My Baby Loves the Western Movies
~ The 30 best “westerns” ever filmed ~
© 2012 Kirby Sanders
The recent release of Quentin Tarantino’s movie Django Unchained has raised some new interest in the genre of “Westerns” as a cinematic art form — an interest that is well-deserved for this uniquely American tradition.
The new Tarantino is an homage (I like that word better than “remake) based upon the 1966 “spaghetti western” Django directed by Sergio Corbucci.
Western movies in general may have fallen out of fashion to a large extent, but a lot of folks still like ‘em. Me included. Many cinema snobs like to put down westerns, often claiming many of us of a certain age group are merely holding a sense of nostalgia and sentimentality for an outmoded entertainment genre we grew up on. (Raise your hand if you ever had a coonskin cap as a kid, sang “Davey, Davey Crockett. King of the wild frontier” and Bonanza” or remember that Chuck Connors was The Rifleman and Paladin, Have Gun Will Travel was Richard Boone.) However, a close look at the genre shows us a truly American commitment to righting wrongs, standing in the face of adversity and directly and personally addressing social problems that surround us.
My son, Tristan (early 20s), is a bigtime “flick freak” (perhaps the fruit doesn’t fall too far from the tree) but held westerns in great disdain into his late teens — until I sat him down and forced him to watch a few with me. Instant convert — to the point that he collaborated in this collection, reminding me of a few flicks I had missed (and adding three of his own suggestions).
Thus may I present, for our dining and dancing pleasure, my (admittedly subjective) Thirty Favorite Western Movies of All Time. Admittedly, you won’t find any Roy Rogers or Audie Murphey or John Wayne (well, maybe one Wayner) on the list. Maybe not much predating 1960s. Lets face it, when Westerns were The Big Thing in the 1950s, science fiction writer Theodore Sturgeon’s “Law” was as true of the Western genre as it is of any other. Said Sturgeon “Sure, 90% of science fiction is crud. That’s because 90% of everything is crud” and there was a lot of 100% ground out of Hollywood in the Western genre.
These titles are presented in alphabetical order. I can’t do an all-time faves in numeric order because my favorite today may well be different from it was yesterday or might be tomorrow. Some may quarrel my choices (and have a few preferred choices of their own) – and they are welcome to make their own lists.
Saddle up, buckaroos, as we ride into town guns blazing.
• 3:10 to Yuma (2007, Director James Mangold featuring Russell Crowe and Christian Bale – Drama) • Remake of 1957 director Delmer Daves film starring Glen Ford and Van Heflin. Of course, we start off with stark heresy by considering this remake of a “classic” to be better than the original. Both of the films are essentially psycho-dramas that concentrate on the interaction between a black-hatted baddy who has been captured and poor dirt farmer who has agreed to see to his foil to the prison train – for desperately needed cash to save his failing ranch. The original is pretty sparse on action and can move a bit slowly at times. The remake fleshes out the two men’s characters and lends some excellent action sequences to an already creditable game of wits between the two.
• Bandidas (2006, Directors Joachim Ronning and Espen Sandberg featuring Salma Hayek, Penelope Cruz, Steve Zahn and Dwight Yoakam – Drama / Adventure /Comedy) • Here’s one the guys might make some date-points with. Strong female leads with plenty of romance, some laughs and plenty of pathos. Cpnxider it a worthy western chick-flick. Hayek and Cruz play two young Mexican women out to avenge the deaths of their fathers at the hands of evil railroad barons who want to steal their land. Hayek plays a spoiled daughter of a Don, Cruze the daughter of a peasant farmer, team up against chief baddy / railroad enforcer Yoakam. Zahn is a somewhat inept Pinkerton agent specializing in scientific investigation hired by the railroad to track the women down. Zahn eventually teams up with the girls when he discovers injustices have been done.
• Blazing Saddles (1974, Director Mel Brooks featuring Cleavon Little and Gene Wilder – Comedy) • Yes, Blazing Saddles. It is a Western, no doubt about it. In typical Mel Brooks fashion, it shreds a lot of conventions and tropes for comedic effect and has the audacity to address the issue of racial bigotry in the Old West – and the contemporary culture of 1974. Not much else to say that most folks don’t already know about this one.
• Buffalo Soldiers (1997, Director Charles Haid featuring Lamont Bentley and Tom Bower – Drama) • This one was a made-for-TV movie. However, it is an excellent look at the gallantry of the Freedmen who joined the United States Army after being freed from slavery during the Civil War. Facing bigotry from their white commanders that sends them on what could be a suicide mission, the black regiment successfully tracks down and — dispatches is a good word -– the Apache war chief Vittorio and shaman NaNa in Arizona Territory during the 1870s / 1880s.
