The Horse Soldiers (1959)

A photograph from on the set of John Ford's The Horse Soldiers (1959)

The History of the Golden Age of Westerns

The Golden Age of the western, within film history was the long-awaited blossom of the genre. The genre which has its roots in live Wild West shows, most notably Buffalo Bill's Wild West show, evolved into early short silent films such as The Great Train Robbery of 1903. By the 1910s, motion pictures replaced the Western dime novels and Wild West shows as the leading purveyors of popular images of the West. The silent era of westerns went through a rough transition of how to interrupt the Western myth and speak to audiences. For example, Native peoples went from being the common casualties of violence, (quickly) to the Western heroes. By the late 1920s, Western movie stars began to rise like Tom Mix and Bill Hart, both whom manufactured the idea of the cowboy and the American West hero. 

By the 1930s, John Wayne appeared in his first Western The Big Trail (1930). Other Western stars also began to shape Western films like William Boyd, known for his Hopalong Cassidy character and films, and Gene Autry, who created a Western brand and phenomenon. Autry became known as the singing cowboy, he was often cast as a radio or rodeo star, singing his way to the classic image of the Man of the West. John Autry signified a purer, "family-friendly" version of the western, no grim of issues of adulthood. 

In 1939, the first modern western was John Ford's megahit Stagecoach, gave future mainstream westerns their stereotypes and troupes. Stagecoach brought Americans the beginning of the golden age of westerns and would eventually end with Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch (1969). Americans during this period savored their entertainment, by 1946 there were 18,700 cinemas and 300 drive-ins. Film historian Michael Coyne, 82 million Americans attended the movie theater per week. The same year also represented the western's most lucrative year taking in $1,692,000,000, which even fixed for inflation would not be surpassed until 1974. The golden age of westerns changed from Gene Autry's cowboy crooner to drinking, gambling and sex in the West. The gradual transformation of the genre was undoubtedly an effect of new audience’s expectations, it was a result of American expectations and a maturing audience during and after the nations multifaceted wartime experiences.

John Ford western The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

An on set photograph from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) From left to right, James Stewart, John Ford, John Wayne

 "My name is John Ford. I make Westerns." 

John Ford (February 1, 1894 - August 31,1973) was one of the most prolific American directors of the 20th century. His westerns are considered the most influential films within the genre, including the as for mentioned StagecoachMy Darling Clementine (1946) and The Searchers (1956). Over his career, Ford directed more than 140 films, although most of his silent films are now lost. Ford began his career in California in 1914 and followed in the footsteps of old brother Francis Ford, also a director. Ford's westerns represented the most recognizable troupes within Westerns, and be the inspiration for future directors like Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg.


Stagecoach (1939)

Film historian, Michael Coyne states Stagecoach "has more in common with postwar Westerns than its contemporaries. Stagecoach romanticized the fictitious outlaw hero; he nation-building epics embraced the Establishment hero." Stagecoach was the first western shot using Monument Valley in the American south-west Arizona-Utah border, Ford's favorite shooting locationg. In 1955, Stagecoach was deemed "culturally, historically or aesthetically significant" by the United States Library of Congress and selected for preservation in their National film registry. 

The film takes place in 1880, a motley party of strangers boards the east-bound stagecoach from Tonto to Lordsburg. The travelers appear unremarkable and ordinary at first glance; a prostitute, an alcoholic doctor, a pregnant officer's wife, and a whiskey salesman. The travelers are joined en route by an escaped outlaw, the Ringo Kid (John Wayne). During the journey, crises exposes the travelers' true selves. The "Westerners", Ringo, the prostitute named Dallas, and the doctor turn out to be brave and heroes. Whereas the "Easterners", are actual snobs. The passengers are rescued by the cavalry from Geronimo's Apaches and the survivors reach Lordsburg. After reaching Lordsburg, Ringo revenges the murder of his family and then rides off into the sunset with Dallas. 

Stagecoach has many glaring issues, for example its portrayal of Native peoples would an issue that would plague most of John Ford’s filmography. The film would justify the removal of Indians from the Western frontier. It however also stood as a beacon in the change of American nationalism Coyne states "in summary, the American character which Stagecoach exalts is at its best, brave, decent, democratic. Yet its American society is prey to the narrow-minded and tryannical thugs...According to Stagecoach, was that inherently noble citizens be in control of a society which possessed morally debilitating tendencies." The film’s celebration of the (male) individual’s contributions to society, the pioneer spirit (or Westerner) was the most important aspect of Stagecoach. The film marks the beginning of the golden age of cinematic westerns and the earliest example of American exceptionalism. Stagecoach set a president for nation-building and that would not be matched until 1946.