McCarthyism, Masculinity & The 1950's Western:
High Noon, Silver Lode and Rio Bravo
By Jen Johans
*Note: contains plot spoilers*

The history of American film is filled with enduring cinematic images that grow more
mythic with each passing year.  The movies of the 1950’s comprise a particularly potent
visual decade from James Dean’s
Rebel Without a Cause to Marilyn Monroe’s skirt flying
above the subway grate in
The Seven Year Itch.  In retrospect, the films from the 50’s have
since become so revered that it’s hard to see them as anything other than slightly dated
documents of wives in housedresses and men in grey flannel suits packing up squeaky
Tupperware and setting off to see the USA in their Chevrolet in a post World War II
migration to the suburbs.  If you ask a typical moviegoer to describe the mood of the 50’s in
America, they’ll probably suggest that it was a simpler, safer time but upon closer
inspection, the cinema of the 50’s is laced with enough subtext, metaphor and hidden
agendas to rival
The X-Files and bring out the inner Scully and Mulder in curious film
buffs who believe that just beneath the surface, “the truth is out there.”

Film journalist Peter Biskind has always been a rebellious cultural studies writer and one
ever anxious to bring secrets to the surface.  He tackled the 1950’s in his brilliantly funny
and often shocking book
Seeing is Believing: How Hollywood Taught Us to Stop Worrying
and Love the Fifties
.  Biskind analyzed a wide variety of films and characters from Dean’s
Rebel to Twelve Angry Men and after taking a look at his notes on all the works, realized
as Biskind notes that not only do “films speak our language,” but also “we learn to speak
theirs.”  According to the author, the films of the 50’s “present a ‘world-view’, an ‘ideology’,
that conveys an attitude toward everything from the trivial to the profound, from what we
eat for breakfast to whether we should go to war,” (2).  While his views may seem a bit
radical to the casual film fan, there have been several books written on cinematic subtext
and a whole course could be devoted to investigating both the actual American society of
the time and the filmed representations, their intentions and impact on moviegoers.  
Simply put, the 1950’s seem to provide the most covert and fascinating realm of study as
the films marked the shifting in attitudes from post World War II to the quiet before the
Kennedy assassination and the storm that was Vietnam harkened Hollywood to get a bit
more vocal and forward in their messages.  Biskind describes another issue of note on the
impact of the political climate of the decade as follows:

    … every movie that was produced, no matter how trivial or apparently escapist, was
    made in the shadow of the anti-communist witch-hunt, subject to the strictures of the
    House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) that dictated who worked and
    who didn’t, which subjects were appropriate and which weren’t, how plots could be
    resolved and how they couldn’t. (Biskind 4)

Aware of the limitations and always-watchful eye of Big Brother McCarthy, filmmakers had
to get more creative in their subtext and, while ideologies in films ran the gamut from the
extreme liberal to conservative, no genre was a more fascinating depiction of the attitudes
of the time than the western.  During the early 1950’s, the western was “among the most
honored and profitable of all film forms,” (Corkin 127).  When picturing the enduring
visuals of the genre, one instantly calls up hyper-masculine imagery of a tall man in the
saddle in the middle of the Arizona desert, with only a rifle as a sidekick—a conservative
image, to say the least, and most likely for that reason, not one I’d ever longed to study as
both a feminist and liberal.  However, when I began to look at the
50’s, I found that the most challenging films of the decade were in fact westerns and
discovered a captivating trio of films that dealt ingeniously with gender, the
controversially recurring American idea of revenge, and Senator McCarthy’s witch-hunt.  
The films I opted to investigate ranged widely in their attitudes of the time from Fred
Zinnemann’s extremist, allegorical
High Noon, to
Alan Dwan’s minor but boldly liberal
Silver Lode, to Howard Hawks’ and John Wayne’s
Rio Bravo which was made in response to Noon.  When viewing all three this
time around, I was instantly struck by first and foremost an appreciation of the western as
a complicated art form but also the ways in which the films made sense of their immediate
surroundings and environment.  In Biskind’s words, the films were filled with “conflicting
cultural messages,” which “reflected not one but several warring ideologies.”  Although I’ll
spend more effort analyzing
High Noon since it set the tone for the two works that
followed, only by comparing the contradictions and ideologies put forth in all three, will
one be truly able to paint a more accurate picture of 1950’s American society (4-5).

