Greatest Westerns

Greatest Westerns



Greatest Westerns: 1950-1955
Film Title/Year/Director/Length/Studio, Setting (or Time Period) and Brief Description
Movie 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, semi- Greek tragedy, and noirish character study, yet under-rated as a film about a cursed gunfighting outlaw with a bloody past.

With Gregory Peck starring as reformed, legendary gunslinger Jimmy Ringo with a violent past he could not 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 he 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 by most accounts) 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 "Jeff" Yorke (Claude Jarman, Jr.) arrived after being assigned there for service following his enlistment in the US military. 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 sending his troops to rescue a caravan from his own outpost (including his wife and other innocent women and children) seized by the Apaches, with some of the children held hostage in a small Mexican 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; then on the trail from Dodge City to the town of Tascosa, Texas in the Panhandle

This 1950 western was the first of five westerns from 1950-1955 teaming James Stewart with director Anthony Mann. It had all of the stereotypical attributes of an 'oater' (ie., a law-abiding town run by Marshal Wyatt Earp (Will Geer), an exciting shoot-out rifle competition, a decisive poker card-game, a buckboard chase, Indians on the warpath attacking a besieged group of cavalry troopers, a shoot-out between desperados and a posse, a deadly saloon fight, a bank robbery, a frantic horse-chase, and a cliffside rifle duel to the death).

It was noted as the film that revived westerns and set a new standard for actor's salaries - Stewart chose a profit percentage (about 50%) instead of an up-front salary, eventually earning himself between $500K and $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 - the film's title character. Accompanied by his longtime friend and sidekick High-Spade (Millard Mitchell), Lin McAdam (James Stewart) won the competition, hosted by Marshal Wyatt Earp (Will Geer), but the rifle was soon stolen from him by surly outlaw 'Dutch' Henry Brown (Stephen McNally) - setting up a dogged pursuit after the deadly rifle for the remainder of the film, as it often changed hands. After being won in the contest, it next passed to the murderous outlaw who stole the gun, then to disreputable and immoral Indian gun trader Joe Lamont (John McIntire), to savage Indian brave-chief Young Bull (Rock Hudson!), briefly to young cavalry officer Doan (Tony Curtis!, billed as Anthony Curtis) and cantankerous old Army Sergeant Wilkes (Jay C. Flippen), to saloon girl Lola's (Shelley Winters) cowardly fiancee Steve (Charles Drake), to a crazed and psychotic killer, and then back to the outlaw before ending up in the hands of its rightful owner.

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

The western concluded with a climactic shoot-out between Lin and 'Dutch' on a hilly rock cliffside - and the full revelation that they were estranged brothers (and 'Dutch' - actually Matthew McAdam - had murdered their father by shooting him in the back).

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, in 1873

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. Mel Ferrer also starred as infamous sharpshooter Frenchy Fairmont, involved in a love-triangle.

The film's opening thematic ballad, "Legend of Chuck-a-Luck" had the refrain of "Hate, Murder, and Revenge."

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 fiancee 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 casino gambling game), a known safe haven for outlaws.

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 of five western collaborations with director Anthony Mann (also Winchester ’73 (1950), Bend of the River (1952), The Far Country (1954) and The Man From Laramie (1955)), in a Technicolored, vengeful bounty-hunter tale with only five acting-speaking roles.

In the untamed Colorado Rockies, Howard Kemp (James Stewart), a tormented, brooding and manic anti-hero, was intent on tracking and capturing a wanted murderer and bringing him back to Abilene, Kansas for the advertised bounty. [Kemp had a mysterious past that was uncovered later during a delirious state of fever when he was suffering from a leg wound. Earlier, when he went off to fight for the Union in the Civil War, he trusted his faithless fiancee Mary with the title to his ranch and farmland, but then while he was away fighting in the war, she sold his property and ran off with another fellow.]

