Former outlaw Link Jones (Cooper) travels from his small town to Texas to hire their first schoolteacher. When his train stops on the way, they are set upon by armed robbers but the train escapes leaving behind Jones, the fast-talking Sam Beasley (O'Connell) and saloon singer Billie Ellis (London). They start walking and eventually reach a place that Link knows well: the farmhouse where he once lived. There he finds the men who robbed the train and also his uncle, Dock Tobin (Cobb), who wants Link to return to his old ways and re-join his gang. Link has no interest in doing so and has to find a way out for them, knowing that they will die once the gang finishes its next big job.
The film premiered in October 1, 1958. At the time of release, the film was largely panned by American critics, but it was praised by Jean-Luc Godard, who, before he became a director, was a film critic. Godard claimed that Man of the West was the best film of the year. Decades after the film's release, it has gained a cult following and greater acclaim, with film historian Phillip French claiming the film to be Anthony Mann's masterpiece, containing Cooper's finest performance.
Link Jones (Gary Cooper) rides into Crosscut, Texas to have a bite to eat, then catch a train to Fort Worth, where he intends to use the savings of his community of Good Hope to hire a schoolteacher.
On the train platform, Sam Beasley (Arthur O'Connell) speaks with Link briefly, rousing the suspicions of the town marshal, Sam being a known con man. When the marshal comments that Link looks familiar, Link gives him a false name.
Aboard the train, Sam impulsively joins Link, learns of his mission in Fort Worth and claims he can be of help. Sam introduces him to the Crosscut saloon singer, Billie Ellis (Julie London), insisting she could make an ideal teacher.
Their conversation is overheard by Alcutt, a shady-looking passenger. When the train stops to pick up wood for additional fuel, male passengers help load the train but Alcutt remains on board, feigning sleep. He signals three other men, Coaley Tobin (Jack Lord), Trout (Royal Dano) and Ponch (Robert J. Wilke), who rob the train.
Link tries to intervene and is knocked unconscious. The train pulls away, with Alcutt riding off with Link's bag containing Good Hope's money. Alcutt is wounded as he and the robbers flee.
Link revives to discover that he, Sam and Billie have been left behind, many miles from the nearest town. Link leads them on foot to a ramshackle farm, admitting that he lived there years earlier. While the others wait in the barn, Link enters the run-down house and finds the train robbers hiding inside.
Coaley is suspicious of Link's claim that he simply wants to rest for the night. They are interrupted by aging outlaw Dock Tobin (Lee J. Cobb), who is startled to see Link, his nephew, whom he raised as a killer and thief. Link abandoned him more than a dozen years earlier to go straight. Tobin laments that nothing has been the same since Link's departure and introduces him to the roughnecks he now commands, including Link's own cousin, Coaley.
Disturbed by the revelation of Link's true identity, Coaley demonstrates his toughness by killing Alcutt, who is near death from his wound. Realizing the danger of his situation, Link brings in Sam and Billie from the barn and lies to Tobin, telling him that he intentionally sought out his uncle after being left by the train.
Tobin reveals his long-held ambition to rob the bank in the town of Lassoo and asserts that Link's return to the gang makes that possible. Link agrees to participate in the holdup to protect Billie, after a knife held to his throat while Coaley drunkenly insists that she strip. Tobin waits until she is nearly undressed before he laughingly sends Link and Billie to sleep in the barn, Link lying that she is his woman.
Claude Tobin (John Dehner), another cousin, arrives and is displeased at finding Link there. Tobin rejects the suggestion of Claude and Coaley to kill Link and the others. They depart on the four-day ride to Lassoo.
As revenge for the brutal treatment of Billie at the ranch, Link goads the brutal Coaley into a fistfight and beats him severely, then forcibly strips him of his clothes. Deeply humiliated, Coaley attempts to shoot the unarmed Link, but Sam intercedes and is killed instead. Tobin then shoots Coaley for disobeying him.
Billie laments that she has finally found a man worth loving, but can never have him. Link has a wife and children in Good Hope.
With the town Lassoo in sight, Link volunteers for the holdup job, secretly hoping that in town he can seek help. Tobin insists that he be accompanied by the mute Trout. It turns out that Lassoo is a ghost town, its bank deserted except for a frightened old Mexican woman, whom Trout shoots in a panic. Link proceeds to kill Trout. He then awaits the arrival of Claude and Ponch. In a drawn-out gun battle, Link kills Ponch first, then eventually and with some regret, Claude.
Returning to camp, Link discovers to his horror that Billie has been raped and beaten. He goes in search of Tobin, who is on a cliff nearby. Link calls out to Tobin that he, like Lassoo, is a ghost and finished. He shoots Tobin and reclaims the bag of Good Hope's money.
Riding back to civilization, Billie tells Link she loves him, but is resigned to the fact that she must resume her singing career and proceed alone, knowing that Link intends to return to his home and family.Gary Cooper as Link Jones
Julie London as Billie Ellis
Lee J. Cobb as Dock Tobin
Arthur O'Connell as Sam Beasley
Jack Lord as Coaley
Royal Dano as Trout
John Dehner as Claude
Robert J. Wilke as Ponch
J. Williams as Alcutt
Chief Tahachee as Pio
The film reunited Gary Cooper and Robert J. Wilke who were adversaries in High Noon. Cooper's character kills Wilke's character in both films.
