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  • Writer's pictureDavid Grassé

The West in Cinema

I am not fan of John Wayne films. I think the best film Wayne ever made was The Searchers, and even that ended poorly. The racist character he played in the film was not the type to have a sudden change-of-heart. I think it would have been a better film if Wayne's character had to be put down like a rabid dog by his companion. I very much prefer the Revisionist Westerns of the 1960s - 19670s, and what I like to call the "Arthouse Westerns" of the new millenium. Certainly, there are some older western films which are quite good - High Noon, The Gunfighter, The Oxbow Incident, Sgt. Rutledge, The Bravados, by way of examples. However, I find most the older westerns to be tedious morality plays promoting ideals I don't always agree with. Maybe it is a generational thing. I am too cynical and pessimistic (or, being a historian, too much a realist) to believe in the what they are trying to sell. Philosophical discussion aside, I am presenting here a list of ten of my favorite western films (not in any particular order). 1. A Fistfull of Dollars (1964) This Sergio Leone film, made the year I was born, represents a turning point for the whole genre. The protagonist is an absolutely amoral gunman (played by Clint Eastwood), who, finding to rival families in the same town fighting for power, begins to play them off each other for his own gain. His rescue of a young woman in the film is his only really virtuous deed. But does he ride off into the sunset with her. No, he goes right back to finish what he started, and the corpses continue to pile up.

2. McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971)

Many have analyzed this Robert Altman film in depth, so I will refrain. Suffice to say this western, set in the Pacific Northwest, featuring a tin-horn gambler (Warren Beatty) and a madame (Julie Christie) as the protagonists, and a nameless, faceless mining corporation as the villain, and with a soundtrack by Leonard Cohen is definitely worth a watch. Really speaks to the plight of women and minorities in the western territories. Subtle, atmospheric, bleak, and brilliant. Highly recommended.

3. Missouri Breaks (1976)

The story goes Jack Nicholson and Marlon Brando were at odds during the entire shoot, but the film, directed by Arthur Penn turned out to be quite good. This late entry in the so-called "hippie western" genre tells the tale of a bunch of low-level stock thieves trying to survive in a country dominated by baronial cattlemen. Brandon, in one of his most enigmatic performances, plays a "regulator" brought in by the cattlemen to exterminate the rustlers. Sometimes funny (especially the train robbery scene) and sometimes brutal, this film is an underrated gem.

4. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007)

This film is departure from all the earlier films about Jesse James, and Jesse James is not the subject of the film. Rather, director Andrew Dominick serves up a brilliant character study of Robert Ford (played with aplomb by Casey Affleck), the man who shot Jesse James. Affleck's performance as the awkward, insecure, and indecisive Ford, is heart-rending. Brad Pitt is perfectly cast as infamous outlaw, affable and carefree one moment and brutal the next. Both performances are spot on. The film takes its time, but is never boring, and the cinematography, care of Roger Deakins (Blade Runner 2049, Skyfall) is breath-taking. Equally as good as There Will Be Blood, which swept the Oscars that year.

5. True Grit (2010)

The problem with the John Wayne version of this film is that it became simple another John Wayne vehicle. Under the direction of the Coen brothers, this re-telling puts the focus where it belongs - on the girl, Mattie Ross (played by Hailee Steinfeld, who shines in this role). Jeff Bridges takes over John Wayne's old part of Rooster Cogburn, and plays it in a way Wayne never would or could have. Josh Brolin and Matt Damon (who knew Damon could even ride a horse) round out a superb cast. Kudos to Barry Pepper, for his turn as "Lucky" Ned Pepper, a part made famous by the seminal western actor Robert Duvall. Better that the original, in my humble opinion.

6. Pat Garrett an Billy the Kid (1973)

" This country's getting old and I aim to get old with it. Now, the Kid don't want it that way. He might be a better man for it. I ain't judging."

