Strong female character is a phrase that gets thrown around a lot in woke film crit, and it’s probable that the arbiter of this particular criteria should maybe be someone other than weak male film critic — but here we are. Watching a movie as fantastic as Johnny Guitar, it’s hard not to wonder if the phrase is in fact more often applied to female characters who basically act like male characters, resorting easily to physical and verbal violence. The leads in Captain Marvel and Atomic Blonde and Red Sparrow are handy in a fight, sure, but they also lack flaws, for the most part, and therefore lack real complexity. Holding those characters up as the gold standard for strong females in film has always rung hollow.
The fact that all of those modern action films are directed by men is not inconsequential (and is its own problem), but then again so is Johnny Guitar, helmed by the great Nicholas Ray, which still manages to feature a lead character who — in addition to being handy in a fight — has complex relationships with the men and women around her, has self-doubt in tandem with self-confidence, has flaws and imperfections and weaknesses, all of which paradoxically contribute to the strength of this character. This character is Vienna (Joan Crawford), a saloonkeeper on the outskirts of an Arizona cattle town, a brash and opinionated woman frequently at odds with the town’s cattlemen. The arrival of the mysterious Johnny Guitar (Sterling Hayden) complicates Vienna’s already-contentious relationship with the other townsfolk, particularly her sworn enemy Emma Small (Mercedes McCambridge).