Greatest Westerns

Greatest Westerns


1950-1955


                     


Greatest Westerns: 1950-1955
Film Title/Year/Director/Length/Studio, Setting (or Time Period) and Brief Description
Title Screens

Broken Arrow (1950)
d. Delmar Daves, 93 minutes, 20th Century Fox

Set in the late 1870s, in Apache Territory in Arizona

This highly-praised, well-meaning Technicolored film was nominated for three Academy Awards (Best Supporting Actor - Jeff Chandler, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Cinematography), and was considered one of the first mainstream films to sympathetically portray Native-Americans in a non-condescending way. [Note: However, two of the main Apache Indian roles were played by whites with Indian makeup.]

The film was set during a time of frequent skirmishes between the Apaches, led by their leader Cochise (Jess Chandler) who was opposed to the encroachment of whites. Indian scout and former Union Army soldier Tom Jeffords (James Stewart) became acquainted with Chiricahua Apache ways, learning their language, interpreting smoke signals, and was called upon to seek safe passage for white mail-carriers through Indian territory to get to Tucson. He was also asked to help seek a peace treaty (symbolized by a 'broken arrow') with the Apaches, yet a splinter group emerged led by renegade Goklia (Mexican-named Geronimo) (Jay Silverheels).

Atypically, Jeffords married Sonseeahray (or 'Morningstar') (Debra Paget), an Apache girl, but the morals codes in the early 1950s forbid their miscegenation to be long-lasting, so their marriage ended tragically when she was killed during a shoot-out. When Jeffords sought revenge against one of the white renegades, his befriended Cochise advised against it, claiming that peace would be difficult. Soon after, Jeffords and Cochise learned that the murderers were executed.

The Gunfighter (1950)
d. Henry King, 85 minutes, Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

The western town of Cayenne

Known as a seminal "psychological" western and noirish character study, yet under-rated as a film about a cursed and outcast outlaw.

With Gregory Peck starring as reformed, legendary gunslinger Jimmy Ringo with a violent past he cannot escape (with many upstarts and three vengeful murderous brothers intent on challenging him), in town hoping to visit his estranged wife Peggy (Helen Westcott) and child.

His self-defensive killing of cocky gunman Eddie (Richard Jaeckel) brought forces down upon him. Sequestered (and trapped) in the mostly-empty saloon, the Palace Bar, the mustachioed Ringo was also aided by his pal, the town's sheriff named Mark Strett (Millard Mitchell), but was tragically felled (shot in the back) in the film's conclusion by hot-shot, two-bit gunfighter Hunt Bromley (Skip Homeier).

Rio Grande (1950)
d. John Ford, 105 minutes, Republic Pictures

On the Texas frontier near the Mexican border (marked by the Rio Grande River), threatened by renegade Apache Indians, in the summer of 1879

The third of Ford's "Cavalry Trilogy" (the best of the three) with John Wayne's third appearance as promoted, duty-devoted Lieutenant Colonel Kirby Yorke - he was co-starring with Maureen O'Hara as estranged southern wife Kathleen Yorke (who would also appear with him in Ford's future film The Quiet Man (1952) and three other films).

Commander Yorke was at the remote outpost when his West Point flunkee cadet son Trooper Jefferson Yorke (Claude Jarman, Jr.) was assigned there for service. The younger Yorke was befriended by two older recruits: troopers Travis Tyree (Ben Johnson) and Daniel "Sandy" Boone (Harry Carey, Jr.).

The western concluded with Yorke ordering his troops to rescue a caravan from the outpost (including his captured wife and other innocent women and children) seized by the Apaches and held in a small village's church, across the Rio Grande. During the battle in which Jeff displayed his heroism and bravery, his father was wounded with an arrow in the chest.

Winchester '73 (1950)
d. Anthony Mann, 82 minutes, Universal Pictures

In 1876, in Dodge City, Kansas, shortly after Custer's defeat at the Little Big Horn; also in areas of Texas

This 1950 western was the first of five westerns from 1950-1955 teaming James Stewart with director Anthony Mann.

It was noted as the film which revived westerns and set a new standard for actor's salaries - Stewart chose a profit percentage (50%) instead of an up-front salary, eventually earning himself $600K.

