely false view of ‘the way it was’ out West. To be fair, Hollywood
is not entirely to blame; early dime-novels such as The Virginian, by Owen Wister, and Ned Buntline’s fictionalised Buffalo Bill stories in the 1870’s, and
indeed William ‘Buffalo Bill’ Cody’s travelling Wild West Show itself, all
played their pre-Hollywood part in creating this false legend of the West.
Before appraising the Hollywood
Western let us gain a balanced view by first examining the reality, dissecting
its various parts, and then comparing them with the Hollywood-generated myth.
It is only right that we first focus our attention on the original indigenous
Americans – the American Indians.
How The West Was Won?
Well, they couldn’t really call
the star-studded 1963 MGM blockbuster ‘How the West Was Stolen’, could they?
But stolen it was. First, Mexico had to be dealt with. With Mexican permission,
European settlers moved into Texas and, when there were enough of them,
declared Texas an independent republic. This audacity did not please the
Mexicans one bit and on 6th March, 1836, a Mexican army led by General Antonio
Lopez de Santa Anna stormed the Alamo and killed all who defended it, thus
ending the careers of Jim Bowie, Davy Crocket et al.
The following month a force
of 900 men led by Sam Houston surprised Santa Anna’s army while it was enjoying
a siesta, inflicting a crushing defeat on the Mexicans in just 18 minutes. Thus
did Sam Houston win himself the battle of San Jacinto and, for good measure,
the presidency of the new Republic of Texas. In 1845 Texas was annexed into the
United States. And that is how Texas changed from being part of Mexico to being
part of the USA.
But that wasn’t enough. John
L. O’Sullivan, Editor of the Democratic
"The fulfilment of our manifest destiny is to overspread
the continent allotted by providence for the free development of our yearly
This concept of ‘Manifest Destiny’
appealed to the greedy, unprincipled politicians of the USA who eagerly
supported President Polk’s trumped-up excuse for waging war on Mexico (1846-48)
which a young soldier named Hiram Ulysses (better known as Ulysses Simpson)
Grant later called, when writing his memoirs after becoming president, "a
shameful case of a powerful country taking advantage of a weaker country". As a
result of this war Mexico was forced to cede all its territory north of the Rio
Grande to the United States. Thus Arizona, California, Colorado and New Mexico
joined Texas in becoming part of ‘Uncle Sam’s Fair Land’. Mexico was robbed of
forty per cent of its territory.
There remained one other obstacle
to westward expansion: the American Indians.
To digress but slightly, the Nazi
concept of ‘Lebensraum’ and ‘Untermenschen’ was not an original idea thought up
by Hitler. For a technically more advanced country to take over another and
exterminate or enslave its population was nothing new; nation has being doing
this unto nation for thousands of years, since long before recorded history.
Cromwell’s cruel suppression of Ireland, the confiscation of all of Ireland
except for the barren west coast area of Connaught and Co. Clare, into which
the butchered, starving remnants of the Irish population were confined upon
pain of death – ‘To Hell or Connaught’ – was a precursor of America’s ‘Manifest
To the European settlers the
West was their ‘Lebensraum’ and the Native Americans were the ‘Untermenschen’.
In other words: "It doesn’t matter if the Indians were here first, this country
is ours and we have a God-given right to take it. So go west, young man, and if
the redskins get in your way – kill them! Kill them all!" This was the ugly,
greed-motivated, capitalist-driven truth behind the pompously worded
hypocritical concept of ‘Manifest Destiny’. There was plenty of agricultural
and mineral wealth to be exploited and fortunes to be made, and the unstoppable
capitalist steamroller would crush all who stood in its path. The real threat
to the European settlers was American capitalism, as we shall see.
In reality the Indians were the
true victims of the relentless westward drive of America’s immigrants. Their
history is one of unimaginable suffering, cruelty and persecution, inflicted
upon them since the earliest days of European settlement; they were driven
almost to the point of extinction. Far removed from the Hollywood stereotype
(it was the white man who first instigated the barbaric practice of
‘scalping’), and consisting mainly of hunter-gatherer tribes, they were
remarkably ahead of their time in their awareness of the importance of
preserving the environment: "Some day the
earth shall weep, she will beg for her life, she will cry with tears of blood.
You will make a choice, if you will help her or let her die, and when she dies,
you too will die."
