I was having a conversation last week with a friend about good western films. When I threw out my favorites, he hadn’t heard of them. That’s not surprising, since the heyday of the western genre was before we were born. I’m guessing a lot of people my age aren’t that into watching older movies, which is a shame when you consider the recycled and ‘reinvented’ crap that Hollywood has been putting out for the past ten years. So here’s a primer on which movies you should check out if you’re relatively young and into Westerns. They’re not all old, but they’re all really good.
10. Dances With Wolves (1990)
Some people have issues with Dances With Wolves, but I love it. It’s yet another lazy iteration of the Brown = Good & Natural / White = Evil & Destructive narrative, and it employs the semi-racist “White Messiah” storyline, but it’s an entertaining look into a clash of civilizations that defined the tumultuous time. I liked it much better than the futuristic sequel where they painted the natives blue and put tentacles in their ponytails.
9. How The West Was Won (1962)
How The West Was Won is to the western genre what The Longest Day is to the WWII (specifically D-Day) genre – an epic summary of a greater story. The cinematography and live action sequences are so impressive that you could watch the movie with no sound and still come away satisfied. It’s basically a series of short stories that follows a few families from the land rush to manifest destiny and the taming of the wild west.
8. Tombstone (1993)
Maybe it’s just that this film came out when I was in high school and going through my macho phase, but I love Tombstone. The bravado is over the top, but no more than the actual mythology that still surrounds the Earp brothers and the shootout at the OK Corral. This might be the best performance ever by Val Kilmer as Doc Holliday, and Kurt Russell pulled his own as the iconic lawman Wyatt Earp.
7. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)
This might be the most well-made film on the list. You have Robert Redford and Paul Newman playing lovable outlaws. Their adventures make the west look like a playground until the heat gets too hot and they have to escape to South America. The ending is a lesson for anyone who thinks you can escape your nature.
6. Lonesome Dove (1989)
This made-for-TV drama is one of the best ways to nurse a hangover. I spent many a Sunday on the couch in college watching almost eight hours of Lonesome Dove. The cast is stellar, the story is compelling, and the characters are endearing. Tommy Lee Jones and Robert Duvall are outstanding as the former Texas rangers who decide to open the first ranch in Montana.
5. Open Range (2003)
This film cleverly combines two of the arch-narratives in American westerns – the wandering good Samaritan (best exhibited in Shane) and the legendary cattle wars (Lincoln County/Billy The Kid). In Open Range, the wanderers get drawn into conflict by a cattle baron who is waging a war against free rangers. It ends how you expect it to, but good character performances all around make the film stand out.
4. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)
You can’t go wrong when you put John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart in a western together. This film focuses on the critical period when the west was transitioning from law by the gun to law by the books. John Wayne represents the cynical old guard and Jimmy Stewart represents the optimistic new guard. Together, they stand up to an outlaw who has no place in the new west.
3. The Outlaw Josie Wales (1976)
In most westerns, the protagonist has a shady past but has changed his ways. In The Outlaw Josie Wales, the protagonist is memorable because he doesn’t evolve. Much like Eastwood’s role in Unforgiven, the main character is more or less apathetic to human life. He’s a hero only because the situation calls for someone to get their hands dirty, and he happens to save the day by doing what comes natural. It’s odd for a bad guy to be so endearing to an audience, but it has an authenticity that sets it apart from so many other singing cowboy yarns.
2. High Noon (1952)
This is one of the most tense movies ever made. It takes place in real time (around 90 minutes until the showdown), so we feel the seconds ticking down and we empathize with the protagonist as his chances look more and more grim. This incredible story of courage in the face of overwhelming odds was co-opted by the Czechs during the “Prague Spring” uprising in 1968. The protesters printed posters of the film as imagery that cast themselves as heroes standing alone against their evil Soviet oppressors while the rest of the world cowered in shame.
1. Shane (1953)
Like I’ve said before, Shane is the apex western. The plot is so simple and so effective that any movie following this basic outline will find success. Pale Rider employs almost the exact same story structure and is still considered a classic because of it. See if this sounds familiar – a robberbaron uses his wealth and power to force families off their hard-earned land. Then out of the blue, a stranger with a shady past shows up and inspires the underdogs to stand up to the villain and his henchmen. A fight breaks out, the protagonist does his duty with no thought of reward, and then rides off alone in questionable health.
