The Men of Westerns: Masculine Values Through Films

Dylan Hintz

The Men of Westerns:

Masculine Values through Films

In the days of the open American West, most noteably between 1860 and until the end of the century, a male hero could be created from one small story spread among long distances. A man could make himself a legend by shooting another man in the back, only to be referred to as “quick on the draw” because some drunk saw it from the wrong angle, yet still be referred to as a brave or powerful man because of the hearsay. The creation of “legends” is a very potent and much used theme of the Western films, even up to this day with the recent release of 3:10 to Yuma, directed by James Mangold, a film about a man who is trying to prove to his family, and himself, that he is worth something. This formula works as the central plot device for many American Westerns, with men “making a name for themselves” and then a discussion of how real their stories are, how honest their lives were, and what has cemented their place in the memories of those around them. However, it also is a potent demonstration of what makes a “man” in such an environment—what is respected and what is feared at the time of the story is often used as the background of a character in these tales. Serving the need to discuss what a man is, the Western film is a perfect looking glass for reviewing what a man from modern society of the time of filming is or was.

Roger Ebert, the well-known film critic of the Chicago Sun Times, wrote a review for the remake of the 1957 Western classic, 3:10 to Yuma (this one made in 2007), praising it greatly and awarding it four stars. He states that “In hard times, Americans have often turned to the Western to reset their compasses. In very hard times, it takes a very good Western.[1]”  Due to the fact that the majority of westerns focus on male leads, that moral compass can be largely a focus of men young and old viewing them, and be a creation of the ideas of masculinity that are prevalent at the time. This statement provides the idea that Westerns work as morality stories, and help to establish a prototype for a man to base his idea of masculinity, the ideas of what a man is accountable for, what his responsibilities as being a man are, and what he must do in terms of violence to protect those weaker than him, off of in times of moral dilemma. The following films are used to demonstrate this idea of the Western painting an image of popular masculinity during certain time periods in the United States and their historical relevance. Many of the best Westerns work as morality tales for men of all ages, starring big screen heroes like Gary Cooper, Jimmy Stewart, John Wayne, and Clint Eastwood. The three films these men have starred in used in this essay are High Noon, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, and The Outlaw Josey Wales. These films will be used as templates for the archetype, and to provide discussion on how a masculine image applies to the time period in which the film was made.

Contrary to their obvious denotations of “the one wearing the white hat is good, the one in the black hat is bad,” the men of westerns tend to be relatively complex characters which have grown as their time in the film industry went on—the later years even consisting of the “hero” wearing black to help classify his anti hero nature[2]. There are usually three variations to the hero and his situation. The first would be a man with the same skill level as the enemies, protecting his townspeople from the enemy, such as in High Noon, a film made in 1952[3]. This first man would be the “white hat.”

Set on the brink of the Civil War in a small town in the South West, Sheriff Kane, played by Gary Cooper, is a man of much responsibility. What he lacks in cowardice he makes up for in age—he is getting too old for this business and his new young Quaker wife wants him to put down his guns for good and leave town with him to begin a peaceful existence. Almost free from these responsibilities as Sheriff, he comes back to town on the eve of his honey moon to protect the cowardly civilians from a rough and tough gang of outlaws bent on revenge. There is a personal conflict between Kane and the head of the gang, a returning outlaw he put away named Frank Miller, but the primary focus is on Kane’s dedication to the law and “his people”[4]. This movie is a clear definition of the Law Man archetype- rarely the focus of a western film after the 1950’s. These westerns were forged when the country itself was a place of conformity, strong family values, and a consensus of “moral exceptionalism”[5] . This last moral goal should be bullet-pointed in this film specifically, as Kane would not flinch from responsibility, as he expresses strongly in the film even when he is told to leave by he people he wished to protect, specifically the scene in which Kane is trying to recruit many of the townspeople at once in the Town Church. There is an argument between the people about a need to look out for their own necks and ignore the current problems developing within their own town. Kane refuses to accept that this is the way things will go, and maintains his virtue to protect the town[6]. The desire not to abandon one’s post in the name of honor and justice is a prevalent theme in this film, taken even further with the abandonment the Sheriff faces when the rest of the town refuses to come to his aid. The character and film was a response to the onset of the HUAC and McCarthyism. In one corner of the story, and the time period, you have very few, virtuous people willing to stand up against oppression and tyrannical authority, such as McCarthyism—the allegory to which is Frank Miller. In the other you have Sheriff Kane, the voice of the individual during the Cold War, who maintained his nobility and his self respect by risking everything for a group of people, those who allowed McCarthyism to happen who are represented by the townspeople in the film, and who are unworthy of that protection[7].  Sheriff Kane portrays his masculinity, his need to be a man of convictions, clearly and loudly in this film, which ends with him standing up against the outlaws all by himself, and defeating all of them nearly single-handedly.  It is clear that this film must have demonstrated some form of male leadership and masculine dominance, as it was the most-watched film in the Whitehouse between 1954 to 1986[8]. Also clarifying its prominence in its statement, the film won four Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Actor (for Gary Cooper). This showed off the power of the property as a way to communicate its message to its intended crowd, which clearly would have been far more ineffective had the lead hero been unlikable in his masculine need to be dominant and in control of his own destiny.

