Greatest Westerns

Greatest Westerns


1956-1959


                     


Greatest Westerns: 1956-1959
Film Title/Year/Director/Length/Studio, Setting (or Time Period) and Brief Description
Title Screens

The Searchers (1956)
d. John Ford, 119 minutes, Warner Bros.

In 1868, set during the West Texas-Indian Wars following the Civil War

A true American masterpiece of filmmaking, and the best, most influential, and perhaps most-admired film of director John Ford.

With John Wayne in a complex character anti-hero role as Ethan Edwards, an ex-Confederate and Civil War vet who witnessed the slaughter of his brother's family by Comanches. Noted for Wayne's oft-repeated phrase: "That'll be the day."

For years, he nursed hatred, racism, and prejudice as he madly sought the location of his kidnapped nine year-old niece Debbie (Natalie Wood), taken by Chief Scar and made his Comanche wife. Edwards was accompanied by his nephew - his brother's adopted son - half-breed Cherokee Indian Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter).

At the conclusion of the film, rather than kill Debbie, Ethan embraced her with the words: "Let's go home, Debbie." Yet he did not enter the threshold of the house in the final image - he grabbed his arm and turned toward the desert behind him - a tragic, lonely, morally-ambiguous figure perenially doomed to be an outsider.

Seven Men From Now (1956)
d. Budd Boetticher, 78 minutes, Warner Bros.

Set in Arizona, in the 1800s

This was the first of seven excellent westerns (between 1956 and 1960) known as the "Ranown cycle" bringing together Randolph Scott and director Budd Boetticher (most of them were released through Columbia Pictures) - although the lead role in this one was originally intended for John Wayne. [Note: "Ranown" combined the first letters of Scott's and final letters of his production partner, Harry Joe Brown's, names.]

It was a traditional vendetta-revenge western, in its story of vengeful, guilt-ridden former Silver Springs Sheriff Ben Stride (Randolph Scott) during a vigilante hunt. He was obsessively searching for the seven men, led by Payte Bodeen (John Larch), who were responsible for murdering his wife in a Wells Fargo freight station holdup in Silver Springs.

In the film's opening, he killed two of the outlaws during a heavy rainstorm. Afterwards, he befriended a married couple - two Eastern travelers on their way to California, John and Annie Greer (Walter Reed and Gail Russell). As he accompanied them on their journey to the border town of Flora Vista, and on the side took a romantic interest in Annie, the group encountered villainous Bill Masters (Lee Marvin), an ex-nemesis of Stride's (he had been jailed twice by Stride in the past), whose opportunistic objective was to follow along and steal the $20,000 in gold that the seven men had robbed.

As it was later revealed, a gullible John Greer had been promised to be paid $500 to deliver the stolen gold in his wagon to the bandits in Flora Vista. In a confrontation with two more of the robbers, Stride killed them, but was wounded. When Greer reached Flora Vista, he was gunned down when he told Bodeen that Stride had taken the gold.

After a pair of eventual showdowns and shootouts, Bodeen was killed by Masters, and Masters was shot and killed by Stride. In the finale, Stride had intentions to return to his job as lawman in Silver Springs - with Annie tailing along with him.

Decision at Sundown (1957)
d. Budd Boetticher, 77 minutes, Columbia Pictures

Set in the town of Sundown, Arizona

A grim, psychological (and philosophical) revenge Western - another of the seven westerns pairing Boetticher with Randolph Scott.

It opened with the marriage of crooked businessman Tate Kimbrough (John Carroll) to pretty blonde Lucy Summerton (Karen Steele) in Sundown, Arizona's church. Seeking twisted and obsessive revenge (over the previous three years) against Tate for seducing his dishonored late wife Mary in his hometown of Saving Pass and prompting her suicide was Texan Bart Allison (Randolph Scott), accompanied by best friend Sam (Noah Beery, Jr.). Bart threatened to kill Tate by sundown.

Complicating matters was the presence of womanizing Tate's saloon girlfriend/mistress Ruby James (Valerie French), and Sam's revelation to Bart that Mary was the unfaithful trampish one.

The film concluded with a long and tense stalemate and much soul-searching amongst the townsfolk about their rotten town (led by the righteous local Dr. John Storrow (John Archer)), while Bart was surrounded with Sam in the town's livery stable by the malevolent Tate and his hired men (including the town's corrupted sheriff Swede Hansen (Andrew Duggan)).

