After witnessing a stagecoach robbery, Johnny Guitar (Sterling Hayden) enters an unnamed frontier town in the Old West to start his new job as guitar player in a saloon. The saloon keeper, a strong-willed woman called Vienna (Joan Crawford), is hated by the town’s populace due to her support for a railway being extended through the town. She believes it will bring new money to the region, but the population believe an influx of strangers will threaten their livelihoods. She also allows a suspected robber called The Dancin’ Kid (Scott Brady) and his gang to drink in her saloon, which draws the ire of the locals. The townsfolk suspect Vienna and The Dancin’ Kid to be responsible for the stagecoach robbery, and after a confrontation with a posse, led by a zealous local woman called Emma (Mercedes McCambridge) who is jealous of Vienna and The Kid’s relationship, it becomes clear that Johnny Guitar is in fact Johnny Logan, a famed gunslinger and Vienna’s former lover.
Later on, The Dancin’ Kid and his gang commit a bank robbery, for which Vienna is blamed for being the mastermind. With a posse on their trail, Vienna is caught hiding an injured gang member at the saloon, and Emma convinces the posse that Vienna must be hanged. At the last moment, she is saved by Johnny Guitar, and they flee in to the mountains, leading to a final shootout between Emma and Vienna.
On its release in 1954, Johnny Guitar left many American critics uninterested, while in Europe, and especially amongst the New Wave directors in France, who were already great champions of Nicholas Ray, the film was lauded as a masterpiece. Francois Truffaut ranked it amongst his favourite films, and Jean-Luc Godard was equally enamoured with its existential and social themes and Ray’s consistently pioneering filmmaking technique. A wonderful quote from a negative review that appeared in Variety on the film’s release uncannily sums up the two viewpoints,
“It proves [Crawford] should leave saddles and Levis to someone else and stick to city lights for a background. [The film] is only a fair piece of entertainment. [The scriptwriter] becomes so involved with character nuances and neuroses, all wrapped up in dialogue, that [the picture] never has a chance to rear up in the saddle…The people in the story never achieve much depth, this character shallowness being at odds with the pretentious attempt at analysis to which the script and direction devotes so much time.
In this, it is not hard to see why the French critics were so excited by Johnny Guitar. Complex characterisation, long, idiosyncratic dialogue, and exploration of motivations and philosophical themes, rejected by the reviewer as ‘nuances and neuroses’, were the bedrock of New Wave. And it is equally easy to see why American critics rejected it; the main gripe of the reviewer in this case seeming to be the lack of action, ‘rearing up in the saddle’, usually associated with Westerns, in favour of a more measured film interested in character exploration and wider themes.
It is true that Johnny Guitar utterly falls down as a Western, and would have left many American fans of the traditional Western bewildered. Truffaut called it a ‘phony Western’, and it is probably best to initially compare it to other Westerns of the time, and then to view it outside the form of a Western completely, as its themes are much wider than this usually narrowly defined genre.
Regarding the characters, Johnny himself is not a typical Western hero, and many aspects of him fail to live up to the typical male lead in a Western; although skilled with them, he eschews the use of guns, his dialogue is often philosophical and idiosyncratic, he is often reserved and stays in the background, and his general demeanour and outlook are of a relaxed quietness that seems quite alien to traditional Westerns. When compared to the archetypal Western hero typified in the 40s and 50s by John Wayne, gruff, tough, straight speaking, often selfish, but ultimately good, Johnny and his wandering dialogue and far less ‘manly’ gait seem out of place, and in turn make a John Wayne character look incredibly one-dimensional to the level of appearing similar to Hollywood’s later ‘one size fits all’ action movie stars. With John Wayne being the John McClane of the Wild West, Johnny Guitar seems more the literary existential loner than action star. And, again in opposition to the traditional Western, and to the vindication of the previously quoted American reviewer, while there are lots of guns, there is very little shooting.