Another factor highly notable in terms of masculinity in High Noon is the battle Kane faces not in his male enemy, but in the two women in the film who attempt to persuade him to stay or leave. It has been documented that there are two specific female counterparts to a male hero in a western: the blond, gentile woman who wishes for peace and requires a great amount of protection, who represents civilization, and the dark haired or dark skinned woman whom is the hero’s link to a more savage nature[9]. In High Noon, this feminine duality is accurately represented by Kane’s new wife, Amy, whom the town tells him to “consider” in his decision to stay and fight or leave and live, and his former lover, the Mexican woman Helen. Amy begs him to leave the town and flee with her, and give up any violent ways—even if their purposes are for protection or solving problems[10].  She threatens to leave on the noon train, with or without him, should he not come to her. Helen, his prior love interest from days past, explains in a conversation with Kane’s deputy, and later with Amy herself, how Will Kane is more of a man than anyone else in the town for sticking by his duty and refusing to leave the town to its own demise, and that furthermore, should he die, the town dies with him. While his attempts to rally the other townspeople into a posse to protect the town works on a more allegorical level to define how he the abandoned hero, his conflict with his new wife and the contrast given by Helen Ramirez helps to define what puts him into the mold of a “man.” His heroism is even strongly felt enough that with the help of Ramirez’s words, Amy decides to assist him in the final battle, joining him briefly in the shoot out and going against her own dogma, followed by both characters riding away from the town in contempt[11].

The western has not been without growth, and by 1962 other types of “heroes” were being explored. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, which debuted in that year, is a solid point of division between the law bringing figure, his violent urges and his need to uphold the law. Starring two of the major league actors of the time, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is about two very different types of heroes. In this film, another variation of the Western Hero can be seen not specifically in any one character, but throughout the interactions between the two main characters. This variation consists of a man who attempts to protect the town, only to face his own destruction through his loss of connection to the evolving civilization, similar to Kane in High Noon, or death[12]. What makes it more relevant in this film is that there is a notion of “the end of an era,” with the violent character whose savage skill is rejected by the townspeople in the end, and the character that is against violence in general relying on it to save himself. This film presents itself as a cultural nostalgia in the early Vietnam Era, lays the groundwork for the need to glorify the past of United States History, rather than look into the future of the country with glorious expectation[13].

Marking the end of the Post-War Western, this film directed by John Ford represents his steps towards retirement of the genre, hanging up his own guns and trying to accept that people had found themselves at odds with the ideas of violent war solving their issues, yet maintains a message of inevitable armed conflict and the fear that it brings. John Wayne’s character, Tom Doniphon, is part of a dying breed of hero—the frontier man with the gun. He does not quite stand in the way of progress, but he hopes with his use of a gun to solve problems that he will not need to join the modernism of society, reflecting accurately on the end of WWII heroes and the view towards “progress”[14]. The other character is a youthful Attorney at Law named Ranson Stoddard, played matter-of-factly by James Stewart, who demonstrates a need to civilize and move away from violence to solve problems, yet by the end is still “corrupted” into the use of a gun to save his skin. While he does use violence in the end, he belongs to a group known as the “pioneers,” men who seek to transform the wilderness—not live off of it—into a new social order[15]. Stoddard wow’s the town with his creation of a reading and writing class, even going so far as to educate the local black man, Tom Doniphon’s right hand man Pompey[16]. His aim towards progress in this film contains a pro-civil rights angle, with a quote from the movie almost entirely referencing the Civil Rights movement of the time, when Stoddard’s replies to Pompey’s embarrassment about having forgotten the Emancipation Proclamation, quietly stating that many others have as well. This character is an archetype of the western man who occurs rarely, bringing civilization with him to the outlands, taming the frontier with a book instead of a gun.

