The Western movie was once the backbone of Saturday film fare and the symbol of simplistic American values, imprinting strong influence on my youthful male psyche. I began enjoying them during the early 1960’s, when JFK was still our Commander-in-Chief, T.V. Dinners were an acceptable innovation and there was no such thing as the Internet because it would be many years before Al Gore would invent it. Just to show how much my parents trusted me, they shipped me and my sister off to the Saturday matinees nearly every week, where I savored such cinematic Wild West gems as The Sons of Katie Elderand Fist Full of Dollars. In those days, before the turbulent campus protests against the Vietnam War and the shocking assassinations of our idealized leaders, the price of my weekend movie ticket was a scandalous fifty cents.
As a little buckaroo, I was captivated by the talents of Burt Lancaster, James Stewart, Henry Fonda and the larger than life presence of John Wayne. These actors portrayed the archetypical western hero who saved the girl, cleaned up the town of evil outlaws in black hats and loved his horse like a firstborn child and not necessarily in that order. In the mid sixties, the standard mold changed when an obscure television actor named Clint Eastwood sported a 3-day beard stubble, wore a filthy Mexican poncho and smoked skinny cigars while acting in a movie directed by Italian filmmaker Sergio Leone. As a result of this superb collaboration, the landscape of the well-worn genre changed considerably and paved the way for my favorite western of all time; and this is where my list begins.
THE WILD BUNCH (1969)
In 1968, director Sam Peckinpah took a film crew to Mexico and assembled what I consider the best ensemble of actors that ever appeared in a western movie. This includes William Holden, Earnest Borgnine, Ben Johnson, Edmund O’Brien, Warren Oates, Robert Ryan, Strother Martin and L.Q. Jones. Several of these players were Peckinpah alumni, having acted in his previous films Major Dundee and Ride the High Country.
The story begins in a Texas border town in 1914, set against the milieu of the bloody Mexican Revolution. Pike Bishop (William Holden) and his aggregate of professional outlaws attempt to rob the local bank, only to be ambushed by a group of miscreant bounty hunters. To complicate matters, Pike’s former partner Deke Thornton (Robert Ryan) is working as a railroad detective and is leading the group of hired bushwhackers. Though several of Bishop’s gang members are killed during the foiled robbery, many more townspeople are mistakenly gunned down as a temperance union parade gets caught in the deadly crossfire.
With their money running low, Bishop tells his gang that they have to start thinking past their guns as “those days are running out fast.” Paradoxically, he and his men head south of the border, where they are enlisted by Pancho Villa’s rival, a General named Mapache, who hires them to steal a load of rifles from an American Army transport train. While successful in their enterprise, Pike’s band is hotly pursued by Thornton and his men and at Mapache’s behest, are nearly double crossed by the general’s subordinate.
During the bloody climax of the film, Bishop and his associates take on the General and his army of cutthroats in an attempt to retrieve one of their own. With shotguns slung over their broad shoulders, watching Bishop’s crew walk the road to the general’s camp, accompanied by a crescendo of marching drums and Mexican folk music is one of the coolest buildups ever filmed. To capture this exquisitely choreographed marathon of violence, Peckinpah employed innovative multi-camera shots and juxtaposed slow motion with real time action. With epic carnage and quintessential story of loyalty among thieves, this movie is an unforgettable dose of testosterone.
Shane is undeniably one of the greatest westerns ever made. Let me start by heaping praise on George Steven’s eye for the camera. The same one that captured the stark, cinematic Texas landscapes that jumped from the pages of Edna Ferber’s epic novel Giant. For Shane the scenery of dark clouds and majestic Wyoming Mountains enhance the reality of a small, western town standing as a symbolic beacon, foreshadowing the coming of mechanized civilization. This backdrop is populated by settlers carving out their place in the west, which is the centerpiece of conflict for this exceptional film.
The story begins when a mysterious stranger named Shane stops at the small family farm of a tenacious settler named Joe Starrett. Shane longs to leave his gunfighter past behind and is befriend by the farmer, who hires him to help work his patch of land. Starrett’s young son Joey is captivated by Shane, who in turn forms a respectful, unrequited admiration for Joe’s wife Marian.
