Is the Western the most American of movie genres? You can make an argument for the Western film’s internationality on the names of the directors who have contributed to its iconography: You have your John Fords and your Anthony Manns, your Sam Peckinpahs and your Samuel Fullers, but over in Europe you also have filmmakers like Sergio Leone, Enzo G. Castellari and Sergio Corbucci, among many, many others, as authors of Western offshoots that influence filmmakers even today. (And of course there are those great entries in the Western canon that were lifted wholesale from Akira Kurosawa’s filmography.) Hell, let’s flash from the Western’s glory days to the last decade, where Kim Jee-woon and Takashi Miike have put their individual stamps on its tropes and motifs. For these reasons, there’s certainly an argument to made that the Western is truly “universal.”
But no matter where Western movies are made, no matter what subgenre classifications they are individually accorded, and no matter who makes them, the films always engage with symbols, eras and images that are quintessentially “American.” The Western is the domain of the cowboy, the solitary hero. It’s a place where law and chaos are ever in conflict with one another and where the difference between survival and death usually comes down to who is faster on the draw. It’s a testament to the rich, awesome power of the Western as a narrative mode that filmmakers from around the planet have found stories worth telling within its purview, but even the Italian maestros simply added their own unique (and significant) flourishes to a cinematic tradition that is American in its DNA.
Maybe it’s more accurate to say that they made the Western their own. Spaghetti Westerns are, after all, a cousin to American Westerns in terms of style, content, themes and morality. The Italian Westerns are literally gritty where American Westerns are polished and clean; they deal in ambiguity instead of black and white. The average Spaghetti Western hero looks like a total bastard next to the clean-cut heroes of American Westerns, who uphold all of the best and most commonly accepted standards of heroism as we know them. Who would you rather save the day for you? Will Kane, or the man with no name? There’s a divide separating the Westerns made by Europeans and those shot by Americans, but if you can sort these movies out by their varying approaches, you can’t keep them all from standing under one umbrella. (A better point of debate: Did the Spaghetti Western become a thing in 1958 or 1964?)
Like the wide and sprawling landscapes that are so much a part of the Western’s character as a genre, the Western itself is a big, open canvas for storytelling of all stripes. With that in mind, we here at Paste set about collecting Westerns from all over the map and across the ages to assemble our picks for the 100 best Western films of all time. —Andy Crump
Director: Sam Raimi
Sam Raimi’s sincere neo-Western is notable for several reasons: Joss Whedon’s contributions to the script (along with, reportedly, John Sayles); the American film debut of Russell Crowe; the final screen appearance of Woody Strode (Spartacus, his close friend John Ford’s Westerns The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, 7 Women and Two Rode Together); a gender-bending narrative that sends Sharon Stone’s monotone gunfighter, “The Lady,” on a righteous quest into the town of Redemption (natch) to avenge her father’s death via quick-draw contest. Gene Hackman relishes his turn as the tyrannical mayor, not so subtly named Herod, responsible for said killing, as does a pre-Titanic Leonardo DiCaprio as cocked-brow smartass “The Kid.” Not the least of note here is Dante Spinotti’s characteristically vivid cinematography. —Amanda Schurr
Director: John Ford
John Ford’s portrait of the 1,500-mile trek on the film’s namesake trail is a respectable if flawed attempt at cultural atonement. Richard Widmark stars as a cavalry captain charged with bringing in several hundred Cheyenne who, starving after the U.S. government doesn’t deliver promised supplies to their Oklahoma reservation, venture back to their ancestral Wyoming home. Sympathetic to the plight of the tribe, led by Chiefs Little Wolf (Ricardo Montalban) and Dull Knife (Gilbert Roland), Captain Archer decides to help them, nudged along by his feelings for a Quaker schoolmarm who’s been teaching the indigenous children. At two-and-a-half hours, the film considers both the Cheyenne people’s exodus and Archer and co.’s fundamental dilemma. It’s every bit the conciliatory epic Ford intended, if tediously so. Points for Academy Award-nominee William H. Clothier’s sweeping 70 mm cinematography and Ford’s casting of Navajo Indians (though the subbing of Navajo dialogue for Cheyenne resulted in crude jokes); points lost for casting Latin actors Montalban, Roland and Sal Mineo in the lead Native American roles (apparently, Warner Bros. insisted); a giant question mark for a completely unrelated though not unenjoyable 20-minute intermission sketch featuring Jimmy Stewart as Wyatt Earp. In any case, Cheyenne Autumn is a noble coda to Ford’s “official” Western cycle. —A.S.
Directors: Joel and Ethan Coen
With True Grit, Joel and Ethan Coen remake one of the better cowboy films of the 1960s, a film that influenced countless other films, including Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven. They also take on the genre’s biggest star—John Wayne, who played the irascible marshal Rooster Cogburn in the original ’69 adaptation of Charles Portis’ straightforward and engaging novel. Casting, however, has never been a Coen weakness, and Jeff Bridges wholly reinvents the role for which Wayne received an Oscar. There is a simplicity about the performances here that jives well with the rich landscapes and the authentically recreated, urban settings of 19th-century Arkansas and Indian territory. That, and the genuine attire of the times, allows the Coens to create a world where the actors can play real characters, not caricatures of reality. It’s a talent that keeps begging the question, “What’s next?” —Tim Basham
Director: Quentin Tarantino
“Looks can be deceiving,” says Michael Madsen to Kurt Russell upon first introduction in The Hateful Eight. No four words could be more appropriate to the moment, or to the movie, a sprawling film with an intimate core. More so than most marquee movies and tent poles claiming to be “epic,” it actually lives up to the word. There’s a pomp and grandiosity to the weight of the film—the cast is stupendous, the dialogue dazzles, disgusts and delights in equal measure, and the craftsmanship is peerless. Quentin Tarantino is chiefly interested in the exchanging of barbs and threats more than he is in action. Make no mistake, The Hateful Eight is insanely violent, but it’s fixated around violent talk and violent reverie before physical violence. Frontier justice does quench our thirst, but the themes of social justice that drive the film are more satiating by far. It all adds up to a towering work, as profound as it is profane. —Andy Crump
Director: Alex Turner
Evil Dead meets the Civil War in director Alex Turner’s first feature, which deftly injects the Western with Lovecraftian horror. On the lam after a gold robbery, a group of Confederate army deserters retreats to an abandoned mansion in the midst of a forgotten plantation in order to regroup, tend to their wounded and plan their next move. As the night progresses, the renegades discover they are not alone. The ghosts of the plantation owner and his family haunt the manse. Even worse are the creatures prowling the cornfield, which the gentleman owner unleashed during his experiments on his slaves. Magic rituals intended to resurrect his wife instead opened the doorway to demonic creatures who took possession of the remaining slaves as well as his children. The house now acts as a lodestone, drawing corrupt individuals in as fuel for demonic transformation. Unwittingly opening themselves to psychic attack, the renegades are slowly consumed by their individual greed, which turns to mistrust and paranoia that one or several of the others in their gang are working together to abscond with all the gold. Turner’s horror-Western hybrid might offend the purists in both genres, but the film is a powerful example of the Weird Western. Thanks to the work of a strong ensemble cast, including Henry Thomas, Patrick Fugit, Michael Shannon and Isaiah Washington, as well as its stylish cinematography, Dead Birds is legitimately unsettling, drenched in equal parts dread, spooky atmosphere and rawhide leather. You can almost smell the sweat and fear. —Joe Pettit Jr.
Director: John Huston
Screenwriter John Milius (Apocalypse Now, Jeremiah Johnson) took inspiration for this oater from the real-life story of the self-appointed frontier judge. At the film’s start, the titular scalawag is robbed, beaten and left for dead until he is rescued by Pam of TV’s Dallas, er, Victoria Principal, only to return to the scene of his assault and institute his own brand of “law west of the Pecos.” He reads up on legal process (if only to disregard it), deputizes a gang of visiting thieves, who in turn dispense with various criminals who pass through their Texas border town, and renames the local saloon after his favorite performer, Lillie Langtry (played late in the film by, get this, Ava Gardner). It’s a bizarre, bittersweet tall tale and seriocomic vehicle for Newman, then at the apex of his career. Anthony Perkins, Ned Beatty, Stacy Keach, Richard Farnsworth and Roddy McDowall are among the ensemble of characters, and Tab Hunter shows up, as does an Andy Williams tune, because why not? Then there’s director John Huston stepping in front of his own camera to portray a mountain man by the name of Grizzly Adams, who gives Bean and his lady love a bear for a pet (sure). It’s little surprise that Huston himself called the film a “pure fantasy,” to Milius’ chagrin. But Newman’s charms cannot be overstated in the success of this episodic saga—along with those of the scene-stealing bear. —A.S.