Therefore, Kemp sought to apprehend cunning outlaw Ben Vandergroat (Robert Ryan) with a $5,000 bounty on his head (dead or alive), in order to repurchase his land in Abilene and settle down. Ben was found to be accompanied by blonde, short-haired, tomboyish 'traveling companion' Lina Patch (Janet Leigh). Lina was the daughter of one of Ben's deceased friends, Frank Patch, who was killed while robbing a bank in Abilene. Accused killer Vandergroat had murdered a marshal in Abilene, Kansas, and Kemp had been on his trail for a long time.

The fearless Kemp first enlisted the aid of grizzled, luckless prospector Jesse Tate (Millard Mitchell) by claiming he was an official lawman, and would pay Jesse $20 for his time and trouble. The two were soon joined by dishonorably-discharged, amoral, playboyish and disreputable Union cavalry rider Lt. Roy Anderson (Ralph Meeker) (who it was revealed later was being pursued by a Blackfoot Indian war party, for defiling one of the chief's daughters). Things became more complicated when Ben was apprehended with Jesse and Roy's help, and Kemp was revealed as a mercenary bounty-hunter. Then, the two others wanted to split the reward three ways with him.

During their trek back to Abilene, scoundrel Ben used persuasive tactics of psychological warfare (greed, discord, suspicion, mistrust, and jealousy within a love triangle) to create conflict among his three captors. Ben convinced Lina (with unpredictable shifting loyalties) to distract Kemp so he could escape from the back of a cave during one night, and he also unbuckled Kemp's saddle-strap so that he might topple the bounty-hunter off a steep ridge - but neither ploy fully worked. One bluff that did work was to convince Jesse to desert the group at night to visit a nearby goldmine.

Besides a violent Blackfoot native Indian attack from twelve riders that ended up in a massacre (only Kemp was wounded in the leg), the exciting climax came at a raging riverside after Ben had ruthlessly killed Jesse. Ben was positioned high up on a rock face, poised as a sniper with a rifle to ambush Kemp and Roy. As he fired at Kemp, Lina pushed Ben's rifle up, preventing him from firing accurately. Kemp climbed the face of the rocky cliff behind Ben and flung his "naked spur" (used to scale the cliff-face as a axe/piton) into his lower cheek or neck - after which he reeled around and Roy shot him from a distance and finished him off. Ben's corpse fell into the roaring river below. Roy was able to string a line across the rough water and retrieve the body - so that they could claim the reward. However, while swimming in the rapidly-flowing river, Roy was lethally struck by a gigantic log stump, drowned and was carried downstream. Kemp hauled Ben's body back to the shore by a rope, and became insanely single-minded and heartless - determined to claim the reward all for himself as he strapped the corpse on his horse.

After Lina's pleadings to leave the ordeal behind them, Kemp gave up his potential blood-money bounty, buried Vandergroat's body in the ground, and then rode off with her to start a new life in California together.

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 Scagway, Canada and Dawson City (the Yukon)

This dark revenge western was the fourth pairing of director Anthony Mann with actor James Stewart, in films between 1950 and 1955. The script was written by Borden Chase. The setting was In 1896, during a cattle drive into the 'far country,' from Wyoming to Seattle, and then to the port city of Scagway (in the Alaskan Panhandle), and further northward into Canada to Dawson City (in the Canadian territory of the Yukon). It was filmed in Technicolor in the Great Canadian Northwest.

During the Klondike Gold Rush, self-reliant, misanthropic anti-hero cattle herder and loner Jeff Webster (James Stewart) (advertised as a "stranger with a gun") and his trusted, grizzly sidekick pal Ben Tatum (Walter Brennan) were herding their cattle from Wyoming, with Ben's ultimate objective to fund their dream ranch in Utah. The film opened in the coastal city of Seattle, where Webster directed his cattle onto a steamship bound to the North, after being accused by two cowhands of unlawfully murdering two other cattle thieves.

