The Weirdest Western: Johnny Guitar

When watching the 1001 movies list, it becomes obvious that some films are chosen specifically for their weirdness factor. Johnny Guitar is at the forefront of these… a western in which a couple of female gunslingers hate each other to the point of death while the men act like thinking adults in a reversal of the usual Hollywood trope. It’s memorable, but not necessarily successful as a film.

That’s not to say it isn’t entertaining. Though by no means a great film from any but a “diversity-first”, it’s still entertaining and tense, good enough to watch once without suffering through it. The action is well-paced, the villainess hateful (and believable) and the good guy utterly unremarkable. His laconic competence would have put even Shane to shame.

The thing that makes this movie watchable is that, despite the role reversal in which women play the part normally occupied by men in westerns, the movie isn’t about the role reversal per se, but about the utter hatred between two women. Unlike in Adam’s Rib, which was ruined by making the story about the role reversal, this one actually works as entertainment as opposed to eye-rolling political propaganda.

Audiences of the day apparently didn’t warm to this one, and it took a critical reevaluation for it to come into public notice, and I’m not surprised. More than the role reversal, I think it might be because the only truly likable character, Johnny Guitar himself, is not at the center of the conflict.

A final word about the reevaluation: like a lot of stuff being rescued from the trash heap of history lately, this one probably got reevaluated for the wrong reasons. Specifically, it is the only Western of the golden era in which the conflict is specifically between women. Does that make it worthy of canonization? Not in the least, but the reevaluators don’t care about that. Females in male roles are more important than ultimate quality when reevaluating for political reasons, and that is true in any genre… including film.

But don’t blame this one for the political excesses of modern fanatics. As a film, it’s decently entertaining and honest about what it wants to do. Both my wife and I enjoyed it, and we’re kind of reticent when it comes to westerns. If you haven’t seen it, it’s worth a watch (maybe just to say you’ve seen it), but don’t expect it to be Earth-shaking or significant. It isn’t.

Gustavo Bondoni’s latest book is a nice walk in the Russian wilderness. Except is isn’t very nice because some nutball released genetically modified dinosaurs into the woods, making it necessary to be surrounded by special forces soldiers if you want to survive. It’s called Test Site Horror and you can check it out here.

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