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The Western  
 
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Toward the end of the great phase of the Hollywood Western, Sam Peckinpah directed what many critics see as one of the best and most sophisticated meditations on male friendship in the genre, Ride the High Country (1962). Joel McCrea and Randolph Scott play two aging former lawmen, old friends, both retired and short of money, who join up again to escort a gold shipment through the Sierras. While the McCrea character sticks to his strong moral code, the Scott character is tempted to steal the gold.

They are accompanied on their journey by a young friend of Scott's (Ronald Starr), who is in on his plans, and then by a young woman (Mariette Hartley), who winds up needing their protection from a bunch of thugs. In the final shoot-out, the McCrea character is mortally wounded, but Scott, who regrets having been tempted to betray his friend and the code they lived by, assures him that he will see both the gold and the girl to safety. As in many Westerns, while women are significant, they are presented almost as a form of property to be protected, and the central issue is the bond, betrayal, and reconciliation of what amounts to a male couple.

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Ride the High Country marks the end of Randolph Scott's career, which had begun in the 1930s. Handsome in a way that seemed stalwart and unimpeachably American, Scott specialized in Westerns, especially after World War II. Perhaps some of Scott's sympathy for such roles came from his own experience of strong relationships between men: there is substantial evidence that Scott was the lover of actor Cary Grant for many years, though both eventually married and apparently led heterosexual lives.

One of the classic Westerns of the 1950s, George Stevens's Shane (1953), employs the theme of a boy's hero-worship of a mature man to stress the appeal of the idealized masculinity of its central character. The boy, Joey Starret (Brandon de Wilde), is in awe of Shane (Alan Ladd), a former gunfighter hired to help on his family's little farm. Shane seeks to leave his past behind, but to Joey he's far more impressive than his own father (Van Heflin), and this tension is emphasized by the suppressed attraction between Shane and Starret's wife (Jean Arthur).

When a cattle baron and his sinister hired gun (Jack Palance) seek to drive the homesteaders from their land, Shane prevents Starret from being killed, and ultimately defeats the threat to the family, but leaves in order not to threaten it himself with his desire for Starret's wife.

In the famous final scenes, as Shane rides away, little Joey calls over and over to him to come back. The perspective of the little boy on the contrast between the striking Alan Ladd and the ordinary-looking Van Heflin is subtly suggestive of the desire one male can feel for another, particularly to gay viewers who, as boys, may have sought to rationalize their developing feelings for men by explaining them to themselves as a sort of hero-worship, which is acceptable in a society that rejects physical attraction to other males.

Homoeroticism in Television Westerns

Many of the formulaic "B" Westerns and cowboy serials that Hollywood turned out in the 1930s and 1940s and many of the Western series on television in the 1950s and 1960s centered on a hero who commanded the unwavering support of a male ally. Some followed the pattern established by Cooper, and made the hero's sidekick a man of color, as in the hugely popular Lone Ranger television series (1949-1957), in which the Lone Ranger (Clayton Moore) was assisted by his loyal Indian friend, Tonto (Jay Silverheels).

Others, such as the television series Wild Bill Hickok (1951-1956), followed the model of Walter Brennan's film roles, giving the superbly handsome blond hero, Guy Madison, the companionship of the devoted but blundering, sometimes blubbering, Andy Devine, whose character's de-sexualized goofiness was emphasized by his name, Jingles B. Jones.

In the television series Cheyenne (1955-1963), as in many Westerns, the hero is a loner who has a series of adventures, sometimes rescuing women, but never becoming entangled. With his huge shoulders and arms, narrow waist, powerful legs, square jaw, and mane of black hair, Clint Walker was like one of Tom of Finland's muscle men come to life, though of course he played a character presented as the epitome of heterosexuality, despite his resolute independence from domesticity.

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