These two characters strike a stark contrast in their own little world, where in the town of Shinbone; a ruthless villain named Liberty Valance, played ever so drunk and angrily by Lee Marvin, is murdering farmers for the good of the ranchers in a personal attempt to delay progress. While he stands in the way of Ranson Stoddard’s “progress,” his overly violent and evil ways do not make him a friend of Tom Doniphon either.  Both of them want to rid the town of Valance, yet they have completely contradictory methods: in Stoddard the ideal is to prosecute, and in Doniphon the idea is to execute by the law of the gun. The film has a comical and almost self-satirical tone, displaying a lax style that emphasizes the reactions between the two main leads and how their characters differ in opinion. One hilarious scene demonstrates how Wayne’s rugged rancher character outright humiliates Stewart’s character for his inability to use a gun. He takes him to his ranch and, in a mock attempt to train him, scares Stoddard out of his mind with fancy but pointless gun tricks, simply to show him what he is up against.  However, there is a heroic side to Doniphon, as he is one of the last remaining “good tough guys,” and has many battles with Valance that do not result in drawn weapons, but do cause a friction of wills that lights up the screen with machismo exuberance[17]. This film marked a departure of that character type from the Law and Order corner of the ring, with The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance providing a swan-song, allowing this type of man to not go quietly into the night during the final eclipse of the law-and-order Western formula[18]. The film ends with the revelation that Tom Doniphon had shot Valance to protect Stoddard, but had taken none of the credit for it. Stoddard uses his credit to become a state senator, and mobilizes times of change and progress within the town of Shinbone. There was not much further the Western could go with the law and order Archetype, so a third, grittier, meaner, and totally different motivated man came into play.

Twelve years after John Ford’s farewell salute, the American Western had begun to ebb in popularity, with The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance in 1962 being only one of about 11 western films made[19].  Renegade outlaw westerns recreated the popular rise once again by 1967 with the films of Sergio Leone—violent, ambiguous characters known to kill on sight and really only explore for their own material gain, largely as simple forms of entertainment. However, back in America, some films still attempted to find a social context with which to work in. The Outlaw Josey Wales is a film Eastwood himself labels as  a reaction to the social viewpoint of the tail-end of the Vietnam War, using the Reconstruction era of post-Civil War America and the dissatisfaction of the Southerners as allegory to the dissatisfaction of the American public to the leftover morose of the post-Vietnam War era. Born out of this social and political mistrust was the American anti-hero, found mainly in Film Noir, but of no exception to the Westerns of the era, such as The Wild Bunch, directed by Sam Peckinpah in 1969. and followed around the world by Sergio Leone’s “Dollars Trilogy”. Similar to a character competently created in Eastwood’s first major film, A Fistful of Dollars, directed by Sergio Leone, he takes the archetype of revenge-seeking anti-hero a step forward as Josey Wales comes to power in a story that displays a mistreatment of soldiers from a war that wasn’t agreed on, using the American West as a Vietnam-esque stage of war[20]. This “hero” was a man made of few words, intense skills, and reluctance to befriend those around him- no matter how much they wanted his company[21].

This brings about the revealing of a third main western-male archetype: the avenger who seeks revenge against someone who has wronged him—in this case the Yankee soldiers known as Red Legs who slaughtered his family. The hero will go through many intricate steps to obtain his goal, but by the end will have completed a few things that might not have been originally expected of him: such as discovering that he is really on the same page as the townspeople or pacifistic wanderers who do not have his savage bloodlust in their own hearts[22].  In this film, Eastwood’s title character Wales, links himself up to a complex smattering of characters, including a “reformed” Indian chief played by Chief Dan George, a young “squaw” whom he accidentally finds indebted in her life to him, and a family of travelers with whom he shares the ominous silent connection of having slain one of their relatives. Reluctantly escorting, and constantly spitting, Josey picks up this rag tag bunch along the way while hunting for his revenge. The film follows in the tradition of hits such as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid from 1969, which prominently featured a reversal of the typical pattern of westerns, making the “bad guy” outlaws the main protagonists. It turned men who resented and regretted their ties to the government, and sought to shed skin of it, into the main heroes from that point onward[23].

