Although Hollywood is now considered a monolithic bastion of leftist, “woke” political and cultural sentiment with almost no dissent tolerated, it was not always that way. Though Tinseltown was never a haven for conservative and traditionalist cinema, actors, and screenwriters, 60 years ago a person could still be on the right and have a career in movies without being subject to progressivist forces.
The subgenre of Westerns in particular—during its heyday on the big screen from the 1920s until the mid-1960s—was dominated by identifiably conservative actors. Various reasons have been adduced for the prevalence of conservatives in Westerns in an industry that otherwise leans strongly to the left, including the political and regional affiliations of its actors. Above all, Westerns attract conservatives because of the subgenre’s virtues, the fight of good versus evil it depicts, and the love of country displayed by its protagonists.
Most of Hollywood’s leading Western and cowboy actors have been politically conservative and came from the traditional South or rural areas. Few came from urban areas like New York, and if they came from California—it was an older California still capable of electing Ronald Reagan governor and sending right-wingers like “B-1 Bob” Dornan or John Schmitz to Congress.
It is well known that John Wayne, the lodestar of Westerns, was a conservative. He strongly supported United States forces in Vietnam, as seen in his film, The Green Berets, and often supported Republican candidates.
above: John Wayne in a publicity still from the 1961 film The Comancheros (Wikimedia Commons)
Many other prominent Western actors were also on the right. Joel McCrea heads the list as a Goldwater and Reagan supporter. Randolph Scott follows, a staunch conservative and Reagan supporter from Charlotte, N.C., who attended the 1964 Republican Convention as a Goldwater delegate. Audie Murphy and Charlton Heston, both prominent members of the National Rifle Association (NRA), and Roy Rogers and Gene Autry, both conservative Christians, also figure prominently in the hall of Western fame.
Storied names on the list include Jimmy Stewart, who contributed regularly to the political campaigns of Sen. Jesse Helms, and Gary Cooper, a convert to the Catholic Church who supported Nixon in 1960. The staunch conservatism of three-time Academy Award winner Walter Brennan led him to cochair the California state campaign for George Wallace in 1968. Chill Wills, the noted Western character actor, was the other California Wallace cochair in 1968. George “Gabby” Hayes, the quintessential cowboy sidekick, whose famous full beard and tattered hat identified him for several generations of Western-watchers, was a John Bircher. Ronald Reagan, Glenn Ford, Ward Bond, John Payne, and Ben Johnson—who refused to act in Peter Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show until nudity and bad language were removed—round out this list, although many others could be added.
In more recent times, such noted actors as Clint Eastwood, Robert Duvall, Tom Selleck—who joins Heston as a past president of the NRA—Sam Elliot, and Kevin Sorbo, have continued the rightward tendency among those acting in “oaters,” as Westerns were sometimes called.
Western actors and to some degree their directors and producers tended to be set apart. Most major studios from the 1930s to the 1950s maintained separate facilities for shooting and producing Westerns away from major production centers. Those actors who appeared in Westerns generally made this separation a habit, with directors such as John Ford, himself a Nixon and Goldwater conservative, using his own “stock company” of regulars who showed up in picture after picture.
above left: Director John Ford on the set of Stagecoach in 1939 (Wikimedia Commons)
Some of the smaller studios, especially Republic and Monogram (later Allied Artists) concentrated on the genre, turning out what are commonly termed “B Westerns.” They featured a recurring star, ran about an hour, and normally appeared on a double bill. These studios used the Western as their bread-and-butter when major features failed to make money. Film critics often dismiss B Westerns as “kiddie flicks,” but many were truly stylish, high-level products featuring the likes of Autry and Rogers.
The very nature of the Western has had a significant influence in attracting certain types of actors. Westerns traditionally expressed the purest form of good versus evil. Even the few Westerns made in the conflicted, morally blurred years of the late 1960s and 1970s never seemed to lose sight of that essential conflict. Indeed, the paucity of films in the genre during the last 30 years is the clearest indication that the Western as a clearsighted vehicle for representing society’s conception of itself and its frontier past has fallen on hard times. Heroes in white hats and a strong identification with a triumphant country, subduing all before it, don’t offer the best medium for representing the morally conflicted, self-loathing, 21st century America.
Sam Peckinpah’s classic film Ride the High Country symbolized what was happening to America, foreshadowing and warning of the cultural revolution of the late 1960s and the danger on the horizon.
