Saddle up for Time Out’s in-depth guide to the most rootin’, tootin’ film genre of them all – the western. From golden age classics to hard-hitting revisionist dramas plus a hearty helping of spaghetti, here are 50 films to make you yearn for the days when men were men, women wore bonnets and guns were the only law…
Director: Peter Fonda
Cast involved: Peter Fonda, Warren Oates, Verna Bloom
Living the dream
Jesus may have not packed a six-gun, or spent most of his wages being ‘entertained’ in the back rooms of a border town saloon by some chiffon-clad minx called Saucy Sue, but there are mythic, quasi-religious allegories everywhere you look in the western genre.
One person who was clearly aware of this – and took full advantage of it – was Peter Fonda, who was able to direct this chilled-out fable of a hippified west – in which a band of weary travellers choose to re-embrace rustic minimalism – following the success of 1969’s ‘Easy Rider’.
It’s notable mainly for its incandescent, magic-hour photography care of cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond (the skinny-dip opening scene is terrific) and the whispered exchanges between the key cast, Fonda, Warren Oates and Verna Bloom. But proceedings are hampered somewhat by the narcissism of its director-star, who can’t resist top-and-tailing so many scenes with a fashion-shoot-style self-portrait in which he adopts some angular pose and glances pensively into the middle distance like some Laurel Canyon messiah.
It’s an appealing take on the cowboy code of honour, even if it’s not technically ‘great’. DJRead more
Lonesome Dove (1989)
Director: Simon Wincer
Cast involved: Robert Duvall, Tommy Lee Jones, Danny Glover
Oh bury me not on the lone prairie
But, you cry, ‘Lonesome Dove’ is a TV mini-series, not a movie at all! Well, let’s look at the credentials. Adapted from a book widely considered the best ever written in the western genre, a book written by Larry McMurtry, author of ‘The Last Picture Show’ and ‘Terms of Endearment’, and starring not just Duvall in his prime, not just Jones and Glover on the verge of theirs, but a whole host of great movie character actors including Diane Lane, Frederic Forrest, Angelica Huston, Chris Cooper and William Sanderson, this is as cinematic as TV gets.
Sure, it was directed by a guy poised halfway between ‘DARYL’ and ‘Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man’, but we’ll let that slide: in its epic emotional sweep, in its breadth of landscape and action in its depth of character and awareness of history, ‘Lonesome Dove’ is every bit as artistically valid as half the movies on this list – and it’s a damn sight more entertaining than most of ’em. TH
Director: Kevin Costner
Cast involved: Kevin Costner, Robert Duvall, Annette Bening
The simple life
It’s the bullets you remember. Kevin Costner’s terse, unshowy follow up to (and apology for?) ‘Dances with Wolves’ has lovely, soft-spoken dialogue and near-perfect characterisation, gorgeous period recreation and a darkly compelling sense of mounting intensity.
But what really sticks in the mind are the sound effects he used for the final showdown: eschewing the usual polite Hollywood popguns, these weapons feel close, real, rusty and unpredictable.
It’s just one of the many fine, honest, unostentatious touches which pepper this unsung modern western, a film which, for all its apparent lack of ambition and easygoing charm, leaves an unexpectedly deep impression. THRead more
Director: Michael Winterbottom
Cast involved: Peter Mullan, Milla Jovovich, Wes Bentley
The life and death of a man of character
Less a spaghetti western than a ploughman’s western (honk!), Michael Winterbottom’s wintry morality play relocates Thomas Hardy’s ‘The Mayor of Casterbridge’ from Wessex to the West Coast to startling effect. Wes Bentley – wooden but, for once, quite winning – plays a railroad surveyor newly arrived in Irish immigrant Peter Mullan’s northern Californian fiefdom of Kingdom Come (you can hear the fates conspiring already!) to assess whether the Central Pacific is fit to pass through.
The enormous boon this might generate for Mullan and the town inspires dirty politicking, gut-wrenching revelations, a swooning love story, thunderous shootouts and an impossibly moving climax. Modern sensibilities hold sway throughout, and it’s an undeniably European take, but this is still a fine western in the most classic sense. ALDRead more
Director: Frank Perry
Cast involved: Jeff Bridges, Sam Waterston, Slim Pickens
’Til the end of the day
‘Oh, give me a home with a low-interest loan, a cowgirl and two pick-up trucks. A colour TV, all the beer should be free. And that, man, is Rancho Deluxe!’ The ’70s produced a gold rush of moseyin’, mournful modern-day westerns such as Paul Newman and Lee Marvin’s broke-ass last cattle drive ‘Pocket Money’ and easy-going Steve McQueen rodeo lament ‘Junior Bonner’ – films in which the cowboy way continued to exist only as a dodge for forgotten men or as a fading carnival sideshow.
The feel was invariably elegiac, yet the film that edges them both off our list, the marvellous ‘Rancho Deluxe’, achieves a tone close to mockery. Scripted by Thomas McGuane – writer of ‘The Missouri Breaks’ and ‘Tom Horn’ – and starring Jeff Bridges and Sam Waterston as a couple of smaller-than-small-time Montana rustlers, it’s a sweet, strange, sad little film that presents the west as a nine-to-five refuge for throwbacks, affected playboys and the outright deluded, all stung by the realisation that the chairs are on the tables.
The last waltz has played itself out and nobody even bothered to dance. ALDRead more
Director: Kelly Reichardt
Cast involved: Michelle Williams, Bruce Greenwood, Shirley Henderson
They just keep wagon training…
The western ain’t traditionally woman’s work: if the number of oaters featuring women in a starring role can be counted in, at very most, double digits, the number with a female at the helm must be down to the fingers of one hand: in fact (and please correct us if we’re wrong), the only one we can name for sure is Maggie Greenwald’s ‘The Ballad of Little Jo’.
So for Kelly Reichardt to come out swinging with such a confident, uncompromising frontier story – albeit one which upends just about every tradition the genre holds dear – only proves her incredible strength as a filmmaker. True, the film’s implacable pace, ambiguous characterisation and wide-open ending will likely infuriate and horrify western purists – but that is no bad thing. THRead more
Director: André de Toth
Cast involved: Robert Ryan, Burl Ives, Tina Louise
From bad to terse
The dictionary defines ‘stark’ as ‘forbidding in its bareness and lack of any ornament, relieving feature or pleasant prospect.’ It’s a description that gets as close as possible to describing accurately André de Toth’s offbeat western set in the Oregon hills.
Whether in regards to the crisp, harsh photography, the series of tense stand-offs that frame the narrative or the punishing final ride into the snowy wastes. Robert Ryan excels as the murderous cattleman come to town to hunt down the pesky varmint who has been fencing off the icy pastures on which his cattle used to chomp.
Instead he finds himself desperately defending the town – with his wits as often as his Winchester – against magnificent bastard Burl Ives and his especially vicious gang of on-the-run desperadoes. Fierce, intelligent, exciting and just about as stark as they come. ALDRead more
Director: Arthur Penn
Cast involved: Marlon Brando, Jack Nicholson, Harry Dean Stanton
The Penn is mightier
It’s in the deep cuts of the Missouri River as it snakes through Montana that we find the soggy-bottomed romance and pantomime sadism of Arthur Penn’s schizophrenic range western.
Rustling is the name of the game but the plot rides pillion to a series of darkly comic existential vignettes in which death and desperation play out an escalating series of uneasy two-handers.