John Hollow Horn, Oglala Lakota,
There are hundreds of such
speeches, well documented, spoken by hundreds of Native Americans, throughout
Having no immunity to European
diseases such as smallpox (with which they were often deliberately infected)
and influenza, they died in their hundreds of thousands. But the spread of
disease was not their only problem. U.S. government policy was to deliberately
starve them by hiring Buffalo Bill Cody and others like him to wipe out the
bison, their main source of meat; they suffered massacre after massacre at the
hands of the US military; they signed treaty after treaty and were made promise
after promise, only to be betrayed time after time by a perfidious United
Volumes could be written about the
atrocities committed by the military against the Indians, but a couple of
examples will suffice:
"Let them eat dung!"
In the 1850’s 150,000 settlers had taken over 90% of the
Santee’s territory, forcing them onto a small strip of land by the Minnesota
River. Their chief, Little Crow, knowing he could not defeat the ‘Bluecoat’
soldiers, signed a treaty making this territorial arrangement legal, in return
for which the Sioux were promised annual payments with which to buy food and
provision from official traders and Government agents. But the promised money
would often arrive late, forcing the Indians to ask for credit for which they
were grossly overcharged. Things came to a head in August, 1862, when the traders
decided there would be no more food until the money arrived. Little Crow and a
party of Sioux approached the agency and asked the government agent, Thomas
Galbraith, to make some arrangement to supply food for the hungry Indians. One
of the traders, Andrew Myrick, replied: "So
far as I’m concerned, if they are hungry, let them eat grass or their own
dung." This contempt was the last straw for the angry, hungry Santee Sioux.
It caused a Sioux uprising which resulted in the violent death of settlers,
traders, soldiers and Indians alike. When the uprising was quelled 303 Indians
were sentenced to be hanged (President Lincoln had the number reduced to 39)
and the Santee Sioux were deprived of what remained of their land. The 1,300
Santees in captivity were banished to the barren Crow Creek reservation where
more than 300 of them perished in the first winter
The Sand Creek Massacre
"But what shall I do with the Third Colorado Regiment if I
make peace? They have been raised to kill Indians, and they must kill Indians." This was Colorado Governor John Evans’ reply to Major
Edward Wynkoop. Wynkoop had advised chiefs White Antelope and Black Kettle to
camp close to his garrison for their own protection. But Governor Evans was
working hand-in-glove with Colonel John M. Chivington, who was a Methodist
preacher. Their plan was to exterminate the Cheyenne and Arapaho Indians and
thus gain early statehood for Colorado. Chivington publicly advocated the
killing of all Indians, even little children, because ‘nits make lice’ – now
there’s a ‘man of God’ for you! Chivington had Wynkoop removed from his post
and replaced by hardliner Major Scott Anthony. The Indians were then encouraged
to stay in their encampment at Sand Creek in the belief that they would be safe
On the morning of 29th November,
1864, Chivington led several hundred men of the Colorado Militia on a
treacherous attack on Sand Creek while most of the Cheyenne were away on
hunting parties. Chief Black Kettle, waving a white flag and an American flag on
a pole, told the children and squaws to gather around him and they would be
safe, but the soldiers shot them down (Black Kettle miraculously escaped, only
to be killed in a later massacre carried out by Custer and his 7th cavalry).
Chief White Antelope, wearing a peace medal given to him by the United States
government, stood before the soldiers with his arms folded and declared he was
a friend of the white men – his white ‘friends’ shot him dead! The murderous
butchery and sadistic brutality which ensued was almost too sickening to
believe: men, women and children had their genitals cut off in an orgy of
slaughter which left 105 women and children and 28 men dead." I saw one squaw cut open, with an unborn
child lying by her side. There were about thirty or forty squaws hidden in a
hole for protection; they sent out a little girl about six or seven years old
with a white flag on a stick…she was shot and killed…all the squaws in that
hole were killed. Every one I saw dead was scalped. Robert Bent
"…I did not see a body of man, woman, or
child but was scalped…their bodies were mutilated in the most horrible
manner…men had cut the private parts from females and stretched them over their
saddle bows and wore them round their hats while riding in the ranks." Lt.
So who, then, were the brutal
savages? Not surprisingly, the Arapaho and Cheyenne retaliated that winter,
attacking military outposts, ranches, and wagon trains, just as governor Evans
and Chivington hoped they would. Now they had their war. Consequently the
Indians were quelled and forced to sign an agreement giving up all claims to
their Colorado homeland. As historian Dee Brown (Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee) said, that was the whole object of
the Sand Creek massacre.