Director: Robert N. Bradbury
After the box office failure of Raoul Walsh’s major studio epic The Big Trail in 1929, a movie intended to make the young John Wayne a Western star, the budding actor dusted off his chaps and fled to smaller independent studios to hone his craft. For the next decade, until John Ford resurrected him in 1939 as a bona fide screen presence in the iconic Stagecoach, Wayne became a matinee idol in numerous entertaining though mostly forgettable B-movie oaters. Riders of Destiny, his first of many for Monogram Pictures, is notable for a number of reasons. Among them—it marked Wayne’s first performance as a singing cowboy, and the movie’s action sequences are brilliantly choreographed by the legendary stuntman Yakima Canutt, who also plays one of the villain’s henchmen in the picture. As with many of these so-called Poverty Row Westerns of the 1930s, Riders of Destiny is a brisk narrative and high on sensational plot twists. Villains are dastardly, in this case a corrupt savage capitalist played by Forrest Taylor, who intends to steal all of the water from surrounding ranchers, charging them an exorbitant fee for its use. And our hero is stalwart and true, here played by Wayne. What makes this singing cowboy more interesting than all of the yodelers who would appear on screen afterward is a simmering violence and darkness within him. None of it is laid on too thick; Wayne’s character is ultimately true blue and on the side of goodness. But neither Gene Autry nor Roy Rogers would ever sing about the “blood a-runnin’” just before showdown. A minor though significant entry in Wayne’s filmography. —Derek Hill
Director: Rudolph Maté
Rudolph Maté’s The Violent Men breezes by, but it isn’t exactly a breeze. The film falls under the same umbrella as movies like Forty Guns and Johnny Guitar, where the cattle baron is replaced with a cattle queen. Those comparisons are intrinsically unfair, though, as Maté is neither Samuel Fuller nor Nicholas Ray; The Violent Men suffers in the shadow of its relatives in this particular genre niche. The good news is that the film is over the top enough to be worth checking out, particularly as it concerns Barbara Stanwyck, who plays the ruthless and calculating Martha Wilkinson with just the right amount of percolating menace, as well as Glenn Ford, playing a fairly prototypical Western hero type with burly brio. (If you get flashes of Double Indemnity at the presence of Edward G. Robinson, well, that’s just to be expected.) Maybe this film is done better elsewhere in the Western canon, but The Violent Men is certainly done well enough. —A.C.
Director: John Huston
For a genre steeped in racism and misogyny, among other unfortunate Western signatures, John Huston’s 1960 film was ahead of its time in its progressiveness, albeit ambivalently so. Burt Lancaster and Audrey Hepburn play siblings living in the Texas panhandle; their father was killed by the Kiowa tribe, leaving Lancaster’s Ben as the head of the household (which also includes brothers Audie Murphy and Doug McClure, along with Lillian Gish as the matriarch). When news come to light that Hepburn’s Rachel may not in fact be Ben and his brothers’ biological sister—and in the words of her suitor’s bigoted mother, a “dirty Indian” taken from the Kiowa—neighboring ranchers shun the family, and violence ensues. The film’s message of tolerance is half-assed at best (take Hepburn’s casting, for starters), but it was nonetheless an enlightened entry in a film canon whose anti-Native American sentiments are frustratingly pervasive. —A.S.
Director: Lucio Fulci
There’s a pervasive melancholy to this Fulci Spaghetti Western that most may not anticipate from either its creator or its genre. Fulci is, after all, the guy who brought us such gory gems as The Beyond, City of the Living Dead, The Black Cat and Zombie Flesh Eaters, and the Western and all its subgenres tends to be a place of high values, higher gestures and little room for ennui. But Four of the Apocalypse is, in a word, sad, a real downer of a film about a card shark, a pregnant prostitute, a drunkard, and a disturbed man who claims to see dead people, each on the run from a pack of murderers. Maybe that sadness is just a reflection of the era: The 1970s saw the inevitable heat death of the Spaghetti Western realized, and Four of the Apocalypse’s mournful tone feels like a concession of sorts to the demise of its category. —A.C.
Director: Clint Eastwood
The first mainstream Western to be produced after the colossal critical and financial bust of 1980’s Heaven’s Gate (see No. 50) wound up the most successful of its ilk for that decade. Director-star Clint Eastwood’s oater owes as much to Biblical scripture as to the 1953 classic Shane (No. 19), following another Man with No Name, the enigmatic “Preacher” who helps defend a mining camp from a greedy interloper during the California Gold Rush. Of the title’s referencing the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, Eastwood’s character is a supernatural entity lifted directly from the Book of Revelation, Death itself riding in on four legs from the Sierra Nevada—Eastwood called his clerical collar-wearing vigilante “an out-and-out ghost.” Pale Rider paints its not-so-mysterious parable of divine retribution in moody tableaux—sometimes heavenly, others more akin to a hellish, light-starved descent—and with Eastwood’s inimitable economy of dialogue. He’s not on screen here as much as in entries like The Outlaw Josey Wales and Unforgiven, but his avenging loner is felt at all times. Just like the Johnny Cash spiritual “The Man Comes Around,” Eastwood’s preacher man is never not around these parts. —A.S.
Director: Peter Fonda
Just a couple years after working with his buddy Dennis Hopper on the landmark indie film Easy Rider, Peter Fonda decided to take a spin in the ol’ director’s chair himself with The Hired Hand. Unlike Hopper, though, Fonda didn’t meet with immediate runaway success; critics pooh-poohed its hippie-dippiness and its religious symbolism, and audiences didn’t care enough to go see it. For a time, The Hired Hand remained filed under “failure.” But time heals all wounds, and around the early 2000s, The Hired Hand enjoyed a new restoration and, upon reexamination, heaps of critical praise. So it goes. For what it’s worth, The Hired Hand is absolutely a better movie than its initial response allowed, a laid-back and poetic bit of existential musing about the unglamorous side of the cowboy way, brutal when it needs to be but mostly defined by its overarching sense of pining. —A.C.
Director: Ron Howard
Healing the rift between an estranged father and daughter is not the first plot that comes to mind when thinking of the great Western film stories. Chances are it wouldn’t even make your list. In their adaptation of Thomas Eidson’s novel, The Last Ride, director Ron Howard and screenwriter Ken Kaufman end up crafting an underrated, classic film using just that particular hook. Maggie Gilkeson (Cate Blanchett), a small town healer in the New Mexico territory, refuses to reconcile with her father Samuel Jones (Tommy Lee Jones) when he unexpectedly shows up at her door. Years ago, Jones abandoned her mother to a life of hardship and early death so he could go native with the Chiricahua tribe. That grudge falls to the wayside when Maggie’s oldest daughter is captured by the brujo Pesh-Chidin (Eric Schweig), a dark shaman whose totem is the rattlesnake and who is quite proficient at casting evil spells from far away. He and his band of followers pillaged the countryside killing white settlers and abducting their daughters to sell them into slavery in Mexico. Ultimately Gilkeson must rely on her father’s tracking skills to find the brujo and get her daughter back safely. Howard caught a lot of flak for the violence and the scares—a New York Times review claimed the film lacked subtlety and labeled it akin to “Stephen King’s Little House on the Prairie.” Time has been kind to Howard’s revisionist Western though. It’s a work of complexity that takes no easy way out in navigating the clash of cultures between the Native Americans and the white settlers during the tail end of Western expansion. The good, the bad, the indifferent and the cowardly exist on both sides. There’s hardly a whiff of sentimentality or sanctimoniousness in Howard’s approach, just assured storytelling as Gilkeson learns to put aside prejudices and misconceptions, while traveling through a larger and more varied world than the one she comes from. After learning to accept help from those she loathes, her path ultimately leads to reconciliation with the past and the more pressing matter of the salvation of her eldest daughter. —J.P.
Director: Philip Kaufman
Depicting the disintegration of the James-Younger Gang after the failed bank robbery referred to in its title, iconoclastic director Philip Kaufman’s first commercial film deliberately deconstructs the Jesse James legend to bare the deftly concealed psychopath at its heart. James, Cole Younger and their brothers are granted clemency by the Missouri legislature, who views their Robin Hood-style lootings in the sympathetic light of southern peasantry having to adjust to post-Civil War challenges brought about by the triumph of northern industry. The bankers, however, do not share these sympathies and hire a squad of Pinkerton detectives to bring the gang to justice. Younger (an almost unrecognizable Cliff Robertson), the brains of the operation, wants them all to lay low, retire and enjoy the unexpected freedom that has been granted to them. Jesse James (Robert Duvall) wants to keep pillaging, latching onto an old Younger scheme to rob a bank in Northfield, Minn., rumored to be the largest in the West. Nothing goes to plan, and things fall apart in an almost comedic travesty of missteps, miscalculations and unexpected interference. Kaufman thoroughly researched his material and offers up his vision of how it really was, with some poetic license, of course. While The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid can be disappointing on first viewing, what lingers is Duvall’s interpretation of Jesse James. When he finally explodes into action, he’s a collection of nervous tics, cold-hearted malice and violent fury. It’s a chilling and, most likely, very realistic depiction of the outlaw who has long been upheld as a folk hero for the common man. —J.P.
Director: Arthur Penn
Dustin Hoffman, then 33, aged from 17 to 121 in this ambitious screen yarn about Jack Crabb, an orphan raised by the Cheyenne nation who came of age through various adventures involving a snake-oil salesman, Wild Bill Hickok and, most fatefully, General Custer. Equal parts satire and tragedy, Arthur Penn’s revisionist Western was anti-establishment not only for its sympathies toward Native Americans (who also were beginning to star, a sea change from their typical onscreen portrayals by Caucasians) but its anti-Vietnam ideology (granted, a debated historical context). As our mythmaking raconteur, Hoffman is outstanding; you can’t imagine anyone else stepping into his bumbling, self-deprecating, physically diminutive but emotionally towering shoes. Penn’s narrative structure is as audacious as his fabled approach, and the supporting cast—including Faye Dunaway as a preacher’s wife-turned-prostitute, Richard Mulligan as the deranged Custer, and most notably, Academy Award-nominee Chief Dan George as Hoffman’s adopted grandfather Old Lodge Skins—is inspired. As filmic looks at a white man amid Indian culture and community go, Dances with Wolves had nothing on this sprawling, moving epic. —A.S.
