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The Western  
 
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Many of the great movie Westerns focus on intense relationships between men. One of the best examples is The Big Sky (1952), starring Kirk Douglas and Dewey Martin, directed by Howard Hawks, who had a particular sensitivity for depicting affectionate male bonds, especially in all-male group situations (as in his great World War II film, Air Force, of 1943).

Set in the early 1830s, The Big Sky presents Douglas and Martin as Kentucky backwoodsmen who become inseparable pals, sharing drinking, fights, imprisonment, and other adventures, and who lead a fur-trading expedition up the Missouri by keelboat to do business with the Blackfoot and to return Teal Eye, an Indian princess, to her father. Amid the scenery of the Grand Tetons, the film presents their struggles with river pirates and hostile Crow warriors, through which they are sustained by their camaraderie and mutual commitment.

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But of course their bond cannot last, and eventually the developing rivalry between them over Teal Eye is resolved when the Martin character marries her. Still, much of the film concentrates on the playful masculine affection of the two male leads, both of whom are young and athletic and flatteringly attired in frontiersman costumes. Martin sports an especially memorable pair of leather pants.

Sometimes the strong connections between comrades in Westerns are presented as involving rivalry and violence, which, it is suggested, masks, or may even be a reaction against, affection. With his gruff, blustering presence, John Wayne was adept at conveying this sort of harsh, clumsy masculine commitment to other men.

Perhaps the most striking example is Hawks's Red River (1948). Wayne plays Tom Dunson, a combative rancher leading a cattle drive with his adopted son, Matthew Garth (Montgomery Clift), whom the Wayne character has raised in a kind of male family with his friend and cook Groot Nadine (Walter Brennan). Accompanying them is the Clift character's young friend, Cherry Valance (John Ireland).

The dangerous journey on the Chisholm Trail leads to constant conflict between the men, culminating in a final fist fight between Wayne and Clift. As they are watched by the woman they have met along their journey (Joanne Dru), she shouts to them to stop fighting because they "know [they] love each other."

Though they are not related by blood, the intensity of feeling between the characters played by Wayne and Clift is permissible since their relationship is constructed as approximating one between father and son. However, the homoerotic aspects of this strongly homosocial film are underscored by an amazing scene in which Clift and Ireland playfully take out their phallic six-guns and compare and admire their beauty and size.

A strong homosocial quality similar to that in Red River is evident in the cavalry films John Wayne made with John Ford at about the same time, such as Fort Apache (1948), She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949), and Rio Grande (1950), where it is clear that, though Wayne's characters are demanding toward the men under him, it is because they are completely devoted to them.

The same pattern is evident in Wayne's role as Ethan Edwards in what may be his best film, The Searchers (directed by John Ford, 1956), in which he constantly baits and argues with his handsome young part-Cherokee ally, Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter), even as he becomes increasingly committed to looking out for him. This "tough love" aspect of Wayne's persona in relationship to other men in fact may be one of the reasons for his wide and continuing popularity, though certainly few fans of the Duke would admit it.

The character actor Walter Brennan made a career for himself playing sidekicks, appearing in numerous Westerns and other genres as the main male character's grizzled, garrulous, but devoted pal. In addition to Red River, he plays such roles in Anthony Mann's The Far Country (1955), accompanying James Stewart in the adventures involved in bringing a cattle herd to Alaska, and in Howard Hawks's Rio Bravo (1959), where he sides with sheriff John Wayne against a cattle baron. Though the relationships of Brennan's characters with other men often were presented as intimate companionships involving friendly teasing, playful arguments, and mutual sacrifice, his age and comic cantankerousness always served to reduce any suggestion of erotic attraction with younger, handsomer stars.

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