It would be absurd to claim that
all soldiers, all politicians, or even all the captains of American capitalism
were intent on exterminating the Native Americans. But in each case there were
more than enough of them so inclined, and in positions of power, to ensure that
the wholesale slaughter of the relatively helpless indigenous people was
carried out, almost to the point of extinction, in the furtherance of America’s
This pattern of treachery and
murder was repeated continually as the West was cleared of its rightful
inhabitants in order to have its mineral and agricultural wealth exploited by
American capitalism. The long period of murderous cruelty and unimaginable pain
and suffering inflicted upon the Native Americans by the Europeans is the most
horrific chapter in the story of human history: a proud nation of 10,000,000
people was reduced to a mere 250,000 by 1870. The so-called ‘Manifest Destiny’
was nothing but a licence for genocide. Let us leave the last word to Black
Elk, reflecting on yet another atrocity, the massacre of the Sioux men, women
and children at Wounded Knee:
"I did not know then how much was ended.
When I look back now from this high hill of my old age, I can still see the
butchered women and children lying heaped and scattered all along the crooked
gulch as plain as when I saw them with eyes still young. And I can see that
something else died there. It was a beautiful dream … the nation’s hoop is
broken and scattered. There is no centre any longer, and the sacred tree is
Modern Americans are becoming
increasingly aware of the truly horrifying extent of the holocaust inflicted on
the Indians, but until America acknowledges its guilt, apologises and makes
redress for these appalling, near genocidal crimes, and does so at the very
highest level, it cannot even begin to call itself a moral nation.
When the USA’s capitalist rulers
welcomed the world’s ‘huddled masses’ to its shores their motives were not
philanthropic. They needed those immigrants to populate the West and thus
facilitate its exploitation, and of course they also needed to exploit the
immigrants. The westward bound settlers had no compassion for the dispossessed
Indians whose land they were stealing. Despite the fact that many immigrants
were themselves the victims of persecution, pogroms and oppressive poverty,
they cheered and jeered as the natives who had lived there for thousands of
years were expelled from their rightful homelands and carted off to barren and barely
The settlers who founded their
little homesteads and worked the land thought their futures were settled; all
too many of them were to be disillusioned. They were in the way of the ruthless
cattle barons, timber merchants, industrialists and railroad empire builders
who were determined to rule the West. These small homesteaders were to become
the victims of unbridled aggressive capitalism in what Marxist historian
Richard Maxwell Brown called the Western Civil War of Incorporation.
The capitalist predators had all
the advantages over the settlers: money, corrupt politicians and judges, ‘law’
enforcers, and an unlimited supply of hired guns to do their murderous dirty
work. Karl Marx, who observed the situation from London, wrote to a colleague
in America that "Nowhere else in the
world was the upheaval so shamelessly caused by capitalist oppression taking
place with such speed." He wrote this remark after five homesteaders in
California, resisting eviction from their homes, died in a gunfight with
gunfighters hired by the millionaire owners of Southern Pacific Railroad. Two
of Southern Pacific’s hired guns also died in that fight (making the death toll
more than twice that of the more famous ‘O.K. Corral’ fight between the Earps
and the Clantons). The gunfight, known as the Mussel Slough shoot out, arose
from a dispute over land ownership between the farmers and the Californian
South Pacific which was settled in court in 1879 when Judge Lorenzo Sawyer
ruled in favour of the railroad, thus handing over to the railroad company
thousands of acres which had already been settled on by farmers. Readers will
not be surprised to learn that the judge was a good friend of Charles Crocker
and Leland Stanford, two of the owners of Southern Pacific.
After the killings, most of the
other Mussel Slough farmers, unable to pay the extortionate rents charged by
the railroad company, had no choice but to leave or face eviction at gunpoint.
Lorenzo Sawyer was only one of many judges who favoured the big landowners and
corporations, so it can be no surprise to anyone that many of the dispossessed
homesteaders then resorted to cattle rustling and horse stealing. The greed and
corruption of unfettered, establishment-backed capitalism gave rise to much of
the outlawry that spread throughout the West.
The cattle barons were equally
merciless in their war against the small homesteaders and were just as at ease
with hiring killers to do their dirty work in their land-grabbing range wars.
