I think it’s fair to say that over the past three decades, the Western genre has gone through something of a torrid time, suffering the same fate as the musical in that it was for a long time considered outdated and not in keeping with modern cinema audience’s tastes. Seen so often as the preserve of old men, with heroes to match (Open Range, anyone?), it is often forgotten that this most American of cinematic oeuvres has the potential to be powerful, dangerous and subversive.
While Western films are ostensibly about a very specific place and a startlingly brief period in American history, they can still talk to audiences across the globe and touch on the universal themes of loss, redemption and farting around a fire.
On that note, we’ve compiled a list of 10 films that we feel are perfect representations of the genre at its best. It’s our hope that after checking out some of the movies we’re about to discuss, that you’ll find a new love for a genre that has unfortunately, been somewhat forgotten by cinema.
So, without further ado, read on for 10 western movies that we assure you will turn you into a fan of the genre.Next
It just so happens that 1993 saw the release of two films dealing with the same legend of the wild west. While Wyatt Earp has behind it the conviction of Kevin Costner and an earnestness that borders on the dull, Tombstone is a good, old fashioned cowboy movie. It is endlessly entertaining, with a dynamism and drive that’s simply missing from its accidental rival.
That aside, the film also boasts a genuinely stellar cast, with Kurt Russell as Earp joined by Bill Paxton and Sam Elliot as his brothers. As Curly Bill, Powers Booth is a giggling lunatic, while Michael Biehn provides a steely gaze and quick hands as the brilliantly named Johnny Ringo. The film, however, belongs to Val Kilmer and his camp, bucolic Doc Holliday; all scathing put downs and calm knowledge of his own ability as a killer.
The first hour takes time to establish its characters and bring them all together so that when the infamous showdown comes it is fast, brutal and effective. It is in the aftermath of the O.K. Corral though that we see a different Earp emerge, one not driven by justice, but by cold hearted revenge. It is this Earp that stays in the memory, and this version of the legend that stands the test of time.Previous Next
9) The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance
In John Ford’s classic film, Senator Ransom Stoddard (James Stewart) returns to the town where he made his name to bury an old friend. While there he is pursued by journalists and is forced to recount the story of how he came to be seen as the man who brought law to the untameable west, and how he came to shoot Liberty Valance.
As much as anything else this is a film about memory, about how we lie to ourselves and the consequences of doing so. This is a film about friendship and sacrifice, it is as quintessential a John Ford western as it is possible to make. It also contains Lee Marvin at his sneering, snarling worst. Surely that must be enough reason to watch any film, right?
It is also a film about myth and legend, and the understanding that these things are as vital to our perception of the west as the Stetson and a pair of spurs.
Which brings us to…Previous Next
8) The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
This mesmerising, fascinating work from director Andrew Dominik is a stark look at the last months in the life of one of the most revered icons of the American West.
For as long as there have been films, there have been films about Jesse James, and before there were films there were plays, books, magazines and memorials. The James/Younger gang occupy a special place in the American psyche, and the legend of the man himself has passed from history into the realms of mythology.
It is that passing that Dominik quite beautifully explores here. Dwelling on the nature of celebrity and the drive of others to attain it, this film portrays James as both devil and martyr, at once using his infamy for his own ends but ultimately, being destroyed by it. The casting of Brad Pitt is a work of inspired genius, with his every scene opposite Casey Affleck (as Ford) electrifying in its intensity.
Often has Jesse James been portrayed on screen, but rarely as sublimely or as stylishly as here.Previous Next
7) High Plains Drifter
In this violent, nightmarish descent into hell, Clint Eastwood takes his famous “Man With No Name” to its infernal, logical conclusion.
Appearing out of a heat haze, Eastwood’s gunslinger rides into the town of Lago, whereupon he proceeds to rape the first woman he meets, shoot dead three assailants and make himself sheriff, all before he’s had a bath.
This is a western seen through the filter of a horror movie, with an angel of death creating a version of hell on Earth, worthy of the inhabitants of the small town with a terrible history and those who are riding towards it.
Eastwood does what he does with style and a cheroot between his teeth, but it is the other-worldly tone that sets this so far apart from many more conventional “Stranger-in-town” films.Previous Next
6) Blazing Saddles
As famous as Blazing Saddles is for THAT scene around a camp fire (stop giggling at the back), Mel Brooks’ anarchic, groundbreaking comedy has so much to recommend in it that it is almost a shame to have to limit oneself to the bare minimum.
To begin with, the script is much funnier and much cleverer than you remember. It isn’t all fart gags and trousers around ankles stuff. Although, that is very funny. It’s clear that the film has a point to make about Hollywood’s treatment of the black community, and anyone else considered outsiders.
Cleavon Little as Bart and Gene Wilder as Jim (a gunfighter who can barely hold a gun) share such wonderful chemistry that every scene between them is a comedic joy to behold. Meanwhile, Madeline Kahn gets to sing one of the funniest songs of all time and Mel Brooks has more fun than should be permissible in his dual roles.
It is a smart, funny, ambitious film that sets out to entertain and appal in equal measure, and it makes no bones about doing so. The ending is pure spoof gold, and it remains one of Brooks’ finest works.Previous Next
5) The Searchers
The Searchers features of the most iconic scenes in the history of film (seen in the video below), in one of the most famous, celebrated, berated, despised, adored and discussed movies ever made.
