The trailer for the second season of HBO’s Westworld has dropped and it made us think about Westerns. As a genre, the Western is timeless, even if its popularity has decreased since the 1950’s and 60’s. Westerns started with silent film, the Great Train Robbery, were revived in the 90s with Unforgiven, and still occasionally continue on today in films and TV shows like Deadwood. The themes in Westerns are often universal, and most of their stories could take place in any setting, not just the Old West. Even Star Wars has often been called a space western. So we felt it’s time to delve into the genre and ask: what are our favorite Westerns?
The Western is one of my favorite genres, and I have been waiting for this post for awhile now. There are so many good ones, I could do 50 easily. Anthony Mann, John Ford, Howard Hawks, and Clint Eastwood are some of my favorite directors of Westerns, with John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart, Randolph Scott, Gary Cooper and (again) Clint Eastwood as my favorite stars. If I am looking for something to watch and I see a western I will probably stop on it – anything Wayne or Eastwood definitely, and even an old TV Show – The Rifleman or the Lone Ranger comes to mind. I like the non-classic western too: Young Guns, Silverado, Pale Rider, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, and even the True Grit remake. It was hard to pick three but the first one was a no-brainer and my choices span three separate decades.
The Searchers (1956)
John Ford’s The Searchers is in my pantheon of all films. It’s a beautiful film that despite being filmed in the mid-1950’s still looks crisp today. John Ford’s setting of Monument Valley is gorgeous. I still can’t get over how great this film looks. John Wayne would never be better. It’s a dark film that has lots of underlying plot and subtext. Wayne plays Ethan Edwards, a former Confederate soldier who is visiting his brother’s family after being away for 8 years. The opening shot of the doorway (and Ford loves the doorway in this film) and Wayne returning gives me goosebumps. The first underlying subtext is right here and it’s incredibly subtle and easy to miss. Ethan had or wanted some relationship with his brother’s wife. He loves her, you see it in the looks and the body language, but it is never called out, it’s so well done. While Ethan goes out looking for stolen cattle, the Comanche slaughter the family and take the two daughters. Ethan, and his adopted half Native American nephew Martin (Jeffrey Hunter) and Brad (Harry Carey Jr.), the oldest girls fiancé, are part of the posse that search. Conventional wisdom starts to believe racist Ethan may be searching for them to kill them as now they have certainly become more “Indian” than “white man” and are beyond “saving”. Saying more would be too much of a spoiler alert. Wayne does not play the good unblemished cowboy here, there are so many layers to his character and his performance. He has iconic scenes and quotes and Wayne’s Oscar should have come here and not for True Grit. Natalie Wood has a small part as Debbie, one of the girls. This film heavily influenced Spielberg, Scorcese, and Lucas. The scene in Star Wars where Luke finds his Uncle and Aunt burned is a direct correlation to the beginning of this film. I could talk about this film all day, it’s amazing.
Bonus: Jeffrey Hunter who plays Martin also got to play Jesus in King of Kings and the original Captain in the Star Trek pilot. He died not too long after at 42 suffering complications from an on set explosion that eventually led to a hemorrhage and a fall.
MG: It’s been a very long time since I’ve seen this film, but I know it’s iconic and beautifully shot. I respect Ford as a pioneering director, even if my view on him as a person has diminished over the years, the more I have learned about him. I know all films are a product of their times, but it is a bit uncomfortable as to how the American Indians are portrayed here.
DJ: I can’t speak for Ford as a person but his films are marvels. John Wayne too, may have not been the best person. The American Indian is depicted poorly in this film, no doubt, and unfortunately mostly played by white men.
The Magnificent Seven (1960)
Where I love the themes of The Searchers, The Magnificent Seven is one of my favorite westerns because it’s just a fun shoot-em up with great performances, great action, and a great score. This movie set up Hollywood with its “group of people team up to fight something and a bunch of them die” movie genre. And I am very aware that it is itself a remake of Seven Samurai by Kurosawa, who, ironically, loved this film. Some of the movies that followed this tradition were the three lame sequels to this film, The Dirty Dozen, The Wild Bunch, and even A Bug’s Life (of course without the dying). Yul Brynner and Steve McQueen are great here, McQueen had been a TV cowboy in Wanted: Dead or Alive and this was his big break in film. Also, there are strong supporting turns from Robert Vaughn, James Coburn, and Charles Bronson. The villain played by Eli Wallach is equally as good but not sure you could get away with a white Jewish man playing a Mexican bandit today. It’s a simple story: a long suffering village needs help from Wallach’s bullying bandits, they hire Chris (Brynner) to help rid them of the bandits, he, in turn, assembles six more hired guns for the cause and they go to battle. The action is great. The murkiness of each hero’s back story comes out by action more than words and shows great subtle characterization without all the exposition. Bronson’s relationship with the three village boys also gives an emotional weight to the film that fits nicely. Also, it has one of my favorite movie scores of all-time by the great Elmer Bernstein, the theme is iconic. Unfortunately, they made three sequels, an unworthy TV series and then a remake in 2016 that I have yet to be able to watch, I am afraid it will just dishonor this film even more. When the original is this good, leave it alone.