Released in 1952, Fred Zinneman’s groundbreaking and iconic western
High Noon has
since become one of the most critically acclaimed yet controversial films of the 1950’s.  
Edited together in near real-time (so that its running time is close to the length of the
actual time represented onscreen) and filmed in a consciously grainy documentary style
inspired by civil war photographs, the “dark, pessimistic, bitter film,” (Biskind 45) is one
of the most important and offbeat American works to come out of the western genre.  Its
timeless depiction of a proud man standing up alone for what he believes in has made it
the most screened film at the White House for countless US Presidents (IMDb), including
Bill Clinton who considered it one of his personal favorites. The British Film Institute has
devoted an entire book to analysis of the film, which offers the insights of several scholars,
indicating that its true meaning will always be open to debate.  While at its core,
is “a film about ethics and morality, and their intersection with the social world of
citizens and law and order,” (Drummond 10), it was a startling western which broke genre
rules of masculine ideals and popular themes of Cowboys and Indians in order to tell “an
uncharacteristic social problem tale about civic responsibility,” (Filmsite).  

The film, consciously created as an allegory representing those bold individuals in
Hollywood, who against overwhelming scorn and threats of expulsion, stood up to
McCarthy’s tyrannical witch-hunting House Committee on Un-American Activities, has
also since been interpreted as “an allegory of the Cold War and US foreign policy during
the Korean War,” (Filmsite).  Not only was
High Noon a successful box office hit but it also
earned star Gary Cooper an Academy Award for his impressive performance as newly
married US Marshall Will Kane, who decides to stay and fight a quartet of revenge seeking
villains who intend to kill him at noon.  Although he has retired from law enforcement
after marrying pacifist Quaker Grace Kelly at the start of the film, he refuses to run but is
denied the help of the townspeople, who are shown as indifferent cowards not wanting to
waste their tax dollars and would rather hire other men to fight their battles or remain
apathetic to anything not concerning them directly.  Shockingly, it’s his wife Amy, who,
after threatening to leave, comes to Kane’s aid, and ends up killing a man.  She stands
beside him at the end while he throws his badge into the dirt and the two set to leave the
small every-town Hadleyville, which seems to represent the Hollywood faced by
screenwriter Carl Foreman, who, wrongly accused of being a communist, went into exile
from the blacklist to England until the 1970’s, when he returned to America and defiantly
named his new company “High Noon,” (Drummond 19).

Inspired by John W. Cunningham’s short story “The Tin Star,” Foreman’s screenplay for

High Noon
represented the writer’s quintessential introspective male characters such as
Will Kane who were atypical for the time period and westerns in particular.  Foreman’s
male heroes, like Kane are “marked by identities which isolate them and cause them to re-
examine and to reinterpret their understanding of their masculinity,” (Drummond 19).  
Critic Joan Mellen agreed, describing 50’s male heroes like Kane as ones that “reevaluated
the male psyche,” as “characters became less action-oriented, more psychologically
introspective, even sexually ambivalent,” (Drummond 74).  Some men, like John Wayne
and Howard Hawks, were deeply offended by Kane’s unmanly behavior of asking the
townspeople for help in a shoot-out and responded with a more firm depiction of their
idea of true Western male identity with
Rio Bravo, released years later.  However, while
westerns weren’t used to having their male heroes think before shooting, the 50’s marked
the era of the method actor—men like Marlon Brando, Paul Newman and James Dean
whose portrayals made sensitivity sexy.  While Kane can’t be specifically labeled a
sensitive character or representative of the method men who were unafraid to cry, he was
a strong, silent type and a new kind of man—logical, thoughtful, and pained (ironically
indicating the severe discomfort and health problems Cooper was having off-screen).  

Above all, Kane was unafraid to go against the consensus be it liberal or conservative.  
Violence, to Kane, was inevitable—it wasn’t desired and he wasn’t trigger happy like a John
Wayne type, nor content to look the other way like the hypocritical townspeople, but he
also wasn’t one of the “softer” Northerners (liberals) that had let criminals go.  In fact,
some critics like Biskind disagree that it’s simply a liberal film and instead believe it’s
more extremist than anything and against both liberal and conservative attitudes.  Fred
Zinnemann sums it up best by stating that, “in a country gone berserk a man is running for
his life, unable to trust anyone except former friends who are endangered by his mere
presence,” (Drummond 11).  Thus, Kane must respond and act according to his own moral
compass as both sides are flawed.