John Wayne plays Ethan Edwards, a man determined to bring his niece back home after she is abducted by a tribe of Native Americans. Hewill stop at nothing to find her, but his inner demons and in built hatred for those who have taken her will push him into countless acts of barbarity, even as it pushes those close to him further away.
Ethan Edwards was perhaps the most complex role John Wayne ever played, even if he didn’t know it. Part loving Uncle, part rage-filled killer, what emerges is a portrait of a man forever doomed to live outside the conventions of kindness and love.
The politics of the film are horrendously old fashioned, and one is inclined to think flat out racist. But looking at it purely as a historical document of filmmaking, it is a masterclass. John Ford never failed to make Monument Valley appear breathtaking, but here, in full Technicolour, it leaps from the screen and washes you in dust and sun.
That so much of the film’s imagery has become part of our cultural heritage is a testament to the quality of filmmaking on display here, and as a way of understanding how pictures can be so much more powerful than words, it should be seen by anyone with an interest in film.
4) True Grit (2010)
Roger Ebert once wrote that he could almost smell Jeff Bridges’ version of Rooster Cogburn coming off the screen, which goes some way to show how completely immersed in the role the actor becomes.
While the 1969 original offers The Duke, Robert Duvall, Glen Campbell (really, Glen Campbell…the singer?) and a brilliant Kim Darby as Mattie Ross, the Coen brothers remake has the feel of filth running through its veins, and offers the best performance of Jeff Bridges’ wonderful career.
Mattie Ross (a sensational Haillee Steinfeld) hires drunken, ferocious Marshall Rooster Cogburn to hunt down and bring to justice the man who killed her father, a whining, snivelling thief named Tom Chaney (played expertly by Josh Brolin). With the unwanted help of a Texas Ranger (Matt Damon), they set out across country to track Chaney and the gang with whom he rides.
This is perhaps the Coen’s straightest film, lacking some of the tics and tricks that have garnered them a loyal following, but left some completely cold. In setting out to tell a simple story, they have created one of the finest examples of contemporary films dealing with the Western.Previous Next
As both a director and an actor, Clint Eastwood may never surpass the incredible work he does in his masterpiece, Unforgiven. A winner of four Academy Awards, this is a film touching on loss of identity, on the nature of evil and on how a country came to be forged in violence. It also offers little in the way of redemption.
William Munny (Eastwood) is a retired gunslinger hired to do one last job, before settling down to the life of a pig farmer. In his path is Little Bill Daggett (Gene Hackman), a lawman who talks peace and justice but is in fact, as violent and corrupt as those he opposes.
Like many of Eastwood’s best Westerns, this is film dealing in the bullshit peddled about the old west. For every tale of heroism there is a truth of brutality, cruelty and betrayal. For every myth created there is a trail of bloodshed and regret. For all that we may think we know about this period, we know only a partial truth, told by those profiting from the blood of others.
It is this, along with a host of fine performances, including Gene Hackman at his charming and terrifying best, and Richard Harris playing one of the last truly great roles of his life, that allows Unforgiven to truly be considered in that small number of classic films.Previous Next
2) The Magnificent Seven
Based on Akira Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai, John Struges created one of the most enduring westerns of all time with The Magnificent Seven.
From the opening notes of the theme music to the blood soaked final confrontation, this is perhaps that rare thing: a perfect film. Every beat feels placed with the precision of a master composer, every character detail and every blistering fight scene is captured with such power as to almost be overwhelming.
Yul Brynner leads a small group of gunmen in the defence of a Mexican village against the tyrant bandit Calvera (a sweating, maniacal Eli Wallach), and in the process forms a close bond with the inhabitants. The gunfighters are legendary, but James Coburn, as the man who can compete only with himself with either a knife or a gun, was always my favourite.
This is a film that more than stands the test of time, and is as dramatic today as it was in 1960. The gunfights are genuinely thrilling, and even the tacked on romantic subplot doesn’t feel as laboured as it might have in less skilled hands.
The Magnificent Seven is a film to watch and enjoy for years to come.Previous Next
1) Once Upon A Time In The West
Sergio Leone’s operatic, sweat drenched love song to the genre would go on to inspire a generation of filmmakers (see also, The Long Riders), and remains the defining vision of an artist and of a genre.
Blending surreal poetry with swift, merciless violence, Leone paints every scene onto the screen and in the process creates his masterwork. The fist clenchingly tense opening is a fine start to a journey through the dark heart of America during the expansion West.
Charles Bronson is at his finest as a squinting, bedraggled, deadly, harmonica playing badass, while Henry Fonda burns up the screen playing magnificently against type as hired killer Frank. Jason Robards is the closest thing the film has to a hero, but it is the inconceivably beautiful, dazzling screen presence of Claudia Cardinale that takes the breath away. Through the dust and sweat and blood she is a shining ray of hope, on all sides tarnished and corrupted by the men in her life, but strong and fearless in the face of oblivion.
It is quite simply the greatest Western of all time. It is transcendental filmmaking, speaking to something beyond reason or logic, and somehow being a universal parable of greed and waste.Previous