I love Westerns. They're such great stories full of symbolism and pathos, often with great performances and compelling characters facing life and death situations. Westerns explore what it means to face your fears, to carve out a life among the harsh wilderness -- to be an American. Cowboys, one of the most enduring and recognized symbols of America, are a part of our history and who we are as a nation.
I remember the first time I watched a Western. My father was a huge John Wayne fan (still is) and when I was pretty young, he took me to see "The Duke" in the movie The Shootist. Even as a young man I reacted to the story about the last days of a gunfighter who knows he's about to die from cancer but wants to go out on his feet, fighting, instead of on his back. After watching the movie, I was hooked. Of course, my experience was made even more special by the fact that The Shootist was John Wayne's last film. How fitting that it should be a Western.
From then on, I watched as many Westerns as I could. Over the years as I grew older, I came to appreciate Westerns not just for their stories, but because of what the stories, characters and situations represent. Over time, I made a list of the Westerns that typify the Western -- those films that would serve as an excellent introduction for anyone wishing to explore this genre. In truth, I could populate this list with films mostly from the same director -- John Ford. His westerns are among the best and most widely acclaimed of all time.
He's an icon of the genre whose best work featured the stalwart and similarly iconic John Wayne. But to be fair, there are many other Westerns that have come out in the history of Hollywood that deserve your attention. Even if you don't love the genre, these films are still an entertaining mix of action, suspense, drama, and romance. They also happen to have compelling characters, horses, fist fights and even the occasional gun fight. And yes, stuff even blows up once in awhile too.
So, settle in at the saloon, pour yourself a shot of rye, and let's take a look at some great Westerns.
Red River (1948) - Directed by Howard Hawks -- Besides John Ford, Hawks is another legend of the Western genre (and many others). In the film, John Wayne plays hard-drinking, tyrannical and often cruel Tom Dunson, boss of a group of cowboys driving a herd to market along the Chisholm Trail. Red River follows Dunston's descent into darkness and the eventual crisis where his dominance is supplanted by the younger, and perhaps better, man Matt Garth -- superbly played by Montgomery Clift. Wayne's performance in this film defies his critics and proves, as voiced perfectly by John Ford, that "that sonuvabitch could act." Yes he could.
High Noon (1952) - Directed by Fred Zinnemann -- A great film told in a very unique way -- in real time. From the moment the film starts, you are counting the minutes -- literally -- until the bad guys arrive on the train for the big showdown with Sheriff Will Kane -- Gary Cooper in one of his best performances. Also outstanding is the luminescent Grace Kelly as the girl who wants Sheriff Kane to give up his violent ways, leave town and live a "normal" life. Some critics of the film, including director Howard Hawks, contend that High Noon isn't a good example of a Western because the main character -- the Sheriff -- asks the townspeople for help fighting the bad guys and in so doing, looks weak and somehow less of a man.
That's probably one of the reasons the role of Will Kane was tuned down by so many actors, including Marlon Brando, Montgomery Clift and Gregory Peck, before Cooper stepped up. Still, when you watch this film there's no other person who could have pulled off Kane's combination of strength, anxiety, uncertainty and vulnerability the way Cooper does. He truly is Will Kane and this film, despite its critics, truly is a great Western and a great film. Sure, it's different -- but in this case, different turns out to be a very good thing.
The Searchers (1956) - Directed by John Ford -- This film is often thought of as one of the best Westerns of all time -- and I couldn't agree more. For me, this revenge tale with a surprise twist ending is the quintessential Western because it explores all the themes and characters of the genre as well as the themes of race and integration during the time just prior to the Civil Rights movement in this country.
The cast is perfect, especially Jeffrey Hunter as Martin and John Wayne as the morally and racially conflicted Ethan Edwards. Of all the Westerns I've seen in my life, this one is my favorite. I watch it every year and each time discover a new appreciation and love for the film. The final scene where Wayne's Ethan Edwards is left standing in the doorway, outside, while the rest of the family goes inside the house is one of the most powerful moments in the history of this or any other genre.
The Magnificent Seven (1960) - Directed by John Sturges -- Made during the time when Hollywood was creating bigger and better spectacles to compete with television -- and based, of course, on the classic Akira Kurosawa film Seven Samurai -- this updated telling of the story which concerns a group of Mexican villagers who seek help from a band of misfits and outlaws to fight off a bigger, and badder, bunch of outlaws, is an extremely entertaining widescreen spectacle.
And, let's not forget the music composed by the late Elmer Bernstein -- as big a part of the movie as anything else -- and which demonstrated a style -- images and music instead of words -- later imitated by other directors, like Sergio Leone, who took up the mantle of the Western. Plus, the cast, including Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson, James Coburn, Robert Vaughn and Eli Wallach as the Mexican bandit Calvero, help make this film the hugely fun experience it is.
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966) - Directed by Sergio Leone -- Based on another Akira Kurosawa film, Yojimbo, this film is one of the best and most successful of the crop of "Spaghetti Westerns" that came out during this time. Leone's genius was taking an iconic hero of the western - the cowboy - and making him a true anti-hero. Plus, these films cemented the indelible image and career of former TV actor Clint Eastwood and paved the way for his "Dirty Harry" character as well as many other anti-heroes to follow.
Over the years, much has been said about Leone's style in this film, and others that followed. His use of extreme closeups, jump cuts, unusual and often jarring camera angles and long action sequences without dialog all helped change how films are made and influenced a generation of directors. Plus, scene-stealing performances by Eli Wallach as the evil and conniving Tuco and Lee Van Cleef as the cold-blooded and brutal killer Angel Eyes, help elevate this film to the classic status it deserves.
The Wild Bunch (1969) -- Directed by Sam Peckinpah - Before John Woo or anyone used slow motion, Peckinpah used it. His depiction of violence and its aftermath is a visceral ballet that many directors, like Quentin Tarantino, seek to emulate. This film features a stellar cast including William Holden, Ernest Borgnine and Peckinpah staples Warren Oates and Ben Johnson. It explores the lives of cowboys and outlaws at the turn of the century and the end of their way of life. Change with the times or die. Which do you think they choose?
The Wild Bunch is regarded by many, myself included, as Peckinpah's greatest film -- his anti-Western Western. Though many other films have featured the so-called "noble" anti-hero, this film casts aside the "typical" trappings of the western hero and instead shows outlaws, and the lawmen pursuing them at any cost, who seem not to have much knowledge of, or use for, any kind of "Code of the West." Plus, the final gunfight is a visually stunning and extremely brutal tableau of violence that is not to be missed.
Unforgiven (1992) -- Directed by Clint Eastwood - This multi Oscar winning story of a farmer (and former gunfighter) who just wants to work his farm in peace but is forced back into service, revitalized the Western and, yes, reimagined it for the modern world. The spin here is, as director Eastwood maintained, this extremely violent film actually has a strong anti-violence message of violence as a last, but sometimes necessary, resort.
Plus, great performances by Eastwood, Morgan Freeman and academy award winner Gene Hackman, elevated this film to the level of the classic Westerns that proceeded it. The success, both commercially and critically, of this movie helped continue a renaissance for the genre which led to other films (both Westerns and Western-hybrids) like the The Quick and the Dead, Tombstone, The Mask of Zorro, Lone Star and the excellent Deadwood.
If you watch these Westerns, you'll get a very good picture of the power, style and glory of the genre. Plus, you'll have a great time and may even learn one or two things about the nature of man (and woman). Ok, those are my "magnificent" seven. What are yours?