Friday, December 10, 2021

When Hollywood Rode Right: American Western Cinema as an Expression of Older Virtues - MY CORNER by Boyd Cathey


[A shorter, slightly edited version of this essay appears in the December 2021 issue of Chronicles magazine.]


Although Hollywood is now considered a monolithic bastion of leftist and “woke” political and cultural sentiment with almost no dissent tolerated, it was not always that way, at least not to the degree that exists today. Go back sixty years ago, and that progressivist uniformity was not as apparent.

Certainly, “Tinseltown” was never a haven for conservative and traditionalist cinema, actors, and screen writers, but back then to be on the Right and practicing a career in movies was not a rare oddity like it is in 2021. In particular, the sub-genre of Westerns, during its heyday on the big screen from the 1920s until the mid-1960s, was dominated by actors identifiably conservative.

Indeed, most of Hollywood’s leading Western and cowboy actors have been politically conservative, and quite a few have been Southerners. It is well known that John Wayne was a conservative, strongly supporting United States forces in Vietnam (recall his film, “The Green Berets”), and often supporting Republican candidates. But many other prominent Western actors were also on the right.

A short list would include: Joel McCrea (a Goldwater and Reagan supporter), Randolph Scott (a staunch conservative and Reagan supporter originally from Charlotte, N.C., who attended the 1964 Republican Convention as a Goldwater delegate), Audie Murphy (a Texan, life member of the NRA), Roy Rogers and Gene Autry (both conservative Christians), John Payne (a native Virginian and staunch Goldwater conservative), Alan Ladd (a Republican and native of Arkansas), Charlton Heston (a former president of the NRA), Ronald Reagan, Glenn Ford, Ward Bond, Jimmy Stewart (a regular contributor to the political campaigns of Senator Jesse Helms), Ben Johnson (who refused to act in Peter Bogdanovich’s “The Last Picture Show,” until nudity and bad language were removed), Gary Cooper (a convert to the Catholic Church, who supported Nixon in 1960), George “Gabby” Hayes (a John Bircher, the quintessential cowboy sidekick, whose famous full beard and tattered hat identified him for several generations of Western-watchers), Walter Brennan (thrice-winning Academy Award winner whose staunch conservatism led him to co-chair the California state campaign for George Wallace in 1968),  and Chill Wills (the noted Western character actor who was the other California Wallace co-chair in 1968).

And there were others that we might recall from those days of yesteryear.

In more recent times, such noted actors as Clint Eastwood, Robert Duvall, Tom Selleck (another past president of the NRA), and Kevin Sorbo, have continued the rightward tendency among actors who act in oaters.

Various reasons have been adduced for the prevalence of conservatives in Westerns, in an industry that otherwise leans strongly to the left. The fact that many of them came from the traditional South or from rural areas may have had some influence. Few came from urban areas like New York, and if they came from California, it was an older California, one that was still capable of electing Ronald Reagan governor and right wingers like “Bomber Bob” Dornan or John Schmitz to Congress.

Most major studios from the 1930s to the 1950s maintained separate facilities—“ranches”—set away from major production centers, where Westerns were shot and produced. Western actors and, to some degree, their directors and producers, tended to be separated from other film-making. It was no accident that the great director John Ford (an early supporter of Roosevelt’s “New Deal,” who became a fervent Nixon and Goldwater supporter), when asked once what he did, responded, “I make Westerns.” Of course, Ford made movies in other genres, but he is most widely known for his superb Westerns. He had his own “stock company” of veterans and regulars who showed up in picture after picture that he directed. His genius was in securing the very best in ensemble acting carried to perfection over and over again. Those actors who appeared in Westerns generally made it a habit.

Some of the smaller studios, especially Republic and Monogram (later Allied Artists) concentrated on the genre, and turned out what are commonly termed “B Westerns”; they featured a recurring star (perhaps with a sidekick), were about an hour long, and normally appeared as the second half of a double bill. Too often film critics dismiss these B Westerns as “kiddie flicks,” but the truth is that many of these films were truly stylish, high level products. Thus, Allan “Rocky” Lane, Gene Autry, Wild Bill Elliott, and Roy Rogers made Republic a real player at the box-office.

Johnny Mack Brown, Whip Wilson, Hoot Gibson, Bob Steele, and Guy Madison did the same for Monogram/Allied Artists. Other studios, like Columbia and RKO, produced numerous B Western series until the early 1950s, showcasing actors like Charles Starrett (“The Durango Kid”) and Tim Holt. The end of the series Bs did not end the popularity of the genre. Both Columbia and Universal-International continued releasing higher quality, longer films, usually in color, in the 1950s, often spotlighting bigger-name stars such as Audie Murphy, Randolph Scott, or Joel McCrea. These studios used the Western as their bread-and-butter producer when major features failed to make money. In most cases, there was a virtual segregation between Westerns and other fare, a separation which may have affected the ambience in which they were made.

The very nature of the Western sub-genre has had a significant influence in attracting certain types of actors to it. Westerns traditionally expressed the purest form of “good vs. evil.” Even in the more conflicted, morally blurred years of the later 1960s and 1970s, the few Westerns that were made seemed to never lose sight of that essential conflict. Indeed, the paucity of films in the genre during the last thirty years is the clearest indication that the Western as a clear-sighted vehicle for representing society’s conception of itself and its frontier past has fallen on hard times. Too many heroes in white hats and too strong an identification with a triumphant—and white—country, subduing all before it, doesn’t offer the best medium for representing the morally conflicted and self-loathing America of the 21st century.

The late Southern historian, biographer, and political thinker, Mel Bradford, once explained, during a conference of former Richard Weaver fellows, that the 1948 Howard Hawks classic, “Red River,” starring John Wayne and Montgomery Clift, encapsulated the history of the West and of America as it expanded to the Pacific, its struggle to overcome both natural and human obstacles, its resilience, its quest to establish law and order in the wilderness, and its abiding faith in Providence.

