Stagecoach To Somewhere – Western Cinema – Johnny Guitar

‘The strict labour of the many must support the monotony of the useless.’

Not exactly a ringing endorsement of modern capitalism.    The quote comes from a poem written by Ben Maddow.  The poem is called ‘The City’.  Sixties beat poet Allen Ginsburg acknowledged that it influenced his own poem of protest ‘The Howl.’

Ben Maddow

Ben Maddow

Although it was credited to Philip Yordan, the script for the Western ‘Johnny Guitar’ was actually written by blacklisted writer Ben Maddow who, when not creating heartfelt anarchist didactic poetry, had a day job writing Hollywood screenplays.   Republic Pictures was a Hollywood studio that made cheap films.  Despite the myth, blacklisted writers were often kept busy in Hollywood.  They received no screen credit but they remained attractive to Hollywood producers because they could be paid lower non-union rates.   Ben Maddow would have tempted the Republic studio because he delivered scripts at the special blacklist price.

Few mention it but ‘Johnny Guitar’ produced a remake called ‘Once Upon A Time In The West’.  Perhaps that statement requires a liberal definition of the term remake but Claudia Cardinale plays a woman who owns a property that will make her rich when the railroad is built.  Others want the property and the conflict leads to violence and general bad behaviour.  This is the same situation as ‘Johnny Guitar’.   Sergio Leone, like Proust, was haunted by time and death, and this is apparent from his film.  He was also an obsessive stylist.  But the political message is clear, capitalism happens when the bad guys win.  And to make that point, Leone borrowed from  ‘Johnny Guitar’.

Nicholas Ray, the director of ‘Johnny Guitar was also a stylist.   The opening titles of ‘Johnny Guitar’ promise ‘Trucolor’ but we know immediately from the garish yellow letters on a blue background that this is a lie.  Critics and audiences have responded to the stylistic excess of the film.  Unlike ‘Once Johnny GuitarUpon A Time In The West’, the politics in ‘Johnny Guitar’ are often missed, sometimes deliberately.   The feminist emphasis has shaped the response of critics.  Joan Crawford, unlike Cardinale in the remake, is not only emancipated but also dominant.  The Dancing Kid and Johnny Guitar are two handsome rugged Western heroes but neither is a match for Vienna,.   But neither the feminism nor the stylisation should persuade us to forget the politics.  The name Vienna is deliberate.  Crawford is the threat from abroad that fuelled American right wing paranoia after the end of the Second World War.   McCarthy was a political thug but his message was clear.  Look at how those Europeans wasted millions of lives with their crazy ideas.

The left understood, though, that McCarthyism was not really rooted in justifiable paranoia but, like the neo-liberalism that lay in wait, it was an attempt to secure social and economic control.  The first scene between Vienna and the recently arrived Johnny Guitar and their antagonists is too long but Maddow is working hard to make clear the conflicts and consequence of capitalism.   Everybody in ‘Johnny Guitar’ talks to another human being as if they have no other existence besides that of being a rival.  The male lovers of Vienna are actually her sexual rivals.

‘How many men have you forgot?’ asks Johnny Guitar.

‘As many as the women you remember,’ says Vienna.

ViennaAnd in a world dominated by economic rivalry, the men are inevitably obsessed with their male sexual competitors.    The Dancing Kid and Guitar do not fight over Vienna but only because Vienna has the strength to control them.   The only relationship not based on rivalry is the loyalty of the consumptive Corrie to the Dancing Kid.  But Corrie is not meant for a world rooted in blind competition.  When alone, standing watch, he reads.   He is curious.  Emma, who is the rival of Vienna and the leader of the powerful who want to exclude all outsiders, is the opposite.  She never debates or argues and instead uses conversation to prove what she had already decided.

Of course, constant rivalry is unendurable and the script makes clear the consequence of never ending economic rivalry and hierarchy.

‘You’ve got to own everything.  You can’t stand to see anybody else live.’

And to what purpose other than distraction?

‘Keep the wheel spinning,’ says Vienna when the powerful and their gang arrive at her saloon.