As such, it’s a complex/clever-clever western that doesn’t work for everyone. Does Jack Nicholson’s inalienable urbanity distract from his performance as a raggedy-ass dirt farmer?
Do the ludicrous acting choices afforded Marlon Brando by his star-power detract from the lethality of his character? Does Arthur Penn’s hands-off direction allow the plot eventually to settle into a roundelay of psychic showdowns and pornographic violence? The answers to all are ‘yes’.
But then, the frontier was replete with displaced Easterners, insane poet-warriors and purposeless brutality, so maybe it’s time a film that’s too often dismissed as a top-heavy, blow-dried vanity project is given its dues. ALDRead more
Director: Robert Aldrich
Cast involved: Burt Lancaster, Bruce Davison, Joaquín Martínez
Blood on the tracks
If Sam Peckinpah forced open the floodgates of balletic, consequence-free screen violence with ‘The Wild Bunch’, then it was Robert Aldrich’s gory cavalry western which presented the grim realities of range warfare. Not 20 minutes in, and we’re shown three Apaches playing a game of catch with a dead soldier’s innards. Not much later, an old yokel is punished for defending his patch o’ land by being scalped.
And having his face pulverised. Burt Lancaster keeps the toothy grins in lockdown as MacIntosh, a grizzled tracker with an Apache sidekick who is drafted in to the US cavalry to help put an end to a string of savage attacks undertaken by irate Apache chief, Ulzana.
Its central conceit – that it’s only natural to be driven to extreme violence when witnessing the suffering of friends and countrymen – may feel a little reactionary to contemporary eyes, but it remains a hard-hitting and rugged adventure movie that makes up in charisma and suspense what it lacks in political correctness. DJRead more
Director: Mel Brooks
Cast involved: Gene Wilder, Cleavon Little, Madeline Kahn
Mad Mel’s Pryor convictions
By 1974, the traditional western was sailing so close to self-parody that it would’ve been easy for Mel Brooks to take an old plot, stuff in a few bad puns and call it a day. That he instead turned to Richard Pryor, then on the very edge of superstardom, to help him craft a film which would be not just funny but edgily relevant says a lot about Brooks’s willingness to take risks – once upon a time.
The result may be imperfect. Pryor really should have been allowed to play the lead, and the entire subplot with Madeline Kahn as lisping Teutonic chanteuse Lili von Schtupp is bizarre and inexplicable. But ‘Blazing Saddles’ contains enough glorious one-liners (‘Mongo only pawn in game of life…’), iconic scenes (the campfire, the rogues’ lineup, the set-shattering finale) and sheer genre-busting bravado to carry it through the cactus patches. THRead more
Director: John Ford
Cast involved: Ben Johnson, Joanne Dru, Ward Bond
Sects on legs
Arguably the definitive ‘range western’, John Ford’s spirited 1950 film demonstrated the potential to make sharp political, psychological and anthological observations about the workings of society by simply packing a few hapless folks across the treacherous prairie and monitoring how they fare.
Ben Johnson plays affable horse wrangler Travis, who along with his ol’ mucker Sandy (Harry Carey Jr) is roped in to escorting a large group of Mormons across some dicey terrain and on to the Promised Land. Along the way, frictions escalate as they pick up, first, the vulgar clientele of a broken down medicine show, and then the on-the-run Clegg gang, themselves overseen by the deceptively avuncular man-slug, Uncle Shiloh (Charles Kemper).
Though there are ample shots of the Mormons huffing and puffing as their godless fellow travellers blithely go about their sinful ways, Ford’s film emphasises the claustrophobia and creeping peril of the great outdoors while advocating compromise and tolerance when it comes to large, socially diverse groups working towards a single goal. And so the west was won. DJRead more
Requiescant (aka Kill and Pray) (1967)
Director: Carlo Lizzani
Cast involved: Lou Castel, Mark Damon, Pier Paolo Pasolini
To compile a list of the most interesting spaghetti westerns would require a list five times this size – and a panel of experts far better versed in that most obscure and overloaded of subgenres.
So we’ll just have to let a few key titles speak for the rest, including this inventive oddity from critic, writer and staunch socialist Carlo Lizzani. A believer in bringing political ideology to the masses by any means necessary, Lizzani constructed his film both as a riveting, gore-splattered exploitation movie and as a treatise on aristocratic inhumanity, biological destiny and religious hypocrisy: iconic Italian filmmaker and political revolutionary Pier Paolo Pasolini even appears as a machine-gun packing priest. Sweaty, sadistic and wildly OTT, ‘Requiescant’ has to be seen to be believed. TH
Director: Elliot Silverstein
Cast involved: Richard Harris, Judith Anderson, James Gammon
Why the long face?
A strange beast, this ‘Horse’: part Victorian memoir of ‘Life Among the Savages’, part mystical ethnographic head trip. The original short story, by Montana journo Dorothy M Johnson, whose clipped, Hemingway-esque prose also gave us ‘The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance’, was published in 1950, but this is a movie that could only have been shot in the late 1960s.
Richard Harris is remarkably restrained as bored English aristo John Morgan who seeks a very counter-cultural spiritual awakening in the far west of the 1820. He becomes the property of a tribe of Sioux and works his way up the greasy totem-pole from slave to brave.
The clash of derring-do narrative with acid-tinged flourishes makes for a giddy ride that’s uneven but mind-blowingly memorable. This is ever more so than in the central scene in which Morgan becomes a Sioux during the Sun Vow ritual, which takes on a wildly hallucinogenic edge as the Englishman meets his spirit animal in an ecstasy of pain.
It’s a moment that wouldn’t look out of place in a Dario Argento slash-fest and typifies the dreamlike melancholy that makes ‘Horse’ such a pleasure. PFRead more
Director: Robert Aldrich
Cast involved: Gary Cooper, Burt Lancaster, Denise Darcel
Aunque el destino cambio mi vida, en Vera Cruz morire…
Despite informing the look and swagger of ‘The Magnificent Seven’, the scope and violence of ‘The Wild Bunch’ and the arch cynicism of Sergio Leone’s soupy Spaghettios, ‘Vera Cruz’ is not as well remembered as many of its contemporaries. Perhaps it has to do with the departure from traditional western themes.
We take our leave from railroad ramifications and range rivalries for a rip-roaring adventure set amidst the Franco-Mexican War. A world-weary, conflicted Gary Cooper and a grinning Burt Lancaster team up to smuggle millions in Mexican moolah out of the country.
Bright, brash, ludicrously enjoyable and ever so cool, ‘Vera Cruz’ is a daring western too often excluded from the canon in favour of worthy oaters and rote revengers. ALDRead more
Director: Arthur Penn
Cast involved: Dustin Hoffman, Faye Dunaway, Chief Dan George
Oh, what did you see, my blue-eyed son?
Was there ever a western more of its era than ‘Little Big Man’? Released during the height of the Vietnam War into an America reeling from the hangover of the Civil Rights Movement and a post-Altamont hippie comedown, its reflections on the futility of war, the perversity of racism and dashed liberal ideals couldn’t have been more timely.
Dustin Hoffman plays Jack Crabb, a white man taken in by the Cheyenne and raised by Indians – who memorably refer to themselves as ‘human beings’ throughout – and who spends a fractured life criss-crossing the racial divide as a gunslinger, drunkard, mule skinner and Native American warrior.
