While the critically celebrated Stagecoach has often eclipsed the hundreds of westerns that preceded it, there's no questioning the artistry or impact of the film, which associated director Ford and star John Wayne (1907–1979) with the genre for the rest of their long careers. Stagecoach was in fact one example among an increased production of prominent westerns by major Hollywood studios (even as B westerns continued to be cranked out by Poverty Row studios, with Roy Rogers (1911–1998) emerging as Gene Autry's heir when the latter went to war). In the same year as Stagecoach , 1939, Universal was parodying the genre with George Marshall's Destry Rides Again , while Warner Bros. produced the successful Dodge City , directed by Michael Curtiz in Technicolor. De Mille's Union Pacific at Paramount revived the epic, train-centered western of the late silent period, while historical lawmen and outlaws were revived in Allan Dwan's Frontier Marshall for Fox, with Randolph Scott (1898–1987) as Wyatt Earp, and in Henry King's boxoffice hit Jesse James , also for Fox, starring Tyrone Power as Jesse and Henry Fonda (1905–1982) as brother Frank. All of these prominent westerns appeared simultaneously with, rather than as a result of, Stagecoach , even though Ford's film more than any other demonstrated that the genre could produce skillfully crafted narratives and rich characterizations, even while maintaining the commercially requisite thrills of the chase and the final reel shootout.
Across the following decade, and despite the disruption of World War II, the western's popularity continued. The Westerner (William Wyler, 1940) earned Walter Brennan an Oscar ® for his comic yet moving depiction of Judge Roy Bean. Other notable examples from the period include Western Union (Fritz Lang, 1941), the notoriously erotic The Outlaw (Howard Hughes, 1943), the stark The Ox-Bow Incident (William Wellman, 1943), the eccentric Canyon Passage (Jacques Tourneur, 1946), and producer David O. Selznick's florid Duel in the Sun (King Vidor, 1946). Ford's return to the genre with the elegant My Darling Clementine (1946) inaugurated his regular engagement with the western throughout the postwar period. Films from the end of the decade also demonstrated the genre's surprising affiliation with film noir and the psychological melodrama: Pursued (Raoul Walsh, 1947) remains the most successful fusion of the western and film noir, while Ramrod (Andre De Toth, 1947) effectively incorporated Freudian undercurrents. In the midst of Ford's loose "cavalry trilogy," consisting of Fort Apache (1948), She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949), and Rio Grande (1950), all starring John Wayne, director Howard Hawks (1896–1977) also made one of the genre's masterpieces, Red River (1948), contrasting an often unsympathetic Wayne with Montgomery Clift in an Oedipal narrative set against an epic cattle drive.
The 1950s eventually witnessed the decline of the Hollywood studio system and the rise of television (dominated in its early decades by westerns such as Gunsmoke and Bonanza), but the period also saw a notable upsurge in the popularity of the film western, which critics have attempted to explain in political, economic, and psychoanalytic terms. The era is especially known for its "adult" or "psychological" westerns, which turned the physical violence of the frontier inwards towards phobias and traumas. The Gunfighter (Henry King, 1950) dramatized the psychological cost of maintaining a reputation as a fast gun, whereas The Left-Handed Gun (Arthur Penn, 1958) depicted Billy the Kid as a troubled juvenile delinquent. Notably, James Stewart's (1908–1997) first collaboration with director Anthony Mann (1906–1967), Winchester '73 (1950), began a series of bold western psychodramas, including Bend of the River (1952), The Naked Spur (1953), and The Man from Laramie (1955), which were driven by the hero's almost uncontrolled mania for revenge. In the middle of the decade Ford released his masterpiece The Searchers (1956), but its significance, especially in its direct confrontation with the sexual and racial fears that drove the conquest of Native Americans, would only be fully appreciated by a later generation of critics and filmmakers. Films such as Broken Arrow (Delmer Daves, 1950) and The Devil's Doorway (Mann, 1950) also treated their central Native American characters sympathetically, recalling some westerns of the silent period. The era's best-known westerns are the elemental High Noon (Fred Zinnemann, 1952) and the self-consciously mythic Shane (George Stevens, 1953), which might be set against the quirky Rancho Notorious (Lang, 1952) and the campy Johnny Guitar (Nicholas Ray, 1954), respectively featuring aging stars Marlene Dietrich and Joan Crawford, to indicate the available range of the genre in the period. On a more modest scale, the decade concluded with the first of a series of lean and powerful films directed by Budd Boetticher (1916–2001) and starring Randolph Scott, beginning with Seven Men from Now (1956) and including The Tall T (1957), Ride Lonesome
Although most of his more than two hundred films (four of which garnered him Academy Awards ® as best director) were not westerns, John Ford is widely recognized as the greatest director of the quintessential American film genre. While Ford himself dismissed the critical evaluation of his work that began late in his life, he is acclaimed as not only one of the genre's key storytellers but also its intuitive poet, a creator of evocative cultural images as meaningful as his films' stories. After 1939 these images were repeatedly grounded in the dramatic landscape of Monument Valley, the location Ford made one of his visual signatures and eventually an iconic space that summarizes the genre itself. Ford's recurrent troupe of actors, including John Wayne, Henry Fonda, Ward Bond, and Ben Johnson, came to define the western hero through their performances in the director's films.