The Searchers (1956)
John Wayne’s life is interrupted when his niece is kidnapped by Comanches. He spends years searching for her and his hatred for Indians grows the whole time. When he finally finds her and it’s obvious she’s adopted Comanche ways, his hatred clouds his conscience.
The Jack Bull (1999)
A surprisingly good western about a horse trader (well-played by John Cusack) who is wronged by a much more politically-connected rancher. When he uses the legal system to seek justice, he’s blocked at every turn. He finally takes matters into his own hands and draws attention to the injustice in the territory.
Deadwood, Season 1 (2004)
While not a film, this HBO series about the boomtown in Deadwood, South Dakota offers a raw and uncensored glimpse into everyday life in the wild west. It features Wild Bill Hickok as a character, so you know how the season has to end. It doesn’t disappoint.
Young Guns (1988)
Once again, I’m completely biased here. This movie came out when I was in 5th grade and it made me want a six-shooter more than anything else in the world. I was eventually given a BB gun. But not a real BB gun. I got a weak little plastic gun that shot those crappy, yellow, rubber pellets. It was embarrassing. I found solace by watching Young Guns over and over again on VHS and pretending I was one of the foolhardy Regulators.
Three Amigos (1986)
Who says a western has to be serious? This is one of the funniest films ever made. It’s Chevy Chase, Steve Martin and Martin Short at their comedic best. If you can’t recite every word of this film by heart, then you obviously hate America. Traitor.
Jeremiah Johnson (1972)
This film is visual Valium. Honestly, I know all about the making of the film and I think it’s an interesting endeavor, but that doesn’t excuse the fact that the story is just plain flat.
True Grit (1969)
What do people see in this movie? John Wayne is good as usual, but not great. The girl is okay, but what’s the story here? Why do I, the viewer, care what happens to the characters? Maybe people just love eye patches and cowboys named “Rooster” with a questionable moral pedigree.
The Wild Bunch (1969)
Once again, it’s an okay movie, but I’ve never had the desire to see it a second time. Maybe the people who love it and True Grit saw it during impressionable times of their lives, kind of like me with Tombstone and Young Guns. I was equally unimpressed with The Magnificent Seven.
Pat Garrett & Billy The Kid (1973)
James Coburn is pretty good as Pat and Kris Kristofferson is okay as Billy. The only really redeeming aspect of this movie is Bob Dylan’s music. This film introduced Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door to the world. To be fair, some of the film was destroyed during the editing phase and was never reproduced, so the final version is not the finished product, so to speak.
Winchester ’73 (1950)
This film starts off alright but then it rambles through a few interconnected scenes. The stand against the Indians is exciting, but the oversall story is inconsistent at best. You’ve failed to connect with your audience if they care more about what happens to the rifle than what happens to the main characters.
As you can see, this isn’t an exhaustive list. I should also add that I’ve never seen Red River or The Gunfighter, although I’ve wanted to ever since I first heard Bob Dylan’s Brownsville Girl. Nor have I seen a slew of the really old cowboy flicks. But I’ve seen enough westerns to know what I like. And even if there are some movies that you think belong on this list that were omitted, you have to admit that you won’t go wrong watching any of these fine films.
If this list gets some younger people out there to see a movie that’s not larded up with excess background music and special effects, then I’ll feel like my work has been done.
- UPDATE 3/2/11: I watched The Gunfighter last week. Gregory Peck was great as usual, but the film’s only okay. I guess knowing how it ends kind of ruined the redemption story arc they were trying to build. I still think the best Western/Wilderness film (if you can call it that) that Peck carried was The Yearling. The Big Country is pretty good too.
UPDATE 3/16/11: I just watched Red River. It was very good. John Wayne is at his best when he plays a good guy with a bad streak. The tension mounts as he slowly becomes more tyrannical and aggressive, kind of like Humphrey Bogart’s performance in The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre. The stampede scene is incredible. It’s like a tsunami of cattle. I don’t know how they filmed it without anyone getting killed. It stands in stark contrast to the CGI stampede scene in the recent faux-epic, Australia. You know it’s fake and it removes the ‘wow factor’ from the scene and the impact it’s supposed to have on the developing characters and the overall story.
I should add that Australia had its own Wild West and there are several very good films that depict the era: