We might say that the Western generally is a secular form. Cowboy heroes may (or may not) be believers in a divine creator but if so, they are essentially pantheistic, and they eschew organized religion on the whole. Regular churchgoers tend to be women, or stolid townsmen in suits, and not the guy in range duds. His ‘church’ is the lone prairie. In Owen Wister’s The Virginian, the Ur-novel for Westerns in many ways, a fundamentalist preacher who visits the ranch is ridiculed by the Virginian, who then explains his own credo:
“As for salvation, I have got this far: somebody”, he swept an arm at the sunset and the mountains, “must have made all that, I know.”
Nevertheless, clergymen, whether officially ordained or not quite, make frequent appearances in Western movies.
A man of the cloth can provide rich dramatic opportunities in the wild and lawless world of the mythical West.
It went right back to the early days. The Westerns of DW Griffith and Thomas H Ince are peppered with pastors. As the hero was often the classic ‘good badman’, a parson was sometimes needed to point out the straight and narrow path back to goodness, so that the Westerner may win the hand of the fair maid in question (of which there was nearly always one on hand).
They weren’t all upstanding righteous types, though. In Hell’s Hinges (1916), an Ince production, William S Hart is Blaze Tracey, a tough hombre who has strayed from the path of righteousness (he drinks, smokes and plays cards) but he will be redeemed by a beautiful and good woman (Clara Williams). However, there’s quite a clever plot development as the heroine’s brother, a young clergyman (Jack Standing), who has come out West with her, then slides into sin and depravity in parallel with Blaze’s climb to goodness and decency. The heroine is named Faith, and Blaze seeks faith just as his lover’s brother loses his.
The clergyman who has fallen from grace, or never had much in the first place, became a standard figure in the Western. I am sure you can think of plenty of examples. Among the first that come to mind might be the lecher David Warner in The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970), the murderous John Carradine in Five Bloody Graves (1969), who shoots one man with a derringer (that’s my kinda preacher), and the oily Revd. Grant Withers in Fort Apache (1948) who sells whiskey to the Indians (which he keeps in crates labeled BIBLES).
In Duel in the Sun (1946) Walter Huston hams it up unmercifully (clearly hugely enjoying himself) as the very dubious preacher The Sinkiller.
In Young Guns of Texas (1962) Chill Wills plays a self-ordained preacher, a bit of a reprobate (in fact we are told that some annoyed husbands hanged him and though he was cut down he ever after had a crooked neck, Judge Roy Bean-like). The preacher in Buck and the Preacher (1972), Harry Belafonte, was rather a rogue – basically a conman. The slogan on the cover of The Gun and the Pulpit (1974) says PREACHER OR OUTLAW? Mind, the actor concerned, Marjoe Gortner, was so bad it was difficult to tell – although he was better as an evangelical preacher in Wild Bill (1995).
The late Philip Seymour Hoffman is also outstanding (as he always was) as a rascally corrupt preacher in Cold Mountain (2003), and I liked the evil slimy preacher Reverend Lindquist (Paul Benedict very good in this short part) in Jeremiah Johnson (1972).
The plot of Shoot Out at Big Sag (1962) is a Montana one, with Walter Brennan as a soi-disant clergyman Preacher Hawker who never went to the trouble of being ordained, and who, during his frequent voiceover narration, spouts biblical platitudes, to the point where it becomes certainly tiresome and almost offensive. He is a cattleman who claims to ‘own’ the whole Big Sag valley but Texan Sam Barbee (Leif Erikson) and his son Lee (Chris Robinson) lay claim to half of it, and a range war looks imminent.
Brennan had been a preacher also in Singing Guns in 1950, this time a good one, the local doc who doubles as minister on Sundays. He’s helped by the new sheriff (Vaughn Monroe) who gives rowdies and drunks the option of going to church or paying a $10 fine, so the preacher has full pews for his services. There’s another unorthodox way of filling the pews in The Pony Express (1925), in which there’s a sub-plot about the heroine’s dad, Ascension Jones, a preacher, played by Ernest Torrence. Frisco Jack (Ricardo Cortez) ‘persuades’ the other gamblers in Julesburg (at gunpoint) to contribute to a church for Mr Jones. No one wants to attend, though, until Jack Slade (George Bancroft) gets drunk and the whole population scuttle into the church for safety.
Spaghetti westerns had an anti-clerical streak and many were the holy hypocrites who appeared in them, such as the gluttonous priest in Giù la testa (1971).
In fact dubious priests were almost as common in Westerns as dodgy judges.
