Culture | High noon in Hollywood

Surprisingly subversive acid-Western Johnny Guitar

So far in Forays Into Film, and my life, I’ve trashed mainstream cinema pretty heavily. I snored at The King’s Speech and The Artist, cleaned Quentin Tarantino’s clock, and after the Academy Awards, I nearly castrated Oscar.

While this is a pretty accurate reflection of my views on film, I can’t help feeling like I’m being a tad unfair. After all, out of the tens of thousands of Hollywood films out there, there must be one or two good ones, right?

These suspicions were confirmed last week after I found a copy of Johnny Guitar, a 1954 Hollywood Western that I’d been hankering to get my hands on. I had read that before he went on to direct Rebel Without A Cause, Nicholas Ray had managed to slip some genuine subversion past the American Motion Picture Production Code censors in the guise of this generic cowboy flick. Last week, two years after I first started searching, the film finally cropped up in the library catalog, and was even more unique than I had expected.

The subject of the film is Vienna, played by Joan Crawford, a tough-as-fuck saloon owner who’s as comfortable in an evening gown as she is in jeans and gun holsters. The story begins when Vienna’s former lover Johnny Guitar, played by Sterling Hayden, rides up to her saloon after a five-year absence. Shortly after their reunion, however, a murder is committed on the outskirts of town. The murdered man’s villainous sister Emma is desperate to pin the crime on Vienna and a group of her friends, all of whom are innocent. Vienna and Johnny are forced to fight it out with Emma and a posse of townsfolk, first with rhetoric and then with pistols.

Despite the film’s title, Vienna is clearly the star of the show, with more lines and screen time than any other character. A commanding, heavily masculinized female character like Vienna would be uncommon in any genre of that era, but was completely unheard of as the lead in a Western. While the 1960s and 1970s were full of disruptive, challenging Westerns, the all-American genre was at its all-American height in 1954, and initial reviews trashed Crawford as sexless and romantically forbidding, telling her to leave the saddles and Levi’s for someone else.

As well as taking a badass gun-toting woman for its lead, Johnny Guitar powerfully condemns the repression and persecution of the McCarthy era. It subtly suggests that the reason Emma wants Vienna hanged is not for her brother’s murder, or even plain bloodlust, but homoerotic lust, a desire Emma is unable to name and therefore must destroy.

More striking is the film’s allegorical denunciation of the McCarthy witch hunts, as the villainous mob that falsely accuses Vienna quickly becomes a stand-in for anti-communist hysteria. The posse, clad  in black, vividly resemble a mob of puritan witch hunters, and they use the very same interrogation techniques that the House of Investigation of Un-American Activities (HUAC) used to identify Communists in the film industry. Emma promises Vienna’s friend Turkey that if he testifies that Vienna is guilty, he will go free, mirroring the way in which members of the film industry were intimidated into naming names.

The real-life identities of Ward Bond, who plays the sheriff that legitimizes the posse, and Hayden, bring an unnerving realism to the allegorical content. Bond had been active in the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals, the main purpose of which was to fight communism in the film industry. Hayden, on the other hand, was briefly involved in the Communist Party, and as a result was grey-listed and then subpoenaed by HUAC, and forced, like Vienna’s companion, to name names.

Despite the initial negative reviews and challenging content, the film opened to great success at the box office. Pretty soon the snooty film folk caught on, and François Truffaut was hailing it as an “intellectual Western,” a “delirious, hallucinatory Western,” and a “triumph of the heart.” Despite its Hollywood home, Johnny Guitar manages to be a bizarre dissident of a Western, a refreshing piece of proof that films can be both subversive and extremely entertaining.

Lilya Hassall is a U3 Cultural Studies student. Forays Into Film is a bi-weekly column about alternative films. Email her at