The big ranchers made hit-lists of small ranchers, farmers and suspected horse
thieves, then organised vigilante groups and hired gunfighters to set about the
business of killing them. Thus many small homesteaders were suffering in their
turn the same injustice that was inflicted on the American Indians. Known in
Montana and North Dakota as ‘Stuart’s Stranglers’ and in Wyoming as the
‘Regulators’, these vigilantes conducted their murderous business by means of
the gun and lynch-law with impunity, greatly increasing the power and property
of the big cattle barons, until the angry citizens of Johnson County, Wyoming,
formed a huge posse to stop them. This posse would have wiped out the
Regulators had not the U.S. cavalry intervened – where were the cavalry when
these hired killers were killing the smaller ranchers and farmers? The
smallholders, unlike capitalist big business, did not have the influence of
Republican politicians and the support of President Harrison in Washington to
summon the military to their aid when they were being murdered and oppressed.
After the failure of the
regulators in Wyoming the cattle barons and big landowners resorted to murder
by stealth, employing bounty hunters and gunfighters to ambush and kill the
Law and order
There were undoubtedly many
genuine law enforcers in the frontier towns of the West, but there were also
many who were happy to sell their services to the corrupt capitalist
establishment. Ex-Tombstone lawman David Neagle was hired as bodyguard to
Justice Stephen Field of the U.S. Supreme Court, who was behind many decisions
favouring the Southern Pacific and other big corporations. When Field got into
an argument with David Terry, champion of the Californian settlers, Neagle shot
Terry dead. Of course, when the case came to trial Neagle was acquitted – so
once again, no surprise there! One can cite many cases in which even the
legendary heroes, such as Hickock and the Earps, showed their darker sides.
But urban law was often enforced
not by sheriffs, but by vigilante groups, while the legal establishment turned
a blind eye. Vigilantes are often portrayed in films as unruly, excitable mobs
who have just emerged from the saloon bar itching to lynch some outlaw being
held prisoner in the town jail, only to be thwarted by the courageous stand of
the local sheriff. It was not like that. The vigilante movement was well
organised and was almost always led by the millionaire pillars of the
establishment (who needed law and order more than the ordinary citizens did, in
order to encourage investment in ‘their’ towns and help them grow) such as
Montana cattle boss Granville Stuart and California Senator and railroad
magnate Leland Stanford. The San Francisco vigilante movement had an estimated
8,000 members, while most states had large, active groups all led by prominent
politicians and businessmen. Sometimes the vigilantes got it wrong and strung
up an innocent man, causing the law-abiding citizens to fear them almost as
much as the law-breakers did.
Jesse James is probably the most
famous of the West’s outlaws; he was a product of the American Civil War. He
was rabidly pro-slavery, capable of the cold-blooded killing of unarmed men,
and was forever writing to the newspapers to justify his actions or proclaim
his innocence. Yet he, like the Daltons and the Youngers, were immensely
popular with the ordinary settlers and townsfolk. This is easy to understand:
the banks and the railroads robbed the settlers, and the James gang robbed the
banks and railroads. But, as previously stated, many of the West’s outlaws and
cattle rustlers were the product of depredations committed against them as
America’s capitalists built their western empire.
The True Story of the West
Volumes could be written about the
history of the West. To summarise, it is the story of corporate capitalism’s
campaign to eliminate the native Indians and dominate the immigrant settlers.
From the Mississippi to the Pacific coast, from Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and
California in the Southern United States, to Montana, Dakota and Wyoming in the
North, there was not a State that eluded this hard fought struggle. Life was
hard enough for the small earners, homesteaders and workers in the West, but
corporate capitalism made it harder still. The small ranchers and homesteaders,
the Hispanic sheepherders in New Mexico, the Native Americans, all in their
turn fought heroically as their land was stolen from them at the point of a gun
or by legal trickery. Nor can we ignore the bitter struggle of organised labour
against mine owners in Colorado (known as Colorado’s Thirty-Year’s war) and
Idaho. In the end, big business won. It won because it fought an organised
fight supported by politicians with the weight of the legal establishment and
the military behind them.
The small farmers and settlers had
no such unifying cohesion. They fought their own separate battles in their own
regions, and, to put it in military terms, they were ‘defeated in detail’. And
thus the West was stolen. Such is the true story of the West; it is a story
written in the unjustly spilled blood of American Indians and small
homesteaders who were only fighting for what they believed was rightfully
The Western Movie
People go to the cinema to be
entertained, and no other film genre has fulfilled that purpose more
successfully than the Western in terms of world-wide popularity. In Hollywood
it was in the top six most popular themes for half a hundred years, throughout
the decades from the twenties to the sixties. It was mainly the Western that
formed the world’s perception of America and its history and culture. It gave a
false image of the true West, something that a few later productions tried to
correct, especially in the context of the misrepresentation of the American Indians.