• Cat Ballou (1965, Director Elliot Silverstein featuring Jane Fonda, Lee Marvin and Dwayne Hickman – Comedy / Drama) • A classic, and its another excellent “points with the ladies” cowboy chick-flick with Fonda playing a refined young lady home from finishing school in The East when her father is murdered by the baddies trying to steal his ranch. Fonda is romantically pursued by bumbling petty outlaw Hickman (bother of Darryl Hickman — TV’s Dobie Gillis). Fonda and Hickman “go outlaw” and call for a gunslinger to help them avenge Fonda’s father. Marvin plays dual roles as both a drunken former gunfighter who responds to their call and as the gunslinger’s evil brother who was responsible for the murder of Fonda’s father.
• Cold Mountain (2003, Director Anthony Minghella featuring Jude Law, Michelle Kidman and Renee Zellewegger – Drama) • There a sub-genre the Western that some refer to as “Southern / Civil War” dramas. Cold Mountain is one of those. It takes place during the Civil War in North Carolina (definitely not west of the Mississippi River), but it is certainly in-period and deals with an important aspect of American history. A war-weary and wounded Confederate soldier deserts and is making his way back to the woman he loves. Much of the story focuses on the deprivations of the war visited upon the southern civilian population during the Civil War. More of a chick-flick / love story than a shoot-em-up, it is a beautiful and well-crafted film that takes a stark look at a frequently overlooked dire aspect of the Civil War.
• Cowoys and Aliens (2011, Director Jon Favreau featuring Daniel Craig, Harrison Ford and Olivia Wilde – Drama / Action) • Quirky and fun – but the genre purists may squeal about this one. An invading spaceship lands in Arizona in 1873 and a posse of cowboys and other locals saddle up to fend off the invaders. Make plenty of popcorn and turn off your brain.
• Dead Man (1995, Director Jim Jarmusch featuring Johnny Depp and Gary Farmer – Drama) • Another quirky one. Depp plays a character named William Blake – a young accountant who spent his every dime to arrive in The West in a star-crossed attempt to land a job that he ha been promised. His promised employer immediately sends the newly-arrived Depp packing but penniless. The dejected Depp takes up with a poor town girl who makes paper flowers to survive –- and is also romantically involved with the son of his weasely and ambitious would-be employer. In a confrontation with the prominent son and the girl, both are killed and Depp / Blake is wounded and on the lam. He falls into the company of Farmer (an Oxford educated Indian named “Nobody”) -– who has mistakenly taken Depp / Blake for the poet William Blake – and who accompanies Depp on his spiritual death journey.
• Duck, You Sucker – aka: Fistful of Dynamite (1971, Director Sergio Leone featuring Rod Steiger, James Coburn and Eli Wallach – Drama) • Sergio Leone – father of the “spaghetti western”, but this one has a slightly different twist than the earlier shoot-em-ups. Charles Bronson is a refugee Irish Republican Army who escapes to Mexico in about 1913. He comes upon a petty Mexican bandido / would-be bank robber and they both get themselves caught fighting for Pancho Villa. Eli Wallach is the Mexican (as, oddly, he was in several Leone films. Big-budget Leone. Big battle scenes, excellent character development and a literal train-wreck leading to the final battle sequence. No Clint Eastwood; lots of explosions.
• Dusk Till Dawn 3 – Hangman’s Daughter (1999, Director P.J. Pesce featuring Marco Leonardi and Michael Parks – Drama / Horror) • Third in Robert Rodriguez’ Dusk Till Dawn trilogy. One can easily argue that Rodiguez and frequent collaborator Quentin Tarantino pay frequent homage to the western and especially the “spaghetti western” tradition. However, Hangman’s Daughter is actually set in Mexico circa 1913 (period correct). Parks plays famous American author Ambrose Bierce in a fact-based arrival in Mexico during the Revolution of 1913. In reality, Bierce disappears from the face of the earth in December of 1913 – probably executed by Fedrales as he seeks to make contact with Pancho Villa. In the Rodriguez version, Bierce first falls in with the usual cast of vampires at the “Tetilla del Diablo” (Nipple of the Devil) — which of course is the later infamous vampiric “Titty Twister” of the first film in the trilogy. Lots of vampires get whacked and Bierce rides off into the sunrise – probably for his fateful meeting with the Federales. Personal note. Of the Dusk Till Dawn trilogy, #1 and #3 are worth watching. Number Two – not so much.