Throughout the film there is a transformation in the title character from singular and deadly loner to protector of family and ideals, saving the family by the end of the film, which also assist him in his fight for revenge.  Ironically, this brings much of this research full-circle. Josey Wales has used his savage skills to reunite himself not only with nature, but also with those around him, who require his protection, and who do not fear his authority for he is a free-individual in the grandest western tradition.  The historical aspects of this film work as allegory to a distrust of the government of the time, mixed with a need to create central strength in family and protection from overly exerted authority, as Eastwood proclaims in an introduction he created personally for viewers to watch on the DVD of the film. There is an anti-authoritarian edge to Wales that is implicitly visible—he wants to be known as the character going against the government he can no longer trust.
Throughout the 55 years these westerns have been around, through ups and downs of popularity, assorting wide varieties of characters and containing many different although formulaic plots, they have always been a primary source for the American view of masculinity. Whether it involves a return to nature, a need for violence, the desire to carve one’s name into the memories of those around them as a protector, profiteer or a mass murderer, these films have shown what men at the times were apt to be like. Ebert’s statement on 3:10 to Yuma proves to be accurate: when in times of a moral dilemma, men young and old, all the way up to the presidency and down to common teenagers, will most likely look to a character of rugged virtuosity to define their own attitude towards the time period. Out of that, as demonstrated by these films will be created a character who reflects that time period, taking place in a setting that has become the trademark of American Legends.

Works Cited

Cawelti, John G.. The Six-Gun Mystique. Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green
University Popular Press, 1971.

Corkin, Stanley. Cowboys as Cold Warriors. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: Temple
University Press, 2004.

Dirks, Tim. “High Noon.” The Greatest Films. Available from Internet; accessed 7 December 2007

Ebert, Roger. “3:10 to Yuma.” Roger Available from Internet; accessed 6 December 2007.

Ebert, Roger. “The Outlaw Josey Wales.” Roger Available from
601010306/1023. Internet; accessed 6 December 2007.

O’Connor, John E., and Peter C. Rollins. Hollywood‘s West. Lexington, Kentucky:

The University Press of Kentucky, 2005.

Villarreal, Phil. “Phil Villarreal’s Review: The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.” Available from
Internet; accessed 8 December 2007.

Films Discussed

3:10 to Yuma, directed by James Mangold, 2007. 117 minutes. Produced by
Relativity Media and Tree Line Films

High Noon, directed by Fred Zinneman, 1952. 85 minutes. Produced by Stanley
Kramer Productions

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, directed by John Ford, 1962. 123 minutes.
Produced by John Ford Productions and Paramount Pictures

The Outlaw Josey Wales, directed by Clint Eastwood, 1976. 135 minutes.
Produced by The Malpaso Company.

Hell Hath No Fury: The Making of The Outlaw Josey Wales, directed by Gary
Finlan, 1999. 30 minutes. Produced by Warner Home Video.

[1] Ebert, Roger. Review of 3:10 to Yuma, directed by James Mangold.


[2] Cawelti, James G. The Six Gun Mystique. (Bowling Green; Bowling Green University Popular Press, 1970) , 44.

[3] Cawelti, James G. The Six Gun Mystique. 46

[4] Rowlins, Peter C, ed. and O’Connor, John E, ed. Hollywood’s West. (Lexingon; University Press of Kentucky, 2005), 178

[5] Rowlins, Peter C, ed. and O’Connor, John E, ed. Hollywood’s West. (Lexingon; University Press of Kentucky, 2005), 176.

[6] Rowlins, Peter C, ed. and O’Connor, John E, ed. Hollywood’s West. 179

[7] Rowlins, Peter C, ed. and O’Connor, John E, ed. Hollywood’s West. 180

[8] Rowlins, Peter C, ed. and O’Connor, John E, ed. Hollywood’s West. 22

[9] Cawelti, James G. The Six Gun Mystique. 48

[10] Dirks, Tim. Review of High Noon, directed by Fred Zinneman. , 2007.

[11] Dirks, Tim. Review of High Noon, directed by Fred Zinneman., 2007.

[12] Cawelti, John G. The Six Gun-Mystique, 47

[13] Corkin, Stanley, Cowboys as Cold Warriors: The Western and U.S. History. (Philadelphia: Temple University Press. 2005.) 129-130

[14] Corkin, Stanley. Cowboys as Cold Warriors: The Western and U.S. History. 207-208

[15] Cawelti, John G. The Six Gun Mystique. 49

[16] Villarreal, Phil. Review of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, directed by John Ford. 1962. , published in the Arizona Star 2006

[17] Villarreal, Phil. Review of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.

[18] Rowlins, Peter C, ed. and O’Connor, John E, ed. Hollywood’s West. (Lexingon; University Press of Kentucky, 2005), 23

[19] Cawelti, John G. The Six-Gun Mystique. 2-3

[20] Hell Hath No Fury: The Making of The Outlaw Josey Wales, directed by Gary
Finlan, 1999. 30 minutes. Produced by Warner Home Video.

[21] Ebert, Roger. Review of The Outlaw Josey Wales, directed by Clint Eastwood. 1974. , 1976.

[22] Cawelti, John G. The Six-Gun Mystique. 46-47.

[23] Cawelti, John G. The Six Gun Mystique. 79

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