I don’t usually watch too many Westerns. It’s not that I have a problem with the genre, and I have in fact seen some that I really like. I’m thinking specifically of Red River and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, although the latter is probably pushing it in qualifying as a Western. So why did I decide to watch Nick Ray’s Johnny Guitar? I like Joan Crawford, but I’ll pick Barbara Stanwyck over her any day. I’m not extremely familiar with Nick Ray—so it wasn’t him. I watched it because I, like many others, follow, what I like to call, the gay Hansel and Gretel trail. If you’re on it, you know what I’m talking about. Don’t get excited, Joan Crawford does not play a lesbian in this movie, unfortunately, but Nick Ray does do some really interesting things with the gender roles of the characters, especially the females.
Although the movie is named for Sterling Hayden’s character, the story really revolves around saloon girl turned saloon owner, Vienna, played by Joan Crawford. I’ll chock the ill-chosen title up to the fact that it’s 1954, and who wants to see a Western called Vienna? When we first meet Vienna she is standing at the top of a large stairway surveying her saloon and the men who work for. What’s somewhat shocking is her authority over these men and her outfit, which is almost identical to what the other cowboys are wearing (minus the hat). Her hair is short and her voice is low, even for Crawford. After she barks out a series of orders to the men below, one man looks to the other and says: “I never seen a woman that was more man. She thinks like one, acts like one. It sometimes makes me feel like I’m not.” Hmm, what year was this movie made again? But this is the West, and in Hollywood’s western frontier no rules apply; Ray has the ability to use this setting as a playground for bent gender roles. He’ll show his ability to do this in a contemporary setting a couple of movies from now (think Plato in Rebel Without a Cause).
Not too long after we are introduced to Vienna and her male posse, in storms Emma Small and her band of merry men, like a bat out of hell. Emma blames Vienna for a stage-coach robbery that resulted in the death of her brother, but in reality Emma wants to convict Vienna of anything that will get her out of town or killed. We’re supposed to believe that Emma’s hostility comes from the fact that Vienna has caught the eye of Emma’s love interest—Emma denies all of this of course. A true queer theorist would argue that Emma is actually in love with Vienna (or at least envious of her on a homoerotic level), and there is plenty to support that claim, especially the more we see how obsessed Emma is with hurting Vienna, who she always refers to as a tramp. I, however, don’t really favor this interpretation because there’s almost too much hate in Emma—this girl is just crazy.
I see this as a flaw in the movie in general; I found myself unable to understand Emma’s hatred and its plethora of poorly argued explanations let alone sympathize with her. I don’t do well with being given a character I can only write off as evil, and I feel like that’s all I can do with Emma. However, despite her failure as a significant and complex character (not helped by Mercedes McCambridge who insists on using one tone of voice in portraying this character: yelling), Emma does provide the audience with another less than conventional picture of the woman’s role. She, like Vienna, is able to manipulate, control, and lead a whole pack of men hopped up on ego and testosterone. Further on in the movie, when Vienna is about to be hanged, the only person “man enough” to kill her is Emma. She is able to get a fairly large group of men to convict Vienna of a crime of which they know she is not guilty. Both women exhibit tremendous power, but while Vienna is resilient, direct, and reasonable, Emma is more often forceful, manipulative, and cruel.
We are given two examples of female masculinity: one that is good and practical and the other which is extreme and violent. I use the word “masculinity” as it would have been applied to Vienna and Emma by the film’s audience in 1954, not necessarily as a term I would use to describe them.. What I do like about what Ray does is that he doesn’t condemn both of these women—just one (Emma who is killed by Crawford in the end). By doing this he shows his audience that an authoritative, strong, masculine female is not always a bad thing; it can even be good. To reinforce the good in Crawford we are given Emma to show us the bad. The problem with the effectiveness of the contrast between these two examples is that Emma is not complex enough to represent an actual person. I’m afraid most probably wrote her off as just evil, crazy, or both—as did I. While not ultimately sympathizing with Emma, I was still able to appreciate her power and force and see it as an extreme version of the same power Vienna possesses. Perhaps that is because I was paying attention to how she was represented as a woman. If you’re not really looking for that, it would be easy for Emma to not even register as a woman because from the beginning she’s painted as one thing: villain. I think it’s important to remember that she is a woman and to recognize the novelty of a movie that presents only atypical representations of women.
Having said that, I think the opposite could be said for the men in the film who are basically portrayed as complete stereotypes of men on the western frontier. The only thing atypical about them is their willingness to follow Vienna or Emma. All of the men who follow Emma are one dimensional, rowdy, and unthinking. They are like loaded guns—they just need someone to pull the trigger, enter Emma. None of these men particularly want to have a huge fight with the opposition, but Emma plays to their small ideas of bravery and honor causing them to lash out willing to kill whatever she wishes. There are brief moments where the men who are on Emma’s side use their reason and conscience instead of listening to her. This can be seen when they go to hang Vienna and they all refuse to kill her and at the end when they themselves stop fighting and let Vienna and Emma fight it out alone since it has been “their fight all along.” The men on Emma’s side are represented as the typical example of the dangers of a pack mentality.
Even the main male character, Johnny Guitar, brings little new or challenging to the audience. The only thing that makes him different from the other male characters is that he isn’t quick to shoot anything that moves, or so we think. It turns out this is just because he is trying to reform himself now that he has returned to Vienna. His “natural” instinct is to be “gun crazy” as Vienna calls it. Once again we have the man who is reformed or made virtuous because of a woman. I never do well with that idea because it implies that men are not or cannot be virtuous on their own andthat women are virtuous simply because they’re women. Clearly, both of those notions are absurd, and this movie doesn’t do very much to dispel that myth.
The only way Guitar is atypical is in the fact that he’s not threatened by Vienna’s authority or power. In fact, none of the men seem to have an issue with a woman being in a position of authority; I believe it’s only mentioned twice in the movie. Once when they are going to hang Vienna and they won’t because she’s a woman, and then once again when one of the men tells Emma she can’t ride with them to go after the other men. Emma not only rides with them but she “rides in front.” So, in this way the film does slightly bend the typical role of men by not portraying the men as threatened by the women. Normally I would heap a tremendous amount of praise on a film that does that, but the lack of complexity and depth in the male characters overshadows any subliminal message that these men aren’t threatened by strong women. The film gives an unfair and incomplete picture of Johnny Guitar and the other men on the western frontier..
Aside from the treatment of gender, there were many things about this movie I didn’t like. The plot in and of itself lacks intrigue, and we’re told the ending within 10 minutes of the film when Emma says, “I’m going to kill you” and Vienna replies “I know, but not if I kill you first.” Everyone knows that the only person that can kill Joan Crawford in a movie is Crawford herself. So, you basically know that the movie is going to end in a shoot-out in which Vienna kills Emma, and it does. Emma is shot and dramatically falls off a balcony just in time for Johnny Guitar to “be the hero” and kiss Vienna in front of a water-fall, reminding the audience that buried somewhere underneath all of the fighting and melodrama there is supposed to be a love story, whilst Peggy Lee does her best to convince us that this movie is, in fact, about Johnny Guitar.
The movie isn’t great on its own merits, but any bread crumb on the Hansel and Gretel trail is worth the time.