It’s an agreeably daft, picaresque, rambling, gentle, episodic film that somehow blends into an extraordinarily deft portrait of the west, as well as a sly and sophisticated satire on contemporary America. ALDRead more
Director: Fritz Lang
Cast involved: Marlene Dietrich, Arthur Kennedy and Mel Ferrer
I lieb you, I lieb you! Now lieb me alone
No one was expecting a rootin’ tootin’ happy-time frolic with Fritz Lang’s name on the credits. Yet, below myriad layers of cynicism and despair is arguably one of the director’s liveliest works.
Not markedly different in tone from the sinister noir thrillers he’d been making in Hollywood since the mid thirties, it sees western stalwart Arthur Kennedy dedicating his life to tracking down the man who slotted his missus-to-be and uncovering a secretive den of thieves in the process.
Matters stray off the reservation when amorous sparks begin to fly between Kennedy and madame-turned-crime boss Dietrich (who, in one remarkable scene, is literally seen riding drunken men like horses), whose policy at the ranch is that no crook discuss his past sins.
More than just a gumshoe movie with added saddle baggage and spurs, Lang deviously pulls the mystery of the killer’s identity out of the frame in the final act to emphasise the subtle allure of corruption and vice.
And his decision to radically alter the gender roles dictated by western convention makes this the ideal riding partner for Nicholas Ray’s sublime ‘Johnny Guitar’. DJRead more
Director: Sam Peckinpah
Cast involved: Randolph Scott, Joel McRea, Ron Starr
Hey, old timer
Few genres tackle ageing as convincingly as the western. A masculine genre fixated with self-sufficiency and isolation, the western often forced us to ask what comes at the end of a life lived by the gun – but when it does, the answers are rarely pleasant ones. Sam Peckinpah’s second film – and first masterpiece – is the simplest and most heartfelt of all the ‘geriatric westerns’.
It’s less obsessed with violence than ‘The Wild Bunch’, sweeter and less pessimistic than ‘Unforgiven’ and emotionally richer than either version of ‘True Grit’. Scott and McRea play old-time gunslingers, once feared lawmen now turned to pageantry and mercenary work, whose decision to re-team for one last lucrative job leads to in-fighting, betrayal and the final, irrevocable breaking of their partnership.
And just around the edges, we can feel the first tentative flourishes of what would come to be called ‘western revisionism’: the town of Coarsegold, populated by spit-hawking, ball-scratching Peckinpah regulars like LQ Jones and Warren Oates, is as convincing a vision of hell as anything in Bloody Sam’s later work, a hint that this world of high adventure on the high sierra wasn’t quite as rollicking as your average 12-year-old audience member might dream it was. THRead more
The Magnificent Seven (1960)
Director: John Sturges
Cast involved: Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen, Eli Wallach et al
Samurai Steve! Bushido Brynner! Katana Coburn! Erm… Wasabi Wallach!!!
The iconic elements of John Sturges’s adaptation of Akira Kurosawa’s seminal sword-swisher ‘Seven Samurai’ might be the blistering horns of Elmer Bernstein’s iconic – and much-abused – theme tune or the rousing climactic shoot out, but it is, perhaps, the gentler moments that make it such an enduring favourite.
The subtle interplay between the well-delineated Yanqui gunslingers who come to the aid of a besieged Mexican village is a joy. At odds behind the scenes, star Yul Brynner and upstart Steve McQueen consistently try to outdo each other, but never to such a degree that they upstage or unbalance either the film or the group dynamics.
Eli Wallach writes the book on sweaty banditry, while James Coburn stays cool as a rule as the seven’s laconic knife man. But our favourite is Robert Vaughn’s fancy, petulant riverboat gambler-type who comes across like Stewie Griffin channelling Han Solo. ALD
The Great Silence (1968)
Director: Sergio Corbucci
Cast involved: Jean-Louis Trintignant, Klaus Kinski, Frank Wolff
Softly, softly, catchee Kinski
Growing in stature as the years pass, the bleak majesty of Sergio Corbucci’s dark, complex meditation on the human cost of progress threatens to outstrip the bleached, hallucinatory, hyper-violent ‘Django’ as his crowning achievement.
Set in Utah during the Great Blizzard of 1899, it follows the mute Silence (Jean-Louis Trintignant), a hired gun with a particular interest in the state-sanctioned bounty hunters – exemplified by Klaus Kinski’s mannered, controlled, entirely deadly Loco – who are clearing the land of anyone who doesn’t have their finger in the pie.
Though overflowing with theological subtext and social indignance, it’s an uncommonly reserved film by spaghetti western (and Kinski) standards, but when that silence is broken, the noise and fury are truly something to behold. ALD
Director: Clint Eastwood
Cast involved: Clint Eastwood, Verna Bloom, Mitch Ryan
Hell is other people
Upon release, many critics read the appearance of a pair of gravestones midway through Clint’s sophomore film which read ‘Leone’ and ‘Siegel’ as a fond farewell to his two cinematic fathers, a fact seemingly borne out by his third movie, lighthearted romcom ‘Breezy’.
But it was only three years before Clint was back in the saddle with ‘The Outlaw Josey Wales’ and only four before he was taking up Don Siegel’s mantle with ‘Dirty Harry’ knockoff ‘The Gauntlet’, so it seems fairly safe to say his intentions were misread: ‘High Plains Drifter’ was less a goodbye, and more of a tribute.
On which level it succeeds masterfully, fusing the flyblown, sweaty sweep of Leone’s vision with the monstrous cynicism of Siegel to create a world entirely without rules – even those governing the living and the dead. THRead more
Director: John Ford
Cast involved: Anne Bancroft, Sue Lyon, Mildred Dunnock
It’s a difficult position…
John Ford’s direly underrated swansong sees him doing for women what he did both for African Americans in ‘Sergeant Rutledge’ (1960) and for Native Americans in ‘Cheyenne Autumn’ (1964): requesting forgiveness for helping to fuel unconstructive stereotypes in his earlier classics.
Not a western in the strictest sense, its setting and story still play through some of the timeworn conventions of the genre, notably a strenuous search for moral equilibrium when defending against a common foe.
The film is set in a Christian mission in deepest, darkest Mongolia and it’s hard-drinking, hard-smoking and hard-swearing Doctor Cartwright (Anne Bancroft) who has to fight the hard humanitarian fight in the face of Margaret Leighton’s head missionary, a woman who’ll take death before besmirching the holy sacraments. Surprisingly, the two warring women never bury the hatchet, even when the fate of the mission hangs on the whims of a hoard of sweaty Mongolian barbarians.
As Cartwright eventually gives her life over for the good of her colleagues, she utters the immortal final line, ‘So long, you bastard!’, which can also be read as Ford’s defiant parting gesture to his dwindling audience. DJRead more
Director: Anthony Mann
Cast involved: James Stewart, Janet Leigh, Robert Ryan
Love comes in spurs
Ben Vandergroat (Robert Ryan) is a cocky son of a gun, on the run with fancy woman Lina (Janet Leigh) in tow and wanted for the murder of a marshal in Abilene, Kansas. Bad luck for him that Jimmy Stewart’s inexplicably determined gentleman mercenary, Howard Kemp, is on his tail and has a beady eye on collecting the not-insignificant bounty on his head.