In the film, when Kane is asked why he can’t just lock up the criminals instead of
confronting them violently, Kane states that he cannot arrest men before they do
something.  In his book
Cowboys as Cold Warriors: The Western and U.S. History, Stanley
Corkin explains his belief that Kane’s reasoning in the aforementioned scene makes him
appear to viewers as a man who “understands the true political system of the US,” (146-
147).  More importantly, the villains maintain a “relative normalcy… significant to the
broader politics of these productions” which Corkin feels is representative of the Cold War
and Korea era, citing that the
Noon antagonists “exhibit no particular qualities that make
them monstrous, beyond their aura of malevolence and their behavior,” (151).  Simply put,
just as Kane isn’t simply a male caricature or a cookie cutter hero, the villains aren’t
stereotypes as well and thus harder to bring to justice.  This “failure of civic process and
authority brings further gravity and credibility to the heroic presences within these films,”
as men like Kane “define an ethos that sets them apart, embodying a system of beliefs that
they cannot compromise,” (Corkin 147-148).  Conservatives, like Hawks and Wayne,
disagreed with the representation of weak unpatriotic townspeople (representing those
apathetic to McCarthy’s tyranny) and flawed leaders such as a bitter, former marshal who
tells Cooper to run and cited the film as Un-American.  Corkin tackles this idea by
analyzing a famous scene in which the judge who sentenced the criminals returning to
Hadleyville, packs up his law books and folds up an American flag in order to flee the town
by saying it represents the way “the pillars of social justice can be collapsed with ease,”
(151).   While consensus was the most celebrated theme of the 1950’s as Biskind cites films
like the liberal
Twelve Angry Men that cite ‘group think’ and agreement as the primary
goal over justice, Corkin discusses the way that despite Kane’s ambitions of the town
backing him up, he still must go it alone.  He analyzes Kane’s heroic character that goes
against both the liberal and conservative idea of consensus and save the day as a staunch

    Despite appreciation of the idea of the common good, [films like High Noon]
    ultimately suggest that such a social state can be catalyzed only by the acts of an
    extraordinary individual.  That individual is marked by his capacity or willingness to
    exercise violence—however lamentable the necessity for such action may be. (153)

Thus, Kane becomes a heroic outsider or individualist in the era of the 50’s status quo and
concrete jungle.  Women in American cinema of the era aren’t readily viewed as having
much diversity in their roles, especially in comparison to characters like Kane but
marks quite a departure from the norm for 50’s female.  It’s even more significant
that the male dominated western marked this departure in two seriously atypical female
roles played by Grace Kelly and Katy Jurado.  While at first glance, the two women shown
side by side wearing white and black respectively and played by a Caucasian and a Latino,
represent the stereotypical virgin wife and former mistress whore, the two characters soon
become so complicated that they prove first impressions can be very deceiving indeed.  On
the DVD marking the fiftieth anniversary of the film, the son of writer Carl Foreman
discussed his father’s intention that not only would the film be an allegory to McCarthy
but a “gender study” as well.

Twenty-three year old Grace Kelly played Kane’s new bride Amy in her first major screen
role, opposite screen legend Cooper nearly thirty years her senior.  Her naiveté and
politeness helped earn her the part as the pacifist Quaker who has trouble dealing with
her husband’s rationale to stay and fight, although Kelly was always troubled by her
awkward portrayal which she deemed a failure, especially when studied along with the
man who earned an Academy Award (Lacey 119).  However, she makes a fitting Amy—one
seemingly introspective and out-of-time for the period.  In Foreman’s notes on the
character in the original script, he stated the following about Amy Kane:

    She is one of the new women of the period… who are beginning to rebel against the
    limitations and restrictions of the Victorian epoch… determined not to be a sheltered
    toy-wife but a full partner in her marriage and it is she who has planned their future.  
    (Drummond 54)