The script of the film which was written by Reginald Rose (best known for writing 12 Angry Men (1957)), was based on the 1955 novel The Border Jumpers by Will C. Brown. The title of the film had nothing to do with the novel entitled Man of the West, which was written by screenwriter Philip Yordan. Yordan's novel had been adapted into a film called Gun Glory, which starred Stewart Granger in the lead role. The producer of the film, Walter Mirisch (whose company produced the Academy Award-nominated films: The Magnificent Seven (1960), West Side Story (1961), The Great Escape (1963) and In the Heat of the Night (1967)), assigned director Anthony Mann to direct an adaptation of the film.
Stewart Granger was originally considered for the lead role. James Stewart, who had worked with director Anthony Mann in eight movies, five of them westerns: Winchester '73 (1950), Bend of the River (1952), The Naked Spur (1953), The Far Country (1954) and The Man from Laramie (1955), eagerly wanted the role. Supposedly, Stewart was extremely upset when Mann didn't give him the script for the film, felt betrayed, and had no interest in working with him ever again, although Mann thought that Stewart would be unfit for the role. Another probable reason why Mann didn't give Stewart the script was that Mann and Stewart had a falling out during the shooting of Night Passage (1957). While Mann and Stewart felt that the script of the film need some rewrites, Mann wanted a darker edge for the main character of the film and dropped out of the film because Stewart softened up the character and sang a few songs in the final film, as a showcase for his own accordion playing. With Mann out of the picture, James Neilson took over his position as director. Gary Cooper was eventually cast for the lead role of Link Jones, a former outlaw who is forced to relive his past. It made three years since Cooper hadn't done a Western. Cooper felt that he was miscast in the role of the former outlaw because he was twenty years older than the character; Cooper was 56 at the time of filming, the lead character being 36.
According to biographer Jeffrey Meyers, Cooper, who struggled with moral conflicts in his personal life, "understood the anguish of a character striving to retain his integrity ... [and] brought authentic feeling to the role of a tempted and tormented, yet essentially decent man"
Lee J. Cobb (who had starred in 12 Angry Men as one of the twelve jurors) played the role of Dock Tobin, the uncle of Link, who wants his nephew to return to his old ways and rejoin his gang. Despite playing the uncle of the main character, Cobb was ten years younger than Cooper. Makeup was applied to make Cobb look older than Cooper. The main villain of the film, Tobin wants his nephew to return to his old ways and rejoin his gang. This was the same case with John Dehner who played Link's cousin and childhood friend, Claude. Denher was fourteen years younger than Cooper.
Arthur O'Connell played Sam Beasley, a fast-talking gambler, and saloon singer Billie Ellis was played by Julie London. London said this was her favorite movie. Tobin's henchmen Coaley, Trout and Ponch (who rob the train) were played by Jack Lord, Royal Dano and Robert J. Wilke respectively. J. Williams played Alcutt, one of the passengers on the train and Chief Tahachee was cast as Pio.
Joe Dominguez, Dick Elliott, Frank Ferguson, Herman and Signe Hack, Anne Kunde, Tom London, Tina Menard, Emory Parnell, Chuck Roberson, Glen Walters and Glen Wilkerson play minor roles in the film and are uncredited.
Principal photography of Man of the West started and ended in 1958, with a budget of $1.5 million. The film was shot on the widescreen CinemaScope process (which was introduced in 1953) by cinematographer Ernest Haller, who is best known for his Academy Award-winning work in Gone with the Wind.
Although the film takes place in Texas, most of the film was shot in California. The train scenes were shot on Sierra Railroad, Jamestown, California. The Red Rock Canyon State Park, Santa Clarita, Thousand Oaks, Newhall and the Mojave Desert all served as filming locations for the film. Two ranches located on Newhall and Thousand Oaks respectively were used as sets which were designed by art director Hilyard M. Brown, best known for his work in Cleopatra (for which he won an Academy Award for Best Art Direction), Creature from the Black Lagoon and The Night of the Hunter.
Gary Cooper did his own horse-riding scenes despite physical pain that he suffered from a car accident years earlier. Chuck Roberson, Jack Williams and Jack N. Young were the stunt performers for the film.
During a snow storm, Mann observed Cooper's eyes, which fascinated him: It's all in the eyes. The heroes, all the stars the public loves, have very light blue eyes or green eyes....The eyes reflect the inner flame that animates the heroes. The guys with dark eyes play supporting roles or become character actors.
Canadian film critic Robin Wood noted that Man of the West is director Anthony Mann's version of William Shakespeare's play King Lear, whose elements appeared in The Furies, The Naked Spur and The Man From Laramie, with its sense of emotional whirlwind, and an older order crumbling. Man of the West, like most Mann films, is a tale of redemption. We are asked to consider the essential monstrousness of the hero, and whether redemption is a tenable idea. The noble frontiersman is made the Other, and one not very deserving of sympathy, a savage whose past ghoulishness seems unimaginable.
Wood also noted that the film looks down the road to the contemporary horror film: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (Tobe Hooper, 1974) and The Hills Have Eyes (Wes Craven, 1977), with their savage clans and desiccated American wasteland, are not far away.
When first released, the film was largely ignored by American critics, though renowned French critic Jean-Luc Godard regarded it as the best film released that year. Howard Thompson, in The New York Times, gave it one of the few raves in the mainstream press. In the decades since the film's release, it has garnered a cult following as well as considerably greater acclaim. Some, such as The Guardian's Derek Malcolm consider the film Mann's best and a landmark in the western genre's canon. Malcolm included the film in his 2000 list The Century of Film. Critic and film historian Phillip French cites Man of the West as Anthony Mann's masterpiece, containing Gary Cooper's greatest performance. As of 2015, Man of the West maintains a rare 100% approval rating on the Rotten Tomatoes film website, based on reviews from 13 critics.