‘JOHNNY GUITAR’: A WESTERN DREAM

Editor’s Note: an earlier version of this essay first appeared at Cinepunx.com

A long time ago, Francois Truffaut, maker of fancy French films, thought this little American Western called Johnny Guitar had such grace that he denoted it “a Western dream,” and compared its visual luxury to a well-known fancy French movie of the time, Beauty and the Beast. Even just looking at stills from Johnny Guitar, it’s easy to see why: Joan Crawford, both beautiful and handsome (in the way they used to refer to ladies), standing tall in glorious “Trucolor.” This film comes from an era when motion pictures were truly magnificent on a grand scale; every image fills the eye with color and wonder, from the mountain scenery to the indoor set design to the sharp-but-simple Western costuming. Released in 1954, this is the 13th picture by celebrated director Nicholas Ray, known primarily for his noir-ish work in the late 1940s and ‘50s with films like They Live By Night and In A Lonely Place. While Johnny Guitar isn’t noir at all, it fits into the same “let’s get swept up into this world and learn all its secrets” category as just about any noir picture, which is surely helped along by the film’s bold colors, poetic dialogue, and theatrical qualities. 

Joan Crawford plays Vienna, a businesswoman and entrepreneur, who owns her own casino saloon on the outskirts of town. The first several minutes establish Vienna’s character; we see a lone man on a horse arrive at her casino carrying a guitar (could this be the titular Johnny Guitar? You bet it is!). As he’s waiting for his appointment with the boss lady, the men working the tables and behind the bar describe her: “I’ve never seen a woman who acts more like a man. She thinks like one, acts like one, and sometimes makes me feel like I’m not,” the blackjack dealer says. Vienna may be what you call “tough but fair,” but she treats the fellas who work for her well enough for them to remain very loyal to her. John Carradine has a supporting role as the casino’s cook, Tom, and in one of his early lines, he states, “I never believed I’d end my years working for a woman…and liking it.” This is a story set in the 1890s, seen through the lens of the 1950s, and while today we might expect more from a so-called “strong female character” than to be comparable in nature to a man, this description of Vienna is apt for its time. She is painted as the confident, wise, and powerful woman that she is. But in its day, the film was not very well received by American critics and audiences; almost as if they didn’t know what to do with it. Crawford received criticism for downplaying her femininity (one New York Times critic referred to her as “sexless” and “romantically forbidding”), and Variety called the film “shallow” and “pretentious.” All of which seems absurd. The criticism on Crawford is especially irksome because she plays the character with both a doe-eyed sentimentality and fierce determination that pretty much exemplifies an idealized vision of womanhood. To each his own, though, 1950s Movie Critic.

Oftentimes the “depth” of a Western film is sneaky. Horror fans are quick to pronounce their favorite genre as the leader in hidden subtext, but we can’t discount the true value of a well-written Western. Westerns reflect on the American experience and attempt to teach us what we did (or, are doing) wrong, although the lessons and values presented may be subjective. The sneaky part is even though the squabbles between the traditional Black Hats and White Hats seem simplistic, usually hidden meanings and allegories lie beyond all the horse stunts and gunfire. Johnny Guitar is no exception: the obvious theme is women have always struggled to fight the bias against them when it comes to independence. It’s a major theme tying to the many times in history in which a fiasco came about from people simply being afraid of their neighbors, from the 17th-century witch-hunting of New England to the witch-hunting of Senator McCarthy in the 1950s. Early on, Vienna is visited in her casino by a gang of townsfolk who are dead set on arresting her and some of her men for a stagecoach robbery and murder that had just taken place. There is no evidence beyond the circumstantial that she or any of her crew had anything to do with those crimes, and even then, the circumstantial is a bit iffy. Yet, the townspeople are convinced they are guilty, and, led by one particularly pushy woman, Emma (Mercedes McCambridge), the town really gangs up on the group. Emma thinks Vienna is a tramp (the exact line is, “You’re nothing but a railroad tramp, you’re not fit to live among decent people!”), and that her friends are trash, and for that reason alone, she wants them hanged. 

But there’s more to this situation than a simple witch-hunt. The town isn’t only afraid of Vienna holding her own, they’re afraid of what the future might hold. See, Vienna is working on a deal with a railroad developer to build a train depot on her land, which will surely bring much business to her casino. But the townsfolk think everything is fine just the way it is; that if strangers start invading the town via the railroad, the peace in their little borough will be broken. So, they fight. “You’ll never see a train run through!” Emma declares in one scene. It’s an isolationist viewpoint compounded by a fear of progress, which shows just how universal and timeless of an experience this is in America. Not wanting the railroad to come to town might as well be the 1890s version of a border wall. People often say they wish they could go back to a “simpler time,” but what they neglect to think about is that no time was ever simple. Every era had its complexities and nuances; every era had something for someone to be mad about. But it’s that desire for a “simple life” that motivates these characters in Johnny Guitar; they just want things to be familiar and, in a way, uniform. So of course, Vienna scares them. The railroad scares them. They both symbolize their worst fear: to be shaken up and have to deal with the reality of a changing time. Vienna fires out this idea in a short diatribe addressing Emma and the rest of the townsfolk: “You and McIvers own the whole town and every head of beef for 500 miles. But that isn’t enough, is it? You’ve got to own everything! You can’t stand to see anybody else live! Well, you’re going to. You’re going to see a whole new town. Right where you’re standing! A town you don’t own! Railroad sending in people by tens, twenties, hundreds, and thousands! You can’t keep them all out!” It’s one of the most righteous moments Vienna has, and one we all can be proud of her for.

There’s no need to give away any more of the plot, but please understand Johnny Guitar is an adventure that appeals to just about every emotion and remains effective to this day. There’s a love story, a love triangle, a double-cross, a lynching, and a harrowing escape — just to name a few. Supporting players include the aforementioned Carradine, Royal Dano, and Ernest Borgnine. Johnny Guitar himself is played by Sterling Hayden (who, coincidentally, was briefly a member of the Communist Party and “named names” during the Red Scare), and although the film is named after him, his role merely serves as motivation for the inarguable star of the show, Crawford’s Vienna. You know you have something special when everything about a film screams “classic Hollywood” while confusing its audience by confronting expectations of the time.

★★★

Thanks for joining us for WESTERN WEEK! Take a look at yesterday’s entry THE WESTERN WITH A PARTICIPATION TROPHY: ‘THE QUICK AND THE DEAD’