As the story progresses, Shane is drawn into the settler’s struggle against an aging, grasping cattle rancher named Ryker, who desires to protect his cattle empire and drive the sod busters from the valley. When goaded by one of his henchmen, a vastly outnumbered Shane and Starrett dispatch Ryker’s bullies in the best barroom brawl ever filmed. Reeling from his crushing defeat at Grafton’s saloon, the desperate cattle baron summons the help of a professional killer named Jack Wilson. The film climaxes with Shane accepting his destiny as a lifelong gunfighter, meeting the menacing quick draw villain in one of the best shootouts ever filmed.
The picture works superbly because it succeeds in telling a good story, short of gimmicks with nicely paced action and gorgeous visuals. Alan Ladd is brilliant in the lead role with great supporting performances by Van Heflin and Jean Arthur. However, Jack Palance nearly steals the show with his turn as the cold-blooded Jack Wilson. Shane stands today as a simple, powerful and vastly entertaining picture; an example of flawless directorial skills and superb acting.
THE SEARCHERS (1956)
In 1955, John Ford went to Monument Valley Utah to film what I consider his western masterpiece, The Searchers. This scenic American canvas was the perfect setting for this atmospheric tale of tenacity and vengeance. In this film, John Wayne delivers his most nuanced performance as Ethan Edwards, an ex rebel returning home from the Civil War under mysterious circumstances. His homecoming is short lived, as Reverend Samuel Clayton (Ward Bond) and his band of Texas Rangers recruit him and his adopted nephew, Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter) to repel a party of Comanche Indians from the neighboring ranches. Unfortunately, the raiders kill Ethan’s brother and beloved sister-in-law, in addition to capturing his nieces Lucy and little Debbie. When Lucy is discovered raped and murdered, Ethan and Marty myopically hunt for young Debbie, who is the captive of a Comanche chief named Scar. Along the way, Ethan manages to dispatch bushwhackers while in a scene brimming with comic relief, Marty breaks up the wedding of his childhood sweetheart, Finally, the two men rejoin Clayton and his Rangers to take on the Comanche’s in a climatic battle, where the long-suffering Debbie is eventually rescued.
The seasoned director assembled a cast of his regulars, including Ken Curtis, John Qualen, Hank Worden and Harry Carey Junior to make this terrific film. This experienced company turned in the kind of solid acting that moviegoers came to expect from a John Ford vehicle. Ward Bond is in top form as Captain Clayton and delivers some of the film’s most amusing dialogue. Additionally, a lovely, teenage Natalie Wood has about five minutes of screen time playing the older version of Debbie.
At the center of this great movie, is the relationship between the two searchers, played by Wayne and ably supported by Hunter, who must ride together day after endless day in their search for the elusive Scar. The natural chemistry between these two actors makes this film a standard of the western genre.
In early 1994, when I went to see a B-movie western about Wyatt Earp and Doc Holiday, I never thought it would be one of the most entertaining films of all time. This is the same year that Lawrence Kasdan released his highly anticipated 2 ½ hour epic retelling of this legendary lawman’s career. Ironically, his mega budget film turned out to be an interminable bore, offering a flat, dreary performance by Kevin Costner. Conversely, Tombstone, directed by the late George P. Cosmatos is anything but lackluster, with a superb ensemble cast featuring Kurt Russell as Wyatt and Val Kilmer as Doc, in the most colorful rendering of these characters I have ever seen.
On hand as the bad guys, are Powers Booth as the affable Curly Bill, Stephen Lang as thickheaded Ike Clanton and Michael Biehn, turning in a notable performance as the educated but psychopathic gunslinger named Johnny Ringo. In a particularly interesting sequence, Ringo and Doc exchange barbs across a faro table while speaking in Latin. How many times have you seen that in the Wild West?
The plot line follows the prototypical OK Corral story about Earp and his brothers going to Tombstone to make their fortune. After the famous gun battle with the Clantons and McLaurys, Wyatt’s older brother Virgil is crippled by a gunshot to the arm and younger sibling Morgan takes a fatal bullet to the back. Seeking vengeance on a Biblical scale, Wyatt is accompanied by consumption ridden, drunken Doc, who in spite of his afflictions is loyal to a fault and deadly with a short barreled colt.