The first two Westerns to be
copyrighted were Kit Carson and The Pioneers, both made in 1903. The
latter, only 15 minutes long, tells the story of Indians murdering a
homesteading couple and carrying off their daughter, who is later rescued by
brave frontiersmen. This story, an early precursor of the 1956 John Ford/John
Wayne film The Searchers, sets the
seal on the way the Indians were to be portrayed in most Westerns thereafter.
Despite their false representation of the West as it really was, almost all
Westerns which were produced with any degree of competence provided exciting
entertainment, they had everything going for them: pioneers braving the
elements and the marauding savages; romance, outlaws wanted dead or alive,
bar-room brawls and Main Street showdowns between the square-jawed hero and the
mean-eyed villain, all against a backdrop of some of the most magnificent,
breathtaking scenery in the world. Nevertheless, anyone aware of the true
history of the West could not help but view them with cynicism.
From the start the Western
asserted the ‘Manifest Destiny’ concept of the white man (and capitalism)
taking over the West in films like The
Iron Horse (John Ford, 1924), Wells
Fargo (Frank Lloyd, 1937, the first Western to star the excellent Joel
McCrea), and Western Union (Fritz
Lang, 1941), the latter starring the leathery -skinned Randolph Scott, who
really looked the part of a cowboy. Both actors made many reliable, above
average Westerns, and both bowed out of the Western movies together, co-starring
in the highly acclaimed Sam Peckinpah film Ride
the High Country (1962).
But we cannot discuss Western
stars without including John Wayne (if he wasn’t winning the West, he was
winning the war). Big John – right-wing bigot and all-American hypocrite!
Constantly promoting his own image as an American super-patriot, when his
country was at war Wayne did not ‘do what a man’s gotta do’ and go where the
real bullets fly; instead he kept out of harm’s way and restricted his heroics
to the silver screen. He was instrumental in getting left-wing writer Carl
Foreman blacklisted and forced out of America after Foreman wrote the
anti-McCarthy script for High Noon, yet he had the hypocrisy to present Gary
Cooper with an Oscar for his starring role in the same film, commenting "I wish someone would write a role like that
Nevertheless we must ignore his
bigotry and appraise his work on its own merit. Wayne was a man with incredible
screen presence and for decades was one of the biggest box office draws of all
time. He, along with directors John Ford and Howard Hawks, did more than any
other to paint a false picture of the West, although the films they made
together were usually highly entertaining. His best ever Western was The Searchers. His big professional flaw
was that he played himself far too often. Quote: "I play John Wayne in every picture regardless of the character, and
I’ve done alright, haven’t I?" – in the end, he became downright boring.
The Classic Westerns
The word ‘classic’ is bandied
about much too liberally in relation to Westerns. If a film is to be judged a
classic then surely certain criteria must apply: it is not enough that the
directing, acting, camerawork etc. are outstanding, it must also be essentially
authentic in its depiction of the subject matter, and most important of all, it
must be believable. Let us first assess a couple of the so-called ‘classics’: Stagecoach (John Ford, 1939) and My Darling Clementine (also John Ford,
This is the film that lifted John
Wayne out of the B-movies into major stardom. Ever since it was first released
critics have positively drooled over this film, heaping undeserved praise upon
it and deeming it an all-time classic. It is no such thing. It is a simple,
well-made Western with a main theme of a small group of stagecoach passengers,
a mixed bunch of characters including a drunk (Thomas Mitchell won an Oscar for
this performance), a gambler, a young wife going to join her army officer
husband, and a ‘saloon bar’ girl. All are in mortal danger from pursuing
Indians, but John Wayne, aka the Ringo Kid, fends off the angry Indians before
reaching town to settle the score with the Plummer boys, who had murdered his
father. It was exciting at times, and well filmed in Monument Valley, scene of
so many John Ford films, but it was also ludicrously unbelievable: if the
Indians were really intent on lifting the scalps of John Wayne and company all
they had to do was shoot the horses that were pulling the stagecoach they were
pursuing. A classic? Never!