Bonus: It’s fascinating that Yul Brynner urged the hiring of Steve McQueen but then they couldn’t get along while filming. In scenes where Brynner’s character is speaking or has the action, you can see McQueen doing things to try to take away from Brynner, notoriously shading his eyes from the sun with his hat, or getting water out of the stream. Just before McQueen’s death, both actors made up.
MG: As you said, simple but effective story for an action film. The remake was ok, but not really anything you need to see. For the villains they replaced the Mexican bandits with a greedy mining company, to which Trump tweeted “Sad. Fake news!”
The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976)
So I had picked a film about a quest, one about justice and my third pick is about revenge. Clint Eastwood not only stars in but also directs himself in The Outlaw Josey Wales, another brilliant western. Josey Wales is a Missouri farmer during the Civil War and his family is murdered by rogue Union forces. Having nothing left he joins the Confederate army and when the war ends his surrendered unit is fired upon which sets the film off on its way. Josie receives a bounty on his head and while eluding that bounty also looks to exact revenge on the people who killed his family. This is not a typical western, it’s a long film and it also treats Native Americans in a much more realistic way than past movies. This movie has some of my favorite movie quotes of all time and I have to credit writers Phillip Kaufman and Sonia Chernus. Here is a sample: “Dyin’ ain’t much of a living, boy”, “Are you gonna pull those pistols or whistle Dixie?”, and “Now remember, when things look bad and it looks like you’re not gonna make it, then you gotta get mean. I mean plumb, mad-dog mean. ‘Cause if you lose your head and you give up then you neither live nor win. That’s just the way it is.” Eastwood has called this an anti-war film and the subtext is there. Ironically it’s Eastwood’s most violent as this is ranked second of his movies for kill count, only the nonwestern Where Eagles Dare has more.
Bonus: The original director Phillip Kaufman left the film early on, the rumor being that both Eastwood and Kaufman had asked actress Sondra Locke out when she went out with Eastwood, Kaufman walked and Eastwood took over. Hollywood then created the Eastwood Rule and due to this no longer could a star take over the directing duties on the same film he was starring in.
MG: For me, Clint Eastwood is synonymous with the genre, although I’m sorry to say that I’ve never seen this particular Eastwood film. I’ve enjoyed most of his other stuff, so it sounds like I probably should put this at the top of my list to check out sometime.
While I can’t quite match DJ’s passion for The Western, there are a lot of films I have enjoyed in the genre, including a number of more modern entries. What is great about the western setting is that it is very much a Tabla Rasa – a blank slate upon which you can project a wide-ranging palette of stories and themes. Even for Americans that have never sat down and watched a Western, so much of our collective idea of the Old West is shaped by these films (whether that is a good thing is debatable). I have really enjoyed the “neo-Western” of the past few decades. In particular, the HBO series’ Deadwood and now Westworld were both phenomenal in their own separate ways – both shows cleverly drawing on many of the established tropes of filmed Westerns while providing a distinctive revisionist twist. Here are my favorites:
The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly (1966)
I realize this is no reach, as this is one of the most well regarded and influential Westerns ever made, but it’s truly one of my favorites. Sergio Leone is the godfather of The Western and the sub genre “Spaghetti Western”, and this is undoubtedly his opus. In the neo-Westerns of the 90s, the black and white of good vs. evil is often muddied, as gunslingers were often portrayed as conflicted killers and less as straightforward heroes. In this film, we see a clear rebuke of America’s idealized picture of the Old West – i.e. the Frontierland of Disneyland. Instead of the heroic John Wayne cowboys, we get Eastwood’s Man With No Name, an anti-hero who uses violence less for justice and more as a means-to-an-end. Even still, Eastwood’s character is the one we sympathize with, though we find out little about him, and he’s certainly “good” compared to Lee Van Cleef’s sociopathic killer ironically named Angel Eyes (The Bad). Tuco, (The Ugly) is another Mexican bandit played by Eli Wallach and is the only character we really learn anything about. Tuco provides some comic relief, although he’s still almost solely motivated by greed. The story is unusually complex for the genre – I won’t even try and detail it here – and also featured a fairly prominent anti-war sentiment, which was somewhat remarkable for its time. Beyond a great story and trio of lead characters, The Good… featured stunning widescreen cinematography, superb editing, and an iconic and oft-referenced score by Ennio Morricone. Despite all this, the short-sighted old guard of Hollywood saw spaghetti Westerns as low-brow entertainment, and the film received no award nominations of any kind. It now appears on almost every top 100 American films list and is the 9th highest ranked film on IMDB.