This is the best version of the Earp saga and though not quite historically accurate, Kurt Russell turns a nicely layered performance, breathing life into a complex character. Though often too brief, there are some excellent supporting appearances by Dana Delany, ThomasHaden Church, Billy Zane and Charlton Heston. Additionally, the scenery (filmed at Old Tucson Studios) is authentic and the stylish costumes are second to none. I have seen this film at least ten times and will probably watch it another ten times before I ride off into that big saloon in the sky.
In 1992 Clint Eastwood finally got around to filming Unforgiven, a script for which he had purchased the rights many years earlier. It is a thoughtful, uncompromising look at how violence begets violence; and that the traditional line between the good and evil is not as clear as it appears on the surface. For film buffs impressed by Oscar, the film won four Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Supporting Actor for Gene Hackman, who turns in one of his finest performances as the town sheriff Little Bill.
This tale of retribution begins in a town called Big Whiskey with a drunken cowpoke named Quick Mike slicing up a whore named Delilah’s face, after she giggles at size of his male anatomy. When the other prostitutes led by Strawberry Alice (Francis Fischer) go to Little Bill seeking redress, he lets the offending drover and his partner Davey off with a mild punishment that includes the price of a few horses. Incensed at this miscarriage of justice, the women take up a collection to establish a thousand dollar bounty for anyone who will kill the two ranch hands.
Upon hearing of the blood money offered, a fledgling, young gunslinger calling himself The Schofield Kid arrives at the farm of William Munny (Eastwood), who is raising two children without a mother and struggling to make ends meet. The kid informs Munny he is seeking his services as paid assassin. Munny subsequently enlists his former partner Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman) and the trio set off for Big Whiskey to snuff out the unsuspecting cowboys.
During the long ride to their destination, it is poignant foreshadowing when Will reminds Ned of his wild days as remorseless killer. He vividly describes his ruthless killing of an innocent drover that weighs heavy on his conscience. Nevertheless, Munny reflects that his deceased wife forever ended his drunken, murdering ways with Ned reassuring him that, “You ain’t like that no more”. With intelligence supplied by Skinny the Saloon owner, Little Bill discovers that the whores are offering a reward for the two ranch hands. Acting swiftly, he musters his team of deputies and after nearly beating him to death, sends another bounty hunter named English Bob (Richard Harris) packing. When Will and his comrades arrive in town, the sheriff also inflicts a savage beating on him while he is too sick to defend himself. In spite of this setback, the trio manages to kill Mike’s friend Davey in a heart wrenching sequence, which is enough to inspire Ned to forfeit his share of the bounty and head home. Unfortunately, Logan is captured and tortured to death by the sadistic Little Bill.
Eastwood the director masterfully demonstrates how unglamorous a killing can be when Schofield shoots Quick Mike while he is using the outhouse. We learn the ultimate irony is that the kid, anxious to prove himself as a bad man, has absolutely no stomach for the taking of a life. Chillingly, it is Will, who after a few swigs of whiskey has no problem transforming back to the precision killing machine of his earlier days. When he discovers that Little Bill has taken Ned’s life, Munny slaughters the sheriff, his deputies and the saloon owner who was foolish enough to display Logan’s body in front of his establishment.
This film is a masterwork of understanding the complexities of human behavior. Though Will Munny is supposed to be the unforgiving killer, he is the protagonist of the story. In a scene acted with near perfection by Eastwood, he wisely reflects to the kid, “It’s a hell of a thing, killin’ a man. You take away all he’s got an’ all he’s ever gonna have.” When Schofield attempts to justify his actions, he suggests to Will, “Well I guess they had it comin’,” to which Munny succinctly replies, “We all have it comin’ kid.”
Though he represents law and order, Little Bill is clearly the antagonist who blindly believes in his own righteousness. When he is gunned down by Will, he incredulously exclaims, “that I don’t deserve to die like this.” Ultimately, it is Munny who has the clearest sense of purpose and in the face of overwhelming odds, remains cool under fire. He teaches Little Bill his last lesson; that deserve has got nothing to do with it.
To add insult to injury to any movie fan grinding his teeth at my list of choices, I am offering what I consider the ten best westerns of all time:
The Wild Bunch
The Long Riders
The Good, The Bad and The Ugly
The Magnificent Seven