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6 Classic Westerns Starring James Stewart

A List of Movies that Forever Changed the Actor's Image


James Stewart has long been remembered for his work with Alfred Hitchcock and Frank Capra. Whether it was his heartwarming performance as the down-and-out George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life or the snooping photojournalist L.B. Jeffries in Rear Window, Stewart has ingrained his image as an idealistic Everyman into generations of movie fans.

But in the 1950s, Stewart starred in a number of Westerns that cast him as a morally ambiguous loner with a dark past and questionable motives. His work during this time, especially with director Anthony Mann, forever altered his public persona and allowed him to branch out into different directions.

Though not as identifiable with the genre as John Wayne or Clint Eastwood, Stewart’s Westerns rank among the best work of his career. Here is a list of six must-see James Stewart Westerns.

1. ‘Destry Rides Again’ – 1939

Universal Studios Home Entertainment
Stewart made his first Western in 1939 and starred opposite German starlet Marlene Dietrich as the son of a legendary frontier peacekeeper who’s determined to uphold the law without using a gun. Of course, his refusal to strap on a six-shooter earns him the ridicule of the townsfolk, but he eventually earns their respect as well as the love Dietrich's doomed saloon singer, Frenchy. A popular movie with the critics and audiences, Destry Rides Again offered Stewart the chance to break from his Capra-esque image, though he wouldn’t return to the genre for over a decade.
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2. ‘Bend in the River’ – 1952

Universal Studios Home Entertainment
With 1950’s Winchester ‘73, Stewart returned to making Westerns and began a fruitful collaboration with director Anthony Mann that resulted in five great films. Their partnership continued with this 1952 classic, where Stewart played a former outlaw turned scout for a wagon train. He runs into trouble with a former partner-in-crime (Arthur Kennedy) by way of a scam involving a shipment of stolen goods and the kidnapped daughter (Julie Adams) of a farmer. Stewart played a character whose motives remained murky right up until the end - a sharp contrast to the George Baileys and Jefferson Smiths he played in the past - and laid out a path he would follow for the rest of the decade.
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3. ‘The Naked Spur’ – 1953

Universal Studios Home Entertainment
Stewart and Mann partnered again for this edgy Western, where the actor deftly played a former frontiersman turned bounty hunter struggling between morality and survival, as he hunts down a fugitive killer (Robert Ryan) in the Colorado territory. Complicating matters are the fugitive’s loyal girlfriend (Janet Leigh), Stewart’s two unscrupulous partners and a grizzled old prospector (Millard Mitchell). His third picture with Mann was another hit at the box office and with critics, while Stewart’s performance as the anguished bounty hunter place propelled the actor’s maturation from the idealist of the 1930s and 1940s to something grittier and morally ambiguous.
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4. ‘The Far Country’ – 1955

Universal Studios Home Entertainment
Shot in the far reaches of Alaska – one of the few films at the time to do so - The Far Country was Stewart’s fourth Western with Mann. This time he was a cattle driver riding herd from Wyoming to Canada with his friend and partner (Walter Brennan), where they hoped to make a sale in one of the gold mining towns. But when they arrive, the two encounter a corrupt self-appointed lawman (John McIntire) who seizes their cattle and kills Stewart’s partner. Once again playing a man on the edge, Stewart’s character vows revenge and proceeds down a bloody path that doesn’t end well for anybody.
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5. ‘The Man from Laramie’ – 1955

Sony Pictures
One of the first Westerns to be shot in brilliant CinemaScope, The Man from Laramie marked the fifth and final time Stewart collaborated with Mann in the genre. Stewart played Will Lockhart, a man obsessed with finding the people responsible for selling guns to the Apaches that killed his brother. Before he knows it, he finds himself in a small Colorado town where he becomes embroiled in a family feud between a psychotic son and his adopted brother over who will take control ofthe family business. Turns out the psychotic son might also be the man Lockhart is looking for. With stunning photography, quality performances and a typically ambiguous moral center, The Man from Laramie is the best of the Stewart-Mann collaborations.
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6. ‘How the West Was Won’ – 1962

MGM Home Entertainment
Stewart joined an all-star cast that included Henry Fonda, Gregory Peck, Debbie Reynolds, George Peppard and John Wayne for his epic Western that depicted the settling of the frontier between 1839 and 1889 in five episodes directed by Henry Hathaway, George Marshall and John Ford. Stewart appeared in Hathaway’s opening segment, Three Rivers, as a mountain man who falls for the daughter (Carroll Baker) of family heading west. He helps the family in their journey and fends off thieves, river pirates and a duplicitous woman (Brigid Bazlen) along the way. Noted more for its vast scope and large-scale production, How the West Was Won was nonetheless buoyed by a stand-out performance from Stewart.
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