Movie Stars: Fonda, Henry–Screen Image, Western Genre

Henry Fonda, the fourth major Western star, after John Wayne, Gary Cooper, and Jimmy Stewart, made his first Western at Twentieth Century Fox, Jesse James (1939), a big color movie which glamorizes the outlaw.  Fonda was cast as Frank, the brother of Jesse (played Tyrone Power).

The James brothers are determined to avenge their mother’s murder and to keep the family’s land from a ruthless railroad baron. Despite the fact that Fonda had a secondary role, it was better written than the lead and, of course, better played; Power was badly miscast. Jesse James” was so successful at the box office that Fox cast Fonda in a sequel, “The Return of Frank James,” under Fritz Lang’s direction.

Fonda’s best Westerns in the 1940s were directed by John Ford, the genre’s most talented filmmaker: “My Darling Clementine,” a nostalgic evocation of Marshal Wyatt Earp’s heroism, and “Fort Apache,” co-starring John Wayne.

Ox-Bow Incident (1943)

Another distinguished, though uncharacteristic, Western was William Wellman’s “The Ox-Bow Incident,” one of the few Westerns to have been nominated for the Best Picture Oscar. A grim, socially conscious film, based on a true story of lynching in Nevada circa 1885, it is an interesting study of mob behavior. Fonda plays a young cowboy unable to prevent the unjust lynching of three innocent wanderers. He has one memorable sequence, similar to the one in “The Grapes of Wrath,” in which he reads to the mob a letter from one of the executed men to his wife, after it is clear that an unforgivable error has been committed.

Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)

What distinguishes Fonda’s Western roles, compared with John Wayne’s, is their versatility, especially in the 1960s, when Fonda was often cast as a villain or hired gunman.  This casting against type, a deviation from pretty-established image, was exploited by Sergio Leone, the Italian director of “spaghetti” Westerns, casting him as the hired killer of a ruthless baron in his violent epic “Once Upon a Time in the West.”  Fonda was reportedly given a choice of roles, but he opted to play the vicious Frank who, among other things, orders the slaughter of an innocent family and kills cold-bloodedly a nine-year-old boy.

Of the four Western movie stars, Fonda played the widest range of roles, changing his image from one movie to another.  In “Welcome to Hard Times” (1967), based on E.L. Doctorow’s novel, Fonda’s Will Blues is basically an anti-hero, though he is the one to save the community when its cowardly citizen are willing to abandon it.


In the 1968 Western “Firecreek,” Fonda is cast again as a leader of a gang terrorizing town, a ruthless loner who cannot conform to order.  This movie enjoyed great publicity because it cast Fonda opposite Jimmy Stewart for the first time in twenty years.  Interestingly, Stewart plays the good guy, the aging farmer and part-time sheriff, highly consistent with his screen persona. And as if playing a villain were not enough, at the end of “Firecreek,” Fonda is killed by a woman, a convention that would never have happened in a John Wayne Western.