In an early draft of the script, Drummond states that Amy’s character gives a speech about
not fitting in back home with her family who deemed her strange as she considered herself
a “feminist” and one especially concerned with “women’s rights,” (Drummond 54).  It is
also telling that Amy
isn’t just a simple “good Quaker,” representing a pacifist, God-fearing, pious woman who
may have been raised that way and had no choice in her religion.  Although some critics
consider Amy to represent US isolationists (Filmsite), in the film, Amy’s character made
the choice to be anti-violent because her family had had a history with guns.  In a powerful
speech, she tells Kane’s ex-lover that she “has seen enough violence in her life,” and lost
her nineteen-year-old brother and her father to gun violence.  She mentions that they were
on the “right side” but that it didn’t matter.  Amy reasons that she doesn’t care who is right
or wrong and says that, “there’s got to be some better way for people to live.”  Although
some had difficulty with her being the one to bolt off the train and fight alongside her
husband after hearing the first gunshot, the film is a bit more complicated and respects
Amy enough not to pigeonhole her as solely a pacifist.  Violence in Hadleyville has become
inevitable and while it is no way for people to live, the hypocritical town gives her no
chance—she decides not to simply stand by her man but she makes the conscious choice to
fight for her family and not let another man she loves die.  While it can be argued that it
proves isolationists or those who are anti-war wrong, it is clear by the conclusion which
consists of Kane throwing his badge in the dirt that there will be no more fighting in his
future.  He fought in order to move on and make a life without looking over his shoulder
and now he and Amy are planning to head off and leave the morally bankrupt Hadleyville
behind them.

Perhaps the most fascinating character in the film is that of Helen Ramirez, played by
Katy Jurado.  According to Filmsite’s analysis of
High Noon, Ramirez is “the structural
link-pin, through her romantic affairs, between all three male leads.”  She is the ex-lover
of Kane who took up with her after he’d locked up criminal Frank Miller, who is returning
to Hadleyville for revenge.  Most recently, her character had become romantically involved
with Kane’s coworker Harvey, played by Lloyd Bridges. Angry that he was passed up for
Kane’s job once it was announced that he was leaving Hadleyville after marriage, Harvey
bails on Kane at the first sign of trouble and male pride is most definitely to blame in a
classic study of professional male envy that dates all the way back to Shakespeare’s Iago.  
Helen still has a soft spot for Kane and gives Harvey a famous speech that “it takes more
than big broad shoulders to make a man.”  Helen is a woman completely secure in her
femininity, strength and fully aware of her effect on men.  She’s more than just the
traditional “loose woman” of the western and manages to put all Mexican stereotypes to
rest by her mere presence as an intelligent, sexy, successful businesswoman, which was
completely unheard of back in the 1950’s and even more of an appreciated anachronism
for the traditionally white male dominated western.  While she was sexually experienced
and a much stronger character than Amy, which is most notably apparent in their scenes
together, Helen is the only one who understands what Kane must do and she decides to
leave Hadleyville on her own accord as well.  To me, her character seems to serve as a
telling stand-in, which applauds the involvement of Fred Zinnemann. Zinnemann, an
Austrian Jew, was the victim of some Anti-Semitic retorts heard after the film was released
and some of the “good old boys” questioned what a “Jew knew about westerns,” since the
film was so different from the norm. Times were changing and by the 1950’s, it was
important to include all voices, especially those of our immigrants and two outsiders in
the world of the western—director Zinnemann and Jurado’s Ramirez provided the wake up
call to Hollywood that film should strive to include rather than exclude and they managed
to crush stereotypes in the process.

High Noon has warranted several interpretations over the years, director Alan
Dwan’s 1954 film
Silver Lode, clearly inspired by Noon, takes a more boldly liberal stance
that is impossible to misinterpret.  Heralded by London’s
Time Out as “the most succinct
anti-McCarthy tract ever made in Hollywood,” the film is sparse and deceptively simplistic
in its classical approach, clocking in at nearly ten minutes less than
Noon, wrapping up its
tale in just 76 minutes.  Set on the fourth of July, in the colorful and sun-drenched town of
Silver Lode, Dan Ballard’s marriage to blonde beauty Rose is interrupted by the arrival of a
man named Ned McCarty (a shockingly undisguised jab at McCarthy) who claims to be a
US Marshall although we quickly learn he is a criminal.  McCarty erroneously charges
Ballard for murder and robbery, and feeling it’s just a simple misunderstanding, Ballard
stops his wedding in order to clear his name.  While initially the townspeople stand by
Ballard soon suspicion sets in and everyone turns against him in this “above-average
psychological western,” (
New York Times).  The only townspeople who remain true to
Ballard are the two women in his life—Rose and his former lover, the town harlot Dolly.  
The women concoct a bold scheme to forge a telegram from the town McCarty is from and
Ballard’s name is cleared via the same false reasons for which he was persecuted—through
trickery.  Luckily, just as the man blackmailed into helping the forge take place decides to
tell the town it was all a lie, a real telegram comes in stating that McCarty isn’t what he
represents and the day is saved after the fact by government proof although by this point,
it doesn’t matter.