Director Sam Peckinpah turned the tables with this film, focusing on Sheriff Pat Garrett (played by James Coburn) instead of Billy the Kid (Kris Kristofferson). The audience watches with mounting apprehension and dismay as Garrett slowly, but surely betrays and slaughters his former friends, including The Kid, in an attempt to put his outlaw life behind him and gain respectability. Bob Dylan was supposed to give this film cross-generational appeal, but he really could not act.

7. Geronimo: An American Legend (1993)

Wes Study plays the legendary Chiricahua Apache medicine man, but the film is more about First Lieutenant Charles Gatewood (played with finesse by Jason Patrick), who was instrumental in negotiating the surrender of Geronimo and his band (though history did not acknowledge this for decades). Gatewood is torn between his admiration for the Chiricahua and his duty as a soldier, and this internal struggle is the core of the film. Great costuming and scenery. Gene Hackman (General Crook) and Robert Duvall (Al Seiber) round out an amazing cast. The film glosses over the fact the Apache were raiders, and dispenses altogether with Naiche, who was the hereditary chief of the Chiricahua. Still a good film, and worth a watch. 8. Lawman (1971)

This film is an indictment of law enforcement officers. At one point in the film. Burt Lancaster, who plays U.S. Marshal Jered Maddox, the lawman of the title, says to a young cowboy, "You know what a lawman is, Crowe? He's a killer of men." This line is a perfect summary of this dark character study. Lancaster plays Maddox as a stoic, uncompromising, and single-minded man, who continue to enforce the law even though he knows the judicial system is corrupt. The letter of the law is all he believes in. His sole qualification for the position he holds seems to be his willingness to resort to violence. It is a hard movie, as none of the characters are particularly sympathetic. Lee J Cobb, Robert Duvall, and Sherree North give excellent performances as well.

9. Open Range (2003)

A western with anarchist/communalist overtones? Who would have thought it? (Boss Spearman (Robert Duvall) and Charley Waites (Kevin Costner) are "free grazers," who graze their small herd of cattle and horses where they please. Denton Baxter (Michael Gambon) is the imperialistic cattle baron who believes in his absolute right to fence off property, and proclaim it his, and defend it with violence. Needless to say, these opposing viewpoints lead to confrontation. The film, directed by Costner, features one of the best gunfights ever filmed. The only weak spot is the lack of chemistry between Costner and Annette Benning. Otherwise, a great film. 10. Hostiles (2017)

This film, written and directed by Scott Cooper, begins with a deceptively simple premise about an Army Captain Joseph Blocker (Christian Bale) who is detailed by his superiors to escort a dying Cheyenne war chief, named Yellow Hawk, (played by the incomparable Wes Studi) and his family back to their tribal land. The film is a brilliant character study, as Blocker slowly overcomes his hatred and prejudice. A subplot, concerning a disgraced Sergeant. whom the Captain's detail are assigned to escort to be court-martialed and hanged, speaks to the issue of violence in our culture. The redemptive ending is a direct challenge to older, traditional western films like The Searchers and Shane. Highly recommended.

Special mention: Deadwood (televison series) 2004 - 2006. Take in stride the ubiquitous use of non-period swear words, like "cocksucker" and "motherfucker," (the word "fuck" did exist by the 19th Century, but it was doubtful it was used this often or in this manner), and you will be pleasantly surprised. Great cast, great sets, great stories.

There are many more I could add to this list - Hombre, The Homesman, Bone Tomahawk, Broken Trail, Appaloosa, Meeks Cutoff, The Proposition, The Nightingale, etc. (not to mention neo-westerns like No Country for Old Men and Hell or High Water) - but this should get you started.

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Bill Carson
Bill Carson
May 05, 2023

Great article and great choices. I understand you don't like most older (pre 60's) westerns, but I suggest you try (if you haven't yet) Gunsmoke, but only the first 10 seasons in black and white, as well as the radio version (with William Conrad). While being an older western, Gunsmoke is as cynic, if not more, as the revisionist westerns of the 60's and 70's. James Arness in the TV version is superb, as well as the supporting cast, the stories are great and they often don't end very well, or are ambiguous at best.

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