The Golden Age of the Western


Henry Pelifian

The Hollywood Western is truly an American creation that epitomized the hardship to maintain and restore justice.  The inequality, greed and corruption were rampant in the Westerns of Hopalong Cassidy, Gene Autry, Tim Holt, Randolph Scott, Gary Cooper and Joel McCrea.  There are singular Westerns from actors who did not specialize in the Western genre but contributed to the great Western like Alan Ladd in Shane, Paul Newman in Hombre and Robert Taylor in Westward the Women and The Devil’s Doorway which shows the mistreatment and slaughter of the American Indian as well as John Ford’s Cheyenne Autumn depicting the cruel and abusive treatment of the American Indian.  Wagon Master directed by John Ford is among his best pictures, though less well known.   High Noon does not delve into the more usual aspects of criminality rather it depicts the town peoples’ unwillingness to support a retiring sheriff from the arrival of a released prisoner with his gang who want vengeance against the sheriff who arrested him.

These Westerns will endure because their stories captured the hardships of the American West with its corruption and murders, yet the heroic nature portrayed by the stars in these Westerns transport them to a level where America conquers injustice and corruption.  They were for the most part filmed on location capturing the beauty of the landscape in California, Arizona, Wyoming and Montana.

These films showed how bankers, sheriffs and investors were involved in illicit schemes to bilk ranchers and cattlemen.  The Western hero showed that there were people strongly committed to justice and willing to fight for it.  These movies have a high standard fighting against injustice.  The movies are entertaining and their plots mirror the worst excesses in the West, which may have been more common than we like to believe.   (Of course, the Golden Age of the American Western was not without flaws: it included movies that showed negative stereotypes of Native Americans without any understanding of their culture. The actual role of African-Americans and women in the West was largely ignored in the movies or often shown disparagingly.)

The storylines of these Westerns were authentic in describing a time where corruption and injustice were tackled by men who were interested in restoring the balance of justice.  The heroes volunteered to right the wrongs for the people.  In some ways they were the kind of men and women we would want to represent us or guide us as we maneuver through life.  Today we have a monstrous superstructure of government encompassing almost all things.  Yet, it surely is composed of some evildoers like those depicted in these Westerns.  Where are the movies that confront this maze of duplicity and corruption masked as legitimate?

Hopalong Cassidy westerns were filmed on location in Lone Pine, California.  The plot of one Hopalong Cassidy film is defending the ranches of Mexicans from unscrupulous White landowners who try to confiscate their ranches through treacherous means.  Hopalong battles crooked sheriffs and bankers who try to swindle or steal from the common folk.  Tim Holt Westerns have similar themes as Hopalong Cassidy films.  Tim Holt films encounter dishonest freight haulers to crooked lawmen working hand in glove with deceitful businessmen.

A common theme in these movies is a constant coveting of someone else’s land.  The value of the land was often paramount.  Restoring justice was something that all these Westerns have in common as well as the fact that their heroes volunteered to right the wrongs they knew about, though often not directly affecting them.

There are no longer Western heroes to lead the way in films. It is a bygone era. Instead we have a maze of action films with tremendous sound and fury that lead nowhere.  Hopalong always got the bad guy–banker, sheriff, crooked rancher or miner or businessman.  The Western movie may have grounded a nation into a more ethical world.  Change is like a tidal wave washing away all that is before it with succeeding generations oblivious to the past in a remorseless quest for self-satisfaction piggy backing on self-interest.  Do newer generations view a world of action without justice and fairness for people?

Massive and intrusive national government with a compliant press, universities and big business linked by money, directly or indirectly from government, complicates the world by merging these entities with common interests into a powerful and unified force.  Today, uncovering and fighting corruption and dishonesty or misrepresentation embedded in large institutions is a daunting task.  The advent of technology has neither increased our wisdom nor made our judgments better than earlier eras.

Have the leaders of government and society today created the complication and layering of institutions to build a wall against public or press scrutiny?  The self-interest of man may well be essential.   However, subverting government by utilizing public funds for self-interest masked as public interest is something any Western hero would find daunting.  Where are those like Hopalong Cassidy, Tim Holt, Gene Autry, Randolph Scott and Joel McCrea today who would find a way to right the wrongs and return the balance of power back to the people in the movies?  The storyline would be written by those who believed in such heroes and approved by film makers.  Hollywood has made an indelible and enduring mark upon American culture in these Western movies.

The Western film hero helped clean up the West to overcome blatant corruption and crime infesting it.  The actors tried to contribute to building a better country as they portrayed the cowboy from an earlier era.  The cowboy as shown in these movies may have been myth, yet they are a myth we can believe in.  Without a vision of reality that overcomes injustice and ignorance a nation stumbles along and the Western movie provided that vision which is lost today.   It is vision steeped essentially in courage to right wrongs inflicted on people or uphold one’s honor against criminals even as the town’s people through fear and apathy abandon the hero as in High Noon.  Today the mishmash maze of gratuitous violence in movies is an end in itself becoming a simplistic exercise of mesmerizing an audience who leave the movie with often pointless and moral dead ends.

The golden age of Westerns is worth watching, for if there is a noble center to the American soul or spirit, it is in these timeless films and their locations across the West.  That Western compass is lost in the current conflicting maze of entertainment seeking to gratify and thrill the most basic emotions which likely will be programmed into coming robots.

