Rarely is a period picture solely about the era in which it takes place. For whatever reason, the current zeitgeist always manages to find its way into the movie. Particularly susceptible to this phenomenon is the Western. Given the pliable nature of the, many times, simple Western narrative, movies in this most American genre are less about the past and more about the mood of the current national psyche. Here are some notable examples of Westerns that live in the present. (Side note: I know that a lot of movies are missing from this list. Really, I wrote it to start a discussion. What are some other movies that belong here?)
High Noon (1952)
dir. Fred Zinnemann
This is perhaps the most famous instance of a Western symbolizing a current issue. High Noon was a direct response to the HUAC hearings of the late forties and early fifties. The film's screenwriter, Carl Foreman, was a victim of these hearings and decided to lash out at his fellow creative types who stood idly by while the Red Scare destroyed many careers. Gary Cooper plays Will Kane, a former Marshal who learns that a few criminals he put in jail years before are coming back to exact revenge. Although Kane protected the citizenry for years, these cowardly folk refuse to help him in his time of need. After he and his Quaker wife vanquish the enemy, he leaves town in disgust. So obvious was the political subtext that John Wayne labeled this movie un-American (although, honestly, it probably didn't take much for him to label something un-American). Years later he and Howard Hawks made a right wing response, Rio Bravo.
(Here is a clip of the cowardly citizens waiting for the outlaws to arrive.)
The Searchers (1956)
dir. John Ford
Made as the Civil Rights Movement was gaining momentum, The Searchers examines the issue of race relations. During this time it would have been box office suicide to deal head on with such a divisive issue, so it was dealt with here in a roundabout way, with Native Americans representing African Americans. John Wayne plays Ethan, a Civil War veteran who spends years searching for a niece kidnapped by Indians. Ethan is a man ruled by racism. Indeed, when he rescues his niece, it seems highly likely that he will kill her for being contaminated by them dirty redskins (this being a Hollywood movie, of course, he doesn't kill her). Although Ethan was intended as a complex hero, I have always viewed him as the villain in this movie. John Ford does make an effort to tackle the issue of racism but he does so from a white patriarchal point of view.
Forty Guns (1957)
dir. Sam Fuller
This postwar western deals with two issues of importance at the time: female empowerment and juvenile delinquency. Barbara Stanwyck plays Jessica Drummond, a woman who owns damn near everything in Tombstone, including 40 man whores (hence the title). Although she is a cold businesswoman, she has one soft spot: her no good teenage brother, Brock. Unfortunately, this rapscallion kills the brother of Jessica's newest boy toy, Griff, a former Marshal. Griff later kills Brock, wounding Jessica in the process. Jessica is reminiscent of Joan Crawford's titular character in Mildred Pierce. Yes she has become successful, but her affection for a blood relation threatens all that she has achieved. The moral of the story: kids are no damn good.
The Hired Hand (1971)
dir. Peter Fonda
Peter Fonda directs and stars in this long forgotten hippie western. After going on a spiritual pilgrimage for seven years with Arch (Warren motherfuckin' Oates), Harry (Fonda) decides to go back home to his wife Hannah (Verna Bloom). After reuniting with Hannah, Harry discovers to his dismay that she has had many lovers in the intervening years. She has needs too, damnit. The Hired Hand also has a revenge plot line thrown in to give it a more Western feel. Although the movie has sporadic action it is more concerned with the relationship drama and with studying the newly defined sexual politics.
The Cowboys (1972)
dir. Mark Rydell
This movie is the reason I wrote this post. The Cowboys also approaches the hippie subject, but from the opposite side. Honestly, although this movie is virulently anti hippie, it's hard to figure out where it stands on the political spectrum. The Cowboys centers around Wil Anderson (John Wayne) and a group of adolescents he has hired to help him drive cattle across the country. The group that John Wayne gathers is one of the most multicultural groups seen in a Western. It almost seems as though the makers of this movie were trying to mask some of The Cowboys' conservative politics by showing that racially, they were pretty cool. The Duke's posse eventually runs afoul of an evil hippie cowboy played magnificently by Bruce Dern (In the credits, Dern's character is listed only as long hair). After Dern shoots Anderson in the back (wow, what a bastard) it is up to the kids to exact revenge on Dern's huge posse. In its idealistic vision of a group of kids drafted into a faux military service, this movie has been seen by some as a pro-Vietnam War flick. Interestingly, Mark Rydell, the film's director, was reluctant to hire Wayne, whose conservative views he detested. Who knows what the real intentions were. There is no denying, however, that it is a product of its time.