The writing is uneven and the inadequate performances from some of the actors can be a distraction.  But when the dialogue is good it soars.   In the Leone film, we are told that Jill has inherited the ranch from a deceased husband to be.  Vienna has money but it is not explained how it was obtained.  She was a saloon girl who now owns the saloon.

‘You got lucky,’ says Johnny Guitar.

‘Luck had nothing to do with it,’ says Vienna.

‘I was trying to be polite,’ says Johnny Guitar.

Male double standards are easily dismissed by Vienna.  ‘It must be a great comfort to you to be a man.’

And the heroism that any western requires is not romanticised by Vienna.  With marvellous common sense, she offers a mature perspective beyond the posing of men.

‘We have done a lot of living.  Our problem is how to do a little more,’ says Vienna.

Yet, the feminism is not all gender adoring.  Emma is a psychopathic villain whose dominance over weak greedy men anticipates Thatcher, and the film hints at a question that is rarely explored in the history of McCarthyism.  Just what did the women do in the midst of this unsavoury bullying between men?   McCarthy was only defeated when he took on the men of the American Army, an institution that, in the Howard Hawks film ‘I Was A Male War Bride’, had already been attacked for introducing European bureaucracy to America.

Maddow identifies compassion as a difference between the right and left.  In a scene that recalls a real life incident in the Lincoln Country War, the ‘right’ set out to hang Vienna and young gang member Turkey.  Prior to this, Tom and Vienna have risked their lives to aid a wounded Turkey.   There are ‘sides’ and the decent support the damaged and the powerless.  But it does not mean that the left will always have sense and honour.  Tom and the Sheriff, who are intent on defending Vienna and Turkey from the mob, actually kill one another rather than their opponents.

The rebels or outsiders in ‘Johnny Guitar’ are the people McCarthy had in his sights.   Vienna has a Johnny Guitar dream of a rival town, the Dancing Kid thinks he can operate independently in the mountains with his hidden silver mine and Johnny Guitar is the artist and musician who begs rather than buys and hopes that he will sidestep the grubby commerce.  The men who work for Vienna have no loyalty to the hierarchy and are happy to work for a woman.   But together they do not make a self-sufficient alternative.   Johnny Guitar is vulnerable throughout.  Although Vienna is a good employer who pays her men well and treats them as partners it is clear from the looks on the faces of these workers that Maddow does not see industrial democracy as the solution to ‘the strict labour of the many’.     The Dancing Kid is unable to operate independently and becomes the thief his enemies allege him to be.  His actions, though, are complex.  He does not just want money.  He wants revenge.

‘I want this town to be so broke, they’ll never forget me.’

The Kid has changed from a free optimistic thinker to a destructive violent revolutionary.  After the Dancing Kid has decided to commit the robbery, we have a lyrical shot of him staring into the distant mountains.  This man is not a villain but a victim determined to confront destiny and shape what he hopes will be a decent dream.  Whatever his actions that follow, he will be superior to those in the mob, those with the ‘angry faces and evil mouths’.   Or, ‘A posse feels safe because it’s big.’

Vienna and Johnny Guitar survive but they do not win.  Without Emma, the McCarthy mob is tamer but it still exists.  Maddow does not imagine a utopia where the rebels will prevail but he offers hope that they can at least manage to maintain their distance.  The final shot has Vienna and Guitar embracing in front of a spiritually cleansing waterfall.  Love has triumphed over their previous need for power and success.  So although there are sides in the fight for freedom there is also another battle, one that exists in all of us.

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  1. A well written piece with a beautiful piece of music at the end to accompany it. Very interesting about the film, the remake, and the elements within the movie. Great writing and great information.

  2. Yet another very informative and revealing piece about a film I have watched several times. I had not thought about the relationship with ‘Once Upon A Time In The West’ nor to such an extent, the political overtones and issues around the blacklisting of writers.
    Peggy Lee’s rendition of Johnny Guitar is just superb.

  3. There’s also a whole other LGBT subtext to the film, which is what I’ve always heard before. Joan Crawford’s crossdressing and other sexual role reversals play into it; I can’t remember exactly what the theories are because it’s been a long time since college. 🙂

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