Ford (often with his brother Francis) made more than thirty silent westerns, few of which survive. Beginning with Straight Shooting (1917), by the end of the silent era Ford had moved from modest productions to the epic The Iron Horse (1924). Ford stayed away from westerns again until Stagecoach (1939), a watershed in the genre's history. Filmed in Monument Valley and featuring the B-western actor John Wayne among an ensemble cast, it established an ongoing link between the genre, location, star, and director for another two decades, a confluence that resulted in some of the western's greatest achievements. Following World War II (in which he made documentary and propaganda films), Ford returned to the western with My Darling Clementine (1946), a self-consciously mythic dramatization of the shoot-out at the OK Corral. The "cavalry trilogy" of Fort Apache (1948), She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949), and Rio Grande (1950), all starring Wayne, also balanced the commercial requirement of dramatic action with quiet nostalgia and Ford's unique attention to small details, now performed by a set of familiar faces.
The Searchers (1956) is now recognized to be Ford's masterpiece, a formally rigorous yet highly ambivalent and surprisingly direct treatment of the racism and sexual repression that fueled the conquest of the West, concentrated in John Wayne's impressive performance as an obsessively driven loner. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) is a late, bittersweet exploration of the genre's mythic values, and Ford's final western, Cheyenne Autumn (1964), has been seen as an apology for the director's earlier contribution to the negative representation of Native Americans in popular cinema. By the time that Ford received the first Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Film Institute, he was more widely celebrated for his westerns than for his more literary, award-winning films such as The Informer (1935) and How Green was My Valley (1941). While the more conservative elements of Ford's films are regularly challenged, their power as national myths and as defining examples of Hollywood genre filmmaking remains unquestioned.
The Iron Horse (1924), The Informer (1935), Drums Along the Mohawk (1939), Stagecoach (1939), Young Mr. Lincoln (1939), The Grapes of Wrath (1940), How Green Was My Valley (1941), They Were Expendable (1945), My Darling Clementine (1946), Fort Apache (1948), She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949), Wagon Master (1950), Rio Grande (1950), The Quiet Man (1952), The Searchers (1956), Sergeant Rutledge (1960), The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), Cheyenne Autumn (1964)
Buscombe, Edward. The Searchers . London: British Film Institute, 2000.
Cowie, Peter. John Ford and the American West . New York: Abrams, 2004.
Gallagher, Tag. John Ford: The Man and His Films . Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986.
McBride, Joseph. Searching for John Ford: A Life . New York: St. Martin's, 1991.
Studlar, Gaylyn, and Matthew Bernstein, eds. John Ford Made Westerns: Filming the Legend in the Sound Era . Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2001.
Corey K. Creekmur
(1959), and Comanche Station (1960): pared down to basic elements, Boetticher's films show the genre reduced to its core mythology. Challenging the sexual neuroses and Oedipal tragedies of the postwar western, Hawks also released Rio Bravo (1959), a surprisingly effective reassertion of some of the genre's traditional values.