If they weren’t disgraced or disgraceful men of the cloth they were often close to crazy. Think of RG Armstrong in Major Dundee (1965), who was building on his performance as the religious zealot (and possibly wife-murderer) in an earlier Peckinpah Western, Ride the High Country (1962).
Or the completely bonkers Donald Pleasence as Preacher Quint in Will Penny (1968), a role which unfortunately gave him license to overact, which he did anyway so that made it worse. Another prone to chewing the scenery was Jack Palance, who let it all rip as Parson Josiah Galt in The Desperados (1960). Raymond Massey also overacted as a crazed preacher in Mackenna’s Gold (1969).
Or, when it came to good actors, think of Ray McKinnon, superb as the Reverend HW Smith is Deadwood (2004), the poor man dying from a brain tumor which is driving him insane.
Joseph Wiseman, also a good actor, as Abe Kelsey in The Unforgiven (1960) was also certainly not 100% sane. In The Duel (2016) Woody Harrelson is bald and psychopathic, a religious racist with slightly less charm than a trod-on rattlesnake. John Dehner as the minister in A Day of Fury (1956) preaches mob rule, and is a very bad egg. Another preacher who whips up murderous hatred is Cyril Delevanti, who was a drama coach with Douglas Fairbanks among his students, in Ride Out for Revenge (1957).
The Lawless Breed (1953) John Wesley Hardin’s pa is a Methodist preacher, a circuit-rider and it’s John McIntire in black, with a long white beard, a sort of Texas Moses-cum-John Brown who prefers fire and brimstone to milk and honey. Scott Brady as the town preacher was clearly off his rocker in Black Spurs (1965).
Another common clergyman was the paradoxical preacher with a gun. This too went back to the early days: William S Hart was Jim Houston, “the shootin’-iron parson”, in The Disciple (1915), written and produced by Ince. Later incarnations were such as The Parson of Panamint (1941), Stars in My Crown (1950) and Heaven With a Gun (1969), which had Phillip Terry, Joel McCrea and Glenn Ford respectively as handy with their Colts as they were with a sermon. In Stars in My Crown Joel McCrea’s ex-soldier Josiah Doziah Gray (stupid name) arrives in town after the Civil War in cavalry breeches of a faded color to match his name in order to set up as a preacher, and gives his first sermon at pistol-point in a saloon. (It is the only truly Western episode in the movie and it lasts thirty seconds.) I liked Heaven With a Gun better, in which Pastor Jim (Ford), a preacher with a gun, sets up the Church of the Good Shepherd – not exactly a name to appeal in a cattle town. Despite this, he seeks to bring cattlemen and sheepmen together in a world where the steer shall lie down with the lamb. It takes a fair bit of gunplay to achieve that.
Randolph Scott, no less, in Shoot-Out at Medicine Bend (1957) was plugged in the posters thus: He called himself the Preacher – and he wrote his sermon in lead!
Whether Revd. Robert Mitchum really was the preacher he claimed to be in 5 Card Stud (1968) is a moot point but he certainly had a gun. Not only that, it was a derringer, hidden in a bible! He almost did for Dean Martin with it. Boy, that was unpreacherly. Another fake preacher with a derringer in the good book was semi-goody Jed (Dwayne Hickman) dressed as a priest in Cat Ballou (1965) who rescues his pardner from the clutches of Sheriff Bruce Cabot. Yet another derringer-in-a-bible Western was The Hired Gun (1957) when Revd. Chuck Connors uses the ploy to rescue Anne Francis from the jail where she is awaiting execution as the first woman to be hanged in Texas. That’s enough derringers. Ed.
Going back to Mitchum, he was definitely preacherly, and really evil, in The Night of the Hunter (1955), a semi-Western at best but a stunningly good film. In The Wrath of God in 1972 Mitchum was again a preacher with a gun but that was junk.
Netflix’s very good Godless (2016) has a distinct secular tinge to it. Outlaw chief Griffin (Jeff Daniels) is supposedly a preacher, though if ever formally ordained as such is unlikely, and his purple shirt gives him an episcopal appearance, but he is as far from a peace-loving Christian as you could possibly get. In one scene he rides his horse into the church, while singing Nearer My God to Thee and then sermonizes the congregation. He makes clear that he himself is the nearest thing to God in this country, and he warns the congregation solemnly: anyone who goes against him will suffer as Jesus did. Gulp.
Perhaps the gunslinging preacher par excellence is Clint, in Pale Rider (1985). He not only is proficient with a gun, he’s also quite handy with his fists, with thrown dynamite and, especially, a good piece of hickory.