Director: Quentin Tarantino
Vocal fanboy Quentin Tarantino paid blatant homage to Sergio Corbucci’s 1966 masterpiece (see No. 13) in this solid revisionist saga. Christoph Waltz is marvelous as Dr. Schultz, an erudite, gentlemanly but deadly bounty hunter who enlists the film’s enslaved namesake (a never better Jamie Foxx) to help him track down a trio of outlaws. As usual, Tarantino’s casting is canny, from Don Johnson’s Colonel Sanders-esque plantation boss Big Daddy to Leonardo DiCaprio as the repellent owner of Django’s wife to Samuel L. Jackson as DiCaprio’s equally racist house servant—who has to be heard to be believed, if not at all understood. The relationship between the newly liberated Django and his now colleague Schultz is a pleasure to watch; the horrifying “Mandingo fight,” not so much. Django Unchained is sickening satire, bloody, uneasily hilarious and entertaining in that Tarantino fashion that squarely divides audiences. We argued between this and Tarantino’s more recent The Hateful Eight—which featured a fine Tim Roth doing, basically, his best Christoph Waltz—but Waltz’s singular performance put this one over the top. —A.S.
Director: Charles Marquis Warren
Hate and bigotry go both ways in this Technicolor Western, which pits Charlton Heston’s chief of scouts against Jack Palance’s allegedly civilized Apache warrior. The Army, as is its entirely realistic, pacifistic way, is trying to broker peace with the Apaches before shuffling them off to Florida reservations. Heston’s Bannon is having none of it, skeptical that an Eastern education has done anything to reform the Indian renegade Toriano (Palance), and that to foolishly think otherwise spells annihilation for the well-meaning cavalry. (Of course, the white man is right.) “Anything Toriano’s for, I’m against!” he declares reasonably at one point. Needless to say, the xenophobia is rampant. With its overt themes of ethnic and religious cleansing and deeply offensive racial stereotypes, Arrowhead is oft discussed as a McCarthy-era anti-Communist screed. Frankly, the not-so-sub-text is frighteningly apt today. Aside from its disturbing timeliness, the film benefits from bracing action and an ensemble of Western regulars (Katy Jurado as a, gulp, seductive “half-breed,” Robert J. Wilke, Milburn Stone, James Anderson), along with Brian Keith in his film debut. —A.S.
Director: John Ford
The third and final installment in John Ford’s “cavalry” series (after Fort Apache and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon) may not have happened had the director not agreed to the film to get his dream project, The Quiet Man, made. Essentially a domestic drama set on the Texas frontier, Rio Grande has John Wayne reprising his role as Kirby Yorke who, 15 years after the Shenandoah Valley Campaign, has been promoted to Lieutenant Colonel on a river border outpost and is hurting for troops as he keeps the Apaches at bay. No sooner does Yorke learn of his teenaged son’s flunking out of West Point does the kid show up among his latest batch of recruits, followed closely by his estranged wife (Maureen O’Hara) to take the youth home. In the first of their five onscreen teamings, Wayne and O’Hara are a convincingly complex duo. The bravado horse-riding stunt work and battle scenes are breathtaking, and even the (over)abundance of folk songs by the Sons of Pioneers (who would later perform the theme for The Searchers) feels authentic. What’s more, somehow Monument Valley looks even more vivid in low-budget black and white. —A.S.
Director: Sergio Corbucci
A Zapata Western starring the incomparable Franco Nero. For many, Nero’s very name is synonymous with the Spaghetti Western, and while he made more iconic movies with Sergio Corbucci throughout his career—like, say, Django—Compañeros ain’t too shabby in the grand scheme of things. As is typical of the Zapata Western, the story revolves around bandits stealing arms and selling them to self-made rebel generals during the Mexican Revolution; unlike many Zapatas, though, Compañeros gets downright Biblical with a healthy dose of crucifixion. If you think Jack Palance is badass when he has both arms, try messing with him when he plays a dude with a prosthetic wooden arm. Palance and Nero up the film’s awesome quotient significantly, leaving ostensible lead Tomas Milian somewhat outmatched, which is arguably one of Compañeros’s biggest problems. As problems go, though, that’s not a bad problem to have, and the movie remains a blast regardless. —A.C.
Director: Mel Brooks
Western purists might wrinkle their noses at this particular inclusion. Mel Brooks’ film, after all, isn’t a “real” Western, but rather a pastiche of Western tropes stitched together using his uniquely zany cinematic grammar. Above all else, Blazing Saddles skewers the many staple characteristics of the Western while mocking Hollywood’s racist mythologizing of the American West. But in many ways that just makes Blazing Saddles the ultimate Western film: It is so stocked with all of the “stuff” we expect from Westerns, plus a side of Brooks’ own madcap vision and human satire, that it ends up being a great comic Western and more. The film is so effective at being both a parody and an earnest story about a corrupt politician’s thwarted attempts at land-snatching from the good (if ignorant) people of Rock Ridge that we almost forget we’re watching pure, unabashed nonsense of a cleverly progressive bent. —A.C.
Director: Mateo Gil
If you ever wondered what really happened to Butch Cassidy after he and his erstwhile partner, Harry Alonzo Longabaugh, a.k.a the Sundance Kid, had their fateful final run-in with the Bolivian Army, you need only watch Mateo Gil’s excellent and underappreciated English language debut, Blackthorn, to find the answer: He grew old, got nostalgic, and struck out on a new adventure. Blackthorn is a gorgeously shot series of overlapping plot threads, in which the death of Etta Place, a quest to recover money stolen from powerful industrialists, and the interference of a retired Pinkerton agent either supersede or tie into one another. More importantly, though, is that it’s fabulously acted. Cinema best remembers Paul Newman as the man who immortalized Cassidy for the screen, and yet Sam Shepard’s quiet, stoic work here forges his own compelling legend. —A.C.
Director: John Sturges
John Sturges’ initial foray into portraying the events behind the monolithic historic shootout is fairly epic in scope, spanning multiple settings (Fort Griffin, Texas, Dodge City, Kansas and ultimately ending in Tombstone, Ariz.), and showcasing a large cast including Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas, DeForest Kelley, Rhonda Fleming, Jo Van Fleet, John Ireland, Lee Van Cleef, Jack Elam, Dennis Hopper and Martin Milner. At its heart though, the film is ultimately a straightforward story of brotherly love between Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday, showing how the two men grow to respect one another by keeping each other in check and helping each other grow as men in the face of violent turmoil. While Sturges and screenwriter Leon Uris reportedly heavily researched the incidents, the film is still a fairly fanciful treatment of the events in Tombstone. Gunfight at the O.K. Corral is at times emotionally overwrought, teeming with cinematic open vistas and eye-poppingly lush color used for the interior sets; it’s not hard to see why Sturges later referred to the film as “a slick horse opera with the accent on opera.” In his interpretation of Doc Holliday, Kirk Douglas is quite compelling and yes, overheated, playing him as a volatile, manipulative, emotionally abusive, yet ultimately loyal rapscallion of a dandy. Frankly, he steals the show from top-billed Burt Lancaster’s dour, stoic portrayal of Wyatt Earp. —J.P.
Director: Michael Winterbottom
How can a movie that’s coated in snowfall be considered a Western? Michael Winterbottom’s The Claim is divorced from traditional Western locations, situating itself in Californian mountain ranges circa the Gold Rush of 1849; it’s a film that prefers its climate chilly instead of sun-scorched, and that pervasive cold complements the film’s thematic undercurrent of remorse and shame. The Claim goes against the genre in other ways, too, favoring talk over action and showcasing courage not through force of arms but strength of perseverance, but what lets the film stand out most of all is its tendency to gut punch us right in our emotions. Winterbottom’s film adapts Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge, transplanting it from rural England to a recognizably American historical stage. The shift in surroundings works, aided by Winterbottom’s careful, deliberate direction, Alwin H. Küchler’s sumptuous cinematography and an arresting performance by Peter Mullan. —A.C.
Director: Enzo G. Castellari
Keoma is one of the unloved children of the Spaghetti Western boom that began in the 1960s and ended in the 1970s; it’s so loopy and surreally experimental that it makes movies like Django look positively normal. Franco Nero, a frequent flier on this list, plays the title character, a part-Indian, part-white soldier returned home after spending the Civil War fighting on behalf of the Union, only to find the place has been taken over by a tyrant and his three corrupt half-brothers, who have abandoned their father. So naturally, Keoma makes it his mission to visit justice upon the quartet, enlisting the aid of dad and Woody Strode in his pursuit of rightness. Keoma is an often lugubrious affair that cleaves as closely to Greek tragedy as it does to Western cinema, a work peppered by occasional and possibly supernatural entities; these quirks are the characteristics that make the film tick and give it high value as an underrated and essential late-stage entry in the Spaghetti Western canon. —A.C.
Director: Giulio Questi
This is one of the most surreal and violent Westerns ever made, rivaled only by Alejandro Jodorowsky’s El Topo a few years later. After the success of the original Django in 1966, the European movie studios cranked out numerous “sequels” with mysterious gunfighters patterned off the original character. None of them are direct sequels. Starring the charismatic Tomas Milian in the title role, Django Kill… If You Live, Shoot! heightens the violence to wonderfully absurd degrees and adds a peculiar element of surrealism to the mix. On the surface, this is typical Euro Western fare: Milian is double-crossed by his gang and left for dead. But after he literally rises from his grave and seeks revenge on a town ruled by an eccentric villain and his leather-clad S&M cowboys, we have left the straightforward machismo of the Western and entered a lurid dreamscape of carnage and Catholic psychedelicized Christ obsession. It all plays like a hallucinatory horror Western … still nothing quite like it. —D.H.
Director: Marlon Brando
A strange, troubled, underrated, masochistic Western. The production was problematic to say the least, compounded when the original director, Stanley Kubrick, was fired after butting heads with his star one too many times. Marlon Brando took over the directing duties, and it’s his vision and obsessions that permeate every tortured frame … not always to good effect. It’s certainly riveting in its psychological dimensions, however, and even when Brando is at his most excessive, the result is always fascinating and weird. Brando plays a tortured, revenge-minded gunslinger who goes up against his old friend who once betrayed him, played by Karl Malden. The movie’s seaside Monterey locale adds a distinctive presence to the otherwise angsty proceedings. Freud would have had a field day with this one. —D.H.