Nicknamed “Mr. Practicality,” Alan Dwan was both “the most uncomplicated of classic
Hollywood directors” and also “the most prolific,” filming an estimated 450 films during
his legendary career (Village Voice).  I first learned about the forgotten
Silver Lode in A
Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese through American Movies
.  In the documentary,
Scorsese cites
Lode as “a forgotten B film,” and states his reverence for “unheralded film
pioneer” Dwan.  According to Scorsese, in the 50’s, subtext was as important as the film’s
subject and directors often smuggled in their meanings by cloaking films in metaphor.  He
notes that Dwan’s films typically “featured simple people and pastoral landscapes… but
behind the lyrical images of the old west,
Silver Lode suggests the fragility of our
democratic institutions.”  Like
High Noon, Silver Lode seems to use the vacuous open
landscape and idyllic setting as metaphor—indicating that the environment didn’t betray
man; it was man who built up towns and invented laws that betrayed the environment.  In
the two films, the idea that the old west or the 1950’s Hollywood were a simpler more
clean-cut time are quickly forgotten when one sees the complexities brought forth by man
and gun.

According to
The Village Voice, not only was the film “a ballsy allegory about the McCarthy
witch-hunts,” but in my mind, it also took an even bolder stance on feminism than
.  From the earliest moments of the film, Ballard’s wife-to-be Rose proves a far
tougher woman than Kelly’s Amy.  Even though her fiancé has been accused of murder, she
wants to go through with the ceremony, convinced of his innocence.  While his male pride
and the guests’ suspicion prevent the marriage from taking place, Rose remains
completely convinced McCarty is after the wrong man but she’s nearly alone in her faith of

Although the town judge warns against the mayhem that arises from mob violence,
McCarty deputizes everyone in sight and convinces the townsmen to go home and get their
guns to form a vigilante posse against Ballard.  It seems in the town of Silver Lode, the
women are the only logical and moral characters.  After Ballard is forced to wound Rose’s
brother in a shoot-out later on in the film while trying to hide long enough for the wrong to
be righted, Rose flees from both her father and doctor who tell her that she should just stay
in and rest.  Fiery and determined, Rose objects and later after Ballard is cornered and her
father tells her that this is no place for a woman, she replies that, “this is no place for a

Ballard’s ex-lover Dolly is equal to Rose in determination to free the man she still seems to
love.  After the first accusations arise, she offers to steal horses and food in order to make
a getaway but moral Ballard refuses to flee, remaining loyal and true to the American
institution that had falsely accused him, knowing that justice will prevail.  Initially, Dolly
is skeptical that Rose will remain on his side and warns Ballard “respectable girls don’t
stand by their man.”  However, recognizing his love for Rose, Dolly gains admiration by
association and later the two opposites—the virgin and the whore—band together to set
the men straight.

While at first glance, the simple, short
Silver Lode seems to be parrot High Noon, its
fiercely liberal tale and the risky decision to name the villain after McCarthy made it one
of the more daring westerns of the 50’s.  However, not everyone in Hollywood was fond of
High Noon and the most notable majority were the men and women who agreed to name
names for McCarthy.  Six years after Gary Cooper was left high and dry in Hadleyville,
conservatives John Wayne and director Howard Hawks to set out to make their own
response film to
Noon to vocalize in an artistic manner their disgust for the work they
deemed unmanly and un-American.  In doing so, they created one of the very best and
enjoyable westerns of the 1950’s
Rio Bravo, which stands on its own as a reward to fans of
the genre, but in juxtaposition with
High Noon seems to tell a different story altogether in
keeping with the subtext laced covertly throughout 1950’s filmmaking.  Although critics
like Emmanuel Levy note that “in the 1960’s,
Rio Bravo  became a case study and a cause
celebre for the auteurist critics,” in his feeling that you couldn’t like both
Bravo and Noon,
I disagree as both stand on their own for different reasons.  Even though inspired and
intended as a response film,
Rio Bravo was also notable for starting “a whole cycle of
westerns going again,” after they’d waned in popularity, thanks to the advent of television
(Bogdanovich 357).