Upon their arrival in Scagway, the two interrupted a hanging on a platform erected in the town's streets, being conducted by the film's despotic antagonist: wealthy yet affable top-hatted judge/Sheriff Gannon (John McIntire). The self-appointed Gannon arrested Webster on false charges, and then held a bogus and unfair trial in the saloon of seductress Ronda Castle (Ruth Roman), who was one of Gannon's corrupt business associates. (The seductress had earlier helped shelter Jeff from authorities onboard the steamship in her stateroom's bed, and she had taken a liking to him.) The annoyed and tyrannical judge, who was quoted as saying: "I'm gonna like you. I'm gonna hang you but I'm gonna like you," confiscated Webster's entire herd for the crime of disturbing the peace.

However, within a short time, Webster and Tatum were hired by Ronda to lead a caravan to the lawless, isolated, gold-rush settlement town of Dawson City. During their first night, their ploy to steal back their herd of animals succeeded, and they were able to find refuge outside of Gannon's jurisdiction across the border in Canada. After reacquiring his herd, Jeff was threatened by the perturbed scoundrel Gannon that he would be hanged if he ever returned south thru Skagway.

During their further trek northward, Jeff insised on taking a diversionary valley trail with his cattle, while he watched Ronda and the others take a faster, more treacherous mountainous 2-Mille Pass trail prone to avalanche - without warning her. After begrudgingly being forced to rescue her, the caravan finally arrived in Dawson City, Yukon, featuring a local hash house with bear stew, a school and a community church. To his greedy surprise, Jeff was able to auction off his herd for a high bid of $40,000. The surprising highest bidder was Ronda, who outbid the lower offer of the co-owners of the hash house. As a new arrival in town, the savvy, strong-willed entrepreneur was opening up a saloon known as Dawson Castle, in partnership with Gannon, that would inevitably usher in more lawlessness and greedy corruption. With her advantages of endless cash and beef, the self-interested Ronda would become the new overlord of the town.

Jeff was determined to resist the amorous, love-triangle intentions of both 'bad girl' Ronda and a pigtailed, tomboyish, freckly-faced French-Canadian immigrant named Renee Vallon (Corinne Calvet). He also urged the townsfolk to avoid conflict and withdraw from interfering, rather than opposing Gannon and his henchmen.

With their cash, Jeff and Tatum bought an existing gold mine claim, and were planning to evade Gannon and his hired men and leave town, but Tatum inadvertently and foolishly tipped them off (by buying extra coffee for the long trip). As the two men were uncovering their raft for a river escape, they were attacked and robbed - Tatum was shot dead while Jeff's right hand was hit and incapacitated.

After returning to Dawson where he was cared for by Renee, Jeff now chose to participate in an inevitable shoot-out between himself and the villainous Gannon and his lawless men. Jeff's tiny bell on his horse Pie's saddle-horn announced his arrival for a showdown. He held his Winchester rifle across his injured arm with his left hand, to take a stand with the community's residents (intimidated, powerless and persecuted miners) against the cheating Gannon and his gang led by Madden (Robert J. Wilke) and Newberry (Jack Elam). Jeff evaded a surprise ambush by the two henchmen (and shot both of them dead), but as Ronda ran out into the street to warn him, she was lethally shot in the back by Gannon. Jeff fired back at Gannon under the saloon's porch floorboards and killed him. He was supported by the armed and courageous townfolk, to take back their city.

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

In and around an Arizona cattle town

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

It starred Joan Crawford as strong-willed, non-conformist saloon owner Vienna (often dressed in black shirt, pants, and boots) in an 1800's Arizona small town during changing times, where she had built a gambling saloon on the outskirts in anticipation of the transcontinental railroad soon coming through the area. Sterling Hayden portrayed the gun-crazed title character (Vienna's former lover Johnny 'Guitar' Logan from five years earlier, a gunslinger who had arrived from Albuquerque, NM), and Mercedes McCambridge as protagonist mob-posse-leader, contentious spinster and cattle rancher Emma Small. Vienna's business was about to boom due to the presence of the railroad, causing hatred and conflict among the black-clad townsfolk who formed a vigilante mob and demanded her exile. They blamed her, in part, for both a stagecoach robbery and a local bank robbery.