The psychological western opened with a Fourth of July shooting contest in the town of Dodge City, with the "One of a Thousand" prize - an 1873 Winchester repeating rifle. Although Lin McAdam (James Stewart) won the competition, the rifle was stolen from him by outlaw Dutch Henry Brown (Stephen McNally) - setting up the remainder of the film as a pursuit as the rifle often changed hands.

Numerous plot storylines crossed during Lin's chase after the rifle and his nemesis - including encounters with murderous sociopathic psychotic Waco Johnny Dean (Dan Duryea), and romance with young, golden-hearted frontier saloon-hall girl Lola Manners (Shelley Winters).

The western concluded with a climactic shoot-out between Lin and Dutch Henry on a hilly mountainside - and the revelation that they were actually brothers (and Dutch Henry had murdered their father).

Bend of the River (1952)
d. Anthony Mann, 91 minutes, Universal Pictures

With a wagon train of settlers from Missouri bound for Oregon, in 1847, and set in a settlement outside Portland

The second of five westerns pairing director Mann with James Stewart, in the director's first Technicolored western.

Ex-outlaw Glyn McLyntock (James Stewart) with a questionable past served as a scout for an Oregon-bound wagon train of farmers in the late 1840s, assisted by former Missouri border raider and horse-thief Emerson Cole (Arthur Kennedy).

After arriving in Portland, Oregon, the scheming and unreformed Cole (working with corrupt steamboat owner, town saloon owner, and supplier Tom Hendricks (Howard Petrie)) abducted the leader of the settlers Jeremy Baile (Jay C. Flippen) and his injured daughter Laurie (Julie Adams) as hostages to ensure safe passage while stealing valued supplies for the settlement.

His mutinous objective was to profitably divert the supplies to a gold mining camp. The film was highlighted by a series of conflicts between Cole and McLyntock, ending in their climactic rushing river fight.

High Noon (1952)
d. Fred Zinnemann, 84 minutes, United Artists Corp.

In the small town of Hadleyville, in the New Mexico Territory on a hot summer's Sunday, possibly in the late 1860s to the mid 1870s

The classic masterpiece was linked at the time to the McCarthy hearings (as an allegorical tale about Hollywood's failure to stand up to anti-Communist accusations, and to blacklisting), and considered un-American by some, including director Howard Hawks who helmed Rio Bravo (1959) as a reaction to it.

Oscar-winning Gary Cooper starred as stoic, newly-married Marshal Will Kane. Just before departing, he learned that a group of vengeful killers, led by pardoned Frank Miller, were on their way to town on the 'high noon' train - and he was faced with a decision - should he leave with his loyal Quaker wife (Grace Kelly), or gather supporters to stand up to them?

Deserted by most of the townsfolk, Kane faced his fate alone - with the clock tensely clicking toward 12 noon (allegedly the film was shot in real-time). With Tex Ritter's theme song: "Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darling" (the first Oscar-winning song from a non-musical).

Rancho Notorious (1952)
d. Fritz Lang, 89 minutes, RKO Pictures

Set mostly at the Chuck-a-Luck horse ranch near the Mexican border

Following Destry Rides Again (1939), this was the second Western specifically written for star Marlene Dietrich (as saloon singer Altar Keane), and Fritz Lang's third (and last) western. It was a distinctive, stylized (set-bound) drama with perverse Freudian overtones.

A Technicolored frontier revenge western (with an unrelated title), it told of events after the murder and rape of Wyoming ranchhand Vern Haskell's (Arthur Kennedy) sweetheart and fiance Beth Forbes (Gloria Henry). Whitey (John Doucette), the mortally wounded partner of the murderer, provided Vern with a single "Rosebud"-type clue to the guilty man's destination: the word 'Chuck-a-Luck.'

He searched for her surviving outlaw killer (revealed in a climactic shoot-out to be Kinch (Lloyd Gough)), hiding out at Altar Keane's Chuck-a-Luck horse ranch (named after a roulette-style gambling game).

Mel Ferrer also starred as infamous sharpshooter Frenchy Fairmont, involved in the love-triange. The film's opening thematic ballad, "Legend of Chuck-a-Luck" had the refrain of "Hate, Murder, and Revenge."

Hondo (1953)
d. John Farrow, 84 minutes, Warner Bros.

At a remote ranch in the desert of New Mexico, set in Apache country

One of John Wayne's best - but overlooked - westerns - he also served as the film's co-producer with his Batjac production company.

