As the Western progressed out of its pulp roots, which had been firmly established in the movies' earliest days, a new view point, a mythical, legendary perspective of the genre developed. The first film to really portray the Western on an epic scale was James Cruze's 1923 film "The Covered Wagon", followed the following year by John Ford's epic of the building of the transatlantic railroad, "The Iron Horse". Over the decade, there were numerous other epic Westerns, including William S. Hart's "Tumbleweeds" (1925) and Raoul Walsh's "The Big Trail" (1930). Because of the cost and logistics of the location work involved, the Western took a dramatic downturn in the early '3os, and spent most of that decade as the lowest form of Saturday morning kiddie fare, much as the science fiction film would in the 1950s. Cecil B. DeMille's "The Plainsman", which appeared in 1937, represented a triumph for the Western, but it was John Ford who, with his "Stagecoach" in 1939, revolutionized and re-energized the genre to the level of art. Ford's Westerns, along with those of other notable directors such as Anthony Mann, Budd Boetticher, Howard Hawks, and others took a genre that had become completely set in conventions to the point of tedium, and took it to new heights combining the use of psychological elements, character development and strong story to elevate the genre to a new glory.
The films of these directors took root during the 1960s and 70s due to the interest of auteurist critics, who admired the consistency of themes and style from film to film. Ford's best Westerns stand out among the genre. As fine entertainment, Hawks' "Red River" and "Rio Bravo" stand out, but for me, lack the psychological depth that marks my three favorite Westerns.
The three that I admire the most are "The Ox-Bow Incident" (William A. Wellman, 1943), "High Noon" (Fred Zinnemann, 1952), and "Shane" (George Stevens, 1953). Of these, "Shane" stands out for me as the ultimate achievement within the genre.
"Shane" tells the tale of Shane, a flawed White Knight of a gunfighter (Alan Ladd) who comes in off the plains and offers support to a small ranching community under constant threat from a gang of ranchers who want to re-claim the land for themselves. Mr. Starrett (Van Heflin) and his wife (Jean Arthur) don't know what to make of this stranger, but their son (Brandon de Wilde) takes an instant sense of friendship to him, and sees him as a sort of guardian figure in some ways. Shane touches their lives, and stands off against the villainous rancher (Emile Meyer) and his chief henchman, Wilson (Jack Palance).
For me, "Shane" represents a Western with heart and a psychological element that works on several levels. It explores the relationship between Shane and Mrs. Starrett, saying so little yet conveying so much; it examines the relationship between Shane and the Starrett's son, who comes to see him as a tragic hero; and finally, between right and wrong, in interestingly gray terms for an American Western: in one scene, we hear an explanation as to why the rancher (Emile Meyer) wants to drive off the new settlers, and it makes the audience understand his point of view.
Visually, the film is beautiful, and takes place in a slightly different "West" than is often portrayed in Hollywood films. The Westerns usually take place in the dry, desert climates of such locations as Monument Valley and other far Western locales. But "Shane" is beautifully photographed by Loyal Griggs in the mountains and plains of Wyoming, in gorgeous Technicolor. It is a pity that the film was not made just a year or two later, as it would have probably been photographed in widescreen, which would have contributed greatly to the scenery. "Shane" has been criticized as being too neat and tidy for a Western, but I would disagree. The costuming is well-researched and accurate, despite the criticisms of some. And the performances have a certain beauty to them that add great depth to the characterizations.
The "Psychological" western fascinates me endlessly, and I will offer up more on it after re-watching both "High Noon" and "The Ox-Bow Incident".