1. Shane (1953)

The 1949 novel Shane by Jack Shaefer has been translated in over 30 languages, and continues to be on reading lists for many school districts throughout the U.S. The book was brought to life by prolific, Academy Award winning director George Stevens, screenwriter A.B. Guthrie Jr. and Oscar-winning cinematographer Loyal Griggs.

Alan Ladd plays Shane, a mysterious cowboy who drifts into a western town on the brink of implosion. He finds out from rancher Joe Starrett and his wife, Marian that greedy cattle baron Rufus Ryker is trying to hustle people off their lands.
The settlers have legal claims through the Homestead Settlement Act, but all Ryker cares about is extending his property lines. Shane gets into it with Ryker and his men right from the beginning, and their contempt for each other culminates into a good ol' fashioned western brawl.
One of the more controversial - and often forgotten - aspect of this film is the concept of gun control, long before it was a topic of public debate. The little boy, Joe, worships Shane and his ability to work the gun. When Shane gives Joe a demonstration, a furious Marian makes him stop, telling him her son won't participate in such violence.
Shane points out that guns are a tool, similar to an axe or shovel. But Marian retorts that the entire valley would be a much better place if every man didn't have a gun. These are the same issues we're debating today as Americans, just as we debate the issues of mass greed and unchecked capitalism.
Another pivotal aspect of Shane is the cinematography, for which Loyal Griggs won the Academy Award in 1954. Griggs understood that the frontier landscape needs to be treated as another character in Western films and novels. The level of artistry and technicality he puts into the landscape shots is what truly sets Shane apart from other movies of this genre.


2. The Searchers (1956)

For me, this film is one of the reasons John Wayne has come to be synonymous with the West. The Searchers is based on the 1954 novel by Alan Le May, who also wrote another iconic Western novel - Unforgiven.
Between Wayne and renowned Western director, John Ford, you're pretty much guaranteed a hit film. Supporting actors Natalie Wood, Vera Miles and Ward Bond form a solid cast, especially under Ford's innovative direction.
In truth, The Searchers is one of the best American films, period. Furthermore, it's probably the first to have a "making-of" segment, because Ford was aware that the Vista Vision widescreen process used over the valleys of Utah and Arizona would go onto become some of the best landscape scenes in Hollywood history.
Along with top notch cinematography, the controversial story line exemplifies the violent, heart wrenching struggles of living in the West during the 1860s. Wayne plays Ethan, a middle-aged Civil War veteran who goes on a year long quest to find his niece, Debbie.
She and her sister, Lucy have been kidnapped after a massacre by the Comanche. The raw, primitive violence of the West is brought home in scenes such as Ethan finding Lucy after she's been brutally murdered.
In between the darkness, there are occasional moments of comic relief thanks to Captain Clayton, played by Ward Bond. One of the most memorable lines from the film is Captain Clayton's ""I figure on gettin' myself un-surrounded," when he and Ethan are caught in a trap.

3. The Hanging Tree (1959)

The ol' hanging tree, i.e, the lynching tree, was a common tool of frontier justice. In this adaptation of Dorothy M. Johnson's 1957 novel, the tree serves as a tool of redemption for Dr. Joseph Frail, played by Gary Cooper.
This Western is set in the gold fields of Montana during the 1860 and 70s. A stage coach is overturned during a robbery, killing everyone inside but Swiss immigrant Elizabeth Mahler. Frail moves her into the house next to his so that he can treat her burns and injuries.
The women in town near lose their minds over such an impropriety, and speculate on the immoral ways Elizabeth is paying back the doctor for her treatments. While nothing improper goes on, Elizabeth does fall in love with Frail. However, Frail rejects her because of his inability to love another woman after the death of his wife.
We're chilled, right along with Elizabeth, when Frail confesses that his wife was cheating on him with his brother. He becomes so enraged, he burns the house down with both of them inside. His guilt over the incident is something he is "not allowed to forget".
Elizabeth runs from Frail, determined to strike it rich in the gold fields so she can pay him back for her treatments, thereby cutting off all ties with him. However, she gives it all up in the end when Frail is about to be hanged by the townspeople for killing another man who was assaulting Elizabeth.
Her offer of all the gold, and even the deed to her claim site causes the lynch mob to disperse, and makes Frail realize that Elizabeth's love is unconditional. They are united in the end, making The Hanging Tree a touching love story, as well as a gritty Western.


4. Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954)

I know this is an unusual choice, since it's a musical. I should also disclose that it's technically based on a short story, rather than a novel. The story is The Sobbin' Women by Stephen Vincent Benét, who's actually best known for his Pulitzer Prize winning narrative poem, John Brown's Body.
As for why Seven Brothers is included in the Western genre, it's set in the Oregon Territory, for one thing. It takes place in 1850, about two years after the Territory was officially established. While it is a lighthearted musical, the song and dance numbers are generally about working on frontier tasks, such as raising barns and chopping wood.
In particular, the choreography in the barn raising sequence is unusually intense, in order to replicate the rousing, masculine energy of such an activity. In fact, male sensibilities as determined by social constructs of the West, plays a huge part in the film's controversial story line.
Initially, the women, who have all been kidnapped with the exception of the eldest brother's wife Millie, seem like the weaker group. But they band together and demand respect from the men, who are generally sloppy, selfish and irresponsible.
Millie, in particular, plays the strong matriarch who puts her foot down, even when her husband Adam walks out on her for the entire winter. The family pulls together when she finds out she's pregnant, and in turn, the men become more compassionate, helpful partners who are worthy of the women they've kidnapped.
In the end, the women have a chance to leave with the townspeople who've come to rescue them and hang the men for the kidnapping. The girls take charge once again, by taking advantage of Millie's crying baby. When the Reverend asks who's baby that is, the girls reply in unison, "Mine."
The movie ends with the wedding of all 6 brothers and their 6 brides, while the father of each girl stands behind the couples with a shotgun at the ready.

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