Not always a liberal hotbed: Hollywood’s ‘conservative’ cowboys

Not always a liberal hotbed: Hollywood’s ‘conservative’ cowboys

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Old Westerns are enjoying new fans among millennials. Perhaps the Western's celebration of American tradition beckons a new generation of converts.

John Wayne.
John Wayne. From PR still.

WASHINGTON, July 6, 2015 — Almost from its beginning as a center for American movie-making, Hollywood has been considered a hotbed of liberal or “leftist” political and cultural sentiment. In the genre of American Westerns, just the opposite has been true.

Most of Hollywood’s leading Western and cowboy actors have been politically conservative, and quite a few have been Southerners. It is well known that John Wayne was a conservative, strongly supporting United States forces in Vietnam and often supporting Republican candidates. Many other prominent Western actors were conservative or Republican.

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A short list of these would include Joel McCrea (a strong Goldwater and Reagan supporter, honored by the first President Bush); Randolph Scott (a staunch conservative and Reagan supporter from Charlotte, N.C., who attended the 1964 Republican Convention as a Goldwater delegate); Audie Murphy (a Democrat, a Texan and a life member of the NRA); Roy Rogers and Gene Autry (both conservative Christians); Charlton Heston (a former president of the NRA); Ronald Reagan, Glenn Ford, Jimmy Stewart ( the latter a regular contributor to the political campaigns of Sen. Jesse Helms); Ben Johnson (who refused to act in Peter Bogdanovich’s “The Last Picture Show” until nudity and bad language were removed); Gary Cooper (a convert to the Catholic Church who supported Richard Nixon in 1960); George “Gabby” Hayes (a John Bircher, and the quintessential cowboy sidekick, whose famous full beard and tattered hat identified him for several generations of Western-watchers); and Walter Brennan (a three-time Academy Award winner whose conservatism led him to co-chair the California state campaign for George Wallace in 1968).

There were many others during the heyday of the the American Western film, dating from the 1930s until the mid-1960s.

In more recent years, such noted actors as Clint Eastwood, Robert Duvall, Tom Selleck (another past member of the NRA), Sam Elliot and Kevin Sorbo have continued the rightward tendencies present among actors who act in Westerns.

Various reasons have been given for the prevalence of conservative actors in westerns, an industry that otherwise leans strongly to the left. The fact that many of these actors came from the traditional South or from rural areas may have had some influence. Few cowboys come from urban areas like New York, and if they came from California, it was an older California, one that was still capable of electing Ronald Reagan governor and a conservative like William Knowland to the United States Senate.

Most major studios from the 1930s to the 1950s maintained separate facilities, set away from major production centers, where Westerns were shot and produced. Western actors and, to some degree, their directors and producers, tended to be separated from other film-making activities. It was no accident that the great director John Ford (a Nixon supporter), when asked once what he did, responded, “I make Westerns.”

Of course, Ford made movies in other genres, but he is most widely known for his superb Westerns. He had his own “stock company” of veterans and regulars who showed up in picture after picture that he directed. His genius was in securing the very best in ensemble acting that was carried to perfection over and over again.

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Some of the smaller studios, especially Republic and Monogram (later Allied Artists) concentrated on the Western genre, turning out what are now commonly termed “B Westerns.” They featured a recurring star (perhaps with a sidekick), were about an hour in length, and normally appeared as part of a double bill.

All too often, film critics dismiss these B Westerns as “kiddie flicks.” But the truth is that many of these films were genuinely stylish, high level products. Thus, popular cowboy stars like Allan “Rocky” Lane, Gene Autry, Wild Bill Elliott and Roy Rogers ended up making Republic a real power player at the box-office. Johnny Mack Brown, Whip Wilson, Hoot Gibson, Bob Steele and Guy Madison did the same for Monogram/Allied Artists.

Other studios, like Columbia and RKO, produced numerous B Western series until the early 1950s, showcasing excellent actors like Charles Starrett (“The Durango Kid”) and Tim Holt, who appeared not only in John Huston’s acclaimed “Treasure of the Sierra Madre,” but also starred as a complex and troubled aristocrat in Orson Welles’ famous but ill-fated “Magnificent Ambersons.”

The end of the B Westerns did not end the popularity of the cowboy genre. In the 1950s, both Columbia and Universal-International continued releasing higher quality, longer films, usually in color, often spotlighting bigger-name actors like Audie Murphy, Randolph Scott or Joel McCrea. These studios relied on the Western as their bread-and-butter product when major features failed to make money. In most cases, there was a virtual segregation between Westerns and other fare, and in many instances the actors in these films consistently possessed very conservative political convictions.

The very nature of the Western sub-genre has had a significant influence in attracting certain types of actors to it. Westerns traditionally expressed the age old battle between “good vs. evil” in its purest form. Even in the more conflicted, morally blurred years spanning the later 1960s and the decade of the 1970s, the few Westerns that managed to get made seemed never to lose sight of that essential conflict.

Indeed, the paucity of films in the Western genre over the last 30 years is the clearest indication yet that the American Western film, as a clear-sighted vehicle for representing society’s conception of itself and its frontier past, has currently fallen on hard times. Heroes in white hats who conjure up an identification with a once boldly triumphant America, don’t offer Hollywood’s fashionably left-leaning studio tycoons, producers and directors the best medium for representing a morally confused, self-loathing 21st century America.

Yet the genre has never completely disappeared from the big screen. Relatively recent films like “Silverado,” “Wyatt Earp” and “Open Range” serve to illustrate the point.

The American Western also retains its hold on the small screen. The notable success of TV’s “Lonesome Dove” proves that there is life yet in this genre, and the Encore Westerns channel continues to be one of the most popular cable and satellite channels.

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Perhaps America still watches Westerns out of an earnest desire to see a world in which there are clear-cut moral choices. Western fans may wish to recover some of the bold American certainty that seems to have deserted our culture, a vision that still attracts new generations of viewers. Or it’s still possible that there’s a crying need to rediscover an American tradition that, while it may be partly mythic, remains “mythic” in very best and most honorable sense of that word, similar to those ancient, heroic poems of the Romans and the Greeks.

Indeed, did not John Ford have his newspaper editor tell Jimmy Stewart in “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance”: “This is the West, Sir; when myth becomes reality, print the myth”?

Perhaps it is the Western’s celebration of American tradition, along with its appealing and heroic mixture of truth and myth, that again beckons to a new generation of genre converts. Those who dare take a look back at some of the great cinematic works of our past will readily experience a rich artistic patrimony, vigorously portrayed by actors who largely believed in the principles their films convey.

(This article reprinted from April 2015)

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