Anthony Mann’s mighty 1953 film – his third in collaboration with Stewart – offers a ridiculously taught, dynamic and satisfyingly hectic yarn that is less interested in chronicling the capture of the crim than the logistical nightmare of returning the man to civilisation and administering his deathly just desserts.
Lina is the key player, and the only person able to reach out emotionally to Kemp, a man subsumed in anger, regret and the sub-conscious recognition that his reasons for taking on this perilous mission may be dubious to say the least. Mann, along with scriptwriters Sam Rolfe and Harold Jack Bloom ask, ‘Is a buck still a buck if it’s sodden with blood?’ DJRead more
Director: Howard Hawks
Cast involved: John Wayne, Dean Martin, Ricky Nelson
The wordless tableau that opens ‘Rio Bravo’ is a vicious little parade of cruelty as Dean Martin’s pathetic drunk, Dude, is publicly humiliated and beaten, and an innocent bystander gets a gut shot – in close-up – from laughing villain Joe Burdette.
Everything you need to know about Howard Hawks’s siege western is contained in the scene. The inspiration for John Carpenter’s ‘Assault on Precinct 13’ has barely an ounce of fat on it and any gabbing – let alone exposition – is reserved solely for women and Mexicans. The plot is a ticking clock: John Wayne and his dipso deputy Martin hold Burdette for the US Marshal while the murderer’s henchmen gather in town like crows on cattle wire.
Wayne’s love match with Angie Dickinson’s shady gambler misfires, with even the sparky dialogue from Leigh Brackett, who scripted ‘The Big Sleep’, unable to overcome the faintly queasy May to December vibe. But as the fragile, self-pitying, alcoholic Dude, Martin was never better. And in ‘My Rifle, My Pony and Me’ and ‘El Guello’, we’re treated to two of the most atmospheric western theme tunes in cinema. PFRead more
Director: William Wellman
Cast involved: Henry Fonda, Dana Andrews, Anthony Quinn
Nice day for a lynchin’
A brilliant morality play with a literal killer twist, William Wellman’s simple admonishment of ‘the angry mob’ and sloppy information gathering – based on the 1940 novella by Walter Van Tilburg Clark – may be the definitve Iraq War movie. It presents a workaday Wild West situation and runs it through to its depressing natural conclusion.
Nevada, 1885: the patrons of a local saloon discover via messenger that some cattle rustlers have killed a local rancher and so take it as their God-given duty to tool up and hit the dusty trail in search of retribution by rope. They find three men who’ve bedded down in the Ox-Bow Canyon: they’ve got steer and no receipt and so a kangaroo court swiftly sentences them to death by hanging.
But were the men really guilty? It’s an extremely worrying movie, and its conjectures on the nature of truth and influence still hold plenty of water. DJRead more
Director: Sergio Leone
Cast involved: Henry Fonda, Charles Bronson, Claudia Cardinale
Heap big trouble in the land of plenty
‘Looks like we’re shy one horse!’ ‘No, you brought two too many…’ After 15 minutes of dripping water, squeaky windmills and buzzing flies, Sergio Leone has Charles Bronson dispense a line that’s not only one of the coolest ever delivered in the history of the Wild West, but one which reassures us that what he’s got in store will be well worth the wait. Bronson’s existential zinger also hints at the film’s thematic preoccupations.
This is an iron-horse opera: the railroad is presented as an implacable force that will eradicate the cowboy way. There’s no rerouting, delaying or impeding Leone’s locomotive. The characters all play out their roles as bystanders to the rush of progress – killing, bribing, seducing, deceiving each other even while the railhead pushes inexorably on, regardless of the human collateral.
Even the tycoon behind the venture doesn’t make the distance. The sweep of modernity through the Wild West has never been so pitiless, nor, in Leone’s vision, more terribly glorious. ALDRead more
Director: Sergio Corbucci
Cast involved: Franco Nero, José Bódalo, Loredana Nusciak
Coff-coff-coffin on heaven’s door
If the Man with No Name is the Elvis of the spaghetti western, then Django is the genre’s Jerry Lee Lewis – volatile, tormented and given to acts of dismaying self-destruction.
The first ‘Django’ starred steely-eyed non-actor Franco Nero as a sun-baked Angel of Death arriving in a corrupt Mexican border town lugging a coffin full of high-calibre surprises. Drenched in delirious violence and unbridled sleaze, it was a dirty, nasty, despicably enjoyable film that spawned a raft of dubious sequels and baffling rip-offs.
The totally unhooked ‘Django, Kill!’ (1967), starring passive pretty boy Tomas Milian in the lead, for instance, featured a gang of black-clad homosexual ‘muchachos’, vampire bats, plenty scalpings and a heavy dose of psychedelia.
The less said about 1968’s ‘Nude Django’ the better, but 1971’s ‘Django’s Cut Price Corpses’ surely deserves a mention for its title alone. These spurious spin-offs aside, the original maintains a dusty grip on the imagination that shows no sign of letting up. ALDRead more
Director: George Stevens
Cast involved: Alan Ladd, Jean Arthur, Van Heflin
Father, son and holy gunslinger
For so long considered the lodestone of western mythology, George Stevens’s elegiac sod-buster melodrama is a less potent experience than it must have been in 1953, perhaps because the drifting gunslinger in search of redemption has been improved upon many times since.
To a generation of western fans raised on ‘Pale Rider’ and Sergio Leone’s flawed and dirty heroes, Alan Ladd as Shane lacks the light and shade to intimate the violent past that brings him to the Starrett farmstead. Nevertheless, there’s a dark realism in Loyal Griggs’s Oscar-winning photography and little in the way of concession to audience expectation.
This is a grim Wild West, a place where the living is meagre and achieved by backbreaking toil or at the barrel of a gun and where, unlike back east where grown men gorge on pulp cowboy novels, only a boy like Joey Starrett might elevate a man like Shane to heroic status.
A profoundly depressing film that remains somehow deeply satisfying in its hopelessness, ‘Shane’ inverts the western ideal of reinvention, suggesting, as Ladd rides down among the tombstones, that a man carries his sin with him wherever he goes. PFRead more
Director: John Ford
Cast involved: John Wayne, Claire Trevor
This wheel’s on fire
The classic mismatched-travellers tale was given a western twist in this evergreen cinematic wonder, John Ford’s first sound film in the genre and the beginning of his creative love affair both with Wayne and with the towering prehistoric landscape of Monument Valley.
And if the plot and cast of characters – the gentleman gambler, the boozy doc, the Southern belle, the blowhard banker, the green-around-the-gills young outlaw out to prove himself – are overfamiliar, that’s only because ‘Stagecoach’ has been remade, ripped off and roughly homaged every which way in the seven decades since its release.
But what never gets old is Ford’s extraordinary handling of tone: that any film which contains a massacre, a pitched battle, a backwoods birth and, very nearly, a brutal mercy killing could remain so breezily entertaining without ever seeming in poor taste is simply astonishing.
Its dubious depictions of marauding bloodthirsty Injuns aside, ‘Stagecoach’ still feels remarkably modern. THRead more
Director: Budd Boetticher
Cast involved: Randolph Scott, Lee Marvin, Stuart Whitman
The brave little lawman
If there’s one job you really wouldn’t want in the Old West, it was the driver of the Wells Fargo stage, its cargo of bullion and paper money so often a magnet for any dirty outlaw in the vicinity. Budd Boetticher casts Randolph Scott as Ben Stride, a melancholy ex-sheriff who’s taken to the prairie to administer lead-flavoured justice to the seven men responsible for his wife’s death during a bungled bank robbery.