And that men, in whatever station in life they find themselves, are obliged to assume and fulfill the duty which falls to them. 

That put me in mind of a film I had seen many years ago with my father: Sam Peckinpah’s classic, “Ride the High Country.” It co-starred two legendary veteran cowpokes, Randolph Scott and Joel McCrea. It was the last film that Randy Scott would make. At the time, he refused additional roles, declaring that “the movies have become too filthy”—and that was in 1962! McCrea still had one major outing (“Mustang Country,” 1976) and a couple of cameos before laying down his spurs, but essentially, like Scott, this was his last major role.

In a real sense “Ride the High Country” symbolized what was happening to America, foreshadowing in a way, and warning of the cultural revolution of the late 1960s and the ravages on the horizon which would follow.

Two old-timers, retired lawmen played by Scott and McCrea, undertake one last, one final task: to travel up in the Sierras and bring down a shipment of freshly-mined gold. Various, sometimes amusing sub-plots ensue involving a young Mariette Hartley, James Drury (later of “The Virginian”), Edgar Buchanan, R. G. Armstrong, and Warren Oates. All along Scott’s character, Gil Westrum, is planning to take the gold for himself, and on the return journey down the mountains he tries to convince his partner, Steve Judd (McCrea), to join him. For Judd, this assignment, this duty, has helped restore his self-respect. When Westrum asks him if he doesn’t desire more, he responds: “All I want to do is enter my house justified.” Let me do my duty before God and man, let me be faithful to my charge this one last time.

And in the end when Steve Judd is jumped by robbers, Westrum, who had gone on the lam, returns to assist his mortally wounded partner. When Gil pledges to take care of everything just like he would have, Judd says, "Hell, I know that. I always did. You just forgot it for a while, that's all." Judd casts a final look back towards the magnificent high country of the Sierras, as if to look back at a better America, and then dies.

It was 1962, and one month before “Ride he High Country’s” release in theaters General Douglas McArthur had delivered his famous “Duty, Honor, Country” speech to the cadets at West Point: “…those three hallowed words reverently dictate what you ought to be, what you can be, what you will be. They are your rallying point to build courage when courage seems to fail, to regain faith when there seems to be little cause for faith, to create hope when hope becomes forlorn....”

Now, fifty-nine years later, duty has been replaced by the never-ending clamor and incessant demand for “rights”; honor has become an outmoded concept; and the country we once loved has been riven and violently split apart by fanatics who dominate our politics, our schools and colleges, and our entertainment.

The Western as a vehicle of our explaining to ourselves who we were—and “remembering who we are,” to use Bradford’s expression—no longer occupies the didactic role it once did. Boys no longer wish to grow up modeled on a straight-arrow Gene Autry or Hopalong Cassidy; they don’t even know who Autry and Hopalong were. A hero-inspired “code of behavior”? Not in the age of “The Bachelorette” or the barely R-rated movies and TV programs that too many parents allow their children to view these days.

In 1974 the country/Western vocal group, the Statler Brothers, released their single, “Whatever happened to Randolph Scott?” Through its lyrics and music, they expressed the feelings of many Americans:

“Everybody knows when you go to the show
You can't take the kids along
You've gotta read the paper and know the code
Of G, PG and R and X
You gotta know what the movie's about
Before you even go
Tex Ritter's gone and Disney's dead
The screen is filled with sex.

“Whatever happened to Randolph Scott
Ridin' the range alone
Whatever happened to Gene and Tex
And Roy and Rex, the Durango Kid
Whatever happened to Randolph Scott
His horse, plain as can be
Whatever happened to Randolph Scott
Has happened to the best of me.

“Whatever happened to all of these

Has happened to the best of me.”


More recently director Quentin Tarantino, not known for engaging in cinematic nostalgia, examines the virtual disappearance of the classic Western as a theme for his 2019 film, “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” which becomes a vehicle to illustrate what was going on in American filmmaking (and in America at large) in the chaotic 1960s. Set in 1969 Hollywood it follows the fading career of once-popular Western star Rick Dalton and his best friend, Cliff Booth, his stunt-double, both of whom are forced to look for lesser roles in an industry that seemed now to shun the kind of good vs. evil oaters that a Randolph Scott or Joel McCrea made between 1930 and 1962.  In a real sense the Dalton and Booth characters must navigate a transition period which saw the country itself change radically. Throughout Tarantino employs bits of period nostalgia, from music to iconography, memories of what was being lost.

Yet, the Western has never completely disappeared from the big screen. “Silverado,” “Wyatt Earp,” “Tombstone,” and “Open Range” have illustrated that point. The success of TV’s “Lonesome Dove” proved that there is still life yet in the genre, and the Encore Westerns channel continues to be one of the more popular cable and satellite channels.

Perhaps it is the desire for clear-cut moral choices, the desire to recover some of the certainty that has departed from our culture, which attracts new generations of viewers. Perhaps it is the need to rediscover an American past that, after all, may be partly mythic, but mythic in the very best and most honorable sense of that word. Indeed, did not John Ford in “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” have his newspaper editor tell Jimmy Stewart: “This is the West, Sir; when legend becomes fact, print the legend”?

Perhaps it is the Western’s celebration of American tradition, with its mixture of both truth and myth, which may beckon to a future generation of converts. Despite “cancel culture” and its terrifying destructiveness, those who dare to take a look back at some of the great cinematic works of our past will see a rich artistic patrimony worthy of emulation, with actors who largely believed in the principles their films convey.

And then, like Steve Judd, may it be said of us by those in a saner age: “Hell…You just forgot it for a while, that's all."