The sadistic Emma had a love-hate relationship with an outlaw named the Dancin' Kid (Scott Brady), one of Vienna's associates, who was to blame for orchestrating the local bank robbery with his 3-member gang.

The film ended with Guitar's rescue of Vienna from the mob's 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 in Revolutionary Mexico. 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, 103 minutes, Columbia Pictures

In threatening Apache territory, and in the isolated western town of Coronado, New Mexico, where supply wagons often had to traverse through hostile Apache territory

The fifth (and final) western that paired Anthony Mann and James Stewart was another complex psychological western, filmed in widescreen CinemaScope, and often thought of as a retelling of the plot of Shakespeare's King Lear.

The title character (the 'man from Laramie') was in actuality a US Cavalry officer Captain named Will Lockhart (James Stewart), who was accompanied by Charley O'Leary (Wallace Ford) (who was born from "an Irish pa and an Indian ma"). Lockhart was posing as a mule-train wagon driver bringing three wagonloads of supplies to the town of Coronado, NM, to be delivered to Mercantile storekeeper Barbara Waggoman (Cathy O'Donnell). She was a refined young woman who admitted she was ready to quit the business and return to the East Coast.

Lockhart's main obsessed goal (he kept both his military position and objective a secret for most of the film) 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 six months earlier. As a newcomer to town, Lockhart claimed to Barbara that he had come from Laramie, but that it wasn't his home: ("No, I can't rightly say any place is my home... Well, I-I always feel I belong where I am"). Lockhart became suspicious when he noticed an automatic rifle (traded by an Apache) hanging in Barbara's store.

Soon, Lockhart became embroiled in a struggle in Coronado, NM with storekeeper Barbara's loutish, volatile, immature, sadistic and psychopathic cousin Dave Waggoman (Alex Nicol), over trespassing charges and unintended theft of lagoon salt. During the misunderstanding, Lockhart was lassoed and dragged through a campfire on his stomach in the dirt, and his three wagons were burned and twelve mules were shot. Dave's surrogate brother Vic Hansbro (Arthur Kennedy) arrived and called off the humiliating and unjust punishment. Lockhart vowed to stick around and seek retribution for his harsh treatment, and to discover who was selling rifles to the Apaches.

Lockhart returned to town and Barbara's store, where she warned him about her uncle - influential elderly patriarch Alec Waggoman (Donald Crisp), the almost-blind (physically and emotionally), wealthy, autocratic cattle baron patriarch of the Barb Ranch empire. The next day in town, Lockhart entered into a fist-fighting brawl, first with Dave, and then with Vic - the two 'sons' of Alec Waggoman. Coming to Lockhart's defense as a bystander was Kate Canady (Aline MacMahon), a tough, headstrong female rancher at Half Moon Ranch in the area. The fight was interrupted by the arrival of Alec on horseback, who insisted that Lockhart leave the area immediately, suspecting that Lockhart was a hired gun. However, he promised to pay restitution for Lockhart's destroyed property the next day at his ranch, while on his way out of town.

Waggoman's two rival 'sons' were engaged in a power struggle over inheritance of the Barb Ranch. Currently, Vic was more sensible and responsible as the ranch's hired foreman-manager than Alec's favored, incompetent and blood-lusting natural son Dave. Vic's plan was to remain at the ranch and marry his engaged fiancee Barbara: ("I've worked my whole life for the Barb"), although she insisted on moving away from town. Barbara explained how she despised the ruthless and greedy Waggoman for breaking promises and ruining her recently-deceased father.

Lockhart became acquainted with Kate Canady, one of Alec's long-time main rivals who owned a ranch at Half Moon that Alec had been trying to possess for 28 years. Lockhart was invited to her ranch and offered a job as her new foreman, but he declined. He hinted at his vengeful mission to seek justice for his younger brother. At one time much earlier, Kate had been engaged to Alec Waggoman, but was stood up by him.