The climactic shoot-out and gunfight (with wounded Bart shooting left-handed) ended with a twist - Ruby shot and wounded Tate, forcing the conflicted Bart to allow Tate to ride away from the town and never return.

Forty Guns (1957)
d. Samuel Fuller, 79 minutes, 20th Century Fox

Tombstone Territory in Cochise County, Arizona

Writer/producer/director Samuel Fuller's low-budget, campy, bawdy (with obvious phallic double-entendres), action-packed, violent, melodramatic, and stylized western starred Barbara Stanwyck as stern cattle-queen rancher Jessica Drummond. Riding a white stallion and dressed in black, she was a domineering matriarch who ruled an Arizona county, supported by her private posse of 'forty' hired guns, and in control of the town's cowardly and weak sheriff Ned Logan (Dean Jagger). Inevitably, she would fall (or find redemption), as per the words of the western's theme song: "She's a High Ridin' Woman with a whip... But if someone could break her and take her whip away, someone big, someone strong, someone tall, you may find that the woman with a whip is only a woman after all." When confronted by non-violent, Wyatt Earp-like, ready-to-retire federal lawman and ex-gunman Griff Bonnell (Barry Sullivan) and his two itchy-fingered brothers, Wes (Gene Barry) and the younger Chico (Robert Dix), she also revealed her own troublesome, hot-headed brother: the evil Brockie (John Ericson). After Wes romanced Louvenia Spanger (Eve Brent), the pretty daughter of a local gunsmith, they were married although their ceremony was marred when Brockie murdered Wes. In the climactic stand-off, Marshal Griff retaliated (10 years after his last killing) and mercilessly gunned down Brockie, who was using Jessica as a shield. He told bystanders: "Get a doctor, she'll live."

Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957)
d. John Sturges, 122 minutes, Paramount Pictures

In October, 1881, in the town of Tombstone, Arizona

Hollywood's ahistorical version of the Wyatt Earp-Doc Holliday legends (portrayed by Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas), also seen in My Darling Clementine (1946) and the more recent Tombstone (1993). Derived from a screenplay by novelist Leon Uris, and based on an article by George Scullin.

After his long career as a legendary lawman, the upright Earp took up with love interest, poker gambler Laura Denbow (Rhonda Fleming) and then moved to Tombstone, while his reluctant ally, terminally-ill gambler Doc Holliday, amused himself with trampish Kate Fisher (Jo Van Fleet).

Earp was supported by brothers Virgil (John Hudson) - the Tombstone town marshal, Morgan (DeForest Kelley), and his youngest brother James (Martin Milner) and his green Deputy Sheriff Charlie Bassett (Earl Holliman).

Complications arose when Kate joined up with powerful cattle rustler Ike Clanton's (Lyle Bettger) hired gun Johnny Ringo (John Ireland), and young Jimmy was shot in the back.

Concluded with a 5-minute bloodbath of shooting at the O.K. Corral - a showdown between the Earps and Clantons.

The Tall T (1957)
d. Budd Boetticher, 78 minutes, Columbia Pictures

Somewhere between Contention and Bixby, at a Relay Station, and in a Hilly Hideout

Another of the Boetticher-Scott collaborations. The film's unrelated title referred to name of the Tenvoorde ranch in the early scenes.

On foot after losing his horse in a bet, unmarried rancher Pat Brennan (Randolph Scott) was picked up by a stagecoach driven by his old buddy Rintoon (Arthur Hunnicutt), traveling from Contention to Bixby. The unlikely passengers were two honeymooning newlyweds, unsympathetic, fortune-hunting Willard and timid and homely Doretta Mims (John Hubbard and Maureen O'Sullivan).

Bandits soon ambushed them at the stage relay station (where the trio had already murdered the station manager Hank Parker (Fred E. Sherman) and his son Jeff (Chris Olsen)): sadistic and menacing gang leader Frank Usher (Richard Boone), trigger-itchy Chink (Henry Silva), and the impressionably young Billy Jack (Skip Homeier).

Rintoon was killed by Chink and the others were taken hostage. Negotiating with the outlaws, the cowardly Willard unwisely sold out his new wife, confessing that her wealthy father could afford to pay them a ransom of $50,000 - he soon met his fate. Brennan and the distraught widow Doretta were kept prisoner in a remote dark cave hideout in the hills and became romantically involved after Willard's murder, and her confession that she married him out of loneliness.

