Fans of the Western will say that trope simply proves the purity of the form: that it's a fable, a parable, a chivalric test of manhood. Whatever its historic validity, the notion of the big shootout kept Westerns going strong for the first 70 years of Hollywood cinema. It began with the first smash hit at the nickelodeons, The Great Train Robbery, and continued with Cecil B. De Mille's The Squaw Man and John Ford's The Iron Horse in the silent era. Cimarron, a generational tale from Edna Ferber, was declared Best Picture at the fourth Academy Awards convocation.
In the 30s and 40s Westerns were mostly a staple of B-minus movies. Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, Ken Maynard and others rode through hundreds of Saturday matinee sagebrush epics, and John Wayne made 50 or 60 of them before he became a star with the 1939 Stagecoach. That was Ford's first Western of that decade, and he made no more until My Darling Clementine in 1946, finally devoting his full attention to the genre in the mid-50s. By then it had become his calling card. "I'm John Ford," he'd announce. "I make Westerns."
In the post-war era, virtually every Hollywood director, from George Stevens and Fred Zinnemann on the A list, to Preston Sturges on the way down and Ed Wood who was never up, directed a Western. It was the new film noir you could call it the anti-noir, trading claustrophobic darkness for blinding light in the wide-open spaces. But it was also a continuation of noir's fascination with the haunted man, the ordinary guy who'd been scarred by violent experiences. It spoke to returning veterans from World War II, young men from cities and farms who'd been handed weapons and asked to clean up the wildest parts of Europe and the Pacific. They needed to believe that the mission they'd been sent on, and which took the lives of some of their comrades, had a moral meaning. Because Americans came back winners, they could accept that the good guy could win a gunfight.
The Western was by far the most prolific genre in the Hollywood 50s. It put virtually every big star in the saddle: old Hollywood types like Gable and James Stewart, younger rebels like Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas, Brando and most of the Stanislavski crowd from Broadway. Top actresses Stanwyck, Dietrich, Crawford, Monroe they all went West.
And it's wrong to think that Westerns were flights from Cold War reality or the political issues of the day. The form attracted serious young writers, like Gore Vidal, a graduate of TV's Golden Age of live drama, who wrote The Left-Handed Gun, a Billy the Kid film that one critic called "Freud on the Range." There were plenty of mature, psychologically complex Westerns. In the original 3:10 to Yuma, the career killer and decent farmer hole up in a hotel room and have an extended existentialist conversation like Sartre or Beckett, but at gunpoint. In Anthony Mann's Westerns with Stewart and Gary Cooper, a good man with a bad past would face his own demons. The final shootout was both a surge and a purge.
The form also dominated TV production, which had just shifted from New York to Hollywood, and from live to filmed entertainment. Out went the hour-long, Broadway-style dramas; in came the strutting gunman with a ornery streak of justice. In the 1958-59 season, six of the seven top-rated shows were Westerns. That's where the B-movie oaters went to live again, and where Clint Eastwood, Burt Reynolds and dozens of others stars-in-the-making came from. Steve McQueen, fresh from the Actors Studio, became a bounty hunter in Wanted: Dead or Alive. He moved to the big screen in The Magnificent Seven, which introduced a new generation of Western stars, including Yul Brynner, Charles Bronson and James Coburn. A good thing, since the previous generation of cowboys, from Wayne, Stewart and Cooper to Randolph Scott and Joel McCrea, were becoming so senior that, s Pauline Kael wrote, the only suspense in their Westerns was to see if they could still mount a horse.