While being reimbursed $600 dollars by Waggoman at the ranch, Lockhart realized that Alec wouldn't answer questions about how he had responded six months earlier to the cavalry detachment's massacre on his ranch land at Dutch Creek. Shortly later, Lockhart was falsely accused and jailed by Sheriff Tom Quigby (James Millican) as the prime suspect in the knifing murder of the town's weasely drunk Chris Boldt (Jack Elam), who had information to sell about the gun sales. While he was incarcerated, Alec visited with Lockhart and told him about his repeated haunting dreams of an unidentified murderous stranger (presumably Lockhart) killing his son Dave: ("He comes to kill my boy"). After receiving a temporary writ to bail Lockhart out of jail, the scheming and persistent Kate blackmailed him into accepting her offer to work as Half Moon's foreman.

Meanwhile, Alec had always worried that his son Dave would be an ill-suited and incompetent manager of the Barb Ranch after his passing, and seemed to be moving toward favoring Vic more than his true son Dave. During another violent encounter with Dave when Lockhart was herding Kate's cattle, he was shot in his shooting hand at point-blank range with his own gun. Wounded and in pain, Lockhart cried out: "Why, you scum!", and then rode away defeated.

In the midst of their strained relationship, Vic and Dave had both been complicit and involved in continuing gun-running arms-sales to the Indians, with an imminent sale of a cache of 200 rifles to the Apaches concealed in wooden boxes marked 'WIRE FENCING" within an open wagon. During a violent argument between the two about the sale, Vic shot and killed Dave in self-defense when he drew his gun. Vic brought Dave's body back to the Barb Ranch, and falsely accused Lockhart of Dave's murder, although Lockhart vehemently denied the charges.

Back at his ranch, Alec noticed an exorbitant and suspicious bill of sale for fence wire - proof that someone was stealing money, padding invoices and was profitably buying and then selling guns to the Indians. When Vic wouldn't give a definitive answer to Alec about what he knew, the two rode to search in the hills for the wagon holding the rifles. When they scuffled together on the trail just before locating the wagon, Alec was accidentally pushed off his horse and rolled down a steep ravine - Vic presumed that the unconscious Alec was dead and left him. Lockhart found the badly-bruised Alec, took him to Kate's place at Half Moon to tend to his injuries, and saved his life (although Alec was now totally blind).

At his bedside, Alec informed Lockhart about the sale of guns to the Apaches by both Dave and Vic. Alec now realized that in his dreams, Vic was the one who had killed Dave, not Lockhart. Lockhart immediately rode off to locate Vic in the hills with the rifle wagon as he was about to smoke-signal the Apaches. He confronted him ("I came 1,000 miles to kill you, Hansbro") and accused him of being complicitly guilty in the sale of guns that were used to kill his young brother at the Dutch Creek Massacre. Lockhart forced Vic, at gunpoint, to destroy the rifles he was intending to sell to the Indians, by helping him to push his wagon over the cliff. Afterwards, Lockhart pointed his gun at Vic, but was unable to kill him in cold-blood. Vic fled but was shot three times (and suffered an arrow in the back) by the outraged Apaches.

As the film concluded, Alec and Kate were both reconciled and were intending to get married once he fully recovered. However, there remained an unresolved relationship between Lockhart and Barbara. They bid each other goodbye outside near Kate's front porch. Barbara had already confirmed for Lockhart that she was planning to leave Coronado and move back East. He responded with the revelation that he was a Captain in the US cavalry serving in Laramie: "When you go East, you'll pass through Laramie. And, uh, if you should ask for a Captain Lockhart, almost anybody'd tell you where to find me." With some hope for their future together, she replied: "I'll remember that."

Greatest Westerns
(chronological by film title)
Introduction | Silents-1930s | 1940s | 1950-1955 | 1956-1959 | 1960-1965
1966-1969 | 1970s | 1980s-1990s | 2000s | 2010s

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