Director: Arthur Penn
And now: Marlon Brando as a vicious, deranged serial killer with a penchant for disguise and who speaks in a thick Irish brogue, whether to his human or animal co-stars. We can debate all day long about the quality of Arthur Penn’s The Missouri Breaks; the film deserves a spot on this list just for sheer eccentricity. Even among the assortment of odd ducks named in this collection of 100 films, The Missouri Breaks is pretty damn strange—a plotless, shapeless film about a cattle thief (played by Jack Nicholson) who is targeted by a land baron who prefers to deal with criminals himself instead of calling the law. Mostly, it’s about Brando, playing hired muscle under contract to off Nicholson and his gang, a job he embraces with unsettling, maniacal relish. You’re watching the movie for him and him alone, and it’s his performance—his weird, off-kilter, inexplicable performance—that justifies the movie’s existence, as well as its presence here. —A.C.
Director: John Sturges
Bad Day at Black Rock is a contemporary noir Western set in the almost contemporary California of 1947. World War II vet John Macready (Spencer Tracy), a one-armed former platoon leader, unexpectedly shows up in the desert town of Black Rock looking for the father of one of his fellow fallen soldiers. His friend, a Japanese American in Macready’s platoon, died valiantly and was the posthumous recipient of a war medal that Macready wants to deliver to his father. The locals don’t take kindly to his intrusion, claiming the Japanese-born farmer was interred when the war broke out and never came back to his farm. Undeterred by the constant harassment of local heavies Hector David (Lee Marvin) and Coley Trimble (Ernest Borgnine) and the persistent questioning of motives by unofficial town boss Reno Smith (Robert Ryan), Macready discovers the farmer was murdered and vows to bring the culprits to justice. The topical and potentially controversial subject of the film, conceived with Tracy in mind, almost scared the star off, as did as the inferior short story from which the screenplay was sourced. Allegedly, the cold-footed star’s participation was sealed by a note from producer Dore Schary alluding that Alan Ladd was interested in the role so Tracy didn’t have to worry about dropping out of his contract. Ladd hadn’t even heard of the project, but the threat of his interest prompted Tracy to accept the role. He needn’t have waffled so much. With its snappy dialogue, engaging characters and stunning vistas, Bad Day at Black Rock is an entertaining and original take on the town-with-a-dirty-secret motif, and one of Tracy’s finest cinematic moments. Director John Sturges’ taut direction keeps things moving along briskly as unfolding events ratchet up the suspense. —J.P.
Director: Jim Jarmusch
Often classified as an acid Western or, in the words of its director, a “psychedelic Western,” Jim Jarmusch’s dark journey into poetry and enlightenment is a post-modern meditation on the genre, particularly its treatment of Native Americans. As Johnny Depp’s imperiled accountant flees the frontier town of Machine, escorted west by an Indian who calls himself Nobody (Gary Farmer, who’d reprise his role in Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai), Jarmusch peppers his film with deliberately unsubtitled conversations spoken in native Cree and Blackfoot languages, along with his signature assortment of misfits—played by everyone from Iggy Pop to Crispin Glover to Robert Mitchum (in his final film). Along the way, Depp’s tellingly named William Blake experiences a violent vision quest, a trio of killers (led by Lance Henriksen) in pursuit, Neil Young’s raw, improvised score suffusing the spiritual realm he inhabits with a fatalistic dread. Bizarre, droll and lyrical as only Jarmusch can do, Dead Man is one strange trip. —A.S.
Director: Ted Post
Retired lawman Jed Cooper (Clint Eastwood) is wrongfully accused of theft and murder. After being tried on the spot by a hotheaded mob, he survives a brutal lynching. Cleared of wrongdoing by hanging judge Fenton (Pat Hingle), a character based on historical figure Judge Isaac Parker, Cooper is deputized. He plans to use his position to legally hunt down the nine men behind his lynching. There’s one catch: He must bring them back alive to be tried by Fenton. Eastwood’s first post-Leone Western, and the first project developed by Eastwood’s fledgling production company, Malpaso, also claimed distinction as the American cinema’s initial response to the Spaghetti Western. While incorporating crucial Leone-esque elements—explosive violence, seedy and morally ambiguous characters driven by revenge—director Post and Eastwood mostly dispense with stylistic flamboyance and the core of nihilism so inherent in the Italian vision of the West. Instead, the film delves into themes of injustice, the practice of capital punishment and the fallibility of the law. Bloodthirsty for revenge, Cooper nevertheless wrestles with his own motivations, contrasting them with the “legal” dispensing of justice within the system he is duly bound to serve. Closely aligned with Eastwood’s personal views, the morality within the film was also closer to Hollywood’s traditional take on the outsider’s code of honor. This approach had the bonus of softening the Eastwood persona’s rough edges, thus creating a more palatable version for American film audiences, and further solidifying his standing as an up-and-coming box office superstar. —J.P.
Year: John Farrow
Maybe Hondo is the quintessential John Wayne film, maybe it isn’t. It’s certainly his best performance, though there are strong arguments to be made for True Grit and The Searchers. But leaving those arguments for another time, Hondo is a definitive Western. It is undoubtedly a definitive John Wayne Western, one that sees the great American cowboy refining and honing himself as a performer, sculpting his image as well as the figure of archetypal manhood he played throughout his career. He’s a man’s man, that Hondo, but he’s sensitive, too, the kind of guy who’ll teach your son, bereft of a present father, how to fish and how to swim, and instruct him on the importance of good axe maintenance; later, he’ll tell you that you smell “all over like a woman,” and maybe he’ll make poetic pronouncements about the failures of human language. Hondo’s layers make him an enduring character even in Wayne’s storied filmography, and by consequence elevate Hondo from a good Western to a great one. —A.C.
Director: Kevin Costner
It is and always has been the fashion to criticize actors for so-called vanity projects, when they dare to get in the director’s chair while keeping their faces in front of the camera. If you want to accuse Kevin Costner of being vain, by all means. But don’t conflate perceived vanity with caliber of filmmaking. Maybe Open Range is a vain movie. It does, after all, end with an explosive and extended gun battle in which Costner transforms from a broken-down ex-soldier into the whirlwind of death he is framed as in whispers and through innuendos that pepper the film’s script. Call that a naked ego boost if you like. Open Range confidently takes its time building to a violent crescendo. It earns its gunplay. There’s no vanity in that whatsoever—just good old-fashioned storytelling know-how, capped off with a technical display of real-time action that proved a necessary tonic in a post-Matrix moviegoing era. —A.C.
Director: Budd Boetticher
Director Budd Boetticher is one of the greatest pulp poets the American Western genre ever produced. As with Anthony Mann’s 1950s work in the genre, Boetticher’s productions are narratively taut and sizzling with undercurrents of sex, violence and sadism. It’s great stuff. His best movies were those starring matinee favorite Randolph Scott, a standard, chiseled Hollywood hero, going toe-to-toe with neurotic, psychopathic heavies, like James Best in this one. Boetticher builds up tension to a feverish degree, though the finale is unexpected in its moral weight and thoroughly satisfying. Essential. —D.H.
Directors: Sergio Leone, Tonino Valerii
Spaghetti Western connoisseurs don’t necessarily associate the name of Sergio Leone with comedy, even though brilliant comedic bits are scattered throughout all of his westerns. My Name is Nobody distilled those moments into one movie. The film was conceived as Leone’s response to the popular My Name is Trinity series, the director-turned-producer even going so far as to poach Trinity star Terence Hill. Although directed by former associate Tonino Valeri, this has Leone’s stamp all over it, so much so that Steven Spielberg once cited it as his favorite Leone film. Nobody is a sort of holy fool, a Mulla Nasrudin of the Old West, a seeming simpleton whose foolish acts seem wise in retrospect, or at least carefully premeditated and logically executed. His adulation for the aging, legendary gunslinger Jack Beauregard (Henry Fonda) launches the old hand into a series of confrontations that increase and burnish his personal mythology while building to a final confrontation wherein the designation of Fastest Gun in the West is passed on to his young admirer. The film symbolically represents the passing of the torch from the classic Hollywood western to the brash upstart New Westerns, embodied mainly by the Italian brand. Ironically, it ended up being Leone’s final word on the genre. —J.P.
Director: Mark Rydell
A few years after True Grit, John Wayne was again looking to break out of his formula filmmaking rut. How about working with a younger director and getting killed off two-thirds of the way through the movie? The Cowboys was definitely a departure in form for The Duke. It was one of the few films where he played a character close to his actual age, who also has an older wife. After losing his ranch hands to the Gold Rush, Wil Andersen (Wayne) finds the only acceptable crew he can gather for his upcoming cattle drive is a bunch of greenhorn kids. Rather than postpone for a year, Andersen decides he will put these kids through their posts on the trail. The boys earn their merits through a series of trials and mishaps that sharpen their abilities and bond them together. Their ultimate test arrives when a group of rustlers led by “Long Hair” Asa Watts (Bruce Dern) surprise them in camp with a plan to steal their cattle. In the process, Watts cold-bloodedly murders Andersen. The boys figure their only option is to go after the rustlers, get the cattle back and avenge their mentor’s death. Quite shocking in its time, and still shocking now, the end of The Cowboys plays out as a Lord of the Flies set in the Old West. The young cowhands show no mercy as they relentlessly pick off the rustlers, reserving a special fate for Long Hair. John Wayne was quite proud of the role, stating that it portrayed an elder instilling right skills and values into young men. Some critics lambasted the film for its depiction of violence, especially the suggestion that the boys grow into men only after embracing it. In recent years, Bruce Dern claimed this role killed off his career, and that for long afterward, strangers accosted him on the street, angry that he had killed off their hero. —J.P.