The story, a classic Louis L'Amour story titled The Gift of Cochise, was basically a Western romance. Originally filmed in 3-D - a crazed fad at the time, which was highlighted during the ending's Apache attack sequence.

It starred Wayne as half-Apache Indian wanderer and cavalry scout Hondo Lane (John Wayne) accompanied by a brown collie-like dog named Sam. He provided protection for down-to-earth, abandoned homesteader-settler woman Mrs. Angie Lowe (Geraldine Page in her screen debut, and an Oscar-nominated role) with young fatherless 10 year-old son Johnny (Lee Aaker), living in threatening Apache territory.

She had previously been married to Ed Lowe (Leo Gordon) - a no-good gambler, cheat and adulterer, and Hondo had had a brief marriage to a now-deceased Apache bride. Hondo was forced to kill Mrs. Lowe's long-absent husband in self-defense.

The Naked Spur (1953)
d. Anthony Mann, 91 minutes, MGM

In 1868, on the western slope of the Rocky Mountains in Southwestern Colorado

Nominated for a Best Screenplay Oscar, and noted for starring James Stewart in his third collaboration with director Mann, in a Technicolored, vengeful bounty-hunter tale with only five speaking roles.

In the untamed Colorado Rockies, Howard Kemp (Stewart), a tormented, mysterious manic hero claiming he had come from Kansas, sought to apprehend cunning outlaw Ben Vandergroat (Robert Ryan) who was accompanied by voluptuous, blonde short-haired 'traveling companion' Lina Patch (Janet Leigh). Accused killer Vandergroat had murdered a marshal in Abilene, Kansas.

The amoral and fearless Kemp enlisted the aid of dishonorably-discharged Union cavalry rider Lt. Roy Anderson (Ralph Meeker) and grizzled, luckless prospector Jesse Tate (Millard Mitchell) to bring in the wanted murderer for the $5,000 bounty. During their trek, Ben used persuasive tactics of psychological warfare (greed, discord, suspicion, mistrust, and jealousy within a love triangle) to create conflict among his three captors.

Besides a Blackfoot Indian attack, the exciting climax came at a rocky waterfall where Kemp's "naked spur" was hurled into the action. After Lina's pleadings, Kemp gave up his bounty by setting Vandergroat's body adrift in the river, and then rode off with her.

Shane (1953)
d. George Stevens, 118 minutes, Paramount Pictures

In the Territory of Wyoming during various range wars on the frontier

The wide-screen, Technicolored panoramic masterpiece recreated a symbolic myth: the age-old story of the duel between good and evil, the advent of civilization and progress into the wilderness (a world of roaming cattlemen, lawless gunslingers, and loners on horseback), a land-dispute conflict between a homesteader and cattle baron, and the coming of age of a young boy.

Alan Ladd starred as the archetypal title character, a lone gunman with a shady and violent past who was taken in by the frontier family (and was soon enamoured by homesteading wife Marion played by Jean Arthur). He also became embroiled in the range wars between greedy cattle barons (led by Rufus Ryker (Emile Meyer)) and hard-working pioneering farmers (Joe Starrett portrayed by Van Heflin).

Jack Palance also co-starred as the villainous black-garbed hired gun Jack Wilson. The film climaxed with wounded Shane's departure as young Joey Starrett (Brandon deWilde) cried out the famous tear-jerking line: "Shane. Shane! Come back! 'Bye, Shane."

The Far Country (1954)
d. Anthony Mann, 97 minutes, Universal Pictures

In 1896, during a cattle drive, from Wyoming to Seattle to Canada, Scagway and Dawson City (Alaska)

The fourth western, another dark revenge western, pairing Anthony Mann and James Stewart - this time set in the 'far country' of Alaska and Canada.

During the Klondike Gold Rush, self-reliant, anti-hero cattle herder and loner Jeff Webster (Stewart) and sidekick Ben Tatum (Walter Brennan) hoped to sell their herd of cattle in Dawson City to fund their dream ranch in Utah. But they ran afoul of the film's antagonist: Scagway's corrupt, wealthy yet affable judge/Sheriff Gannon (John McIntire).

During a bogus and unfair trial held in the saloon of Ronda Castle (Ruth Roman), they had their herd confiscated by the tyrannical judge. Afterwards, the seductress Ronda hired Webster to lead a group of travelers to her new saloon address, Dawson Castle, in the gold rush settlement town of Dawson City.