MY DARLING CLEMENTINE
Many film critics have labelled My Darling Clementine a classic; even
Kathleen Neils Conzen, professor of history at the University of Chicago, in
her contribution to The Oxford History of
the American West, joined in the chorus of praise for this overrated film.
She should have known better.
Early in the film you see the Earp
brothers admiring a brooch which the youngest brother has bought for his fiancé
back home, and as he goes on talking about it you know, you just know, that the
youngster will be killed and later in the movie that same brooch will turn up
on the bosom of some girl in Tombstone. This didn’t happen in real life.
Another false scenario is the situation where Doc Holliday is virtually running
the town when the Earps get there; that was also historically inaccurate. And
the scene where Wyatt Earp (Henry Fonda) beats Holliday to the draw and shoots
the gun out of his hand is the stuff of ‘matinee movies’ of the Roy Rogers
type, which are not meant to be taken seriously.
The character of Doc Holliday was
badly misrepresented. He was portrayed as a surgeon, performing an operation on
his dying girlfriend, when anybody who knows anything about the Tombstone/O.K.
Corral episode knows that Holliday was a dentist. The film was also a
masterpiece of miscasting: the ailing, consumptive Doc Holliday is played by
the hulking, muscular Victor Mature, who two years earlier had played Samson!
The main villain of the piece, Ike Clanton, is played by Walter Brennan, who
was about as menacing as Mickey Mouse. Clementine
was no classic; it was a run-of-the-mill film and a travesty of the truth.
So let us now look at films worthy
of the name ‘classic’. Two spring immediately to mind: Shane (George Stevens, 1953) and
High Noon. (Fred Zinnemann, 1952). Neither film is without its faults, but
you can pick holes in any film you care to mention.
This film was released to wide and
well deserved acclaim in 1953, but since then retrospective ‘expert critics’
have had mixed opinions, some continuing to sing its praise, others deriding it
as overrated. Let us answer the main negative criticisms:
1) Alan Ladd’s performance was too wooden.
Reply: Others say he gave the
performance of his life, neither verdict is correct. Ladd was an underrated
actor who gave a solid performance, as did every single member of the cast.
2) Shane’s buckskin jacket and hodgepodge dress sense.
Reply: This criticism by
so-called expert Thomas Cripps, professor at Morgan State University, is a
pathetic piece of nit-picking; there was no uniform for the westerners, they
wore what they wore. He also criticised Jack Palance’s performance as being
‘camp’ and too stereotyped. What rubbish! It is the one fine performance for
which Palance will be remembered long after all his other films are forgotten.
3) It was deliberately made with the intention of creating a
Reply: This is a criticism
often levelled at Shane, but do these
critics realise what they are saying? Is it wrong to try to make a memorable
movie? These so-called critics should find themselves another job.
There is but one criticism that
holds up: we could have done without the mawkish scene where the whimpering dog
paws his master’s coffin as it is being lowered into the grave. This is a
valid, but very minor fault, hardly worth mentioning.
THE STORY: The plot is formulaic –
cattle baron trying to force ‘sodbusters’ off ‘his’ land. Although this is a
common western theme it is done in a simple down to earth, convincing fashion
by veteran director George Stevens (Giant,
A Place in the Sun). Shane (Alan Ladd), trying to leave his violent,
gun-fighting life behind him, takes the offer of a job with a homesteading
family, the Starrets, Joe (Van Heflin), his wife (Jean Arthur) and little Joe,
played in a gem of a performance by child star Brandon De Wilde. Determined not
to get involved in violence, Shane backs down from the bar room bully (Ben
Johnson), much to the disgust of the other settlers. On their second encounter
Shane decides not to turn the other cheek and beats the living daylights out of
the bully. In an understated sub plot Starret is aware that there is an
attraction between his wife and Shane, but is not alarmed by this because he
trusts them both completely. He is also aware that his son hero worships Shane;
it is really through the eyes of the little boy that the story is seen.
There is an excellent scene where
Rufus Ryker (Emil Meyer), the cattle baron, gets to tell his side of the story
as he tries to win Starret’s co-operation. Finally losing his patience, the big
rancher hires Wilson, a gunfighter (Jack Palance), to rid the range of the
Palance had his face badly burned
while serving in the US air corps, and the resulting taught skin, drawn tightly
over his high cheek bones, made his face look like a grinning skull as he stood
outside the general store/saloon goading Stonewall (Elisha Cook Jnr) into a
gunfight. As he stands on the boardwalk leering down at Stonewall he looks like
the grim reaper in cowboy gear. This gunfight started a trend towards realism
in Westerns (carried to gory excess in Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch) when Stonewall, instead of crumpling to the ground
when he is shot, is hurled several feet backwards into the mud as if he’d been
kicked by a horse.