Director: John Huston
Though footnoted as Clark Gable’s and Marilyn Monroe’s last completed film, The Misfits marks some of Gable’s and Monroe’s finest work, each actor’s aging, banged-up star paralleled by their onscreen plights. Gable is a past-his-prime cowboy who, circa 1960s Nevada, bucks against the disappearance of the Old West with the ferocity of the wild mustangs he hunts. For her part, Monroe’s divorcée at a crossroads is a dramatic revelation—in real life, her union with Arthur Miller, who wrote the elegiac script, crumbled during the film’s production. As the other two lost souls, Montgomery Clift, a broke rodeo performer and friend of Gable’s character, and Eli Wallach, a widower who can’t compete with Gable for Monroe’s affection, are just as memorable. The infamous carousing (John Huston reportedly spent a fortune gambling in Reno) and general disrepair—not to mention the 110-degree temps of the desert—plaguing cast and crew seeps into each frame. There’s nothing majestic here, just a collective misery in these drifters’ growing irrelevance, barely masked by desperate attempts to stay afloat—take the pathetic absence of self-awareness as the men round up the horses to sell them for dog food, Monroe looking on, aghast. The Misfits is a stunningly unsentimental portrait of twilights: of traditional notions of masculinity, of heydays, of the mythic West, of the Western itself. —A.S.
Director: Jared Moshé
Opening with a serene, lingering shot of the New Mexico desert, Dead Man’s Burden invites us to marvel at this imposing, seemingly uninhabitable landscape. The arresting stillness is then unceremoniously broken as a man on horseback bursts across the screen. A young woman (Clare Bowen) watches him go, tears pooling in her eyes. And the very moment you believe you have the measure of her, she raises a rifle, takes dead aim and fires. Advancing on her wounded quarry—who’s revealed to be her father, Joe—she puts him out of his misery. With this masterfully executed sequence, writer-director Jared Moshé establishes an unforgiving milieu for his moody, minimalist Western. This is a hardscrabble, post-Civil War setting in which nothing can flourish but violence and regret—where wounds never fully heal and the past doesn’t take kindly to attempts at burying it. Boasting the widescreen lensing readily associated with oaters, Dead Man’s Burden is also fueled by the potent pessimism and fatalism that’s been the lifeblood of many of the genre’s classics. —Curtis Woloschuk
Director: John Huston
Greed is a recurring theme throughout the Western, whether in the scheming cynicism of Vera Cruz, the landowner conflicts of Once Upon a Time in the West and Shane, or in The Naked Spur, where greed is a divisive force. In John Huston’s The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, greed is corruptive. Greed corrodes your soul and poisons you against your comrades. Greed persuades you to yank your prospecting partner out of bed and shoot him in the dead of night. All that and more for bags of gold that wind up being tossed to the wind like so much chaff. It isn’t all ugliness and gloom—in one particularly noble gesture, Walter Huston’s Howard saves a kid’s life—and there are even a few laughs along the way (most of them Huston’s), but The Treasure of the Sierra Madre’s morality tale about the taint of avarice is deeply sobering as an anti-capitalist screed. —A.C.
Director: John Ford
A John Ford movie without Henry Fonda or John Wayne is like a birthday cake without candles, or the Fourth of July without fireworks. But Wagon Master finds more than suitable replacements in Ben Johnson and Harry Carey Jr., who play, as you might expect, wagon masters hired to help a Mormon wagon train make it to Utah in one piece. That they are imperilled along the way by a pack of dastardly bandits is par for the Western course. That the film exudes so much warmth and general good feeling is, perhaps, far more surprising, not just for its genre but for its creator. Ford is not widely regarded as sentimental, or gentle, or even the least bit cuddly, but Wagon Master is such a good-tempered romp that you might not expect to see his name on the marquee whatsoever. —A.C.
Director: John Sayles
John Sayles weaves a slow-burning, incredibly intricate reckoning in the Texas border locale of Rio County. Sheriff Sam Deeds (Chris Cooper), struggling to escape the shadow of his late father, Buddy (played in flashbacks by Matthew McConaughey), stumbles upon human remains and with it a 40-year-old murder mystery that spotlights racial tensions and suspicions of institutional corruption. As the sins of much hated Sheriff Charlie Wade (a menacing Kris Kristofferson) are laid bare, Sam wonders if his dear old dad was involved in the offing. In the meantime, he reconnects with the high school sweetheart (Elizabeth Peña)—fittingly, she’s a history teacher—he had been separated from because of their ethnic differences. In a town where blacks, whites, Mexican Americans and Seminole Indians have different takes on what precipitated the raging bigot Wade’s demise, Lone Star considers the extent to which cultures, politics and generations coexist, how they “come together in both negative and positive ways,” in Peña’s words, an upside-down societal fabric in which the majority is still oppressed by the minority. It’s intelligent, gracefully nuanced and resonant. —A.S.
Directors: George P. Cosmatos, Kevin Jarre
The gang’s all here, perfectly cast, in this revisionist telling of the events leading up to carnage at the O.K. Corral and its aftermath. Kurt Russell is outstanding as barely retired lawman Wyatt Earp, who moves to the film’s namesake mining town. There he reunites with his brothers (Sam Elliott, Bill Paxton) and Val Kilmer’s superbly iconic Doc Holliday, partnering to open a gambling saloon before a band of outlaws threatens the peace. Though George P. Cosmatos was credited as director after screenwriter-initial director Kevin Jarre was fired, Russell has since said he himself handled the bulk of the duties. Whoever had the ultimate word, the result is a thrillingly old-fashioned Western tweaked for modern audiences. The extensive A-list ensemble includes Robert Mitchum as the film’s narrator, Harry Carey Jr. as Marshal Fred White and Charlton Heston as ranching tycoon Henry Hooker. —A.S.
Director: Lawrence Kasdan
Lawrence Kasdan’s winning homage benefited from a sterling ensemble cast (Scott Glenn, Kevin Costner, Kevin Cline, Danny Glover, Brian Dennehy, John Cleese, Jeff Goldblum, Rosanna Arquette), keen pacing—both in action and humor—and an all-in approach to the classic Western. The traditional motifs are all there as a quartet of cowboys treks to the film’s namesake town and helps its citizens fight back against corrupt powers that be. From fraught duels to wagon trains and cattle stampedes, Silverado is neither revisionist nor original, but it’s terrifically energetic and fun, not to mention beautifully polished in production. —A.S.
Director: Sydney Pollack
An obvious precursor to The Revenant, Sydney Pollack’s mountain man drama tells the saga of “Liver-Eating Johnson,” a disillusioned vet of the Mexican War turned trapper who eschews civilization for a solitary life on the western frontier. He finds a piece of land on which to forge his hermit existence, and in building his Colorado homestead makes new friends and enemies—among both, members of neighboring Indian tribes. As Johnson’s legend grows as his exploits turn unintentionally violent—and then, quite intentionally so—Robert Redford fully inhabits the survivalist mindset and physicality demanded by such geographic, climate and cultural extremes. It’s a remarkable performance in a remarkable, authentic production; Redford did most of his own stunts, the extensive scouting shows in the nearly 100 locations ultimately used (many so remote they were accessible only by air), and the film employed scores of Native Americans as actors, extras and crewmembers. “It’s a picture made out of rhythms and moods and wonderful performances,” Pollack said of the time-consuming editing process—all seven-and-a-half months of it. Jeremiah Johnson is a starkly beautiful, brutal tone poem. —A.S.
Director: Henry King
If you’re a gunfighter, you schedule your life around shootouts in the wide-open streets of dusty old frontier towns. It’s what you do. But what happens when you leave that life and that life refuses to leave you? What do you do when you are the sum of your reputation, a target for the latest young quick drawin‘ upstart on the block to challenge, and nothing more? Well, you kill those young quick drawin‘ upstarts as they come at you, albeit with a healthy dose of reluctance. The Gunfighter is a doleful little ditty, quick, to the point, jam-packed with incident, and shaped by its tone as much as its action—plus Gregory Peck’s jawsome, bitter, remorseful leading performance. It’s Darwin’s kind of Western, a movie where the fastest survives but in which surviving and living don’t exactly line up with one another. —A.C.
Director: Clint Eastwood
The movie’s opening scenes are startling and mesmerizing: Missouri farmer Eastwood is unable to save his wife and child from being murdered by a band of ruthless Jayhawkers, led by the nasty Bill McKinney (Deliverance). Having survived the assault and with nothing left to lose but his life, Wales joins a bunch of Confederate-allied Bushwhackers and enters the Civil War, hoping that he will again run into McKinney’s Captain Terrill and his gang. Upon refusing to surrender after the war, Wales goes rogue and meets up with a number of outsiders—an old Indian chief and young woman, and an elderly woman and her granddaughter—in an attempt to remake his family down in Texas, far from the violence that has consumed his life. At once adventurous and even comical at times, The Outlaw Josey Wales is also cast with elegiac tones via cinematographer Bruce Surtees. It’s a triumph and one of Eastwood’s career highlights. —D.H.
Director: Dick Richards
There are bleak Westerns, and then there’s The Culpepper Cattle Co., a movie so goddamn bleak it makes McCabe and Mrs. Miller look like It’s a Wonderful Life. Where to start with this film? At the beginning, where Gary Grimes’ wide-eyed fanboy Ben seeks out his start in the profession by joining up with a cattle drive? The film’s quick progression into the decline of Ben’s romanticized notions of what “cowboyin‘” actually means? Or the climax, which leaves everyone but Grimes and Anthony James on the proverbial slab? The Culpepper Cattle Co. is about as grim and unsparing as they come, and it makes no apologies for either. —A.C.