On the way, he links up with a lovable couple doing the manifest destiny thing by heading to California and quickly becomes their de facto protector. For a film that barely clocks in at 80 minutes, Boetticher crams the material with ironies, ambiguities and moral conundrums. But the slow release of information and the tentative building of friendships (and enemies) mean that the stakes change minute by minute.
Lee Marvin delivers a stupendous, proto-Liberty Valance supporting turn as a man always open to taking advantage of a yeller-belly, and in one near-unwatchable scene, proceeds furtively to humiliate the husband with the aim of fleeing with the wife. Scott, of course, sees to it that he doesn’t. DJRead more
Director: Alejandro Jodorowsky
Cast involved: Alejandro Jodorowsky, Alfonso Arau
And so the ‘acid western’ was born: Sergio Leone meets Federico Fellini meets Pier Paolo Pasolini, with Timothy Leary on vibes.
From the former, Alejandro Jodorowsky took his interest in violence and his gift for widescreen composition; from the second, his madcap circus sensibility and sense of daring; from the third his scattershot political nous; and from the latter, his ability to fuse all this into a counterculture-friendly psychedelic pop stew.
The result is one of the first ‘midnight movies’, and a genuine underground smash: perhaps the most artistically successful of that brief end-of-the-’60s flowering of well-funded experimenta, a film whose commitment to mind-expanding beauty and eye-opening social comment is never allowed to get in the way of its delirious, all-embracing strangeness and inescapable, if inexplicable, emotional impact. THRead more
Director: Fred Zinnemann
Cast involved: Gary Cooper, Lloyd Bridges, Grace Kelly
Lonely are the brave
We join retired sheriff Gary Cooper at the very moment he’s tying the knot with pacifist Quaker bombshell Grace Kelly, and as their chariot awaits to taxi them away to a future of dirt farming bliss, news comes down the wire that one of the varmints Cooper sent down is out on a technicality and riding in on the noon train with a debt to settle and a trigger finger that’s itchier than a sunburnt leper.
As the clock inches towards the deadline, the ever-more fraught Cooper knows that he has to face his destiny and preserve the town he toiled to enlighten. More than a ruthlessly straightforward countdown to violence, screenwriter Carl Foreman made this as much about the strains between community and the all-American ideal of individuality, as Cooper’s failed attempts to deputise enough local gunslingers to stand up to this scourge presents a town sullied as much by internal fear as external threat. Remade as ‘Back to the Future 3’. DJRead more
Director: Marlon Brando
Cast involved: Brando, Karl Malden, Katy Jurado, Ben Johnson
The dead man’s hand again
A decade before the thespian indulgences of ‘The Missouri Breaks’ (see 43), Brando wielded his star power to a far greater degree and to even more satisfying effect in this exotic, strange and much-storied revenger.
Initially scripted by a young Sam Peckinpah and set to be directed by none other than Stanley Kubrick, it was originally intended as a relatively straight-up account of the short, brutish life of Billy the Kid, and his death at the hands of former compadre Pat Garrett (a story Peckinpah would gloriously revisit).
The endless script tinkering and personnel changes that took place during the film’s long gestation, however, saw the film become a hobbyhorse for Brando – then on a nature tip – to explore his own themes.
The result is hypnotic. Rarely has the internal and external landscape been fused with such artistry within a western, as the film moves from the dust storms of Death Valley to the splendour of the Californian coast and the shifting morality of the characters locks into fatal certainty.
It’s an old story, but through Brando’s eyes, the familiarity becomes elemental. ALDRead more
Director: Andrew Dominik
Cast involved: Brad Pitt, Casey Affleck, Sam Rockwell
I coulda been a contender
The western has been declared dead more times than Rasputin, but it keeps on kicking. Even a relatively quiet decade like the last one contained more than its fair share of memorable horse operas: actors’ vanity projects like Kevin Costner’s under-the-breath romance ‘Open Range’ (see 47) and Ed Harris’s superb, underseen ‘Appaloosa’, globetrotting genre-benders like ‘Shanghai Noon’, ‘The Proposition’, ‘Sukiyaki Western Django’ and ‘The Good the Bad and the Weird’, old fashioned throwbacks like ‘The Missing’ and ‘3:10 To Yuma’ and edge-of-the-genre masterpieces like ‘Three Burials…’ and ‘There Will Be Blood’.
But few were more memorable, more stately, more effortlessly iconic than Aussie director Andrew Dominik’s take on one of America’s most enduring legends. Photographed in stark granite hues and populated by a who’s who of young(ish) US talent, including a potentially decade’s-best performance from Casey Affleck as the desperately lonely Ford, this is the western as historical document, as social comment, folk ballad and great novel. THRead more
Director: Howard Hawks
Cast involved: John Wayne, Montgomery Clift, Walter Brennan
Take ’em to Missouri, Matt!
‘Let’s do the “yee haa” scene from “Red River”!’ Yes, it’s the ultimate cattle-drive movie, as John Wayne’s domineering beef baron Dunson decides to take his entire herd north in search of a decent price, taking along Montgomery Clift’s rebellious adoptee and a whole host of grizzled character actors for company.
Tempers fray, Indians swarm, cows stampede, Clift pouts, Wayne barks, Brennan totters, and Hawks delivers yet another glorious snapshot of unfettered masculinity in action.
It may be hard for modern audiences to put aside the fact that cattle barons like Dunson were generally murderous aristocrats making a grab for land, that it wasn’t just the Indians who were tortured and slaughtered into submission but the poor smallholders too, and that the Dunsons of yesteryear are the political dynasties of today.
But in 1948 America was a country still in need of its own myths, hence ‘Red River’ and a thousand other tales of gods, men, guns and horses. Just don’t believe a goddamn word of it. THRead more
Director: Samuel Fuller
Cast involved: Barbara Stanwyck, Gene Barry, Robert Dix
Babs’s dude ranch
As the archetypal, stogie-chomping man’s man filmmaker, it seemed only natural that Samuel Fuller would dabble in the western.
His cheap but effective debut, ‘I Shot Jesse James’ (1949), underscored the subtle homoerotic subtext of the relationship between the eponymous outlaw and his cowardly killer, while the rueful ‘Run of the Arrow’ (1957) saw Rod Steiger in mad, Irish method mode, going Awol and, erm, joining the Sioux.
But the delirious ‘Forty Guns’ is comfortably his most assured attempt at offering a unique, sexually enlightened and psychologically weighty spin on trad western heroics, its innovative use of expressionist cinematic style as much a storytelling tool as its tortured, gun crazy protagonists. Photographed in crisp monochrome, it presents Barbara Stanwyck on feisty form as a no-nonsense ranch boss backed by 40 hired guns and the (literal) whirlwind of romance she enters into with Barry Sullivan’s pacifist lawman. DJRead more
Director: Clint Eastwood
Cast involved: Eastwood, Morgan Freeman, Gene Hackman
Clint’s last round-up
For a film so often held up as the epitome of western revisionism, ‘Unforgiven’ spends an awful lot of time mythologising the reputations of its fabled characters.
