Top 25 American Westerns of the 1950s

This list counts the years from 1 to 10, from 1951 to the transition year of 1960 which endcaps the decade. There were so many significant westerns in the 1950s that a list of the top 25 seems insufficient to address the quantity or the quality necessitating inexcusable errors of omission.

By the 1950s the western had become the art form for which America became best known in Europe. The western grew gradually out of America’s history and cultural heritage. In disseminating the western America spread its cultural heritage all over the world. Story telling in the genre had achieved the height of form and structure, even in B westerns and independent westerns. But the rigid structure began to change. The decade was filled with traditional, experimental and innovative westerns. Near the end of the decade the genre had become pliable; filmmakers could try out anything political, social or personal and the western could accommodate it, from the sexual perversities of Johnny Guitar and Forty Guns to the anti-McCarthy politics of High Noon and Silver Lode. As the decade progressed stories got edgier and more realistic, enabling filmmakers to explore issues of violence, race and the anti-hero, giving traditional actors like John Wayne and Randolph Scott their best roles. Westerns also explored the role of women in the west. Westward the Women and its follow-up Many Rivers to Cross are so forthright and historically accurate in depicting the woman’s experience that they are more honest than feminism; they don’t have to bend the truth or distort one side to get the point across. The western also explored racial identity in Run of the Arrow and The Searchers, among others. The best westerns were always brutally honest in showing how people lived during pioneer times.

The 1950s western that means the most to me is Shane, but there are many others that I admire just as much. Likely I’ll post an honorable mentions list next.

1951 Westward the Women (WB) directed by William A. Wellman
1952 Bend of the River (Universal) directed by Anthony Mann.
1952 High Noon (United Artists) directed by Fred Zinnemann.
1952 The Lusty Men (RKO) directed by Nicholas Ray.
1952 Ride the Man Down (Republic) directed by Joseph Kane (Luke Short story).
1952 Viva Zapata! (Fox) directed by Elia Kazan.
1953 Hondo 3-D (Paramount) directed by John Farrow.
1953 The Naked Spur (MGM) directed by Anthony Mann.
1953 Shane (Paramount) directed by George Stevens.
1954 Track of the Cat (Paramount) directed by William A. Wellman.
1955 The Last Command (Republic) directed by Frank Lloyd.
1956 Man From Del Rio (United Artists) directed by Harry Horner.
1956 Red Sundown (Universal) directed by Jack Arnold.
1956 Seven Men From Now (WB) directed by Budd Boetticher.
1957 3:10 to Yuma (Columbia) directed by Delmer Daves.
1958 The Bravados (Fox) directed by Henry King.
1958 The Proud Rebel (Samuel Goldwyn) directed by Michael Curtiz.
1958 Ride Lonesome (Columbia) directed by Budd Boetticher.
1959 The Hanging Tree (WB) directed by Delmer Daves.
1959 Warlock (Fox) by Edward Dmytryk.
1959 The Wonderful Country (United Artists) directed by Robert Parrish.
1960 Comanche Station (Columbia) directed by Budd Boetticher.
1960 Flaming Star (Paramount) directed Donald Siegel.
1960 Hell Bent For Leather (Universal) directed by George Sherman.
1960 The Unforgiven (MGM) directed John Huston.

I rewatched Flaming Star last weekend, much better than I remembered, actually a very good, well-acted (by Presley as well) and intelligent ‘Indians western’, only marred by some all too poetic Kiowa dialogue and a couple of uninspired moments

I miss Rio Bravo on the list.

What a dumb thing to say.

[quote=“scherpschutter, post:2, topic:3540”]I rewatched Flaming Star last weekend, much better than I remembered, actually a very good, well-acted (by Presley as well) and intelligent ‘Indians western’, only marred by some all too poetic Kiowa dialogue and a couple of uninspired moments

I miss Rio Bravo on the list.[/quote]

People tend to dismiss FLAMING STAR (1960) because it stars Elvis Presley. They expect a harmless piece of fluff and a silly musical, like most of his movies. But FLAMING STAR isn’t a musical. The obligatory song is dispensed with in the first five minutes. The film was to star Marlon Brando, who backed out at the last minute, and it defaulted to Elvis Presley. This was before his agent, Col. Tom Parker, began to exercise creative control over Elvis’ movies. FLAMING STAR is violent for its time with a hard-edged sensibility and a mature view of racial conflict in the west. The Kiowas resent the Anglos, the Anglos want to wipe out the Kiowas, both sides fear one another, and the family man who married an Indian gets stuck in the middle. They all pay the highest price, but especially the son played by Elvis, who finds himself rejected in both societies, and who feels guilty that his presence is bringing on disaster. “If this is how life is going to be,” says the half breed played by Elvis, “to hell with it.”

I don’t know about RIO BRAVO. I enjoy spending a couple of hours with John Wayne no matter what the film is. I also enjoy Angie Dickinson, Dean Martin, Rick Nelson and Walter Brennan. I’ve been enjoying the film my entire life, but all it does is talk, talk, talk. It’s your basic siege plot, played for character at the expense of action or suspense. The improvised scenes are redundant, long and loose and the humor isn’t funny. Everybody loves the film including me but I just don’t think it’s particularly good.