Director: John Ford
What Cheyenne Autumn is to Native Americans, and Sergeant Rutledge is to African Americans, 7 Women is to women. It’s an apology. More than that, better than that, it’s a narrative that challenges and ultimately recalibrates the bullshit narrative tropes and clichés that are and have been so casually appended to female characters throughout all of cinema’s history. At the time of the film’s release, Ford’s name was already well-associated with the Western genre, and so we think of 7 Women as a Western even if there may be an argument as to whether the title fits. But though the film takes place in China, far away from the frontiers that are so emblematic of the Western’s identity, and though its characters are not cowboys and bandits but Christian missionaries and hard-drinking doctors, it still tackles ideas that are near to the genre’s center: the human struggle to survive and the examination of morality in amoral scenarios. It may not rank among Ford’s finest offerings, but it is nonetheless an excellent and underappreciated entry in his body of work. —A.C.
Directors: John Ford, Henry Hathaway, George Marshall
A vestige of MGM’s traditional epic Western era, this multi-chapter, multi-director classic spans 50 years, four generations, a cross-country saga and a legacy cast featuring Henry Fonda, Karl Malden, Gregory Peck, John Wayne, Richard Widmark, Eli Wallach, Jimmy Stewart, Walter Brennan, Debbie Reynolds, Lee Van Cleef and George Peppard (for starters), and narrated by no less than Spencer Tracy. Malden is the patriarch of the Prescott family, who ventures west from the Erie Canal and through 19th-century American history, including the Civil War, California Gold Rush, the Pony Express and the railroad boom. John Ford, Henry Hathaway and George Marshall co-direct, filming in the spectacular (but intricately problematic) curved-screen three-strip Cinerama process that made such a monumental narrative undertaking even more grandiose onscreen. Life and death, cowboys and Indians, riverboats and stagecoaches, frontiers and cities, How the West Was Won leaves no genre motif unturned—there’s even a 1960s-set epilogue to drive home the themes of expansion and industrialization, American-style. James R. Webb’s screenplay deservedly won an Oscar, as did the editing—consider a story and production of such scale assembled into a cohesive and riveting two and three-quarter hours—and Alfred Newman’s score is among film’s most iconic. For Wayne, Fonda and Stewart onscreen together for the first and only time, for the insanely detailed Cinerama, for the accomplishments of cast, crew and plot, this is once-in-a-lifetime filmmaking. —A.S.
Director: John Hillcoat
If you’ve ever sat and wondered what Hell might look like, check out John Hillcoat’s The Proposition, in which Hell happens to look an awful lot like the Australian outback. You may not anticipate that shifting locales from one arid and unforgiving ecosystem to another would lend that much impact to a film’s visual texture, but The Proposition feels like a distinctly Aussie production even before you hear the accents. Nationality isn’t what makes the picture feel so utterly accursed, though; it’s the sheer unrelenting brutality. There’s a thematic nugget at The Proposition’s core that links it to John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, a movie about lawful men trying against all good sense to tame wild lands and civilize lawless men. But Ford’s film never even tries to ascend the peaks of barbarity that The Proposition comes to rest upon through its final moments, where blood is answered with more blood and violent action can only be stopped by a violent response. —A.C.
Director: Monte Hellman
Unlike Monte Hellman’s previous Western, Ride in the Whirlwind, the influence of myth and surrealism carefully encroaches upon these proceedings. The Shooting is much more enigmatic affair, although period detail and an unromantic streak pervade this one as well. A bounty hunter (Warren Oates) agrees to lead a mysterious woman (Millie Perkins) through a hellish desert to a desolate town. But following them is a dandyish gunslinger (Jack Nicholson) who’s fast on the trigger and seems to have a strange bond with Perkins. What Perkins’ and Nicholson’s real motives are is confounding to Oates, until the bizarre truth of their quest is fully revealed. The Shooting is a hypnotic affair, fatalistically leading to one of the great head-trip finales of all time. —D.H.
Director: Michael Cimino
A magnificent, deeply flawed Western. Michael Cimino’s epic follow-up to his Oscar-winning The Deer Hunter was a colossal financial and critical disaster when first released. It ruined the director’s career for many years, although he continued to work on projects. Heaven’s Gate’s failure at the box office effectively ended the so-called New Hollywood era of director-controlled movies, and out of the ashes the studios reined in talent and regained their dominance. But what about the movie’s artistic merits, the only real thing that matters? Time has been kinder to Cimino’s ambitious political Western, though it’s hardly the masterpiece it was obviously intended to become. However, it has many masterful elements: Vilmos Zsigmond’s dusky, painterly cinematography; the insanely fetishistic period detail; and a bevy of recognizable character actors (Jeff Bridges, Sam Waterston, Geoffrey Lewis) and future stars (Mickey Rourke). The movie focuses on a love triangle between a marshal (Kris Kristofferson), a gunman (Christopher Walken) and a whore (Isabelle Huppert), while a highly charged conflict erupts around them among poor Eastern European immigrants, the rich cattle ranchers who want them dead because of their poaching, and the mercenaries employed to do the killing. Unlike The Deer Hunter, where the balance between intimate and epic storylines meshed together with ease, here the love story lacks the much-needed emotional core and gets broadsided by the bullying scope of the larger political, historical storyline. Also, as with The Deer Hunter, Cimino ends things with a surprising yet inevitable brutalist finale. —D.H.
Director: John Ford
The first of John Ford’s “cavalry trilogy” introduces John Wayne’s Captain Kirby York as a skilled Civil War veteran stationed at a remote base. To his dismay, the command post he expects is instead assigned to Lieutenant Colonel Owen Thursday (Henry Fonda), a power-hungry blowhard with neither the qualifications for the gig nor respect for the region’s Native Americans—both in sharp contrast to York. Further complications ensue with the presence of Thursday’s daughter (Shirley Temple) and the Irish son of one of his soldiers, a recent West Point grad Thursday forbids the young woman from seeing. As an Apache uprising looms, the foolish leader ignores York’s advice, what leads his troops into a massacre based on Custer’s Last Stand. But Ford is less focused on the gunfights then the rote realities of military life on the Western frontier, painstakingly capturing not only the panoramic vistas but the quirky cast of characters who inhabit them. The turf wars here are just as personal as professional (and cultural). Also of note is the degree of subtly in which Ford explores the indigenous people’s systemic injustices by the white man and their identities as something more than gross stereotypes. It is by no means an even-handed or realistic depiction, but the increasing shades of gray are a welcome presence in the vaunted mythologizing so typical of the genre. Wayne and Fonda are a dynamic screen match, their rivalry the crux of the various human dramas that preface the climactic battle, and make Fort Apache far more complex, and enriching. —A.S.
Director: Budd Boetticher
The second collaboration between director Budd Boetticher and actor Randolph Scott, adapted by screenwriter Burt Kennedy from Elmore Leonard’s short story “The Captives,” is a gritty tale centered on a heist turned kidnapping. Frank Usher (Richard Boone) and his ruthless gang (Henry Silva pulling a sinister turn as the murderous Chink and Skip Homeier as the naive lunk, Billy Jack) mistake a privately chartered honeymoon stagecoach for the regular mail coach. Independent rancher Pat Brennan (Randolph Scott) goes from having a bad day—losing his horse in a wager and having to hitch a ride on the doomed honeymoon stagecoach—to worse, when he finds himself on the wrong end of the gun in a hostage situation. When it becomes clear the gang is going to kill everyone on the stagecoach and wait to rob the next one, newly married coward Willard Mims (John Hubbard), who obviously has wed for money over love, uses his plain wife, Doretta (Maureen O’Sullivan), as the bargaining chip to save his own hide. Her father just happens to be the richest man in the territory, so any ransom the gang demands is going to yield more than robbing a paltry stagecoach would. The real love story, though, is between Scott and Boone. Tired of the small-minded men with whom he has cast his lot, Usher is fascinated with the stoic, self-reliant Brennan. He spares his life for no logical reason other than he likes him, constantly engages him in conversations to probe how he thinks about certain situations and, later, asks questions about his life and work. Usher sees in Brennan the man he could have been had circumstances not funneled him into the criminal life. Boetticher uses the twisted rock formations and arid landscapes of the Alabama Hills of Lone Pine, Calif. to bring out the starkness of the captivity situation. It takes resourceful, mentally strong and canny individuals to survive in that rugged country. By the end of The Tall T, both Brennan and Doretta have proven they have the grit and tenacity to overcome the most desperate of situations. —J.P.
Director: David Miller
Based on a novel by Edward Abbey, Lonely are the Brave perceptively twists the classic Western archetype of the traditional cowboy and thrusts him into the modern age, harshly juxtaposed against the crass, money-driven, commercialized modern West. It’s a self-aware leftist political drama (the screenplay by blacklisted Dalton Trumbo) and a sincerely touching one at that. John Huston’s The Misfits, Martin Ritt’s Hud, and John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance were all released around the same time and self-consciously set their stories in contemporary settings and/or dissected the traditional Western. Lonely are the Brave is arguably the most mythic of them, focusing on the manhunt of a naturally anarchistic cowboy (Kirk Douglas) by a vengeful authoritarian police, led by a determined yet increasingly dismayed and sympathetic lawman (Walter Matthau). The chase scenes are taut, the CinemaScope black-and-white cinematography is heavenly, and it’s one of Douglas’s best performances. The finale is fatally heavy-handed in its nihilistic fury and symbolism, but the movie is nevertheless a strange, heartfelt and worthwhile approach to the genre. —D.H.
