From the mid-1940s until the early 1990s, the Cold War affected nearly every aspect of American life. Although its effects are most frequently associated with political decisions and military operations, the Cold War impacted everyday culture as well. For our CYOU project, we chose to focus on a particular subset of American popular culture—the Western film—which played a major role in both shaping and reflecting sociopolitical attitudes about the Cold War. Using such films as The Gunfighter, High Noon, and Rio Bravo, we will explore how the themes of these movies reflected the culture of the time.
The Gunfighter, a Western released in 1950, demonstrates some of the values that close-knit societies across America clung to during the early years of the Cold War. The movie showcases community control and consensus, pointing to the need for authorities and townspeople to work together to produce the kind of community that lacks violence, danger and rebellion except in the face of opposition. A strong desire for a community to unite against a common cause manifests in the movie, but a desire for justice and due revenge also comes through, as people are wrongly accused and falsely praised. Cold War fears seep through as the people in the movie seek to maintain tight family relations and stable community relations without the penetration of outsiders. In the years to come, Westerns would continue to explore the themes of outsider power and the danger of foreign influence infiltrating communities adhering to a highly consensus-based way of life.
High Noon was released in 1952, just as the Red Scare was striking Hollywood and the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) was beginning its investigations of individuals in government, journalism, and entertainment. The movie, directed by Carl Foreman (a suspected communist himself), represents the paradox of the Red Scare and the HUAC trials: the investigations, meant to protect America and its freedoms from the perils of Communism, encroached on individuals’ basic freedoms and civil liberties by “witch hunting” suspected communists with little or no just cause. In addition to rebuking the actions of HUAC and other investigatory groups, High Noon also examines the issue of American foreign intervention. The actions of protagonist Will Kane (played by Gary Cooper) defending his town against a gang of bandits suggest an isolationist stance as the best way for America to balance the themes of self-determination and individualistic freedoms. While widely acclaimed as one of the best and most popular Western movies of its era, High Noon was actually a subtle criticism of the culture of consensus and American foreign intervention, spurring others within Hollywood to respond with their own cinematic representations of the time.
Later films such as Rio Bravo (1959) returned Americans to traditional values and emphasized individualism and perseverance in the face of adversity. John Wayne’s character Sheriff John Chance stands alone against a band of outlaws symbolizing the emerging idea that America was standing alone against communism. Not only does the plot of Rio Bravo emphasize these ideals, but the movie itself was a direct response to the perceived “un-American” nature of the earlier film, High Noon. Wayne, an active anti-communist, was willing to make films such as Rio Bravo that emphasized the importance of American ideals, democratic values and effective leaders. As the sheriff in Rio Bravo, Wayne plays the character of Sheriff Chance – a fearless leader, especially in contrast to Gary Cooper’s character in High Noon (who is continuously begging for help). We will explore how Wayne’s character in Rio Bravo reflects Wayne’s personal politics as an active President of the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals. The popularity of the Western genre at the time displays the prevalence of Cold War anxieties in American culture and also gives a visual sample of the political climate of the 1950s.
While often viewed as mere entertainment, 1950s Westerns such as The Gunfighter, High Noon, and Rio Bravo had broader implications, both critiquing and praising specific elements of the American Cold War psyche. From the culture of consensus to the communist “Red Scare,” these films represent how intensely sociopolitical attitudes of the era manifested themselves in everyday sources of entertainment.
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