John Ford had quite a relaxed way with religious types. He was fond of Russell Simpson for the part, and Simpson’s Mormon Elder Perkins in Wagonmaster (1950) keeps wagon master Ward Bond toeing the straight and narrow, while allowing a certain amount of earthy badinage and even gunplay to go by with just a raised eyebrow or two. Simpson’s Revd. Mr. Simpson in My Darling Clementine (1946), whose part was sadly pared right back to almost a cameo, did at least manage to say, tolerantly, “I’ve read the good book from cover to cover and back again and I ain’t nary found one word agin dancin’”. Simpson was frequently seen preaching. He was the minister in Three Faces West (1940), The Untamed Breed (1948), The Last Command (1955), and the Quaker elder in Friendly Persuasion (1956).
Some preachers would never touch a gun and seemed stern, upstanding types, though they were shown as ineffectual or even with a streak of pusillanimity. I always thought the parson (Morgan Farley) in High Noon particularly wet, singularly lacking in backbone. Henry Hull, hamming it up as usual but having difficulty with lousy lines, was an especially useless preacher in Kentucky Rifle (1955). Russell Crowe was a reformed gunslinger, now a preacher who won’t use a gun, in The Quick and the Dead (1995), but that was a very poor film. In Drum Beat (1954) the pacifist clergyman Thomas (Richard Gaines) is shown as a naïve simpleton, and in fact all Delmer Daves Westerns had an almost anti-clerical slant to them. The director/writer’s most loathsome religious figure was the splendidly named George Grubb, in The Hanging Tree, the evil ‘faith healer’, superbly played by George C Scott, on debut.
But of course there were good yet tough clergymen in Westerns. Tough guy lumberjack Sterling Hayden is revealed to be the local preacher in Take Me to Town (1953). Frank Ferguson was Preacher in Canyon Passage (1946) and obviously a goody (it was Frank Ferguson). Mind, he wasn’t quite such a fine upstanding preacher in Rancho Notorious (1952).
In the 1937 version of The Outcasts of Poker Flat, the Reverend Sam Woods (Van Heflin, in his first Western), decent and gutsy, appears in town with prim schoolma’am Miss Colby (Jean Muir), his “friend”, clearly destined to be Mrs Woods, but Miss C takes more of a shine to rakish, dangerous gambler John Oakehurst. Later, Heflin would be a minister again, in Columbia’s Count Three and Pray (1955). In this one he plays a soldier, Luke Fargo, home from the Civil War and determined to be a preacher. It’s difficult for various reasons: for one thing, his uniform is blue and it’s a Southern town. He is hated, and the chances of success are slim. The church has burned down, too. His pre-war reputation was that of a rake. He seems to have overlooked the formality of getting ordained. And the powerful and evil town boss Yancey Huggins (Raymond Burr) hates him. It doesn’t look good, does it, but it’s one of those movies where you kinda guess that he will overcome, and he duly does.
In The Gunfight at Dodge City (1959) Julia Adams’s dad, the preacher, is played by our old pal James Westerfield, always enjoyable in Westerns. He seems to be a leading townsman and it is he who invites Bat Masterson (Joel McCrea) to stand as County Sheriff instead of Bat’s late brother, the dead Ed.
Denver Pyle must have liked the dog collar because he was a preacher in two Audie Murphy oaters, Ride Clear of Diablo (1954) and Cast a Long Shadow (1959). And he wore the collar yet again in Shenandoah (1965).
William Shatner was surprisingly good as the preacher in The Outrage (1964).
Just occasionally the priests were quite Catholic, in spaghettis, obviously, because that was more in line with Italian tradition, but also now and then in straight ‘American’ Westerns. One thinks of Fr Andrew Duggan in The Bravados (1958). Director Henry King was a pious Catholic and the religion in this picture is very Popish. More usually, the preacher figures were Protestant of one ilk or another. Ward Bond is outstanding as a missionary preacher in Pillars of the Sky (1956) even if he is portrayed as a rather Protestant pastor ministering to the Nez Percé and Cœurs d’Alène – the tribes were mostly Roman Catholics.
Well, I won’t go on. There were so many preachers in Westerns that I can’t list them all and you wouldn’t want me to, I’m sure.
Interesting, though, that as with judges and bankers, clergyman were so often portrayed as rogues in the genre. I think it’s related to John Ford’s philosophy that the so-called respectable folk were more than often reprehensible, snobbish and hypocritical, while the more salt-of-the-earth Westerners were the ones who had basic decency in them deep down.