Brennan used her as sexual bait to lure Billy Jack and shoot him dead, and then killed Chink. When Usher returned with the ransom money, Brennan was also forced to kill Usher when he charged with his guns blazing.

3:10 To Yuma (1957)
d. Delmer Daves, 92 minutes, Columbia Pictures

In the 1880s, in the Arizona Territory (in the towns of Bisbee and Contention, Arizona)

Another taut, low-budget psychological "adult" western (centering on a tense cat-and-mouse game between the two leads), with obvious similarities to High Noon (1952), and highlighted by Frankie Laine's title song. Remade in 2007.

Poor, family-man, frontier rancher Dan Evans (Van Heflin) heroically accepted a job (with a $200 reward) to transport desperate outlaw Ben Wade (Glenn Ford) to prison. Wade was wanted for stage robbery and for the murder of the stage driver Bill Moons - the womanizing and charismatic desperado was apprehended while romancing forlorn saloon-girl Emmy (Felicia Farr) in town.

The two were forced to wait in a hotel room in the town of Contention City, Arizona for the 3:10 pm train to Yuma, where Wade would stand trial. Smooth-talking Wade tempted civic-minded, dutiful Evans with a promise of $10,000 if he was released.

The townsfolk and others (including Bob Moons (Sheridan Comerate), the drunken brother of the deceased, Evans' worried wife Alice (Leora Dana), and the leader of Wade's gang Charlie Prince (Richard Jaeckel)) provided additional problems for Evans - misgivings, threats, taunts, and bribes, etc.

The Tin Star (1957)
d. Anthony Mann, 93 minutes, Paramount Pictures

A small western town

A low-budget character-study western about frontier justice, nominated for a Best Original Story & Screenplay Oscar.

Cynical veteran bounty-hunter (ex-tin star sheriff and widower) Morgan (or "Morg") Hickman (Henry Fonda) brought the body of a dangerous outlaw into a small western town to claim his reward for killing the stage robber and murderer Bogardus. There would be four days of delays, according to young, idealistic, brash, greenhorn and temporary sheriff Ben Owens (Anthony Perkins) and other townsfolk, who first needed to verify the wanted man's body.

Meanwhile, Morgan (when denied boarding in town) was given a room by pretty blonde and widowed mother Nona Mayfield (Betsy Palmer), with a young half-breed son Kip (Michel Ray). Ben's critical sweetheart Millie Parker (Mary Webster) worried that he was doomed to be dead as a sheriff, like her father who was killed during a stagecoach robbery. Morgan began to teach the inexperienced and ineffective Ben the ways of a lawman (how to handle guns and outlaws and protect himself), made more challenging by the murder of the town's 75 year-old Doctor Joseph J. "Doc" McCord (John McIntire) on his birthday - "Doc" was killed by the same two stagecoach outlaws, the half-breed McGaffey brothers (Lee Van Cleef as Ed, and Peter Baldwin as Zeke), that had killed Millie's father.

Millie's fears for the nervous and inept sheriff were realized when bigoted, bullying livery stable owner Bart Bogardus (Neville Brand), the dead outlaw's cousin, demonstrated his rivalry for the sheriff's job. He confronted Ben and a recently-deputized Morg (who had both successfully brought in the Indian-blooded bad guys) with an angry lynch mob. It was a typical showdown between the two lawmen and mob rule (denying the criminals a fair trial), with Ben proving his manhood (and the strength of his law-and-order tin star) against the hot-headed and barbarous Bart by shooting his dead. Impressed by Ben, Millie decided to marry him, while Morg, Nona and Kip left town to begin a new life together.

The Big Country (1958)
d. William Wyler, 165 minutes, United Artists

In the small western town of San Rafael, and on the two Western ranches (Ladder Ranch and Blanco Canyon) surrounding a strip of land called the "Big Muddy"

An epic western with an enormous cast of characters, and a story about powerful families feuding over water rights (interpreted by some as an allegory about the Cold War nuclear standoff).