To this day, director Howard Hawks is widely regarded as one of the most versatile and
talented American directors of the classical era, helming such critically acclaimed
masterpieces such as
His Girl Friday, Bringing Up Baby, The Big Sleep, Sergeant York,
Only Angels Have Wings
and Red River.  For Rio Bravo, he teamed up with John Wayne to
tell the story of John T. Chance, a proud sheriff in Presidio, Texas.  Chance, along with his
deputies-- Dean Martin’s recovering alcoholic Dude, Walter Brennan’s wise-cracking
elderly disabled Stumpy, and Ricky Nelson’s young tough Colorado-- manages to take
down a revenge seeking gang set on breaking one man’s murdering brother out of jail.  In
keeping with their mission to make a more patriotic and masculine response to
Wayne’s Chance rejects the help of well-meaning amateurs who would be more of a
hindrance, in favor of his offbeat motley crew of outsiders.  Although he “needs as much
help as Cooper,” Hawks wanted to make a direct response to Cooper’s “running around the
town like a chicken with his head off,” since he felt that such actions were both “politically
incorrect and morally reprehensible,” (Malcolm).

Andre Bazin’s legendary French filmmaking journal Cahiers du Cinema called Hawks
America’s “most intelligent director,” and master filmmaker Jean Luc-Godard wrote this
reaction to Hawks’
Rio Bravo:

    [The film is] a work of extraordinary psychological insight and aesthetic perception,
    but Hawks has made his film so that the insight can pass unnoticed without
    disturbing the audience that has come to see a Western like all others.  Hawks is the
    greater because he has succeeded in fitting all that he holds most dear into a well-
    worn subject. (Bogdanovich 249)

The highly stylized film provides a stark contrast to the grainy documentary, naturalist
feel of
High Noon that seemed to provide audiences the idea of looking in at real life.  
There’s no mistaking
Rio Bravo for anything other than a Hollywood western and it
announces its bold presence immediately with vibrant, panoramic colors, stunning
cinematography and the shocking decision to have zero dialogue for the first five minutes.  
The action of the film is punctuated by the swagger and posturing of its male leads’
choreographed bar fight with sound effects and music which call attention to themselves,
pre-dating the same technique later perfected in
West Side Story, as Wayne’s Chance
interferes in a brawl between a man bullying Martin’s drunk and one man ends up dead.  
The decision to begin quietly was a deliberate one as Hawks told Peter Bogdanovich in
Who the Devil Made It because audiences immediately responded to the actors onscreen
and “knew who they were right in the first sequence without doing any talking,” (357).  The
opening was modeled after the style of having an opening teaser on television shows
popular during the era and Hawks considered the film to be like three television stories in

Although it began sans dialogue and is rumored to contain highly improvised scenes
throughout its legendary shoot, the script for
Rio Bravo contains some of the most
inspired comedic dialogue ever utilized in westerns, thanks largely in part to co-
screenwriter Leigh Brackett.  Taking the plot idea from Hawks’s daughter Barbara, the
film solidified female writer Brackett’s place in the writing of male dominated films such
The Big Sleep, The Long Goodbye, and the first draft of The Empire Strikes Back.  In
fact, the film regained popularity in the mid 1990’s when another famous screenwriter,
Quentin Tarantino, told interviewers that it was one of his three favorite films of all time,
paid homage to
Bravo in From Dusk Til’ Dawn (Levy), and stated that he uses the film as a
“litmus test” for all prospective girlfriends.  The screenplay for
Rio Bravo relied heavily on
comedy and Hawks told Peter Bogdanovich that he imagined “there are almost as many
laughs as if we had started out to make a comedy,” (356).  The sprawling western, with its
140 minute running time does get a bit long winded by today’s standards and short
attention spans, especially because it’s a rambler, as Hawks intended and one that
cemented his belief that audiences were tired of traditional plots.
 Rio Bravo, has “very
little in the way of plot—more characterization and the fun of just telling a story,” Hawks
proclaimed (356) and this was in stark contrast to the sparse
Silver Lode and terse High
.  Derek Malcolm from The Guardian Unlimited, stated:

    So firmly is the whole thing based on character, however, that you come out of it
    you’ve seen something special about humanity in general.  It’s a feelgood movie that
    for once rings true, even as you admit a certain strand of orthodoxy, even cliché, that
    is seen in Westerns time and time again.