Clint’s William Munny, a former outlaw, and – it is strongly hinted – hired killer, attempts to outrun his reputation by becoming a pig farmer; Gene Hackman’s Little Bill Daggett has built on his reputation in order to hold together a small town; Richard Harris’s ‘English’ Bob, meanwhile, revels in his reputation, continuing to farm out his fan-hand to the highest bidder.
Saul Rubinek’s eastern newspaperman, who has come west to gather stories of thrilling shootouts and gallant gunfighters, gets far more than he bargained for when confronted with these original articles.
Hackman, who is – for good or ill – attempting to build and protect a community – is the only one of the three to die in the film, while the two gunmen – one reverted to his old ways, one who never abandoned them – ride on.
‘Unforgiven’ wants to have its cake and eat it, and that – rather than mere revisionism – is what makes Eastwood’s final western such a complex and rewarding experience. ALDRead more
Director: Sam Peckinpah
Cast involved: William Holden, Ernest Borgnine, Robert Ryan
Take your seats for the bullet ballet
It’s hard to believe that just seven years had passed between ‘Ride the High Country’, Peckinpah’s daring, heartfelt but still resolutely old-school western masterpiece, and the game-changing hot blast of new-wave revisionism that was ‘The Wild Bunch’.
In between, he’d faffed about with Charlton Heston in the disappointing ‘Major Dundee’, done a fair amount of screenwriting and TV work, drank a bit and broodingly plotted his next big move.
It’s safe to say no one was expecting this. Theses have been written about the meaning of ‘The Wild Bunch’, its relations to Vietnam and the cultural revolution, the death of censorship and the awakening of social conscience.
But, with all of this firmly in the past, what remains is a portrait of desperation, of men so locked into one way of living that the only way out is to die. Peckinpah was undoubtedly a consummate self-mythologiser, and he loved to propagate an image of himself which tallied with the hard-living, hard-drinking characters he wrote about.
But it’s hard not to see ‘The Wild Bunch’ as evidence of a man willingly, enthusiastically, foolishly sowing the seeds of his own self-destruction. THRead more
Director: Monte Hellman
Cast involved: Millie Perkins, Jack Nicholson, Warren Oates
Rarely have the rolling hills and pristine flats of the American hinterland (here, Utah) looked as drab and intimidating as in Monte Hellman’s mesmerising B-picture quickie, one of the key forerunners of the existential ‘acid western’.
A grizzled wastrel played by Warren Oates haplessly joins the road to hell when agreeing to a no-questions-asked deal to escort a mysterious, nameless woman (Millie Perkins) to a town called Kingsley.
Alongside his naive cohort Coley (Will Hutchins), the trio take to the trail, but it’s not long before paranoia sets in as it appears the woman is leaving signs for a mysterious (and, it transpires, sadistically violent) follower, expertly played by Jack Nicholson.
Heroism and honour are notable by their absence here, as the film is primarily about the undercurrents of dread and paranoia that come with being forced together with mysterious strangers and the claustrophobia of open spaces.
Exceptional, drug-metaphory stuff, and the final mind-boggling, slo-mo showdown is surely one of the reasons that DVD players have rewind functions. DJRead more
Director: Michael Cimino
Cast involved: Kris Kristofferson, Jeff Bridges, Isabelle Huppert
The cost of freedom
I remember feeling a deep sense of disappointment when I discovered that ‘Heaven’s Gate’ was a western. Everyone knows the title and the tale behind it: the money ($44 million, a lot for the time), the egos (namely Cimino’s), the drug abuse (alleged), the animal cruelty (all UK prints still have the cockfighting scenes removed), the tell-all tabloid bestsellers (Steven Bach’s wonderful ‘Final Cut’).
The film has become a byword for Hollywood excess. And to spend all that money not on putting armies in the field or setting spaceships on fire but on horses, shacks and quality headwear makes it all seem even more astonishingly wasteful. But then you watch the movie.
And for all its faults, ‘Heaven’s Gate’ feels like $44m: not always in a good way, as sometimes the weight of the production and the intricacy of its construction, undeniably threaten to drag it down. But mostly this is money incredibly well spent, on sets, on costumes, on landscapes, on one astonishing battle scene: the result is perhaps the most all-embracingly authentic of westerns.
That this authenticity didn’t stop at the visual level was perhaps the film’s undoing, at least commercially: this is the tale of how the west was sold, the furious rejoinder to the noble myth-building of ‘Red River’ and even ‘The Wild Bunch’, rejecting the legend in favour of a cold, stratified reality where the rich ruled by the gun while the poor ate dirt and died. But it is undoubtedly a masterpiece, albeit a flawed one, and worth $44m of anyone’s money. THRead more
Director: John Ford
Cast involved: Henry Fonda, Linda Darnell, Victor Mature
John Ford’s lyrical, definitive take on the none-more-iconic ‘Gunfight at the OK Corral’ stands as a slow-burn paean to the righteous moral cornerstones of a nascent American society.
Henry Fonda plays it satisfyingly low and lazy as Wyatt Earp, the friendly ex-lawman-turned-rancher whose wrath is courted by the no-good Clanton brood, and who decides the best route to revenge would be to pin a tin star on his shirt and take up office as the marshal of Tombstone.
Noticeably light on stock western monkeyshines (bar the final, purportedly technically accurate, shoot-out), the film counterpoints the rapid modernisation of Tombstone with the regressive evil of the Clantons, and the encroaching threat of violence is made all the more significant as Earp begins to find his place in the world with the help of religion, patriotism, friendship (Victor Mature, heartbreaking as ailing sharp-shooter ‘Doc’ Holliday) and a newfound love for Bostonian schoolteacher, Clementine (Cathy Downs). DJRead more
Director: Sergio Leone
Cast involved: Clint Eastwood, Eli Wallach, Lee Van Cleef
AAAaaaAAAaaaAAAAAA! Wow wow wow…
We think of the western as the most unreconstructed of genres: manly men doing manly things. But looking through this list, it’s amazing how many different ‘uses’ the genre has: a political tool, a mode of social protest and, of course, a way to explore and explain differing concepts of masculinity.
In fact, it’s surprising how few of them are purely, single-mindedly dedicated to just telling a damn good yarn. Luckily, we’ve got ‘The Good, the Bad and the Ugly’ for that.
This is one of the absolute peaks of pure narrative cinema: a story which spans many months, hundreds of miles and armies of extras, all of it dedicated to keeping an audience engrossed.
Sure, there’s meaning here if you want it (War is absurd! People are assholes!) but this is a movie which works so astonishingly well on the surface that digging any deeper doesn’t just feel pointless, but ever so slightly wrong.
And it’s one of those surprisingly rare movies which seem overfamiliar until you rewatch it.
You’re always knocked back by how much there is to rediscover: everyone remembers the big set pieces – Tuco’s ‘hanging’, the cigars in the desert, the dusty uniforms, the prison-camp beatings, the battle at the bridge, the final showdown, the entire score – but there’s so much more to the movie than that. Remember the exploding hotel room, or the fight on the train, or Tuco in the caves, or the heartbreaking monastery sequence?
This is not so much a movie, more an entire world which Leone is just hiring out to us for three hours at a time. THRead more
Director: Budd Boetticher
Cast involved: Randolph Scott, Noah Beery Jr, HM Wynant
Wife! Be like a rose
There’s surely a piece to be written comparing Budd Boetticher’s ‘Randown cycle’ – the seven films he made in collaboration with Randolph Scott, starting in 1954 with ‘Seven Men From Now’ and concluding in 1960 with ‘Comanche Station’ – with French maestro Eric Rohmer’s Six Moral Tales.
