30 Great Westerns
The Man From Laramie

James Stewart surveys the charred remains of his wagons in The Man From Laramie.

Anthony Mann’s westerns concern coming to grips with obsessive revenge and understanding crises in male identity.

In the earlier Winchester 73 (1950), James Stewart tracks down and kills his brother for murdering their father. In The Naked Spur (1953), bounty-hunter Stewart hunts down wife-killer Robert Ryan but finds revenge is hollow. He still obsesses, unable to let go of the past. The body of Ryan becomes a metaphor for the unconscious mind. Through the pleading love of Janet Leigh, Stewart sets Ryan’s body adrift in the river, forgoing his bounty. In The Man from Laramie an obsessive Stewart tries to find the men responsible for the death of his brother, a lieutenant in the US Cavalry who was massacred by Apaches toting repeating rifles. And when he finds the killer, Stewart is unable to act.

Stewart’s obsessed heroes are always on edge. Unlike John Wayne who exuded a western machismo of invulnerability, Stewart’s characters had their moments of doubt, mental anguish, and vulnerability. In Winchester 73, Stewart loses control, his face rippling into a series of uncontrolled paroxysms as he twists Dan Duryea’s head against a bar counter. In The Man From Laramie, Captain Lockhart (Stewart) is captured by Dave Waggoman (Alex Nicol) and shot in his shooting hand. He writhes in pain. "Why you scum," he cries, and then he rides away wounded and defeated.

The Man from Laramie traverses the same thematic ground of bad fathers found in Red River. Mr. Waggoman (played with forthright dignity by Donald Crisp) is physically and emotionally blind to what’s going on around him. He overvalues his son, Dave (Alex Nicol), and under appreciates his hired hand, Vic (Arthur Kennedy). He’s so oblivious to Vic that he fails to see that the figure who haunts his dreams lives under his roof. Dave, too, has issues of masculinity to work through. He wants to be as strong as his father, but he isn’t, and after Lockhart bests him in a gunfight, he stupidly wants to give all of the repeating rifles to the Apaches so that they’ll kill Lockhart and everyone at the Half-Moon Ranch. Dave doesn’t care that such action would place the people of Coronado in danger. Vic does care about the people of Coronado and that caring brings about a series of events that precipitate his demise. In trying to stop Dave’s bloodlust, he has to kill him. Portrayed with earnest hardship by Arthur Kennedy, Vic represents one of the most interesting bad-guys in westerns. Kennedy possesses the charm and dynamism of King Lear’s Edmund, the bastard son of Gloucester. He is a man, who without a birthright, lacks a legacy and wants one; however in trying to acquire a stake to Waggoman’s Barb Ranch, he only brings about further tragedy for all.

--by Grant Tracey