Not top notch
Certainly the 1950s, and the early 50s at that, were the peak of James Stewart’s Western career. He never bettered Broken Arrow and those five Anthony Mann Westerns. These films made him into one of the great Western leads to rank with Gregory Peck, Henry Fonda or John Wayne.
From the early 60s on, however, it was downhill. As we have said, he had the great fortune of working with John Ford and that could have moved Stewart up from the slopes of the Western Parnassus where he already rode (doubtless in the Rockies somewhere) to its very peaks.
Sadly, however, he came too late to Ford or Ford was past his best when Stewart came along. Two Rode Together was, in Ford’s own words, “crap.” Stewart didn’t really do corrupt and cynical (though he wanted to) yet that was what he was expected to be here. He’s Jimmy Stewart, after all. It’s rather like Gary Cooper playing bad men. Can’t be done. Stewart is certainly very good and seems almost to ad lib, so natural is much of his delivery. The scene where he and Widmark sit on a log by the river bank (the camera was out in the stream) was a one-take semi-scripted masterpiece. But the picture was, rightly, a commercial and critical flop.
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance has its partisans (I know someone who thinks it’s the best Western ever made) but for me it’s also second-rate. Ford wanted black & white and almost no location shooting. Worst of all, it was too talky. There’s hardly any action. In the age of commercial, colorful actioners like The Magnificent Seven, it was a dinosaur. And Stewart had an almost non-Western role opposite Wayne. It was a big disappointment.
And finally Cheyenne Autumn, one of Ford’s weakest films. In some ways it was perhaps fitting that a relatively pro-Indian picture should feature the hero of Broken Arrow but Stewart only has an extended and rather silly cameo, as a roguish/comic Wyatt Earp. Again, it didn’t suit him. And the whole Dodge City interlude was odd, out of place and intrusive. It wasn’t really even very funny.
Poor Jimmy. You’d think with a run of John Ford Westerns he would have hit the jackpot. Nope.
And as if the early 60s weren’t bad enough, in 1963 he featured (we can’t say starred) in that dreadful turkey How the West Was Won. Henry Hathaway directed his part, in which Jimmy was supposed to be an amusing mountain man trying to wed a girl young enough to be his granddaughter. Ghastly.
James Stewart's Western career was in sad decline.