Thursday, March 9, 2023

My Favorite Westerns

 A few weeks ago I listed my favorite crime movies, films that I never grow tired of while seeing something new each time. That got such a nice response (especially on Facebook), I decided to do it again, this time with Westerns.


Here are the criteria I set out in January for the crime films:

1. I have to like the movie.

2. It has to bear up under repeated viewings.


With that in mind, here are my personal prejudices:

I don’t generally care for what I call “good haircut” Westerns. The American West was a grungy place; there’s a high bar to clear if everyone looks too well groomed. One movie listed cleared that bar; a few others have questionable grooming, but make up for it elsewhere.


I’m also not crazy about movies that perpetuate the myth of The West. More than a few of the problems we have today can be traced to what people think actually happened back then. The last thing I want to see is something that reinforces that. Again, a couple of those listed do that in their own way, but they’re so good I get over it.


Here's the list. As before, it’s in chronological order, so no valuation is implied.


Shane (1953)

The quintessential “mysterious stranger rides into town, does what has to be done, and leaves” film. Alan Ladd was short, but he was badass. His minimalist speech is not the affectation of the stereotypical laconic cowhand; it’s the language of a man who does not intend to repeat himself. Van Heflin and Jean Arthur are perfect as the homesteaders, and Jack Palance sets the standard for hired guns.


The Professionals (1966)

Another classic Western plot: rich man (Ralph Bellamy) hires four mercenaries (Burt Lancaster, Lee Marvin, Robert Ryan, and Woody Strode) to get back his age-inappropriate wife (Claudia Cardinale) who has been kidnapped by a Mexican bandit (Jack Palance). Things aren’t quite what they appear, though the mercenaries make sure justice is done. The stars have a ball working with each other (Editor’s Note: Woody Strode was born 30 years too early or he would have been a big star himself), the sets are appropriately grimy, and the right note is touched in every scene. Has what might be the greatest closing line in Western history.

[Name redacted to avoid spoiler]: You bastard.

[Name redacted to avoid spoiler]: In my case, an accident of birth. You, sir, are a self-made man.


Hombre (1967)

Maybe Elmore Leonard’s best novel, and quite possibly the best Western ever. Paul Newman plays John Russell, a white man captured by Apaches as a child and raised on a reservation, who inherits his white foster father’s boarding house. That sets up a stagecoach trip with Russell and a motley band that leads to not only a tense and well-crafted plot, but can provoke long discussions about what people owe each other. Richard Boone cements his place as one of the all-time bad guys, and Frank Silvera as the vaquero creates a minor role that lives forever.


The Wild Bunch (1969)

Westerns could never be the same after The Wild Bunch. Sam Peckinpah’s hyperviolent (for the time) ode to the closing of the frontier is, in its way, a buddy movie. What each member of the gang feels he owes the others eventually takes control of the film, as they understand their day is ending and decide to meet it on their own terms.


The Outlaw Josie Wales (1976)

Interesting that a film released in the year of the American bicentennial takes such an uncompromising and harsh look at the nation’s history. Clint Eastwood’s breakout film as a director, he also plays Josie, who wanted nothing more than to go home after the Civil War until a Union officer betrays his men at their surrender and murders Wales’s family. Revenge is delayed as Wales accumulates a ragtag band of followers that provide detail of actual life on the frontier while the revenge story plays out.


Unforgiven (1992)

Eastwood again, deconstructing more of the Western myth. This time he’s a reformed gunman turned farmer who needs money so desperately he accepts an invitation to kill a couple of men who disfigured a whore. Morgan Freeman is his partner, and Gene Hackman was never better than as Little Bill Daggett, the local sheriff who has many admirable qualities, though not enough to offset his darker nature. The scene where Little Bill tells a journalist (Saul Rubinek) how English Bob (Richard Harris) truly earned his reputation as a gunfighter should be required viewing for those who still subscribe to The Myth.


Tombstone (1993)

Yes, it’s a myth perpetuator, but it makes the list for four reasons:

1. Wyatt Earp is not portrayed as the classic white hat good guy.

2. The gunfight at the OK Corral is as well-done and likely realistic as has ever been filmed (though that scene in Wyatt Earp is also excellent).

3. Val Kilmer as Doc Holliday.

4. It’s just so damn much fun to watch, primarily due to Val Kilmer as Doc Holliday.


Open Range (2003)

Robert Duvall and Kevin Costner star as the last of the open range cattle operations, matched against a ruthless English transplant who’ll draw no line in his efforts to put them in what he considers to be their places. Lots of good subtext here with the competing ranch operations as well as a look at PTSD in the post-Civil War era.


Appaloosa (2008)

Ed Harris wrote the screenplay, directed, and stars in this adaptation of the first of Robert B. Parker’s Cole and Hitch Westerns. Viggo Mortensen is excellent as Hitch, and Harris and co-screenwriter Robert Knott were smart to leave Parker’s dialog as intact as possible. In some ways it’s Spenser and Hawk in the Old West with even harder edges, but the plot and byplay make this one that bears up under repeated watching. My only quibble is that I have a hard time believing a man such as Virgil Cole would fall so hard for Renee Zellweger. Diane Lane was originally cast in Zellweger’s role; her and Cole I could understand.


True Grit (2010)

I get that the 1969 version is very good, maybe even John Wayne’s best. I’ll even go so far as to say he earned his lifetime achievement acting Oscar for his portrayal of Rooster Cogburn; Robert Duvall as Ned Pepper is tough to beat, too. Then again, Jeff Bridges is better than The Duke, Barry Pepper is no slouch, and let’s not even try to compare Matt Damon and Glen Campbell; Hailee Steinfeld is also more believable as Maddie. The Coen brothers are far more loyal to the book, and to good effect. Both versions are worth watching, but if you can see only one, this is the one to watch.


That’s ten, and I’m sure I’ll do an honorable mention list down the road. That said, there’s one more I can’t bear to leave out of my personal Pantheon. It doesn’t have the weight some of these others do, but I love it so much it gets a pass.


Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid (1969)

The ultimate buddy movie, which happens to be a Western. As the beginning states, much of what happens is true. Paul Newman, Robert Redford, and Katherine Ross are a trio for the ages. I will never get tired of watching this movie. In fact, if you told me I could only watch one film for the rest of my life, this might be it. If you gave me five, I guarantee it makes the list.


(People are going to ask about Blazing Saddles. It’s in the comedy list I’ll do in a while.)


Elgin Bleecker said...

Glad to see OPEN RANGE on your list. Three of the Scott-Boetticher-Kennedy Westerns would be high on my list: COMANCHE STATION, RIDE LONESOME, and THE TALL T. All were produced by and starred Randolph Scott, with Burt Kennedy scripting and Budd Boetticher directing.

Marvin Minkler said...

Love the list. A few of mine are there. Shane, Tombstone, The Wild Bunch, The Outlaw Josie Wales.

Dana King said...

Elgin and Marvin,

Thanks for commenting. Sorry for the delayed posting. I was away over the weekend and never had a chance to get online.

E. Ellis said...

Has everyone noticed how so many of the current-day programs and movies based in Australia have sort of become "modern-day westerns?"

Look at the Mystery Road series and Goldstone movie, and then movies like The Dry and The Rover (heck, even the Wolf Road slasher films and series are sort of like modern-day westerns).

Dana King said...

Good point. Australia might be a little ahead of what I cll the Taylor Sheridan Curve in this country.