Red River and Only Angels Have Wings, Rio Bravo is the quintessential Howard
Hawks plot—men behaving manly in what Emmanuel Levy calls his “most consistent
motif: a group of professionals (mostly white male) who form a substitute family.”  While
his career is also noted for helping launch female stars like Lauren Bacall, Hawks’s films
are famous for their tales of masculinity and heroics with “an aura of male camaraderie
[that] resonates,” (
Images Journal).  In fact, Bravo’s sets which were erected in Old
Tucson and used in Hawks’s two remakes (
El Dorado and Rio Lobo), were built to 7/8 of
scale, so the male characters would look “larger than life,” according to Internet Movie
Database.  As Emmanuel Levy states, in order “to elevate his stature and manliness,”
Wayne is “contrasted with a weaker man, down on their luck often because of ‘women,’”
and Martin’s “drunkness, caused by an unhappy affair, is presented as unmanly
behavior.”  However, Dean Martin’s Dude manages to steal the movie away from Wayne.  It’
s ironic that Martin’s recovering drunk is nicknamed Dude as further research on revealed that in the old west, Dude was a derogatory term usually applied
to effeminate or homosexual men who were notable for dressing like a “dandy.”  While
Martin’s character is heterosexual and was driven to drink from a bad love affair with a
“no good woman,” those aware of this term applied to a “manly” character, find
themselves smirking nonetheless and wonder if Hawks or Wayne would’ve used it had they
known of its origins.  At last illustrating that he had more talent than just being a straight
man to Jerry Lewis, Martin proved such a sensation that he even scared Wayne to the
point where the legendary Duke had to come up with an improvised gesture and line of
dialogue to bring himself back into the film, as he told Peter Bogdanovich in
Who The Hell’
s In It
(290-291) that he resented his role as “just the father image.”  In addition to
contrasting Wayne with Dean and Brennan’s disabled Stumpy, Steven Cohan notes that
Ricky Nelson is utilized in a role central to Wayne’s films in his book
Masked Men.  
According to Cohan, films like
Rio Bravo, “all reveal how Wayne’s representation of
masculinity relies on the subordination of a boyish costar to his authority,” (317) and his
book, like a few others dealing with
Red River discusses the homoerotic implications of
some of these “boyish men.”  Whatever the implications,
Bravo is typical Hawks, with the
male characters who do anything for their friends and face “possible death with grace
under pressure,” as “a group of professionals, insular, standing against the void of the
outside world,” (
Images Journal).

While the men in his film behave in ways deemed especially masculine and heroic to
Hawks and Wayne, the main female role played by Angie Dickinson starts off as one of
Hawks’s balls of fire (to pay homage to his earlier film).  However, as was the way in
conservative films made in the 1950’s,
Bravo ultimately “specialized in transforming
strong women in the home,” (Biskind 302) as we see her character “become less natural,
which means more subservient and less sexual,” (318).  In
Bravo Dicksinson plays
Feathers, a lady gambler who refuses to leave town after she falls in love with John Wayne’
s Chance, to the point of keeping watch in the bar armed with a shotgun while he sleeps.  
According to Levy, Feathers is “given all the Hawksian dialogue and lavish camera, and
her character is quintessential Hawksian, tough enough to stand up to any man who
comes her way.”  Bogdanovich agrees believing she’s Hawks’s best leading lady since
Lauren Bacall and Hawks shared that it was his intention all along to make her character
the film’s sexual aggressor.  He told Bogdanovich, “I think the girl
has to do the talking or
it gets very dull,” (342). Hawks refers to the craftsmanship of Dickinson’s comedic
dialogue as “three-cushioned,” or saying “the opposite from what you mean,” in the
tradition of Hemingway and Noel Coward.  Hawks required the most ingenious dialogue
and loved “going around the bush—not being direct,” as it left “the audience to make their
own interpretation of the thing [so] they don’t feel as though they’re hearing the same old
thing all over again,” (363).  He created the role of Feathers in direct opposition to Grace
Kelly’s pacifist Quaker character of
High Noon, whom he didn’t believe could kill a man
and simply take it in stride.  After Dickinson provides a distraction to help her man, two
villains get killed, and emotionally distraught, she ends up drinking over it which Hawks
felt seemed “much more honest,” (361).  However, despite his build-up for Feathers as a
screwball inspired dame set in a Western, it is sad for women to see a character as
humorous and sexy as Feathers her use her feminine wiles and trickery by wearing a
skimpy showgirl costume in the hopes that Wayne will love her enough to get jealous so
she’ll have to give it all up and become a housewife.

