In 1939 the western saw something of a revival - with war brewing in Europe, Hollywood's thoughts turned to America's own heroic past and the nature of Americanism itself. Europe was dominated by dictators and Americans began to distrust the continent which it felt would eventually drag them into a war. Far better to celebrate America itself with its unique brand of self reliance, democracy and of course heaving bosoms.
Warner Brothers, the home of the swashbuckler placed Errol Flynn into a series of lavish and expensive westerns following the success of 1939's Dodge City. Warners also placed two of its biggest stars James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart (miscasting if ever there was any) in the oater, The Oklahoma Kid. During the early war years the western did well at the box office and when Howard Hughes cast Jane Russel in the dire but successful, The Outlaw (1943). It heralded the arrival of sex in the western. And this was continued in 1946 with Duel in the Sun, a film so infused with sweaty eroticism that one critic dubbed it, "Lust in the dust."
However to be fair on The Outlaw, I've always enjoyed it and still watch it from time to time. The storyline concerning Billy The Kid, Pat Garrett and Doc Holliday may be barking mad and the film itself ponderous , but it is so corny that it's highly watchable. And the advertising posters (as above) greatly exaggerated the amount of cleavage Jane Russel displayed in the picture. In fact the finished film is tamer than a standard Carry On movie. But what The Outlaw did was allow the western to tackle more adult themes than the simple good guys V bad guys motif of earlier oaters.
However the sex content was soon seen as a gimmick as the western in general became much more mature in theme. Without the westerns of the Forties paving the way we would never have seen the introspective classics of the Fifties. Perhaps one of the earliest westerns with any real significance was The Ox Bow Incident (1943) which was a sombre look at the effects of mob law. It became apparent that audiences were now demanding more depth from their westerns. No longer was it all black and white, as shades of grey, FIFTY SHADES IN FACT, coloured the celluloid holding our western dreams.
Westerns now displayed an interest in psychology and psychoanalysis - this was demonstrated in 1947's, Pursued, in which Robert Mitchum played a troubled loner who is dogged by a childhood trauma which is revealed to the viewer in a series of flashbacks. And by the end of the decade westerns heroes could no longer be the perfect square jawed men in white hats. In 1948 Howard Hawks gave us Red River which benefited from John Wayne's best performance to date and Wayne's character, Ted Dunson was something of a blueprint for the western anti-heroes of the next decade.
John Ford, arguably the finest ever American director of westerns, returned from his wartime service to enter one of his richest periods - his cavalry trilogy which ended the decade are among the finest westerns ever made. In 1946 he took the OK Corral legend and gave us a fine and complex movie in, My Darling Clementine. What the film lacked in historical accuracy it made up for with it sheer brilliance in storytelling and acting. The film introduced many of Ford's trademarks - the townsfolk gathering together to hold a square dance in their half built church is just one example of the importance of community that Ford was at pains to point out in all of his films and not just his westerns. It is an irony with Ford that although his westerns celebrated the freedom of the frontier they preached the importance of civilization. Later Ford would give us his three Calvary movies, Fort Apache, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and Rio Grande in 1948, 1949 and 1950 respectively . It is a sense of community and service to one's country that link the three movies and hold them together like glue.
As the Fifties dawned the western was changed forever and the coming years would see some of the best movies ever made - oaters that could hold themselves alongside the best of any other genre and it was during the Forties that this transition truly started. It may have all started out with a preoccupation with large breasts but it ended up looking much deeper.
Much deeper indeed.