The late film historian and western aficionado William K. Everson had an overwhelming fondness for the first decades of the western genre, so much so that he neglected the post-World War II “oaters” and made factual mistakes when discussing them. In truth, the 1950s was the genre’s golden age. Here are the reasons:
1. Most grade A and many B westerns were filmed in color and on location. See, for example, The Last Wagon (Sedona, Arizona), The Far Country (Canada), Escape from Fort Bravo (Death Valley), Run of the Arrow (St. George, Utah), and Shane (Jackson Hole, Wyoming). One reason for this was competition from TV. Movies had to provide something more spectacular to lure people from their sets. Thus color and…CinemaScope, VistaVision, SuperScope, Cinerama.
2. Stars of even the highest magnitude besides John Wayne, Gary Cooper and James Stewart were not loathe to take on cowboy roles. There was no shame in riding the range for the likes of Gregory Peck, Glenn Ford, William Holden, Richard Widmark, Charlton Heston, Robert Mitchum, Kirk Douglas, Alan Ladd, Robert Taylor, Stewart Granger, Eleanor Parker, Susan Hayward, Tyrone Power, Clark Gable, Robert Ryan, Jean Simmons, Barbara Stanwyck, Jack Lemmon, James Cagney, and even Joan Crawford (see Johnny Guitar).
3. In keeping with a more adult approach in many genres after World War II, westerns became more nuanced. In 1947, Pursued became what is generally considered the first “adult” western. A young man (Robert Mitchum) is raised by a surrogate mother (Judith Anderson), has problems with her natural son, loves her daughter (Teresa Wright), and must beware of a man lurking in the shadows (Dean Jagger). A father- son conflict raises its head in the following year’s Red River, with Matthew Garth (Montgomery Clift) challenging his adoptive father Tom Dunson (John Wayne). This trend continued in the fifties. One need only consider the seven James Stewart oaters of the decade: Winchester ’73, Broken Arrow, Bend of the River, The Naked Spur, The Man from Laramie, The Far Country, Night Passage. All but Night Passage were directed by film noir expert Anthony Mann and have hard edges. Stewart’s characters are often brought to the brink of destruction and must exert themselves to the utmost to overcome obstacles, as in Winchester ‘73 when Stewart’s Lin McAdam pounds gunman Waco Johnny Dean (Dan Duryea) onto the bar to make him reveal the whereabouts of Dutch Henry Brown (Stephen McNally), the brother Stewart is going to kill. In The Man from Laramie, Stewart has his hand mutilated by the sadistic Alex Nicol. His buddy (Walter Brennan) murdered and himself filled with lead in The Far Country, Stewart returns from the near-dead in order to kill the hanging judge (John McIntire) and his hired gun (Robert J. Wilke). Psychological if not pathological behavior infuses Johnny Guitar and Forty Guns.
4. Three classics. In some quarters the definitive western classics of the sound ear are Stagecoach, Red River, High Noon, Shane, The Searchers, Ride the High Country, and The Wild Bunch. High Noon, Shane, and The Searchers were released in the 50s.
5. Contrary to myth, in the sound era and especially in the 1950s, the vast majority of filmmakers did not denigrate native Americans in first-class—and even most B productions. Except for a big-time production like Arrowhead or films in which the native Americans were a feature-less, sometimes unseen, enemy while the soldiers (Two Flags West, 1950) or gold seekers (Garden of Evil, 1954), the tribes were always presented as victims deserving sympathy. What with unscrupulous traders plying them with firewater; a government breaking treaties; gold seekers, sodbusters and railroad men invading their domains; and hunters exterminating the buffalo, it was understandable that they would take to the warpath. Two major 1950 films examined Ill treatment of native Americans: Broken Arrow and Devil’s Doorway. In 1953’s Apache, Burt Lancaster played Massai, unwilling to surrender to the white eyes. In Fort Yuma (1955) Peter Graves was a very racist cavalry officer, but as savage as the warrior he threatens. In the same year’s A-production, The Indian Fighter, Kirk Douglas mediated between the races. As a disgruntled Confederate in 1957’s Run of the Arrow (prefiguring Dances with Wolves), Rod Steiger joined the Sioux. There have been complaints that Caucasian actors played native American roles, e.g., Jeff Chandler in Broken Arrow and The Battle at Apache Pass, Victor Mature in Chief Crazy Horse, Elsa Martinelli in The Indian Fighter. But they did not play them as bloodthirsty or fools. A half dozen supporting players were expert at this, portraying native Americans multiple times, and someone quipped that there should be a book about them titled The Lost Tribe: White Men Who Played Indians. These would include Henry Brandon (German), Frank DeKova, Eduard Franz, Keith Larsen, and Michael Pate (Australian). One of native American descent who ably played his ancestors was Pat Hogan (Gun Fury, The Last Frontier, Davy Crockett, etc.).
In summary, let no one say that only the Hollywood musical enjoyed its golden moment in the 1950s.
Perhaps the most comprehensive and perceptive analysis and survey of the western genre is to be found in The Overlook Film Encyclopedia: The Western (1995) by Phil Hardy, and Western Films: A Complete Guide (1982) by Brian Garfield.