Despite its conservative stance,
Bravo remains an enjoyable western and out of the three,
the one that fans of the genre would most often turn to on a rainy afternoon.  One thing
that can’t be stressed enough is that whatever the politics of the filmgoer, one can’t fault
Noon because it led to Bravo or Bravo because it came after Noon.  Even Hawks and
Wayne would have had to admit that if it wasn’t for the earlier work of art, they wouldn’t
have become motivated to make another, which is the most admirable goal of art—the
ability to inspire thought.  I hope that I’ve shared the ways that three such diverse yet
historically unified works can inspire debate and educate viewers on what life must have
been like in the 1950’s.  While
Noon seems so much ahead of its time and is a film that
could provide layer upon layer of study, its bleak tale causes it to be a bit of a downer and
the simplicity of
Silver Lode make it a forgotten B film (Scorsese) in comparison to the
others.   However,
Noon remains one of the most important films to come out of the 1950’s
and the quintessential example of as Martin Scorsese would say “director as smuggler”
when one considers the audacity of its politics in the era of the blacklist.  By studying all
three together, one will truly be able to read between the cinematic lines and discover the
real truth behind the decade in terms of politics, gender and American society.


    Biskind, Peter.  Seeing Is Believing: How Hollywood Taught Us to Stop
    Worrying and Love the Fifties.  New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1983.

    Bogdanovich, Peter.  Who The Devel Made It: Conversations with Legendary
    Film Directors.  New York: Ballantine Books, 1997.

    Bogdanovich, Peter.  Who The Hell’s In It: Conversations with Hollywood’s
    Legendary Actors.  New York: Ballantine Books, 2004.

    Cohan, Steven.  Masked Men: Masculinity and the Movies in the Fifties.  
    Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1997.

    Corkin, Stanley.  Cowboys as Cold Warriors: The Western and U.S. History.  
    Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2004.

    Drummond, Phillip.  High Noon.  London: British Film Institute, 1997.

    “dude.”  Dictionary.Com  12 October 2006.  <>

    High Noon.  Dir: Fred Zinnemann.  Republic Pictures.  1952.

    High Noon.  Filmsite Review.  1 October 2006. <http://www.filmsite.

    Internet Movie Database.  Silver Lode; High Noon; Rio Bravo; Howard
    Hawks; Fred Zinnemann; Gary Cooper; Alan Dwan.  1 October 2006.  <www.>

    Lacey, Robert.  Grace.  New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1994.

    Levy, Emmanuel.  Rio Bravo.  1 October 2006.

    Malcolm, Derek.  Howard Hawks: Rio Bravo.   Guardian Unlimited.  1
    October 2006. <,,

    Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through American Movies.  Dir:
    Martin Scorsese and Michael Henry Wilson.  Miramax Films.  

    Rio Bravo.  Dir: Howard Hawks.  Warner Brothers. 1958.

    Silver Lode.  Dir: Alan Dwan.  VCI Entertainment. 1952.

    Silver Lode.  New York Times Review.  9 October 2006.

    Silver Lode.  Time Out Film Guide.  9 October 2006. <http://www.timeout.

    Stein, Elliott.  Elegance is Bliss: Old Hollywood’s Mr. Practicality. The
    Village Voice Online. 9 October 2006.  http://www.villagevoice.

    Tracey, Grant.  Rio Bravo: Sorry Don’t Get It Done, Dude.  Images Journal.  1
    October 2006.

    Yeck, Joanne L. and McGreevey, Tom.  Movie Westerns.  Minneapolis:
    Lerner Publications Company, 1994.

(c) Jen Johans.
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