• Evil Roy Slade (1972, Director Jerry Paris featuring John Astin, Pamela Austin, Dick Shawn and Mickey Rooney – Comedy) • Fun, fun, fun – Astin (Gomez Addams on the original TV series Addams Family) plays the “Evilest Man in the West” who falls for idealistic school-marm Austin in the midst of a bank robbery. Austn falls for Evil Roy as well – but only if he will make a changed man of himself and follow the straight and narrow. Rooney is the evil railroad baron who wants Astin / Slade’s head at any cost. After several failed attempts, Rooney lures Shawn (a famous but vain singing lawman known as Bing Bell –- running gag “is someone at the door?”) to capture Evil Roy Slade / Astin. Chaos ensues. A fun time is guaranteed for all.
• Fistful of Dollars (1964, Director Sergio Leone featuring Clint Eastwood and Gian Maria Volante – Drama) • Possibly the definitional “spaghetti western” and not a lot to say that hasn’t been said — other than that it was based upon Japanese director Akira Kurosawa’s iconic Samurai film Yojimbo. The Kurosawa connection is an interesting circle in and of itself. Kurosawa was a fan of American westerns who felt that the genre and style did well to portray the mediaeval Japanese Samurai and Ronin cutures. Whereafter, many of Kurosawa’s treatments were translated back into (you guessed it) – westerns. First of the Leone / Eastwood trilogy that includes For a Few Dollars More and The Good, The Bad and The Good Ugly . Nothing new here – do carry on.
• Glory (1989, Director Edward Zwick featuring Matthew Broderick and Denzel Washington – Drama) • Another in the Southern / Civil War sub-genre, this one deals with the experiences of the first all-black volunteer regiment formed during the war. Excellent action scenes and a creditable portrayal of prejudice within the ranks of the Union Army
• Heaven’s Gate (1980, Director Michael Cimino featuring Kris Kristofferson, Christopher Walken and John Hurt – Drama) • It was a bust at the box office, but is a must-see in upper-level cinema classes for its breathtaking cinematography, incredible choreography of movement and outstanding character development. The plot follows a wealthy young man (Kristofferson) as he heads west from his privileged life to become a U.S. Marshal during range wars in Wyoming during the 1890s. Kristofferson sees the injustice being done and takes sides with poor immigrant settlers and sodbusters who are being murdered and cheated out of their land by corrupt politicos and the wealthy Cattlemans’ Association. Classic love-triangle as Kristofferson and the Cattlemens’ enforcer (Walken) vie for the heart of the local madame-with-a-heart-of-gold. Based loosely on facts – albeit very loosely — of the Johnson County War in Wyoming’s history. The movie flopped for several reasons. It was extraordinarily expensive, over budget and suffered several scheduling setbacks. Cost of production was about $44 million and gross U.S. box office was just shy of $4 million. It is also long; too long for the attention span of the average moviegoer – just over 3.5 hours. The first half of the movie is also somewhat slow, concentrating more on character development than action. Well worth it, but settle in for a long day.
• High Noon (1952, Director Fred Zinneman featuring Gary Cooper and Grace Kelly – Drama) • The classic lone good-guy is compelled to save a town that will not save itself. Again, not a lot to say that hasn’t already been said again and again. Mr. Smith Goes to a Gunfight.
• High Plains Drifter (1973, Director Clint Eastwood featuring Clint Eastwood, Verna Bloom and Marianna Hill – Drama) • This opens a lovely Pandora’s box for discussion; ie: “what is the best Clint Eastwood western”? One might write another entire article on that topic. High Plains Drifter is a classic stranger-comes-to-town to avenge –- something unknown until the very end of the flick; and organizes the cowardly citizens to protect itself from a band of outlaws while simultaneously punishing the town for not previously standing for the righteous. One of Eastwood’s better “grey” or “anti-hero” roles. Must see. Not giving short shrift to Pale Rider or Two Mules for Sister Sarah or Outlaw Josey Wales or Hang ‘Em High, just subjectively choosing Eastwood’s best early western outside of the “spaghetti” genre. Your mileage may vary.
• Last Man Standing (1996, Director Walter Hill featuring Bruce Willis, Bruce Dern, Christopher Walken and William Sanderson – Drama) • Breaking tradition somewhat, Last Man Standing is a sub-genre that I call “modern westerns”. It is actually set in deep South Texas on the Mexico border during Prohibition. It qualifies as a “western” for its gritty locales and attitudes even though the chatter of “Chicago Typewriters” js the predominant gunplay. It is another re-telling of Kurosawa’s Yojimbo (ergo Fist Full of Dollars) with Willis as the man-with-no-name (“John Smith – from Back East”) playing two rival mobs in the dusty town against one another for his own profit – and a personal sense of justice.