Bonus: Critical response to the film was initially mixed, and it received criticism for its depiction of violence, to which Leone stated: “The West was made by violent, uncomplicated me, and it is this strength and simplicity that I try to capture in my pictures”.
DJ: Okay so I am the guy that loves Westerns but I saw this when I was younger and couldn’t get through it, maybe I just preferred Leone’s, A Fistful of Dollars and For a Few Dollars More, both Kurosawa remakes more. I also love High Plains Drifter and Hang ‘Em High better as far as Eastwood Westerns go.
Upon its release, Tombstone suffered a bit from comparison/anticipation of the upcoming and competing Kevin Costner vehicle Wyatt Earp. Over time, however, Tombstone has held up much better and is far more likely to be on top Western films lists. Much of this is due to Val Kilmer’s outstanding performance as Doc Holliday, a role he should have been nominated for. Kilmer takes the classic fast-drawing, death-dealer character and infuses him with humor and vulnerability due to his affliction with tuberculosis. Kilmer makes his iconic line “I’m your huckleberry” drip with both whimsy and menace. The narrative of Tombstone is similar to a number of previous Westerns, including Unforgiven, released just a year earlier. However, the character development is the unique strength of this film, which is remarkable for a couple of reasons. The first reason is the huge cast – a veritable who’s who of character actors including Bill Paxton, Michael Biehn, Sam Elliott, Powers Booth, Thomas Hayden Church, Michael Rooker, Stephen Lang, Terry O’Quinn, Billy Zane, John Corbett, Harry Carey Jr. and Paula Malcomson. All are distinctive and identifiable in the film, which is not easy to do considering the uniformity of clothing and appearance in the Western setting. Even more remarkable is the film’s director crisis. Writer Kevin Jarre was reportedly in over his head with this film, his first directing job, was quickly fired, and eventually replaced by George P Cosmatos, best known for Rambo: First Blood Part 2 and Cobra. While his experience on those films undoubtedly helped him craft some very tense and exciting shoot outs, it’s a mystery how Cosmatos directed so many good performances. Or maybe there is no mystery. The rumor is that Kurt Russell did the majority of the hands-on directing work in the film, and Cosmatos merely provided day-to-day oversight. Cosmatos even seemed to admit this years later. If true, I’d like to see Russell take an official turn at directing another film someday.
Bonus: Russell starred in the forgotten 70’s TV series, The Quest, which was set in the old West and has a story that sounds like it was based on The Searchers. It only aired for 2 seasons but perhaps that helped Russell with his directing duties.
DJ: Another one I haven’t really seen, it’s on my list, kind of embarrassing actually. No good excuse for this one. I wish Val Kilmer would have reached his potential, his personality got in the way, he could really act when he wanted to. Kurt Russell better hurry up he ain’t getting any younger.
MG: You did say Westerns were your favorite genre, right?
I never thought of it before, but a significant amount of DNA from Deadwood can be traced back to Tombstone, beyond the fact that Powers Booth and Paula Malcomson acted in both. Going in the other direction, with its huge cast, multiple storylines, shifting alliances/enemies and shocking deaths of main characters, Deadwood was in many ways a blueprint for HBO’s later, and far more successful, series Game of Thrones. Although Timothy Olyphant’s sheriff Seth Bullock is the main protagonist of the show, Ian McShane as the profanity-spewing owner of the Gem Saloon is the show’s real center. This is a little jarring at first since he’s no anti-hero, he’s just a straight-up ruthless badass, a mean “cocksucker” if you will, at least initially. The fact that we later come around to (kind-of) rooting for him, against even worse antagonists, is remarkable in itself. Deadwood is loaded with great acting, both large and small parts, featuring many of today’s best character actors. In addition to McShane and Olyphant, I particularly enjoyed Molly Parker, Paula Malcomson, John Hawkes, Keith Carradine and Titus Welliver (and I know I’m forgetting a few other notables). Deadwood shares some of the same criticism of Game of Thrones, namely its graphic violence, brutality, and treatment of women, but like Thrones, several of the female characters demonstrate the ability to outwit, persevere, and prevail over their would-be male oppressors. I’m not sure if residents of the Old West used profanity to the level seen on this show, but Deadwood has a genuine authentic feel to it, and there is a great attention to detail the sets, props, and costumes, although it rarely strays from its Main Street set. My only disappointment is with the 3rd season, which experiences a steep drop off in storytelling, in my opinion.
Bonus: The show’s creator, David Milch, tried to make two 2-hour movies in place of a fourth season but HBO pulled the plug in 2006. As of 2017, there is new talk of a 2-hour movie being made and a script has been submitted to HBO.
DJ: Do you not watch the same Westerns I do? I have never seen this and surprisingly had no interest. In comparing it to Game of Thrones I once had the same feeling about that show and now I am drooling at the mouth to see who will sit on the Iron Throne so maybe I need to go back to this one.