During the ride, Webster restole his herd and took them to Canada. The film ended with the inevitable final shoot-out between the villainous Gannon and Webster.

Johnny Guitar (1954)
d. Nicholas Ray, 110 minutes, Republic Pictures

In and around an Arizona cattle town

An astonishing, and unusual one-of-a-kind camp cult classic rife with political allegory, repressed Freudian themes (guns as phallic symbols), gender-confusion, and presented as veiled commentary on the anti-communist McCarthy hearings and the activities of the House Un-American Activities Committee at the time.

Starring Joan Crawford as strong-willed, non-conformist saloon owner Vienna (often dressed in black shirt, pants, and boots) in an Arizona small town during changing times, Sterling Hayden as the gun-crazed title character (Vienna's former lover Johnny 'Guitar' Logan, a gunslinger from Albuquerque), and Mercedes McCambridge as opposing gang-leader, contentious spinster and cattle rancher Emma Small.

The sadistic Emma had a love-hate relationship with an outlaw named the Dancin' Kid (Scott Brady), one of Vienna's associates, while Vienna's business was about to boom due to the presence of the railroad, causing hatred and conflict among the black-clad townsfolk who demanded her exile.

The film ended with Guitar's rescue of Vienna from a lynching, and a challenge between the two female leads - a bloody pistol shoot-out.

River of No Return (1954)
d. Otto Preminger, 91 minutes, Twentieth Century Fox

In the Northwest US in 1875

A great-looking CinemaScopic western adventure/romance (director Preminger's first and sole oater), from a script inspired by Vittorio De Sica's The Bicycle Thief, and set during the 19th century Gold Rush.

Recently released from prison, widower and dirt farmer Matt Calder (Robert Mitchum) was homesteading with estranged 9 year-old son Mark (Tommy Rettig), who had been cared for in a trading post town by sultry, ex-saloon hall girl Kay (Marilyn Monroe) during his sentence. [Matt had shot a man in the back who was threatening to kill his friend.]

On their way to Council City (to register a gold mining claim won in a stud poker game) on a river raft over dangerous and deadly rapids, Kay and fiancee card-shark gambler Harry Weston (Rory Calhoun) were rescued by the Calders, although Harry stole Calder's only rifle and horse, and left his wife behind.

Hostile Indian threats forced the remaining defenseless trio to take a treacherous journey down the 'river of no return' (the actual river was the Salmon River in Idaho) on the raft, as they watched their homestead burn. Along the way, they were beset by a wild mountain lion, a vengeful knife-wielding poker player/gold prospector, and an Indian attack.

In Council City in the film's contrived ending, young Mark was forced to defend his father by shooting Harry in the back - similar to the crime for which Matt was incarcerated. In the resolution, they reconstituted themselves as a family and restarted their lives.

Silver Lode (1954)
d. Allan Dwan, 81 minutes, RKO Pictures

In the western town of Silver Lode on the Fourth of July

A low-budget, independent western (inspired by High Noon (1952)), with veiled yet obvious allegorical references to the Red Scare McCarthy hearings of the historical time period.

Respected wealthy rancher/citizen Dan Ballard (John Payne) in the western town of Silver Lode had his Fourth of July wedding to wealthy and pretty fiancee Rose Evans (Lizabeth Scott) interrupted by four men from the town of Discovery, California.

The group of deputies, led by accusatory and vengeful blonde Fred McCarty (Dan Duryea), claimed they were US marshals on a manhunt with a warrant to arrest him for the murder of Ned's brother and the robbery of $20,000 a few years earlier. Loyalty of the fickle townsfolk began to falter as wrongly-accused Ballard stalled the proceedings to track down evidence to clear his name and prove his innocence.

The only two left believing persecuted Ballard were Rose and his brazen ex-mistress/saloon singer Dolly (Dolores Moran) in a bright purple dress.

The taut and suspenseful film concluded with a showdown between a cornered and wounded Ballard and McCarty high up in the bell tower of the town's church, involving a (forged) telegram indicting McCarty's credentials and exonerating Payne, and a gunshot's bullet ricocheting off the giant bell.

Vera Cruz (1954)
d. Robert Aldrich, 94 minutes, United Artists

After the American Civil War, set during the Mexican Revolution of 1866, in Mexico bound for Vera Cruz

An action-packed, cynical western (and one of the first Hollywood productions filmed entirely in Mexico), and the first released in SuperScope, about two treacherous buddies greedy for gold. It was one of the major forerunners of the 'spaghetti westerns' of the mid-1960s and Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch (1969).

