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.