Starret realises that some of the
homesteaders are beginning to lose heart in the face of this escalation of the
dispute, so he agrees to a meeting with the cattle baron at the general store.
But Chris (the bar room bully), also has a change of heart. It’s one thing
threatening and bullying the ‘squatters’, but the cold-blooded murder of
Stonewall sickens him. He warns Shane that Starret will be killed if he goes to
the general store. Shane cannot allow Starret to be killed, nor can he continue
to stay with the Starrets because of his growing feelings for Starret’s wife.
He takes Starret’s place at the
meeting and in the ensuing gunfight he kills the cattle baron and Wilson, but
is himself wounded. In the final poignant scene he says goodbye to little Joe,
who has witnessed the gunfight, and rides away into the night, with little Joe
calling "Come back Shane!" – his pleading voice echoing through the valley.
Does Shane die from his wound somewhere in the lonely plains, or does he
survive to find a life somewhere else where he can fit in? Nobody knows.
The film fits all the criteria to
merit the description ‘classic’. It recognises the strongly held beliefs of the
settlers of those days, who believed they had a right to live in their chosen
homesteads without fear of harm from outlaws, Indians, or anyone else. It also
recognises the other strongly held ‘Code of the West’, that men settled their
differences face to face, and with guns if necessary (outside of the boomtowns
there were not many legal law enforcers around in those days). This truly was
the way the men of the old West thought, and George Stevens got this message
across well, but without overstating it.
The casting was first rate, with
every supporting actor playing his part to perfection. Screened in the
magnificent, atmospheric setting of Jackson Hole, Wyoming, the camera work was
as flawless as every other aspect of the film, and long after you’ve left the
cinema, Victor Young’s haunting theme music lingers in your mind. This was not
only a classic Western; it was one of the very best, almost perfect, pieces of
cinema ever to come out of Hollywood.
No film has ever caused such
political controversy. Cinemas were picketed by the Ku Klux Klan and various
other right-wing factions, writer Carl Foreman was blacklisted and forced out
of the United States and the young up-and-coming actor Lloyd Bridges was
blacklisted for several years. "It was a
terrible place in those days. If you were in any way liberal, if you wanted the
world to be a fairer place for the human race, you were severely punished." (Lloyd
Bridges). It was written as a plea to Hollywood’s acting community to stick
together against the threat of McCarthyism, although the cinema-going public
didn’t see it that way; to them it was a simply wonderful Western.
The Austrian-born director Fred
Zinnemann (A Man for All Seasons, From
Here to Eternity) was a master of his craft, a man who knew how good
he was and was not cowed by the Hollywood moguls. Once, when an arrogant young
film executive summoned him to his office and said: "Now tell me some of the
things you’ve done", Zinneman said: "You first." United Artists could not have
made a better choice when they picked him for High Noon. Shot in black and white, and all the better for it, the movie was made for a total of
$730,000 dollars, which was a shoestring budget even in those days.
There have been few negative
criticisms of this great film regarding its artistic merit. The main jibe
against it is that Gary Cooper, then 51 years old, was much too old for his
film bride, the pristine young newcomer Grace Kelly, aged 24. A silly point to
make, after all there is nothing extraordinary about young women marrying older
men, it happens all the time. When Howard Hawks made Rio Bravo as a right-wing rebuttal to High Noon there was no criticism when 52-year old John Wayne won
the hand of 28-year old Angie Dickinson.
However, there are two genuine flaws
that should be pointed out:
1) Sheb Wooley’s character drank too much whisky for a man who
was preparing for a gunfight.
