Johnny Guitar


Year: 1954
Studio: Republic Pictures
Running time: 110 minutes
Process: color / mono / widescreen
Director: Nicholas Ray
Stars: Joan Crawford as Vienna
Sterling Hayden as Johnny “Guitar” Logan
Mercedes McCambridge as Emma Small
Scott Brady as Dancin’ Kid
Ward Bond as John McIvers
Ernest Borgnine as Bart Lonergan

Johnny Guitar is a difficult film to describe. American audiences didn’t know what to make of it in 1954. Though it looked and felt like a traditional Western, it was like nothing they had ever seen. The battle of wills was not between two male gunfighters, but rather between two strong women. Joan Crawford starred as a saloon owner who intended to get rich when the railroad came through the town. She dominated all the men around her. Mercedes McCambridge, as her nemesis, was a self-righteous, rich cattle baroness who wanted to run Joan out of town, or if at all possible, string her up, via a lynch mob.

The film was influenced by the European New Wave of independent filmmaking and is dripping with symbolism and subtext.

It also deviates from a lot of traditional Western conventions. For example Mercedes McCambridge and all the lawmen are dressed in black, while Joan Crawford and her band of outlaws are often in bright colors or even white.

Ambiguous, stylized, and containing sexual overtones, Johnny Guitar only came to be respected as a classic upon rediscovery by modern audiences.



Fort Apache


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Year: 1948
Studio: RKO
Running time: 127 minutes
Process: Black & White / mono
Director: John Ford
Stars: Henry Fonda as Lt. Col. Owen Thursday
John Wayne as Capt. Kirby York
Shirley Temple as Philadelphia Thursday
Ward Bond as Sgt. Maj. Michael O’Rourke
Victor McLaglen as Sgt. Festus Mulcahy
John Agar as 2nd. Lt. Michael Shannon O’Rourke

Fort Apache was the first of John Ford’s “Cavalry” trilogy. The three films were separate stories all concerning the US Cavalry and starring John Wayne.

Henry Fonda plays an ambitious military officer who has been assigned to take command at an outpost called Fort Apache. He is disappointed by the assignment and sees it as a temporary setback to his military career. As a strict, by-the-book, regimented commander, he finds the fort much too lax and lacking in discipline. He is a widower and has been accompanied to the outpost by his 19-year old daughter, played by Shirley Temple.

Much of the film deals with Col. Thursday’s inflexibility as he butts heads with Captain York (John Wayne) who has a much better understanding of how to deal with the restless Apaches. York would prefer to use diplomacy while Thursday insists on force. And when Thursday’s daughter falls in love with a young West Point cadet (John Agar), he stubbornly forbids the courtship because it goes against military regulations.

It’s not much of a leap to recognize that the story was patterned after Custer’s Last Stand, with Thursday having Custer-like attributes, and he even suffers the same fate.

Fort Apache is a great example of John Ford’s patriotism and his love for the US Cavalry, and of course it was filmed in Ford’s favorite location, Monument Valley. He followed it up with She Wore a Yellow Ribbon in 1949 and Rio Grande in 1950.


Dances With Wolves



Year: 1990
Studio: Orion
Running Time: 181 minutes (Theatrical), 234 minutes (Director’s cut)
Process: Panavision / Dolby Stereo
Director: Kevin Costner
Stars: Kevin Costner as Lieutenant John Dunbar
Mary McDonnell as Stands With A Fist
Graham Greene as Kicking Bird
Rodney A. Grant as Wind In His Hair

By 1990 the Hollywood Western, like the Buffalo, was practically extinct. I remember yearning for a comeback of the good old-fashioned epic Western. And so I couldn’t have been more thrilled when Kevin Costner came through with a film that more than fit the bill.

Dances With Wolves is a literate Western, with sweeping vistas, gentle humor, and an immersive, intelligent story-line. It was directed with finesse by the star who really understood the Western motif.

Most impressive is the authenticity of the production. Costner showed us Native American life in a way that had never been done before. The children at play were no different than children of any other culture. The young warriors were proud and dedicated to protecting the welfare of the tribe. The families were all bound together with love. It was an idyllic way of life and I was drawn to these characters and really cared about what happened to them.