Henry Pelifian has worked in both public and private sectors with years in Thailand, Malaysia and Iran.  He served in the U.S. Army in South Vietnam and is a former Peace Corps Volunteer in Thailand.  He has written two books and a play, THOREAU.

15 thoughts on “The Golden Age of the Western

  1. About the only legacy the Western has left modern America is the conviction that might is right – the guys in the white hats kill the guys in the black hats, and then all is good.

    Bertrand Russell nailed that lie when he pointed out that war never settles who is right – only who is left.

  2. I couldn’t agree more. My personal favorite “Shane” Alan Ladd portrayal one for the ages… I’m also worried by the new “state of the art” Theaters with streaming mist fragrances, rocking seats, sensurround, etc.! What a sad gimmick. Back in my day a dark theater with a comfortable Seat was all that was needed to catapult my imagination if the story was a good one with complex character’s…Not one dimensional Comic Book Heroes!.

  3. An underrated Western is Clint Eastwood’s “Pale Rider,” which pits an exploitative and ruthless mining company against a small community of tin-pan miners. The company uses all means, legal and illegal, to drive the miners off their land, to include intimidation, damming the creek, even the hiring of mercenaries. It’s a powerful movie about greed and vengeance, with the big-time mine owner and his son stopping at nothing to get their way (rape of the land; a near-rape of a young woman). They are stopped, of course, by the “Pale Rider” of the title, played with restraint by Clint Eastwood before he started talking to empty chairs.

  4. It wasn’t just Westerns that had a very socially moral content.’ Grapes of Wrath’, the book by John Steinbeck was made into a movie with Henry Fonda.The narrative and the film were not about romantic fictional cowboys but about real people that the viewer could see themselves in. It is a film of unrelenting and crushing local power that ordinary people can suffer from in a repressive society.

    • True, that. And let’s not forget “It’s a Wonderful Life,” which contrasts the supportive community of Bedford Falls with the greedy fleshpot that was “Pottersville”

    • Although the ‘westerns’ had a ‘moral’ message that ‘good’ can triumph over ‘evil’ it has helped to lead Americans to believe in a ‘ black or white ‘ world that the good will always triumph over the (black) evil. Notice how often our ‘leaders’ use tghe terms “the good guys” and the “bad guys”. the world is neither black nor white it is a many shades of grey. It is very difficulot to sort out the good from the bad and politicians and people in power use this ambiguity to their own “evil’ purposes.

      The reality is that no guy in a white hat rides in on a white horse to save the day . It is rather some ruthless bastard intent on his own interests who wins the day. The little powerless guy must suffer the consequences until he learns to unite with his fellow man to really save the day.

  5. My, look at all these comments! I must, perforce, be concise: 1.) it needs to be borne in mind that all the “land” being fought over in these films was originally obtained for free, by murdering the original inhabitants (or failing that, putting them on “reservations”); 2.) the proverbial Wild, Wild West was often a lawless free-for-all, where the crook who could hire the most-skilled gunmen got his way (how UNLIKE our modern, civilized world [chuckle, chuckle]); 3.) the USA today, we are assured, is governed not by mere men but “The Rule of Law.” And yet with what remarkable ease all our “rights” can be vaporized if we are designated an active or mere suspected “terrorist”!!; 4.) what would happen to an individual today taking up arms and vowing to right society’s wrongs because those in office we pay to do this have failed miserably? That person would be “taken out” by SWAT teams in no time at all!; 5.) let us not overlook Richard Boone’s role on TV’s “Have Gun Will Travel.” I didn’t get to see the full series while growing up, but encountered an episode on TV, in some context or other, in which he (Paladin) rides to the aid of some Chinese mine laborers who are being exploited extra-brutally. This led me to purchase the entire First Season on DVD (the price was irresistible). Here was a hired gun with a definite conscience, though I don’t always agree with his choices; 6.) finally, I will say “High Noon” is one of THE Great American Movies, regardless of genre!

  6. I’ve seen High Noon acclaimed as “taut and terrific” by critics and I agree. It’s an engaging, fast-moving, suspense-filled western with great acting. A side note to the production of the film exposed an overuse of the title track (recorded by Tex Ritter) which triggered laughter in the initial test audience which embarrassed the producers. They edited the film score before release.

  7. Let’s not forget if your of a certain age- myself included “Outland” High Noon retooled for outer space… Sean Connery gives us an anti-hero to root for!. Mary Steenburgen also as his moral compass gives a marvelous performance…

  8. As a student of Texas History, where the west began, I can assure you that the movie ‘Westerns’ are just morality plays based on myth, the myths of the time the movie was made. I say this based on primary sources, and living ‘out yonder.’ You will not hear about the ambushes, damn little about the feuds, the genocidal raids of the Indians on the settlers and the settlers on the Indians. Do you know what happened to Rachael Plummer, Quint Johnson or the techniques of the San Saba mob. America loves the dramatic fools of history, for example Custer rather than MacKenzie, Wyatt Earp rather than Pink Higgins. People remember the Alamo, not the Plan of San Diego. Cowboys were not romantic wild men, but low paid workers spending months in the elements working beasts that would ‘hook’ the guts out of their horse the trample them. Survival of ‘blue northers’ and flooded streams was not a given.
    The golden age of ‘Western’ is based of drama and distortion, not the way it was.

  9. Pingback: Will the Classic Hollywood Western Ever Return to the Mainstream? | Rama's Screen

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