The film is overwhelmingly existentialist in tone, and the events that unfold during the course of it often seem farcical, pointless, and, as Albert Camus would have claimed in his theory of the Absurd, cruel twists of fate in a world without meaning. Vienna is being forced out of business by the irrational fear of the townsfolk to the coming of the railroad, and is blamed, through a series a chances, for masterminding a robbery she had nothing to do with. By chance, she is present when the robbery takes place, and the young robber, Turkey, somehow ends up wounded on her saloon floor. When the posse turn up to search the saloon, she almost convinces them of her innocence until Turkey inadvertently reveals his hiding place under a table, and they are then led away to be hanged. And what led to Turkey arriving at Vienna’s in the first place? His injury, farcical to the last, is caused by his failing to duck when riding his horse under a large branch. A fate far too inglorious for most Westerns, it is reminiscent of Camus’ The Outsider, and the series of unfortunate events that Meursault is victim to that lead to his shooting of the Arab on the beach.
Adding to the sense that Johnny and Vienna are being persecuted by conditions and cruel chance rather than individuals is the presence of the posse, who appear throughout the film as an amorphous mass. Aside from the obvious individual of Emma, and a couple of others, such as the Marshall, the posse as a whole is anonymous, and this is emphasised by the uniformity of their appearance; they are almost all wearing exactly the same clothing, which Vienna makes reference to at one point as ‘funeral clothes’.
But the true personal conflict of the film is between Vienna and Emma, and it is interesting in itself that for a film whose title bears him name, the character of Johnny could almost be surplus. At times he appears weak when faced with these two strong characters, and the male characters as a whole are completely secondary to the two females, both Johnny and The Dancin’ Kid and his gang defer to Vienna, who is clearly the leader of the group, and the posse always seem unsure of what course of action to take unless instructed by Emma. It is jealousy of, and fear of what she represents that drives Emma’s relentless persecution of Vienna. While the rest of the posse are also opposed to Vienna and would obviously rather be rid of her, they are uneasy at condemning her for a crime they know she did not commit, and are reluctant to take her to the gallows, but do so anyway in the face of Emma’s psychotic urging. It is Emma’s zealous hatred of Vienna, in the face of a town otherwise reluctant to condemn her, that drives the film, and also throws up the obvious social aspects at stake.
It is unclear when Johnny Guitar is supposed to be set, but we can fairly safely assume that it is some time around the turn of the 20th century. The Old West is in its dying stages, and Emma and the townsfolk represent the hopeless struggle to defend their town from the march of modernity, represented perennially in the railroad, which will eventually render the frontier, and their old routines, broken. Emma and the posse can be seen as protectionists, economically, and in regards to their way of life. An interesting if more dramatic comparison to make would be to Spain in the mid-19th century, a steadily industrialising country that faced substantial opposition to modernisation that manifested in several civil wars known as the Carlist Wars. Finding their support base mainly among the ultra-conservative peasants of the mountainous northern Navarre region, the Carlists would march from the mountains, often led by priests, to attack the symbols of liberalism, secularism and modernity, often represented again, by train stations, which were attacked and burned to the ground at any opportunity. Another example of this resistance to the new world encroaching on the values of the Old West can be found in Paul Thomas Anderson’s 2007 film There Will Be Blood, where we see the resistance of farmers and townspeople to oil baron Daniel Plainview’s plans to build a pipeline to the Pacific Ocean, and their will is broken only by the extraordinary amounts of money he has to offer these struggling people for their land.
But, in true existentialist fashion, alongside these entirely rational themes there is, at its heart the irrational that would have appealed especially to European cinema and the New Wave; that good, protestant settler Emma’s hatred for Vienna, strong enough to want to kill her for no good reason, is partly fuelled by her love for The Dancin’ Kid, by all accounts an amoral criminal. It is this irrationality, farce, and the existential twists of fate at the heart of Johnny Guitar, and its complete disregard for the traditional Western, that led to its poor reception in America, and in turn also led to its hailing as a masterpiece, a ‘Beauty and the Beast of Westerns’, as Truffaut called it, by European cinema.