Throughout the 1980s several things had fallen out of fashion in the movie industry. Epic Godfather-style movies were relics of the past and theatergoers had been conditioned to like 90 minute action movies. And subtitles were considered to be box-office poison! Kevin Costner had to buck the studio system in order to get them to let him to make the kind of movie he wanted. A long running time was needed to allow the story to unfold at the proper pace, and it would be very wrong for the Sioux to speak anything but their native Lakota language.

The studio still forced Costner to cut the movie down to 3 hours and even at that length the movie managed to sweep the Academy Awards and reinvigorate interest in the Western. After Dances With Wolves was a bona fide hit, Costner was given permission to re-edit the movie without the time restriction and the nearly four-hour cut is what I would really recommend because it makes a great story even better.

While there have been many Westerns to follow, none have been better than Dances With Wolves.


The Gunfighter



Year: 1950
Studio: 20th Century Fox
Running time: 85 minutes
Process: Black & White / mono
Director: Henry King
Stars: Gregory Peck as Jimmy Ringo
Karl Malden as Mac
Helen Westcott as Peggy Walsh
Millard Mitchell as Marshal Mark Strett
Ellen Corby as Mrs. Devlin

Originally released in 1950 and starring Gregory Peck in the title role as a tired gunfighter who can’t escape his reputation, The Gunfighter is a real gem! This landmark film is an early example of a new style known as the “psychological” western, in that all the tension and drama was derived from dialog and characterization rather than gunfights and horse chases. Peck plays Jimmy Ringo, who is considered to be one of the fastest draws alive. But in the one scene early in the film where he actually has to kill a young man who wants to make a reputation for himself by killing the legendary gunfighter, the camera never shows Peck draw his gun. No, the scene only shows the youngster draw, fire, and fall down, then the camera cuts to Peck with his smoking gun – a brilliant edit.

The film, while critically hailed as a masterpiece, was surprisingly a flop at the box office. The studio blamed the filmmakers for putting too much authenticity into the production. And as we all know, authenticity has no place in a Hollywood Western!

The filmmakers used historical photographs to pattern Peck’s look. The studio heads believed that the soup bowl haircut, long mustache, and large floppy hat obscured Peck’s handsomeness and caused the public’s rejection. Head of production Spyros P. Skouras is quoted saying to Peck, “That mustache cost us millions!”

The 1950s must have really been strait-laced, because personally, I think Gregory Peck never looked better!


Gunsmoke – Seasons 1-6


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Aired: 9/10/1955 – 6/17/1961
Network: CBS
Format: Black & White / 30 minutes
Stars: James Arness as Matt Dillon
Milburn Stone as Doc Adams
Dennis Weaver as Chester Goode
Amanda Blake as Miss Kitty

Gunsmoke was born as a radio program in 1952 and was adapted for television three years later.  It was television’s first “adult” Western. The only Western series on TV up to that point had been kiddie shoot-em-ups such as The Lone Ranger and The Cisco Kid which were mainly aimed at pre-adolescent boys who fantasized about “cowboys and Indians.” Gunsmoke wasn’t the only adult Western to infiltrate the airwaves during the fall of 1955. Two others, namely The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp and Cheyenne, were also responsible for bringing respectability to the genre on television.

John Wayne not only endorsed Gunsmoke (see the video below of his personal introduction to the pilot) he also suggested James Arness to CBS.


The show ran for 20 years but had three distinct formats. The first 6 seasons were half-hour (in black & white) and seasons 7 through 11 were one hour (also in black and white) and finally seasons 12 though 20 were in color. James Arness (as Marshal Matt Dillon) and Milburn Stone (Doc Adams) were the only two actors to appear in all 20 seasons. Another notable actor, Burt Reynolds, was part of the show from 1962 to 1965 playing the “half-breed” blacksmith Quint Asper. Miss Kitty (Amanda Blake) started the series as a saloon girl (code for prostitute) but then was quickly made into a co-owner of the saloon and while references were made to her occupation as not being “respectable,” the show deliberately (probably due to FCC standards or censorship) never made direct references to prostitution. There were also allusions that the Marshal and Miss Kitty were carrying a torch for one another.

The deputy, Chester (played by Dennis Weaver), was good-hearted but he was nervous and excitable, and perhaps just a bit dim-witted. Doc Adams was a cantankerous old geezer who usually scolded his gun-shot patients while still giving them excellent care. Most of the comic relief in the series came from the bickering between Doc and Chester.