Co-producer Gregory Peck starred as James McKay, a wealthy and newly retired sea captain from Maryland who had traveled westward to meet up with his spirited fiancee Patricia (Carroll Baker) at the Ladder Ranch owned by her proud father Major Henry Terrill (Charles Bickford). There was continuing rivalry between Terrill and Blanco Canyon's stubborn and patriarchal Rufus Hannassey (Burl Ives, Best Supporting Actor winner), and in the middle of the feud was the "Big Muddy" ranch (with control of water rights to the river) owned by Patricia's headstrong yet sensible schoolteacher friend Julie Maragon (Jean Simmons).

Challenging and taunting pacifist McKay's manhood (and calling him cowardly) was both Terrill's cocky foreman Steve Leech (Charlton Heston) and Rufus' troublesome, hot-headed and irresponsible son Buck (Chuck Connors). (One celebrated scene was an exhausting fisticuffs brawl at dawn between Leech and McKay, when the latter proved himself.)

McKay purchased the key "Big Muddy" strip of land from Julie (with whom he also began a romance), alienating Patricia (and breaking their engagement) when he told her that he would continue to allow peace-keeping water rights for both families.

In the exciting conclusion, Hannassey kidnapped Julie (to lure Terrill into narrow Blanco Canyon for ambush) and Buck threatened to rape her. McKay and Buck faced each other in a duel, revealing that Buck was the real coward. Hannassey shot and killed his own son when he threatened to unfairly shoot McKay in the back. Then, during a one-on-one showdown between Hannassey and Terrill, both were left dead.

Cowboy (1958)
d. Delmer Daves, 92 minutes, Columbia Pictures

In Chicago, on a westward-bound train to Wichita, Kansas, and on a cattle drive from Guadalupe, Mexico back to Wichita, Ks. (and by return train to Chicago)

This fish-out-of-water western (and coming of age story) was an adaptation of Frank Harris' semi-autobiographical novel My Reminiscences as a Cowboy.

Real-life writer and Chicago hotel desk clerk Frank Harris (Jack Lemmon), with aspirations of becoming a cowboy, saw his opportunity. When experienced tough cowboy/cattle driver and trail boss Tom Reece (Glenn Ford), with a penchant for whiskey and hot baths, lost his savings in a poker game, greenhorn Harris offered $3,800 to help finance Reece's purchase of a herd of cattle in Guadalupe, Mexico from Mexican baron Señor Vidal (Donald Randolph) - in exchange for becoming his ranch hand partner during his dusty travels to/from Mexico.

After traveling by train to Wichita, and then arriving in Guadalupe seven weeks later, they rode to the Vidal ranch to arrange to pick up the herd, for transport back to market. In a side story, tenderfoot Harris was motivated by romantic interest in Vidal's daughter Maria (Anna Kashfi), but was dismayed when her disapproving father arranged her marriage to Don Manuel Arriega (Eugene Iglesias).

By film's end, Harris had proved himself to Reece, in the midst of Indian scuffles, challenges on the trail with other trailhands and with the cattle.

Man of the West (1958)
d. Anthony Mann, 100 minutes, United Artists

In Crosscut, Texas and then on a train bound for Fort Worth, Texas

Director Anthony Mann's last western.

After being robbed (of the savings of his community of Good Hope, raised to hire a schoolteacher) while on a train to Fort Worth, Texas, family man Link Jones (Gary Cooper) - with a dark and troubled past - was joined up with Crosscut (Texas) saloon singer Billie Ellis (Julie London) and cardsharp con-man Sam Beasley (Arthur O'Connell).

The trio came upon an isolated, broken-down ranch house where Link, now reformed, revealed he had once been raised and trained as a gang member to rob banks. Inside, he was startled to find the thieves and their patriarchal leader Dock Tobin (Lee J. Cobb) - Link's uncle. Jones found himself defending the honor of Billie when the twisted Dock lusted after her, and gunman Coaley Tobin (Jack Lord) made her strip down to her underwear.

Link was compelled to rejoin the robbers for a bank heist in the (ghost)town of Lassoo. By the film's end, Link had killed off a number of gang members, but found that in his absence, Billie had been raped (off-screen) and beaten. In retaliation in the film's climactic end, he killed Dock and reclaimed the stolen funds.