• The Long Riders (1980, Director Walter Hill featuring David Carradine, Stacy Keach and Dennis Quaid – Drama) • Genius – a telling of the James-Younger Gang story that might as well be called “Seven Roles for Seven Brothers”. Hill cast brothers James and Stacy Keach as Frank and Jesse James; David, Keith and Robert Carradine as the Younger siblings and Dennis and Randy Quaid as gang cohorts Ed and Clell Miller. Lots of gunplay and a graphic depiction on the gang’s failed bank raid in Northfield MN on September 7, 1876. Just for added measure, former gang members Bob and Charlie Ford( said to have been the eventual killers of Jesse James) are portrayed by brother-actors Nicholas and Christopher Guest.
• The Magnificent Seven (1960, Director John Sturges featuring Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen and Charles Bronson – Drama) • Another unquestionable classic with an all-star cast. Magnificent Seven is a pick-up of Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai – a gaggle of disenchanted warriors team up to battle a corrupt boss / overlord. Little to say that hasn’t already been said. Just watch it.
• No Country for Old Men (2007, Directors Ethan & Joel Coen featuring Tommy Lee Jones, Javier Bardem and Josh Brolin – Drama) • Another “modern western; in the tradition” set in contemporary time. Brolin’s small-fry character stumbles upon a cache of cash at the bloody scene of a major drug deal gone bad while hunting in the desert of deep south Texas. He takes the money and runs, pursued by a psychotic killer (Bardem) who has been engaged to retrieve the cash for the baddies. Old-time county sheriff (Jones) is trying to keep up with the mess and possibly keep Brolin from being killed while Brolin is on the lam.
• Once Upon a Time in the West (1968, Director Sergio Leone featuring Henry Fonda, Charles Bronson and Claudia Cardinale – Drama) • Another bowl of excellent spaghetti. New bride (with a checkered past) Cardinale comes west from New Orleans to join her husband on his paltry ranch smack in the middle of the new railroad course. Of course, the evil railroad barons are trying to steal the land and Cardinale arrives to find her new husband and his children murdered. Drifter Bronson, having had his own run-in with baddie Fonda who is the railroad;s “enforcer” and joins up with Cardinale to protect her land and build a privately owned railroad station along the tracks. This was reportedly a “breakout role” for Fonda who was weary of being the Hollywood-hype pretty-boy and relished the bad-guy role. He does it well.
• The Quick and the Dead (1995, Director Sam Raimi featuring Sharon Stone, Gene Hackman and Russell Crowe – Drama) • We are actually talking about two movies here. The Raimi version is not the traditional Louis Lamour novel, but a good story on its own with a strong female lead. Stone’s character seeks to avenge the death of her father when she was a child by seeking out the wealthy, powerful and corrupt gang leader (Hackman) who was the immediate cause of her father’s death. This by way of an annual gunfight tourney staged by Hackman as an entertainment (and show of control) in the town he has come to own. The traditional Louis Lamour storyline is a 1987 version with Sam Elliott and Kate Capshaw. It’s okay – true to form Sam Elliott. Both of them are worth the watching.
• Rango (2011, Director Gore Verbinski featuring voices of Johnny Depp, Isla Fisher and Timothy Olyphant – Animated comedy / drama) • Another quirky one. Rango is a modern-set spaghetti western disguised as a kid-flick. The main charaters are an assortment of assortment of desert lizards, birds and beasts living in the town of “Dirt” wrangling over water in the Nevada desert that is being diverted to establish what appears to be Las Vegas. Plenty of amusing animation to keep the kids entertained – but they may not understand the story until they are in college and majoring in cinema.
• Rustler’s Rhapsody (1985, Director Hugh Wilson featuring Tom Berenger, Andy Griffith and Marilu Henner – Comedy) • A spoof of the “singing cowboys” with Berenger as a Hollywood cowboy who is transported into something resembling the real west. Sort of. Andy Griffith portrays the evil cattle baron (with somewhat “latent” tendencies). Berenger has a proclivity for passing his lonesome nights at the campfire chewing medicinal “cactus root” and eventually falls in with the evil cattle baron’s daughter (Henner), the town drunk and the town’s favorite “saloon girl” (an expensive girl with a heart of gold who entertains private clients — by talking to them). The question for Griffith in trying to defeat Berenger becomes “is he a good enough good guy?” The truth is to be told when Griffith hires a “better good guy” (portrayed by John Wayne’s son, Patrick Wayne) as the final solution in dealing with Berenger. Fun “cult” comedy – but it’s a hoot, Gibson!