It costarred two legendary veteran cowpokes, Randolph Scott and Joel McCrea, who played retired lawmen undertaking one final task: to travel up in the Sierras and bring down a shipment of freshly-mined gold. All along, Scott’s character, Gil Westrum, plans to take the gold for himself. On the return journey down the mountains he tries to convince his partner, Steve Judd (McCrea), to join him. For Judd, this assignment, this duty, has helped restore his selfrespect. When Westrum asks him if he doesn’t desire more, he responds: “All I want to do is enter my house justified.”
In the end when Judd is jumped by robbers, Westrum, who had gone on the lam, returns to assist his mortally wounded partner. When Westrum pledges to take care of everything just like he would have, Judd says, “Hell, I know that. I always did. You just forgot it for a while, that’s all.” Judd casts a final look back towards the magnificent high country of the Sierras, as if to look back at a better America, and then dies.
One month before Ride the High Country’s 1962 release in theaters, General Douglas MacArthur delivered his famous “Duty, Honor, Country” speech to the cadets at West Point. “Those three hallowed words reverently dictate what you ought to be, what you can be, what you will be,” MacArthur said. “They are your rallying points to build courage when courage seems to fail, to regain faith when there seems to be little cause for faith, to create hope when hope becomes forlorn.” Now, almost 60 years later, duty has been replaced by the never-ending clamor and incessant demand for “rights,” or, rather, insanity disguised as rights. Honor has become an outmoded concept; the country we once loved has been violently split apart by those who dominate our politics, our schools and colleges, and our entertainment.
The Western as a vehicle of explaining to ourselves who we were—and “remembering who we are,” to use Mel Bradford’s expression—no longer occupies the didactic role it once did. Boys no longer wish to grow up modeled on a straight-arrow Gene Autry or Hopalong Cassidy; they don’t even know who those two were. A hero-inspired “code of behavior?” Not in the age of reality TV or the perverse movies and shows that too many parents allow their children to view these days.
In 1974 the country vocal group, the Statler Brothers, released their single, “Whatever Happened to Randolph Scott?” Through its lyrics and music, they expressed the feelings of many Americans:
Everybody knows when you go to the show
You can’t take the kids along.
You’ve gotta read the paper and know the code
Of G, PG and R and X.
You gotta know what the movie’s about
Before you even go—
Tex Ritter’s gone and Disney’s dead,
The screen is filled with sex.
Whatever happened to Randolph Scott
Ridin’ the range alone?
Whatever happened to Gene and Tex
And Roy and Rex, the Durango Kid?
Whatever happened to Randolph Scott,
His horse, plain as can be?
Whatever happened to Randolph Scott
Has happened to the best of me.
More recently director Quentin Tarantino examines the virtual disappearance of the classic Western in his 2019 film, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Set in 1969 Hollywood, it follows the fading career of once-popular Western star Rick Dalton and his best friend and stunt double, Cliff Booth, who are forced to look for lesser roles in an industry that shunned the Western morality tales of the previous generation. Dalton and Booth struggle to navigate the ill effects of cultural upheaval, represented in the film by the Charles Manson cult, which radically changed the country.
Yet, the Western has never completely disappeared from the big screen. Silverado, Wyatt Earp, and Open Range illustrate that point. The success of TV’s “Lonesome Dove” proved that there is still life yet in the genre, and the Encore Westerns cable channel continues to be one of the most popular.
Perhaps it is the desire for clear-cut moral choices, the desire to recover some of the certainty that has departed from our culture, which attracts new generations to Westerns. Perhaps it is the need to rediscover an American past that, after all, may be partly mythic, but mythic in the very best and most honorable sense of that word. Indeed, as John Ford in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance had his newspaper editor tell Jimmy Stewart: “This is the West, Sir; when legend becomes fact, print the legend.”
Perhaps it is the Western’s celebration of American tradition, with its mixture of both truth and myth, which may beckon to a future generation of converts. Despite “cancel culture” and its terrifying destructiveness, those who dare look back at some of the great cinematic works of our past will see a rich artistic patrimony worthy of emulation, with actors who largely believed in the principles their films convey.
And then, like Steve Judd, may it be said of us by those in a saner age: “Hell… You just forgot it for a while, that’s all.”