“I intend to be buried here—in the 20th century!” Joan Crawford proclaims near the beginning of Nicholas Ray’s 1954 Western, Johnny Guitar. It’s one of the first signs of the film’s radical, progressive agenda. Rather than being about the end of the Old West, it’s about the birth of the New West, about how the Manifest Destiny, instead of coinciding with feminism, essentially contributed to its rise. The railroad brings in settlers, settlers produce towns, and towns produce new societies in which the laconic drifter, the gunslinger, the man of the west, becomes just a face in the crowd. It’s interesting then that Johnny Guitar is not trying to debunk the mythical Old West hero, but rather to show that, whether or not he really did exist, there’s certainly no place for him in this new atmosphere where a woman can hold her own gun and her own place in the world.
Ray’s film gives us not one, but two such females. The first is Joan Crawford’s Vienna, a woman who once worked in a saloon as a prostitute, but now runs her own place and plans on hitting it big when the nearby railroad is completed. She’s got steely eyes, a face that looks like it was carved to intimidate, and an attitude that says no compromise. With a similar tough-as-nails temperament, Mercedes McCambridge plays Emma, who rails against Vienna because she thinks her saloon (and plan to establish a town around it) will make the nearby town obsolete. She’s also bitter because a stagecoach has been robbed, resulting in the murder of her brother. She blames it on the Dancin’ Kid, a handsome gunman who lingers around the territory in the hopes of winning Vienna’s love.
It’s this stagecoach robbery that the title character, Johnny (Sterling Hayden), encounters as he rides through the rocky terrain to Vienna’s saloon, where he’s been hired as a musician. However, he sees it from a distance and doesn’t bother to investigate because, as he later says when questioned by Emma and the town’s men, he only carries his guitar and doesn’t bother with a gun. Thus, the stagecoach robbery remains an ambiguous event. More importantly, though, Johnny’s entrance marks yet another key moment for the film’s sexual politics. He’s the lone drifter from classic Westerns, only now he’s a man of peace, disinterested in violence or any kind of conflict. And as in an earlier era when it was Vienna who was hired by the men, now it’s she who is hiring Johnny, indicating a reversal of roles.
That is not, however, to say that as the movie paints women as more masculine, that the men are shown to be in some way effeminate. Rather, they’re simply more passive, no longer the dominant force of the two sexes. There are three groups of men in the film, two of which are essentially under the control of Vienna and Emma respectively, and the third is the Dancin’ Kid and his gang of scoundrels. Vienna has several employees besides the recently hired Johnny, and they’re all readily at her command. The same can be said of the town’s men, who follow Emma around and allow themselves to be manipulated by her forceful power even though we get the sense they’d rather just be at home in their rocking chairs. The Dancin’ Kid and his gang represent the film’s attempt to put the tough, domineering, violent traditional Western male up against this new, compliant man. The result is, for the most part, that the old fashioned Western man doesn’t quite have a place in the world. We see this clearly through the character Turkey, a young idealistic wannabe gunslinger who serves as a kind of precursor to the Schofield Kid from Unforgiven. And as the world is growing more complex, we see the film’s most one-sided, old fashioned character, Bart Lonergan (Ernest Borgnine) struggle to keep up with a fast-changing America. A member of the Dancin’ Kid’s gang, he could be called the film’s villain, but his presence is more important because of just how out of place he seems. His character feels almost tacked on, like he’s a remnant from an older world clinging the ideas of power and authority he once knew and that are now fading away.
Yet all of these subversive ideas are simply a part of a whole when it comes to the movie itself. Ray’s film gained immediate notoriety for its portrayal of women, but its ever-growing legend has as much to do with just how much is going on in the movie besides the sexual politics. Consider, for example, the film’s look, the way rocky terrain of Arizona is juxtaposed with Vienna’s fancy saloon. Has there been a saloon in a Western that looks quite like this one? It has the typical characteristics-the bar, the piano, the gambling tables-but it’s the arrangement of these things that distinguishes this saloon from those of the Ford and Hawks Westerns. The piano is set off in a circular room, as if its there for private concerts rather than public rowdiness. The gambling tables are actually gambling tables like one would find in a casino, not just rough wooden platforms for men to play cards. The bar’s surface is smooth and polished, and the entire place looks clean and bright, as if an art designer had come in to give it a stylish update. Ray’s voice is heard clearly: things are changing.
It’s almost ironic, then, that Johnny Guitar is the title character because the movie is never really about him. In a John Ford Western, he would surely be the protagonist, and here it seems as if he is initially. After all, the movie opens with him riding through the mountains, which is an image the Western movie tradition has taught us means that this must be the story’s hero. But once he reaches the saloon, and Vienna appears, it suddenly becomes clear that she will be the dominant force, and that Ray is not just commenting on feminism but on the very nature of the Hollywood Western. The template, so often defined by black and white morality, is shattered here, such that at the end of the day there are no real heroes or villains in this movie. And while Vienna is the most likely protagonist, on paper it’s still hard to pinpoint who it is exactly. Plus, with the enormous cast, there are scene stealers abound:
Scott Brady is fantastic as the Dancin’ Kid, Borgnine as Lonergan, RoyalDano as Corey, an easy-going member of the Kid’s gang, and my personal favorite, John Carradine (patriarch of the Carradine family) playing Old Tom, Vienna’s quiet but staunch helping hand. He actually has what might be the best scene in the film:
When Vienna is sending her employees away because she’s been warned she has twenty-four hours to close down the saloon, Tom sticks around. “Nobody notices me,” he says. “I’m just part of the furniture.” He’s a sad but devoted man with low standards, and we instantly feel for him. Later, he sees a chance to be a hero and gets shot, and as he dies in Vienna’s arms, with several others standing over him, he says “Look…everybody’s looking at me. It’s the first time I ever felt important.” It’s one of the great enduring moments of the cinema, and the fact that it stems out of a character who only has a few minutes of screen time is a testament to Ray’s brilliance. Most films would either ignore this character or edit him out, but Ray treats him with the same reverence as he does for all his characters. That might just be why this mysterious movie holds up and continues to haunt and invigorate. In no way can it be narrowed down to an exact thing.