The Horse Soldiers (1959)
d. John Ford, 115 minutes, United Artists

Set during the American Civil War, in the year 1863, from Tennessee through the state of Mississippi near Vicksburg, and then into Louisiana

This docudrama's plot was inspired by the true story of Union Army Colonel Benjamin Grierson, who led a daring and successful "Grierson's Raid" before the Battle of Newton Station, to cut the Confederate-controlled railroad line connecting the supply depot of Newton Station with the stronghold Southern city of Vicksburg - this military action in Mississippi occurred just prior to the famous Battle of Vicksburg in 1863.

In Ford's western version, John Wayne starred as Yankee cavalry brigade leader Colonel John Marlowe (who later revealed that he was an engineer who built railroads before the war). Marlowe conducted a raid of saboteurs to cause havoc and destroy a Confederate railroad and supply depot 300 miles behind the lines at Newton Station. Feuding and bickering continually with Marlowe (who had a deeply-founded hatred of doctors) was his new humanitarian, self-righteous regimental surgeon Major Henry "Hank" Kendall (William Holden).

Fiery Southern belle and Greenbriar Landing plantation mistress Miss Hannah Hunter (Constance Towers) was taken hostage after she overheard their plans and would undoubtedly have undermined their mission as a spy if left behind. A major military action occurred when the Union forces were surprise counter-attacked by Confederate forces at Newton Station, although it ended with the Union army blowing up the depot and destroying the railroad lines.

A second attack was conducted against Marlowe's brigade by uniformed young school children cadets from a nearby military institute, marching to war to the sound of fife and drum. As Marlowe and his men retreated to avoid conflict with the underaged soldiers and pushed further southward, he was wounded at a crucial bridge crossing, although he was able to lead a successful attack to rout the Confederates. Just before mining and blowing up the wooden bridge and crossing into Louisiana, he bid farewell to love interest Hannah, and to Kendall who chose to remain behind (and was facing certain imprisonment at Andersonville).

Ride Lonesome (1959)
d. Budd Boetticher, 73 minutes, Columbia Pictures

Across desolate and dangerous Indian territory on the way to Santa Cruz

Another Boetticher/Scott collaboration in a B-grade western about revenge.

Taciturn bounty hunter Ben Brigade (Randolph Scott), aging ex-sheriff of Santa Cruz, captured no-good drifter Billy John (James Best), wanted for shooting a man in the back in Santa Cruz. Brigade's intention was to take Billy John to the Santa Cruz jail - and meanwhile vengefully capture his sadistic older brother Frank John (Lee Van Cleef) by using Billy John as bait.

As a side-note, Frank had murdered Brigade's wife years earlier, at the site of a hanging tree (just outside Santa Cruz).

The plot was furthered by the arrival of two outlaws: Sam Boone (Pernell Roberts) and his companion Whit (James Coburn in his screen debut), and the presence of blonde widow Mrs. Carrie Lane (Karen Steele) - saved by Brigade during an Indian attack when her stagecoach trading post husband was killed.

The film concluded with Brigade's revenge upon Frank (who was killed at the hanging tree), and the surrender of Billy John to Boone and Whit (and the young widow), who then proceeded toward Santa Cruz for the bounty, leaving Brigade to again 'ride lonesome.'

Rio Bravo (1959)
d. Howard Hawks, 141 minutes, Warner Bros.

Texas' rural Presidio County in the late 1860s, in the town of Rio Bravo, Texas

Filmed by Hawks as a reaction to High Noon (1952), and remade as El Dorado (1966) and John Carpenter's action-thriller Assault on Precinct 13 (1976).

John Wayne starred as self-reliant small-town Sheriff John T. Chance, who enlisted the help of a group of misfits: drunken deputy Dude (aka Borachón - Spanish for drunk) (Dean Martin), teenaged cocky sharpshooter Colorado Ryan (singer Ricky Nelson), and elderly, limping and grumpy sidekick Stumpy (Walter Brennan), while finding love with stranded, on-the-run dance-hall girl Feathers (26 year-old Angie Dickinson), who was on her way to Fort Worth.

They were guarding jail inmate Joe Burdette (Claude Akins), who was charged with the murder of an unarmed bystander in a saloon fight (in the film's opening). His ruthless land baron brother Nathan Burdette (John Russell) and hired guns attempted to release him, before he could be taken by a US Marshal to Presidio for trial.

A final shoot-out amidst overturned wagons (filled with dynamite cargo) defeated Burdette's men.


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

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