Director: Delmer Daves
Adapted from Elmore Leonard’s iconic short story, 3:10 to Yuma draws heavily on noir and rebellious youth pictures. Glenn Ford’s Ben Wade is one cool and composed outlaw. Sexy and assured, he seduces a local bartender shortly after his gang has robbed a bank stagecoach, killing the driver in the process. His casual dalliance leads to his capture. However, he doesn’t go easy despite his easygoing manner. He’s psychologically astute, steadily probing the weaknesses of the small band of townspeople committed to bringing him to justice by getting him on the 3:10 train to Yuma prison. Wade never wavers in his confidence that his gang will be there to bust him free, and his sure faith in this inevitable outcome slowly undermines the will of almost everyone on the side of justice, exposing underlying motives of self-interest and thinly concealed cowardice. Only rock-solid rancher Dan Evans (Van Heflin) keeps towing the line despite hefty temptations offered up by the charismatic outlaw. A tight screenplay and solid, at times almost overwrought, performances keep the ticking-clock action suspenseful and engaging. The 2007 remake with Russell Crowe and Christian Bale reprising the respective leads is a great modern-day interpretation of the source material and deserves to be seen in its own right. —J.P.
Director: Don Siegel
John Wayne’s final film is an elegant, meta outro to a career synonymous with the Western genre. Director Don Siegel (Dirty Harry) opens with a montage of his star’s earlier screen efforts (several included on this list) in establishing the film’s bittersweet yet unsentimental arc: At the turn of the 20th century, legendary gunfighter J.B. Books knows his days are numbered—not to mention those of the Wild West—and seeks the least painful, most dignified way off this mortal coil. His doc (James Stewart, appearing on Wayne’s request) has given him a fatal cancer diagnosis, warning him it won’t be a graceful demise, so Books, after noticing the many vultures in town—enemies, carpetbaggers, even an opportunistic old flame—circling his soon-to-be corpse, stages his own exit. In the meantime, he befriends the widow (Lauren Bacall) from whom he’s rented a room and her teenage son (Ron Howard), who idolizes Books and is exhibiting some troubling behavior. As swan songs go, The Shootist is an across-the-board extraordinary effort, contextualized by all of the offscreen gravitas (note: Wayne himself was ailing but not terminal at this point) and onscreen talent—the top-notch cast also includes Scatman Crothers, Harry Morgan, John Carradine, Richard Boone and Bill McKinney—that reveals this as a reverential though far-from-maudlin tribute. For better or worse, the introspective Books/Wayne makes no apologies for his life, nor does he suffer fools who try to exploit him on his deathbed. He’s leaving on his own terms and kicking ass until the final shoot-out. It’s tough to imagine a more fitting and profound send-off to The Duke. —A.S.
Director: Kelly Reichardt
Leave it to Kelly Reichardt to reclaim the Western for women. Western movies tend to be seen as “guy” affairs, less so now in 2016 than in years past; they are manly products about manly men doing manly things and pondering manly ideas, though that’s an oversimplified critique that erases the impact women have had on Westerns in front of and behind the camera. What Reichardt does in Meek’s Cutoff is shunt the men to the side and confront the bullshit macho posturing that is such an integral component of the Western’s grammar; the only man here worth his salt is Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood), and even he is kind of an incompetent, entitled scumbag. So it’s up to Emily Tetherow, played by the great and luminous Michelle Williams, to challenge his self-appointed authority and take responsibility for the people in the caravan he has led so far astray from their path. Meek’s Cutoff is a stark, minimalist film, which is to say it’s a Kelly Reichardt film. The stripped-down, simmering austerity of her aesthetic pairs perfectly with the sensibilities of Western cinema. —A.C.
Director: Anthony Mann
The penultimate Western collaboration between director Anthony Mann and Jimmy Stewart is a compelling study of probably the most inflexibly hard-cased character in the series, one who continually refuses to reform his ways and lend a hand to those in need. Jeb Webster’s personal philosophy of stubborn independence and self-interest is sorely tested during his journey from the Yukon to the Canadian frontier; he runs the gamut of being accused of murder, having his team of cattle seized by town boss Gannon (John McIntire), stealing them back, and then lighting into Canada to buy a claim to look for gold. Along the way, strangers gladly help him overcome these immense challenges. Yet when the time comes for Webster to show gratitude or pay the favor forward, he sings the old refrains of “I don’t owe anybody” and “What’s in it for me?” Only after the murder of his partner and mentor, Ben Tatum (Walter Brennan), is Webster finally compelled to step up and embrace community values. Sure, his conversion is partially fueled by a motive for revenge, but it’s coupled with a deep recognition that when times get tough, he doesn’t have to go it alone. Someone has always been willing to help. The film could have ended up being another gut-churning existential Western. This time around Mann keeps the tone light and buoyant. McIntire is downright gleeful as the film’s chief villain, the Dickensian Mister Gannon, who will gladly buy you a drink and call you “friend” as he swindles you out of your cattle and land claims. Overall, The Far Country is the most purely entertaining of the films in the Mann-Stewart cycle. —J.P.
Director: Anthony Mann
The last of Anthony Mann’s 1950s Westerns, Man of the West takes up where his earlier films left off: some years after his standard hero/antihero has finally settled into a normal life. Link Jones (Gary Cooper), a reformed outlaw and now family man, takes a trip to hire a schoolteacher for his small Texas town. Circumstances revolving around a bungled train robbery leave him stranded with two fellow passengers and literally lead him to his old gang’s front door. In order to survive and help keep Sam Beasley (Arthur O’Connell) and Billie Ellis (Julie London) from becoming the unfortunate victims of sadistically unhinged leader Dock Tobin (Lee J. Cobb), Jones assumes his old identity, pretending he just can’t stay away from a life of crime. Top-billed Cooper felt he was too old for the part. At the time he was a 56-year-old man playing someone who was supposed to be 20 years younger. However, his life experience brings an emotional gravitas to the part. Real regret pours through in his portrayal of a man forced to own up to where his missteps have led him on the path of life, and who struggles to stay honorable and true to himself while staring down the sins of his past. Easily the most harrowing and disturbing of Mann’s Westerns, and considered by some critics to be his masterpiece, Man of the West is an underrated jewel, as well as an important precursor to the psychologically compelling Westerns of the ’60s and ’70s. —J.P.
Director: Monte Hellman
Filmed back-to-back with The Shooting, an equally superb Western, Ride in the Whirlwind is the more traditional movie on the surface. Written by actor Jack Nicholson, who also stars in The Shooting, Whirlwind’s story focuses on three cowboys riding the range back home who seek shelter for the night with a gang of outlaws. When a posse of vigilantes circle the cabin and a gunfight ensues, Nicholson and Cameron Mitchell flee into a canyon for safety, chased by the vigilantes who believe they’re members of the outlaws. They find temporary sanctuary with a family of homesteaders, including Millie Perkins as the daughter, but Nicholson and Mitchell’s quest for freedom is cast in existential despair. Nicholson’s script is filled with fantastic, well-researched details of life in the West, and director Monte Hellman tightens his characters’ dire predicament with an almost unbearable dread. For all of its modest low-budget production, Ride in the Whirlwind is masterful in its naturalistic straightforwardness. The Shooting, also brilliant and featuring many of the same actors, weirds things up and has the reputation of being the better movie. Don’t believe it. Both are exceptional, but Ride in the Whirlwind is one of the true gems of the post-classic American Western. —D.H.
Director: Simon Wincer
Yes, Lonesome Dove was a network television event, but this Peabody-awarded adaptation of Larry McMurtry’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel is a justified exception to the big-screen rule. Take its development: McMurtry’s original tome was based upon a 1972 screenplay he had co-written with Peter Bogdanovich for a film that was to star John Wayne, James Stewart and Henry Fonda; the project fell apart when John Ford advised Wayne against it. The author eventually bought back his script, penned the 800+-page book (which both John Milius and John Huston then tried to adapt as a feature), and in 1989 the six-hour epic was broadcast over four evenings, resurrecting the then-dormant Western (not to mention miniseries) and boasting an A-list cast of movie stars that was rare prior to the current golden age of TV: Robert Duvall, Tommy Lee Jones, Danny Glover, Diane Lane and Anjelica Huston, along with up-and-comers like Chris Cooper and Steve Buscemi. Lonesome Dove is a nostalgic yet matter-of-fact look at the rigors of the unforgiving wilderness, a soapy, satisfying romance and, most poignantly, a portrait of lifelong friendship. Aussie director Simon Wincer (Quigley Down Under) helms the saga of two former Texas rangers, Augustus McCrae (Duvall) and Woodrow Call (Jones), who decide on one last adventure, a treacherous cattle drive from the titular Texas border town to Montana in the late 1800s. Duvall and Jones turn in career-best performances. The sheer breadth of the storytelling on display here, and that masterful acting, makes you glad what could’ve been a feature film had the time to unspool on the small screen. —A.S.
Director: Richard Brooks
A dream team of tough guys is enlisted by a rich old Texan to abduct the millionaire’s young wife back from a former Mexican Revolutionary in this spirited, star-studded adventure. Each hired hand has a specialized area of expertise: Army vet Lee Marvin knows weapons, Burt Lancaster does explosives, Robert Ryan wrangles horses, and Woody Strode is a skilled tracker. But as the mercenaries pursue Jack Palance’s bandit across the border, along with that paycheck from Ralph Bellamy’s tycoon, they learn that the particulars of the job are not as they seem. It’s a simple hook, thrillingly—and violently—executed. There’s terrific chemistry among the leads, Oscar-nominated writer-director Richard Brooks’ dialogue crackles, and fellow nominee Conrad L. Hall’s Technicolor images of the Southwest—practically the entire film takes place outdoors—are unsurprisingly exquisite. At one point, Bellamy’s wealthy jackass curses Marvin, “You bastard,” to which the professional replies, “Yes, sir, in my case an accident of birth. But you, sir, you’re a self-made man.” Part caper, part chase film, part traditional Western, The Professionals is fast-paced, action-packed fun. —A.S.