The plot was about two footloose American soldiers of fortune: a cynical, gentlemanly, ex-Confederate loner, Major Benjamin Trane (Gary Cooper) - a Southern landowner who lost everything during the Civil War, and his unreliable, misanthropic, always-grinning career-outlaw rival Joe Erin (Burt Lancaster). The duo met over a horse stolen from a Spanish soldier.

Both were mercenaries, choosing to sign up with either crooked, French-supported Emperor Maximilian (George Macready) or peasant rebel Juaristas led by General Ramírez (Morris Ankrum). They joined forces with Maximilian to escort cunning, aristocratic French Countess Marie Duvarre (Denise Darcel) from Mexico City to the port of Vera Cruz, bound for Paris by boat, with a hidden gold cache of $3 million. They were aided by Erin's gang members (future stars Ernest Borgnine, Charles Bronson, and Jack Elam).

The entire journey was a tale of scheming rivalry, shifting alliances, betrayal, and deceitful double-crosses, eventually leading to a shootout between the two (and Erin's death).

Bad Day at Black Rock (1955)
d. John Sturges, 81 minutes, MGM

In 1945, in the desert Southwest town of Black Rock (California?)

A tightly-written, suspenseful, dramatic action western film (with film noirish qualities), and one of the first Hollywood statements about the racist treatment of Japanese-Americans during World War II. Its themes were individual integrity, group conformity and complacency, and civic responsibility, while it allegorically denounced the Hollywood blacklisting of the 1950s McCarthy era.

It tensely portrayed one-armed stranger John J. Macreedy (Spencer Tracy) who intrusively arrived in the half-forgotten town of Black Rock with only nine stereotypical townsfolk. Over a twenty-four hour period, he found himself unwelcome and facing several ominous situations, animosity, collective guilt, hypocrisy, and bigotry.

The film built suspense by withholding information about the visitor's mysterious mission, and by creating a who-dun-it mystery regarding the hostile town's dark secret. Eventually, he learned the town's deepest secret, and fulfilled the promise he made to present a posthumous Congressional Medal of Honor for heroism to the farming father of a Japanese wartime buddy (Joe Komoko) who had saved his life in World War II on the battlefields of Italy.

The Man From Laramie (1955)
d. Anthony Mann, 104 minutes, Columbia Pictures

In threatening Apache territory, and in the isolated western town of Coronado, New Mexico

The fifth (and final) western that paired Anthony Mann and James Stewart - another psychological western and comparable to Shakespeare's King Lear.

The 'man from Laramie' - cavalry Captain Will Lockhart (James Stewart) was accompanied by Charles O'Leary (Wallace Ford) on a wagon mule train to the town of Coronado, NM to deliver supplies to storekeeper Barbara Waggoman (Cathy O'Donnell).

His major obsessed objective was hateful revenge against those who sold repeating rifles to the Apaches, used to massacre a 12-man cavalry detachment at Dutch Creek that claimed his younger lieutenant brother's life. Lockhart soon became embroiled in a struggle in Coronado with Barbara's sadistic cousin Dave Waggoman (Alex Nicol), over trespassing charges and theft of lagoon salt, and he was lassooed and dragged through a fire. (Later during another encounter, he was shot/wounded in his shooting hand.)

Alec Waggoman (Donald Crisp), the blind (physically and emotionally), wealthy and ruthless patriarch of the Barb Ranch empire where the massacre occurred, had two rival 'sons' - he favored his bloodlusting, loutish natural son Dave over sensible hired hand/ranch foreman Vic Hansbro (Arthur Kennedy), adopted and raised as an orphan.

Vic's plan was to marry Waggoman's niece Barbara, while Will (who was accused of two murders) was eventually made a hired hand by Kate Canady (Aline MacMahon), a tough and rival rancher at Half Moon Ranch, who was jilted by Alec Waggoman years earlier.

In a surprise twist, Will was able to reveal Vic's complicity in the continuing arms-sales to the Indians - leading to Vic's death by the outraged Apaches.


Greatest Westerns
(chronological by film title)
Introduction | Silents-1930s | 1940s | 1950-1955 | 1956-1959 | 1960-1965 | 1966-1969 | 1970s | 1980s-Present

Previous Page Next Page