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The Silver Age of the Cowboy Greats

Updated on December 31, 2011

After enjoying a notable boom period during the years leading up to the war, for the Western, the war years brought an equally notable bust period. The top Western stars, like John Wayne and Gary Cooper, had traded their cowboy hats and horses for uniforms and military Service and somehow it didn't seem patriotic to have your hero shooting at an American outlaw when world freedom was being threatened by the Germans and the Japanese. The best action directors were moved from Westerns to war pictures. The "B" players and "B" directors continued the Western tradition, but the quality of films started a steady decline that continued through the 50s. By the mid-50s the movie serials were not playing. And even though the "B"s would lingered on the box-office appeal of the few remaining name actors working in them, including Randolph Scott and Audie Murphy they too soon met their demise.

Randolph Scott
Randolph Scott

Era of the Television

The emerging technology of that era, the television, was proving a threat to the entire motion pictures industry and it had an impact on accelerating the death of the "B"s. Television provided a number of well-produced Western series, sometimes featuring Western film stars like George Montgomery and Rod Cameron, and "B" Western film packages were regularly a part of afternoon television schedules in those early days, playing under names like "Tumbleweed Playhouse" or "Sagebrush Theater." There was no need to pay the price of admission to a theatre when you could watch Johnny Mack Brown, Lash LaRue and The Three Musketeers in your living room for free.

This presented a challenge for the studios, which owned the movie theaters, that in order to compete, the Westerns would have to become something very different than what they had been in the past—and markedly different from what television could offer.

The Ox-Bow Incident
The Ox-Bow Incident

The Psychological Westerns

Westerns in the 50s began to take the pattern of an earlier western, the 1943 film "The Ox-Bow Incident". The film was undeniably a Western; set in the Old West, and featured standard cowboy characters portrayed by actors long associated with cowboy drama. But it did not follow the familiar pattern of crime, chase and capture long ago established by The Great Train Robbery, nor did it faintly resemble the other familiar Western pattern of the grand epic. The story of the film started with the fall-out of the pursuit and capture incident; and followed the emotional and psychological reactions of the characters to that action, rather than the action itself.

The best Westerns of the late 40s and the 50s continued to feature the action and daring that had made the Western film popular, while enhancing the action's impact by incorporating the psychological and emotional elements. Some of the best examples of films that typified this new maturity in Western films include, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, High Noon, The Gunfighter, Shane and The Naked Spur.


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