What made Gunsmoke so refreshing and unique in the 1950s was its style. Not only was the show written with a high degree of intelligence and realism, but it also broke the rules. Matt didn’t always solve a case or actually capture or kill the villain. What is unusual (and also jarring to viewers unfamiliar with the show) is that many episodes of the series half-hour format seemed to have no conclusion. The story would often just abruptly end and leave questions unanswered as the characters just go on with their lives, much like real life.

But then there was also a repetitive theme, where many episodes would feature an outlaw villain who had a grievance against Matt and would threaten to kill him. The suspense would slowly build as Matt waited for the villain to make his move, but it almost always ended with some sort of gunplay and the villain dead on the street.

Winchester ’73


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Year: 1950
Studio: Universal
Running time: 92 minutes
Process: Black & White / mono
Director: Anthony Mann
Stars: James Stewart as Lin McAdam
Shelley Winters as Lola Manners
Dan Duryea as Waco Johnnie Dean
Steven McNally as Dutch Henry Brown

Anthony Mann was a director who may have been better known for film noir, but he did direct 11 Westerns, five of them starring James Stewart, and Winchester ’73 is undoubtedly the best of the bunch. The story is unique in that it centers around a highly coveted Winchester ’73 rifle that is the prize at a Fourth of July shooting contest. Lin McAdam (Stewart) barely beats out Dutch Henry Brown (Steven McNally), to win the rifle, but Dutch is in fact an outlaw, and he and Lin have a history that goes way back. Dutch jumps Lin and steals the Rifle.

Interestingly, Dutch loses the rifle in a poker game, and then the new owner promptly gets scalped by a Comanche chief who takes possession. As you can probably guess, the rifle changes hands quite a few times before Lin is finally able to get it back

Shelley Winters (in the glamorous stage of her career)  is an ex-saloon girl who is engaged to be married to a man who is in cahoots with Dutch and his gang. She discovers her fiance’s true colors too late, and then is trapped by the outlaws. It all ends in a showdown with Lin and Dutch in a shootout among some rocky bluffs.


(Above left) Rock Hudson, in a very early role, is almost unrecognizable as the Comanche chief. (Above right) Tony Curtis also has a small part as a young Cavalry soldier.

It’s interesting to note that like John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart also had a clearly identifiable screen persona in his Western roles. Whereas John Wayne was tough, a bit ornery, and always bigger-than-life, Stewart was usually subdued and meek. Jimmy usually played a quiet man with a troubled past.

Next week I’ll profile the TV series, Gunsmoke, seasons 1 through 6.


The Searchers


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Year: 1956
Studio: Warner Brothers
Running time: 119 minutes
Process: VistaVision / Technicolor / mono
Director: John Ford
Stars: John Wayne as Ethan Edwards
Jeffrey Hunter as Martin Pawley
Vera Miles as Laurie Jorgenson
Ward Bond as Capt. Samuel Johnston Clayton
Natalie Wood as Debbie Edwards

For our very first entry, I have chosen a movie that most film scholars would consider to be John Ford’s greatest achievement. The Searchers was filmed in Ford’s favorite location, Monument Valley, and was lushly photographed in Technicolor and VistaVision. Every shot was crafted under Ford’s impeccable eye for detail.

The story centers around Ethan Edwards (in one of John Wayne’s best performances) who sets out on a five-year trek to track down the Comanches that kidnapped his niece (Natalie Wood) after killing her parents. He is joined by the girl’s adopted brother (Jeffrey Hunter) who is himself one-eighth Comanche. Ethan boils with hatred for all Native Americans. Roger Ebert writes: “Ethan Edwards, fierce, alone, a defeated soldier with no role in peacetime, is one of the most compelling characters Ford and Wayne ever created (they worked together on 14 films). Did they know how vile Ethan’s attitudes were? I would argue that they did, because Wayne was in his personal life notably free of racial prejudice, and because Ford made films with more sympathetic views of Indians.”

The dark malevolence of the film is balanced with lighter comic relief mostly involving Jeffrey Hunter and his romantic pursuits. The journey is arduous and the viewer really doesn’t know what to expect at the end. When they finally find the girl, will Ethan carry out what his racism and hatred have driven him to do?

It was only in retrospect that The Searchers came to be regarded as the classic it is. It has influenced many filmmakers including Martin Scorsese, Sam Peckinpah, and Steven Speilberg. AFI lists it as #1 on its Top 10 Westerns and #12 on its 100 Years…100 Movies list.

Our next post will be Winchester ’73.