2) The actor who played Frank Miller was not convincingly
menacing after all the build up prior to his appearance; the part needed a Jack
Palance or a Lee Marvin. These are the only valid artistic criticisms, but
nevertheless they do not prevent this film from being the ultimate classic
THE STORY: "A man is not born to run away." (Oliver Wendell Holmes), another strongly held tenet of the
‘Code of the West’. The film opens with Lee Van Cleef sitting on a rock near
the railway station, soon to be joined by Sheb Wooley and Robert Wilkie as they
await the arrival of their leader, Frank Miller, who has been released from the
State Prison and seeks revenge on Sheriff Will Kane (Gary Cooper), who put him
there. The newly wed Kane and his young bride are about to leave town to start
a new life when the news arrives that Miller and his gang are coming to get
The news strikes fear into
the town. The judge who sentenced Miller (an excellent performance from Otto
Kruger) decides to leave town. So too does Kane’s ex-lover, Helen Ramierez,
(played by Mexican actress Katy Jurado), who had also previously been Miller’s lover.
Kane’s bride, a Quaker, is appalled when her new husband decides to stay and
face up to Miller, and she too decides to leave. His deputy (Lloyd Bridges),
embittered because he has not been elected to succeed Kane as Sheriff, refuses
to help him. Soon Kane realises that no one is going to help him.
Every man has a perfectly good
reason why he can’t risk his life by supporting the sheriff who had brought law
and order to their once wild and dangerous town. And all the while the clock is
ticking, bringing the train, Frank Miller, and High Noon closer and closer.
Indeed, the clock is probably the real star of this movie, building the tension
with every second, stretching Kane’s nerves to the limit as he even admits that
he too is afraid. As the camera looks down on the solitary figure standing in
the deserted, starkly sunlit street, abandoned by his ungrateful and cowardly
friends, forsaken by the woman he loves, disillusioned and convinced he is
going to his death, he looks like the loneliest man in the world. The scene had
all the eerie, uncanny alienation of an Edward Hopper painting.
The train arrives, bringing with
it the revenge-seeking Miller, and the four gunmen stalk the streets of the
town looking for Kane. It’s showdown time and the shooting starts. Meanwhile,
Kane’s wife realises her place is with her husband. She returns to town where,
against all her Quaker principles, she is forced to kill one of the gunmen. The
gunfight ends with the four gunmen dead on the streets and the good townsfolk crowding
round Kane to praise his valiant stand. Looking at them with contempt, Kane
throws his tin badge to the ground, mounts his buggy alongside his wife and
rides out of town for the last time. This movie, the drama greatly enhanced by
Dimitri Tiomkin’s Oscar-winning score, is not just a classic – it is a
masterpiece, there will never be a better Western than this.
THE END OF THE TRAIL?
So, has the last Western hero
ridden into the sunset? Has the last ‘baddie’ bitten the dust? No –
emphatically no! It is not just the Western genre that has gone into decline,
the genre movies in general have gone out of fashion (Please do not point out
the popularity of the superhero movies: Spiderman, Batman, etc., we are talking
about serious cinema here). Gangster movies, war movies, musicals, they have
all seen better days.
The Western went into steep
decline in the mid-sixties, as television came into its own. The TV screen was
swamped with western programmes: Laramie,
Bonanza, Gunsmoke, Have gun will travel, Wyatt Earp, Maverick, Shenandoah,
Wagon Train, the list goes on and on. Why get out of your comfortable
armchair to go see a Western movie when there were cowboys shooting it out in
your own living room every night of the week? But television was only partly to
blame; Hollywood had taken too long in making any serious effort to redefine
the Western. The only way forward was to honestly tell it like it really was.
An early attempt was Broken Arrow
(1950), which attempted to portray the Apaches as human beings. Cheyenne Autumn (1964) was John Ford’s
last Western, in which he made an earnest effort to atone for his previous sins
by exposing some of the injustices suffered by the Indians. Once Upon a Time in the West (Sergio
Leone, 1969), depicting the ruthlessness of the rail barons, was almost a
classic, marred only by the unrealistic shoot-out on the train. Soldier Blue (1970) which drew on the
Sand Creek massacre, and was also a veiled attack on America’s brutality in
Vietnam, was a serious attempt to take history seriously and tell the bloody
tale of the white man’s brutality towards the American Indians.
All of these films were excellent, but it was too little too late. There
is, however, a lesson to be learned from them; they all had two things in
common: they all were big successes at the box office, and they all brought the
reality of the west to the screen. The lesson to be drawn is this: it is no
longer enough have an excellent cast, first rate camera work, director, musical
score and a good story – the story must also be faithful to the historical
truth. Any Western film containing all of these elements will not fail at the
box office. Kevin Costner realised this when he made Dances with Wolves (1990). His marvellous work won seven Oscars and
earned more money than any other Western ever made. I rest my case.