Their similarities may not be immediately obvious, but both series of films saw their directors dealing in simple, moral conundrums and essentially making small but calculated variations on the same simple set up.
Where Rohmer traded in the subtleties of temptation and desire, Boetticher examines the specifics of revenge, its applications, its outcomes and its psychological tolls.
In the relentlessly grim ‘Decision at Sundown’, Charles G Lang’s script ramps up the moral ambiguities in Randolph’s Scott’s quest for reprisals. He’s typically out to find the varmints what shot his wife (‘Ride Lonesome’) or who left buckshot in some cheeky scamp who asked him to pick up some taffy from town (‘The Tall T’), but here the stakes are less easy to fathom.
Conventional notions of heroes and villains are thrown out. Good has the capacity for evil and evil the capacity for good. Bart Allison (Scott) has got his crosshairs fixed on Tate Kimbrough (John Carroll), the dandy gang boss and head honcho of the grubby border town Sunrise.
Kimbrough, we’re told – and for a while, we believe – killed Allison’s wife, but as the dark details of this accusation emerge, we soon appreciate that Allison is out to defend a severely warped memory of his late wife that is rooted in his conservative conception of womanhood rather than the bleak reality of the situation. Stunning. DJRead more
Director: Nicholas Ray
Cast involved: Joan Crawford, Sterling Hayden, Mercedes McCambridge
Nicholas Ray’s resplendent Western bitchfest, ‘Johnny Guitar’, was emblematic of the tireless efforts of the Cahiers du Cinema critics of the late 1950s and 1960 to celebrate small-scale genre films that might have otherwise slipped through the cracks of history.
Indeed, Godard liked it so much that he had Jean-Paul Belmondo puckishly cite it as historically relevant viewing to his maid in ‘Pierrot le Fou’. Similarly, Truffaut sent Belmondo and Catherine Deneuve to catch the film in ‘Mississippi Mermaid’, after which Belmondo accurately notes that, ‘It’s not about horses and guns. It’s about people and emotions.’
It’s also – surprisingly for a Western – about sexual longing, and not always of the heterosexual variety. Joan Crawford tears apart the screen as Vienna, the ball-busting proprietress of a casino that’s been built to take advantage of the town’s impending railroad connection.
She’s called up an old beau, fancy-boy gunslinger-turned-troubadour Johnny Guitar (Sterling Hayden) to cover her back during a series of bitter confrontations with hard-nosed town busybody, Emma (Mercedes McCambridge).
There’s love, hate, intrigue, politics and action, but these facets amount to mere window-dressing when placed next to the film’s revisionist central idea of having Crawford’s character exhibit the brusque attributes we might commonly associate with such mythic creatures as John Wayne or Randolph Scott. Budget-wise, this was a tiny production, but that didn’t prevent Ray matching the bombastic sound and fury and heady emotionalism of studio behemoths like ‘Gone with the Wind’. DJRead more
Director: John Ford
Cast involved: James Stewart, John Wayne, Vera Miles
‘This is the west, Sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.’
Five years after the entrancing bitterness of ‘The Searchers’, John Ford reached a kind of accommodation with his favourite mythologies in this bundle of contradictions. This western, that opens just a few years before World War I, is a tragedy shot through with mischief and boisterous humour. And it’s a film that comes to bury the Old West but can’t help but praise it.
The end of the frontier life is heralded by the collision of James Stewart’s principled eastern lawyer, Stoddard, with rancher Tom Doniphon, played with rough charm by John Wayne. Stoddard’s civilisation competes with Doniphon’s western gun law as they both try to free the town of Shinbone from the grip of outlaw Liberty Valance and vie for the love of the same woman.
It’s a contrast that’s played out from the start, when Stoddard, now an ageing and respected senator, arrives back in Shinbone for Doniphon’s funeral only to find the great symbol of the west – it’s John Wayne in that pine box after all – is bound for a pauper’s grave. As Stoddard relates his story in flashback to the editor of the Shinbone Star, the layers of western legend are peeled away, exposing not lies but a collective will to mythologise and an amnesia necessary for progress.
Ford’s vision is remarkably unsentimental. He pays tribute to the Doniphons who built America while accepting that that their usefulness died with the frontier. Strangely, for all the director’s identification with The Duke, it’s Stewart who delivers what is surely a deliberate reference to the journey Ford has taken. ‘When I first came to Shinbone,’ he begins, ‘I came by stagecoach…’
More than 20 years after Ford’s own arrival with ‘Stagecoach’, he had reinvented the western again and in ‘Liberty Valance’ bequeathed a sad, warm-hearted reproach to modernity’s forgetfulness. PFRead more
Director: Jim Jarmusch
Cast involved: Johnny Depp, Gary Farmer, Crispin Glover
Songs of innocence and experience
Easily the bleakest film on a very bleak list, Jim Jarmusch’s intoxicating and dismally poetic exploration of physical and spiritual death sees Johnny Depp as the coincidently named traveller, William Blake. He’s a meek and mild bookkeeper whose journey into the abyss commences with a strangely confrontational tête-à-tête with a train fireman played by a blackface Crispin Glover.
It then proceeds to more unsettling as the minutes tick by. He arrives at the hellish industry settlement of Machine, only to be forced straight from it as a wanted man when he catches a bullet in his chest and steals the prize stallion from factory owner Robert Mitchum… and murders his son.
Though it quotes liberally (and jokingly) from the book of western lore, the structure of Jarmusch’s film is more like an epic poem – the tall tales of Chaucer infused with the macabre gothic of Poe – while its style comes over as a malevolent homage to Tarkovsky’s bucolic quest for spiritual enlightenment, ‘Andrei Rublev’, or to Bosch’s ‘The Garden of Earthly Delights’.
Blake is helped along his deathly trail (which takes in a who’s-who cast of American supporting character actors) by a Native American outcast called Nobody (Gary Farmer). A brilliant scene in which he’s scrambling through the brush calling ‘Nobody! Nobody! Nobody!’ encapsulates the film’s strange and surreal beauty. DJRead more
Director: Clint Eastwood
Cast involved: Eastwood, Chief Dan George, Sandra Locke
What’s so civil about war, anyway? (© Axl Rose Holdings)
In much the same way that Josey wants to put the violence and horror of the Civil War behind him, so, in 1976, America was emerging from a war in Vietnam that had split the country in various ways. The search for harmony that’s at the core of ‘Josey Wales’ undeniably mirrors this trauma.
The spite, darkness and Nixonian self-destruction of 1973’s ‘High Plains Drifter’ are replaced by the calm resolve, humanity and Southern gentility of the oncoming Carter administration for a film that puts peace pipe before pistol every time.
All of which makes it sound like some high-handed sermon, rather than the rollicking road movie it is – a ‘Little Miss Sunshine’ for the Smith & Wesson set. On the run from bounty hunters and Union Redlegs, Josey becomes a legend in his own time, but he wants nothing more than to find somewhere to settle down and get back to the land.