• The Shootist (1976, Director Don Siegel featuring John Wayne, Lauren Bacall and Ron Howard – Drama) • Not a fan of “Wayners” in general because John Wayne always portrayed the same character – John Wayne. In this one, he quit acting and started emoting. Plotline revolves around an aging gunfighter dying of cancer and his efforts to find meaning and dignity in the last days of his life. The word is that Wayne knew that he truly was desperately ill when he made the film and was personally dealing with the same issues. The character was not a cardboard cutout in a theater lobby, it was Wayne staring into the abyss and seeing only the abyss staring back. A powerful performance – if it was a performance.
• Tombstone (1993, Director George P. Cosmatos featuring Kurt Russell, Val Kilmer and Sam Elliott – Drama) • Forced at gunpoint to pick a #1 favorite, it might be Tombstone. Story –wise, it is a good enough retelling of the 1861 gunfight at (or near) the O.K. Corral in Tombstone, Arizona. What sets Tombstone head and shoulders above other retellings is the characterizations. Best of the lot is Val Kilmer as Doc Holiday. Kilmer doesn’t portray a character. Rather, he channels the spirit of a complex historical figure. Kurt Russell does an excellent job of portraying Wyatt Earp as a burned-out good guy who first just wants out of the game and whose hand and sense of justice are finally forced into a reckoning with outlaws and crooked politicos. Outstanding characterizations of elder-and-wiser brother Virgil Earp by Sam Elliott and some sensible and sensitive touches by Bill Paxton as youngest sibling Morgan Earp. Kudos as well to the ladies of the cast for excellent portrayals of several historically viable female characters and a strong support cast of really bad-ass bad guys.
• True Grit (2010, Directors Ethan and Joel Coen featuring Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon and Hailee Steinfeld – Drama). • Let the howling commence. The 2010 is far better than the 1969 Wayner. Jeff Bridges does a better job of portraying the complicated character of Rooster Cogburn than John Wayne because Bridges seems to understand that he is portraying a character rather than portraying himself portraying a character. Massive applause for newcomer and youngster Hailee Steinfeld for beautiful and touching moments as lead character Mattie Ross, a 14-year-old girl who hires the gritty Cogburn (Bridges) to bring to justice the man who murdered her father.
• There Will be Blood (2007, Director Paul Thomas Anderson featuring Daniel Day-Lewis and Paul Dano – Drama) • Call it a “period drama” if you like, but There Will be Blood is a reasonable portrayal of the blood and ambition involved in petroleum prospecting in California from about the 1860s through the turn of the 20th century. Daniel Day-Lewis’ characterization of oilman Daniel Plainfield is an amalgamation of actual historical figures – not a documentary look at any single mogul – but is obvious that everyone from the writers through the production staff and cast did their homework. The final scenes of the film were filmed on-location at an historically preserved mansion built by one of the early California oil barons.
• The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (2005, Director Tommy Lee Jones featuring Tommy Lee Jones, Barry Pepper and Dwight Yoakam – Drama) • This is another “Modern Western” set in contemporary times and is probably the most “Texas movie” I have seen in a long time. Dirt cowboy Tommy Lee Jones befriends an illegal alien co-worker and somewhat frivolously promises to deliver his friend’s body back to Mexico if he dies in the U.S. Friend is then killed by Border Patrol agents in what may have been an accidental shooting but is covered up by federal and local authorities. True to his word, Jones’ character tracks down the Border Patrol Officer (Pepper) who killed his friend and forces him to help carry the body back to Mexico for a proper burial. It’s all about doing the right thing even if everybody thinks you are crazy for doing so.
• Unforgiven (1992, Director Clint Eastwood featuring Clint Eastwood, Gene Hackman and Morgan Freeman – Drama) • Probably Eastwood’s bleakest assessment of the Wild West. The good guy (Eastwood) is a retired killer who brings his former partner-in-crimes out of retirement as well to collect bounty that was collected to avenge a prostitute who was beaten, cut and defaced by a drunken cowboy. One of the main bad-guys is the corrupt town sheriff (Hackman), who has “a past” himself and is more interested in getting paid and keeping a lid on things than he is in seeing justice done for the woman who was attacked. Welcome to the world – the bad guys aren’t all bad and the good guys aren’t all good.
That’s my list – watch and enjoy what you enjoy.