The American Western of the 1950s
An Analysis of Cowboy Culture
against the Background of the Era
© Julia Weinmann
Broncho Billy, Billy the Kid, Buffalo Bill – there hardly seems to be anyone in the world who has never heard about the heroes of American Western culture. Nowadays, cowboys are considered to be the embodiment of freedom and independence. Whereas cowboys have existed for hundreds of years, however, their image has changed over the centuries. In the 18th and 19th century, ‘cow boys’ were considered bad guys as they were bandits who remorselessly ambushed colonial farmers. It was not until the period after the Civil War that the word cowboy attained a positive connotation, being associated with rough men on horses who herded cattle. In the course of time, the cowboy figure was glorified and became a symbol of the American spirit. A plague in the Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Wyoming summarizes the glorification as it reads:
“The cowboy is a mythic character in America. We admire him for his independence, his honesty, his modesty and courage. He represents the best in all Americans as he stares down evil and says, ‘When you call me that, smile’.”
When the motion picture was invented at the end of the 19th century, some of the first silent movies were documentations about cowboys, embodying the frontier spirit of the American culture, which has always been connected to the westward expansion of civilisation and the conquest of new unknown territories. Thus both the frontier and “the Western oppose[s] Wilderness to Civilization” as Will Wright puts it in his book Six Guns and Society.
Edwin Porter’s The Great Train Robbery came to be the first Western narrating a story and fascinated the audience. In the following years, Western movies were most popular among the audience and were consequently produced in large numbers. Still today, they rank among the most beloved movie genres. Although the movie genre Western did not always stay at the peak of success, however, the boom was revived on a large scale in the 1950s.
In this paper, I will try to reveal the fascination implicated in Western movies and analyse the figure of the cowboy against the background of the 1950s. In doing so, I will include the investigation of gender roles and the effects Westerns had on society. Casually, I will also draw on the popular TV Western series Gunsmoke which ought to serve as a demonstrative example.
As far as the movie genre Western is concerned, the era of the 1950s was shaped by radical changes. First of all, although some Westerns had not treated the Indian as an enemy before, many Westerns were now pro-Indian and even showed large numbers of villainous whites. Westerns both expressed a new understanding of American culture and conveyed a growing interest in history. Moreover, the “deluxe Western was in fine shape”, which means that producers and directors both pursued commercial interests and shot Westerns artistically. Opposed to the triumph of these so-called ‘A’-movies, the success of the ‘B’-movies, that were produced by independent companies with smaller budgets, declined. Whereas also horse operas in movie theaters waned, there was an explosion of cowboy shows, movies and series on television. The fifties pioneered the most famous Western TV series of all times, that is Gunsmoke. Being broadcast from 1955 until 1975, it was TV’s longest running Western show. The series ranked first for many years in the fifties and made Matt Dillon become a Western hero.
 http://www.bbhc.org; http://www.handcolor.com/features/articles/cowboy.asp
 Wright, Will: Six guns and society – a structural study of the Western; Berkeley; University of California Press 1975, p. 7
 Everson, William: A pictorial history of the western film; Secaucus, N.J.; Citadel Press 1969, p. 201
 Ibid. p. 208