Things are complicated by the fact that his reputation is such that everyone he comes across wants a piece of him – from soldiers and opportunists desperate to be the one who gunned down ‘Mr Chain-Blue Lightnin’ himself’ to the hippie-tastic band of waifs and strays he picks up along the way. The salty script is spot on, Bruce Surtees’s photography is magnificent and, last but not least, the lithe, liquid way in which Clint pulls on those two long-barrel Walker Colts is sheer poetry. ALDRead more
Director: Anthony Mann
Cast involved: James Stewart, Shelley Winters, Dan Duryea
The gun club
1953’s ‘The Naked Spur’, in which a counter-cast Jimmy Stewart plays the leading ma, usually tops any list of Anthony Mann’s westerns. But we’ve gone for this stranger, earlier work, not only for its distinctive roundelay structure, but in recognition of its utter pessimism towards the notion that guns and gunplay stand as the last bastion of honour and justice in the Old West.
Though Stewart is on splendidly prickly form as stubborn bounty hunter-by-proxy Lin McAdam, the real star of the film is a limited-run Winchester repeater rifle that he manages to win in a Dodge City competition of stunt shooting.
His vicious competitor, ‘Dutch Henry’ Brown (Stephen McNally), subsequently mugs him and relieves him of the phallic firearm as he’s leaving town, revealing to us that Lin and his faithful cohort ‘High-Spade’ Frankie Wilson (Millard Mitchell) are actually on the trail of this dastardly killer, for reasons that remain cloudy until the shocking final moments.
While Mann expertly switches back and forth between the unpredictable progress of his two protagonists, his real interest is the fate of the rifle, as it falls in and out of the hands of a hustling bar owner, a mob of belligerent Indians and eventually the violent outlaw ‘Waco’ Johnnie Dean (Dan Duryea).
It seems that anyone who succumbs to the charms of this gorgeously crafted firearm ends up in a pine box, and in that sense the film can perhaps be read as a brittle parable about the futility of resorting to arms as a shortcut to peace. Nuclear warhead owners, take note. DJRead more
Director: John Ford
Cast involved: John Wayne, Jeffrey Hunter, Natalie Wood
Homer, Homer on the range
Just what is it about ‘The Searchers’ that makes it so fascinating and compelling even after all these years? Years during which – get this! – hostile intolerance toward hard-put ethnic minorities has become somehow unacceptable. Why in the name of hell’s horses does John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards have such a righteous racist hard-on for the Comanche, and why do we, as modern audiences, still find his despicable attitudes not only intriguing but mesmerising?
The plot sees Wayne’s embittered Civil War veteran take up the search for a niece (Natalie Wood) who has been abducted by the Indians, who, Ford takes minor pains to inform us, are as smart, conflicted and enlightened as anyone else on the continent. So follows an obsessive, futile and disconcerting attempt to rescue and reintegrate Wood – long since ‘gone native’ – into a society to which Edwards himself has no real connection.
Both the hero and villain of the piece, Edwards is a foul, bruised wanderer; a questionable hero with no one awaiting his return. His hatred has no home and deserves none. If by the end of the film he has shifted from a state of outright fury to something approaching tolerance, then he is at least closer to humanity.
It may not be much, but it’s a desperate something. When, however, at the last – and in one of the most iconic shots of all cinema – the door shuts on a lonely, wounded Ethan Edwards, it is clear that his search has only just begun. ALDRead more
Director: Sam Peckinpah
Cast involved: Kris Kristofferson, James Coburn, Bob Dylan)
Mama, put my guns in the ground
By 1973, the western had come full circle, from tool of the establishment during the Wayne-Ford years to a countercultural playground populated by disaffected loners, social dropouts, anti-violence activists and rock ’n’ roll rebels. And there was nothing on Earth cooler than an outlaw: the real William Bonney may have been a jumped-up teen murderer (and former cheesemaker, fact fans) who barely knew the real Garrett, himself a foul-tempered saloon owner-turned-lawman who shot the Kid in cold blood and without warning. But in Peckinpah’s hands, and with the weathered faces of Kris Kristofferson and James Coburn, these men became beautiful icons, scruffy saints for a self-consciously screwed-up generation.
‘Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid’ is a film with few pretensions to realism: the world it creates is authentically shabby, dusty and wild, but the poetic antiheroes who populate it are knowingly grandiose, gloriously flawed and elegantly doomed. Billy even throws his arms open, Christ-like, when he’s first arrested: Jesus with a six-gun.
And yet, pretentious though it may occasionally be, there’s simply nothing like Peckinpah’s film anywhere else in the western genre, and perhaps in cinema as a whole. It’s a film where image, music and meaning fuse inextricably to create unexpected and unprecedented moments of high emotion: that shot of Billy, arms akimbo, would be nothing without Dylan’s music, or Kristofferson’s beatific half-smile, or Peckinpah’s glorious early-morning lighting, or the knowledge that Billy’s surrender is inevitable, and so is his escape, and so is his death.
These moments recur throughout the film: the death of Slim Pickens’s Sheriff, as the heavenly choirs of ‘Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door’ come drifting along the riverbank; the giddy ‘turkey shoot’; the climactic march of doom; the framing scenes of Garrett’s murder by the very men who sent him after Billy.
The result is perhaps the strangest and richest of all westerns, the point where old-school mythologising and countercultural revisionism join forces to create something new: the existentialist outlaw, a cowboy Christ, a Bible myth for modern America. THRead more
Director: Robert Altman
Cast involved: Warren Beatty, Julie Christie, Rene Auberjonois
Another good man done gone
By the early 1970s, the western had boxed itself into a canyon. Woop-wooping Indians, fusty range wars and duded-up gunslingers were the stuff of mockery in films like ‘Blazing Saddles’. It was only by breaking the western down and reassembling it bit by bit that it could break new ground.
No film re-imagines the western myth as powerfully and heartbreakingly as Robert Altman’s dreamlike, snow-covered masterpiece, ‘McCabe & Mrs. Miller’.
This deceptively simple frontier story follows John ‘Pudgy’ McCabe (Warren Beatty), a gambler, businessman and alleged gunfighter – a fact he never confirms or denies – as he arrives in the mining town of Presbyterian Church, high in the cold, damp, muddy folds of the Pacific Northwest. He plans to open a brothel with the aid of Julie Christie’s plain-talking cockney madam, Constance Miller. Clad in a huge bearskin coat and wearing a bowler hat and beard, McCabe bears no relation to western protagonists of old. Sure, he wears a gun, but only for form’s sake. Our hero is a pimp, dandy, coward and fool. McCabe’s thriving brothel, under the stewardship of Mrs Miller, becomes a civilising influence. It’s also a democratic concern, where one man’s money is no better or worse than the next man’s.
No doubt many will quarrel over Altman’s film topping our list ahead of favourites such as ‘The Searchers’ or ‘Unforgiven’. It’s not even set in what we think of as the west. But we should remember that the frontier expanded in all directions – into the harsh northern territories as well as the furnace-hot dog patches of California.
Some may argue that the film lacks suspense or action. And yet, it contains one of the sweatiest stand-offs on celluloid as McCabe fronts up and then caves in to three company stooges sent by mining barons to persuade him to relinquish his holdings. And the film’s finale is one of the most gripping, explosive and naturalistic gunfights in all cinema.
It’s also an extraordinarily beautiful film. Altman offers a portrait of the west that’s dingy, grimy, hazy, stinky and chilled to the bone. The soundtrack is also eminently important to the film’s success, with Leonard Cohen's ballads lending the proceedings a fateful air, a sense that some things are written in stone, and Pudgy McCabe’s fate was sealed the moment he arrived in Presbyterian Church. ALDRead more