Director: Budd Boetticher
Produced via John Wayne’s production company, Seven Men from Now is the first teaming between director Budd Boetticher, Western idol Randolph Scott and screenwriter Burt Kennedy. The three of them would go on to make six more magnificent contributions to the genre. And while they all share similar thematic obsessions, each has its own interesting and unique characteristics. Here, Scott plays a man haunted by the murder of his wife and bent on revenge, the typical storyline of most all of Boetticher’s shoot-’em-ups. But the fact that in each movie, despite thematic and plot similarities, so much visual and narrative richness can still be mined is a testament to their long-lasting artistry. The finale between Scott and unhinged villain Lee Marvin is a spectacular cinematic moment, one that resonates long after the brisk 78-minute running time is over. —D.H.
Director: Damiano Damiani
The Spaghetti Western is a subgenre of the Western, and the Zapata Western is a subgenre of the Spaghetti Western. It’s a subgenre within a subgenre, a subgenre inception, or not. What really matters here is that A Bullet for the General is a great flick whether or not you care about categorizations; if you do, it’s probably important to note that this is one of the better known and more influential Westerns of its make. Most important to know is that Klaus Kinski plays a grenade-lobbing idealist priest and Gian Maria Volontè plays his profiteering bandit brother. Their philosophical differences throw a spanner in the works as they fight to support revolution in Mexico. Kinski is most often remembered for his roles in Westerns like The Great Silence, but the gusto and relish he shows in A Bullet for the General is equally unforgettable. —A.C.
Director: Clint Eastwood
A ghostly figure on horseback emerges from a distant, hazy heat mirage recessed in the depths of a desert plain. High-pitched banshee wails squeal like souls of the damned crying out from the land of the dead as the drifter rides into the seaside mining town of Lago. Bystanders gaze at the rider with fear, distrust or possibly a startled look of recognition. A stranger has arrived, and all the dark secrets of the town will soon meet the harsh light of day. Clint Eastwood’s second film at the helm as director, High Plains Drifter finds him coming to terms with his Spaghetti past in this direct homage to the films of Sergio Leone. In the town of Lago, there are no innocents. This message is brought home repeatedly with stark close-ups emphasizing features distorted with anger and rage, rendered grotesque with the almost unbearable weight of their sins. Even Eastwood’s drifter is no heroic icon, almost immediately losing the sympathies of the audience by committing a casual rape of an uppity townswoman who ultimately turns out to be just as complicit as everyone else. Despite its cynical depiction of humanity and its dark subject matter, this brooding, yet never gloomy Western gothic keeps its tight hold on you, depicting a town slowly unraveling, turning against itself as its dirty secrets are exposed by a possibly supernatural entity. —J.P.
Director: Anthony Mann
The final offering in the Anthony Mann-Jimmy Stewart cycle is the most accomplished as well as the most shocking in the series. Instead of the usual misanthrope existing uneasily outside of conventional society, this time our protagonist is a man with a mission. A respected army officer traveling incognito, Will Lockhart searches for the gunrunner who supplied repeating rifles to the Apache tribe that killed his younger brother. Stewart for the most part exudes affability and charm in his investigations, though he easily turns on the tough when cornered. The most memorable performance comes from Alex Nicol in his portrayal of Dave Waggoman. The insecure and arrogant son of cattle baron Alec Waggoman (Donald Crisp), Dave is a spoiled man-child, bubbling over with neuroses that compel him to overcompensate for his perceived humiliations with exaggerated violence—the worst case occurs when Dave has his henchmen hold Lockhart down while he shoots him point blank in his gunning hand as repayment for Lockhart legitimately beating him in a fistfight in front of the whole town. Ultimately The Man from Laramie is a synthesis of Mann and Stewart’s work together, alchemizing all the various elements of the Mann cowboy outsider into one flawed but likable human being. Stewart was never more physical than in this role, insisting on doing his own stunts, even submitting to being dragged behind a horse through a campfire. —J.P.
Director: John Ford
Few could document the majesty of the American landscape quite like John Ford. Filmed primarily in Monument Valley and in glorious Technicolor, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon contains some of the most iconic images of the director’s long, storied career. Much of this can be chalked up to director-of-photography Winton Hoch, who helped model the film’s look after the works of esteemed Western artist Frederic Remington; ironically, Ford would spend much of the production at war with Hoch. Despite the lingering bad blood between the two, it’s hard to argue with the results. Ribbon centers on John Wayne’s Nathan Brittles, a veteran cavalry captain charged with containing a group of Native Americans who have recently escaped from a reservation following the Battle of Little Bighorn. To complicate matters, Brittles is also saddled with escorting his commanding officer’s wife and niece to safety. Wayne would later list She Wore a Yellow Ribbon among his favorite performances, and with good reason. Despite having barely entered his 40s at the time of filming, he effortlessly captures the gravitas and world-weariness of a 60-ish, battle-hardened military man. A must-see for Western and non-Western fans alike. —Mark Rozeman
Director: Andre De Toth
For those who need to be cajoled into watching Day of the Outlaw, consider the presence of Burl Ives, and Robert Ryan, and Andre De Toth. And if you worship at the altar of Tarantino, consider Day of the Outlaw as required viewing—it’s a clear predecessor to and influence on The Hateful Eight, one of the best films of 2015, though De Toth’s noir-forward approach to the Western genre makes this tale of snowbound frontier justice worth your time and our collective admiration on its own merits. A minor classic is still a classic, after all. —A.C.
Director: Sergio Leone
What’s the saying? If you’re going to steal, steal from the best. That’s what Sergio Leone did back in 1964, when he released A Fistful of Dollars upon the world and in doing so reinvigorated a whole genre under the “Spaghetti Western” tag. The film is a straight-up rip-off of Akira Kurosawa’s masterpiece, Yojimbo, and unapologetically so. But Leone proves that lifting a story out of its setting and populating it with a whole new cast of characters works as a narrative tactic. He made stronger movies throughout his career, but A Fistful of Dollars, for all of its influence over the Western from the 1960s forward, is arguably his most important. —A.C.
Director: John Sturges
Even if you know nothing about The Magnificent Seven, I’d bet money you can hum its theme song. Outside of the title track to The Good, The Bad and the Ugly, the theme from The Magnificent Seven is one of the most recognizable theme songs from a Western, if not from movie music period. It’s fitting that such an enjoyable and seminal film would have a great soundtrack. From its origins as a straight-up remake of Akira Kurosawa’s epic, The Seven Samurai, The Magnificent Seven evolved into something else, a fitting homage to its source material, but also a classic in its own right. The basic story is fairly simple: A group of handpicked gunfighters is hired to protect a small town from a gang of marauders led by the flamboyant and dangerous Calvera (Eli Wallach, in his first Western role). Making it clear they are only in it for the paltry cash, the mercenaries, led by Chris Adams (Yul Brynner), slowly grow to admire the peasants of the small Mexican village, and ultimately find a greater moral purpose in defending the town from the bandits. The highly stylish film was a major boost for the careers of several cast members, including Wallach, Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson and James Coburn. Its swaggering action sequences, majestic choreography and use of the more cynical plot point of “hired guns defend a town” over the more traditionally acceptable “one man stands alone to uphold justice” set the basic template for the Western for the rest of the ’60s onward. —J.P.
Director: Henry Hathaway
When you think of The Duke, what’s the first image that pops into mind? I’ll bet you he’s wearing an eye patch and a cowhide leather vest. Rooster Cogburn is arguably John Wayne’s most iconic role. The crusty, hard-drinking, hard-living, one-eyed U.S. marshal was launched into the Western film lexicon in 1969 in Henry Hathaway’s classic adaptation of Charles Portis’ classic novel. Chances are pretty good that Wayne’s portrayal will remain the definitive characterization despite an admirable and brilliant turn by Jeff Bridges in the 2010 remake by the Coen brothers. At times woodenly acted and downright dated by modern standards, the 1969 True Grit nevertheless has a primal power. It’s a coming-of-age story for young Mattie Ross (Kim Darby), a sharp-tongued quick-witted teenager, on a quest for revenge for her murdered father. She hires Rooster Cogburn to track down his killer, who has fled into Indian territory. Rooster admires her spunk, seeing reflections of himself in her stubbornness. Despite their prickly off-camera relationship, Wayne and Darby put aside those challenges and let the characters do the talking. Much of the movie’s beauty is in the deepening of their relationship, in Rooster’s protectiveness toward “Little Sis,” his appreciation and downright enjoyment of her pluck, and in Mattie’s wide-eyed admiration for her champion, a man with true grit. Never mind the many times he lets the bottle let her down. By the time Cogburn hauls snake-bitten Mattie on a desperate all-night journey through the wilderness, it’s hard not to be touched by his devotion and sheer determination to save Miss Ross’ life. The remake is a fine movie in its own right. It has a smoother flow, is truer to the spirit of the novel, and feels grittier to our modern sensibilities. Yet at its best, it can’t escape the shadow of the original and often feels like it is emulating its elder. Isn’t that the sincerest form of flattery, though? —J.P.
Director: Howard Hawks
Howard Hawks’ first Western pitted seasoned rancher John Wayne against his adopted son Montgomery Clift in what screenwriter Borden Chase described as Mutiny on the Bounty with saddles and stirrups. Wayne’s Tom Dunson is a tortured, stubborn antihero, whose early decision to leave his ladylove results in her death, and a lifetime of regret. He takes a young boy, the sole survivor of the Indian attack that claimed his sweetheart, under his wing and, accompanied by his wagon master, continues on, spending almost 15 years growing a cattle empire in South Texas. Following the Civil War, Dunson figures its time for a thousand-mile drive north—with some 10,000 cattle on what would be known as the Chisholm Trail—but the taskmaster’s grown son (Clift) comes to challenge his authority, to mounting peril. A divisive climax notwithstanding (Chase and Clift hated it), Red River is the quintessential Western, marked by a colonial “tough shit” approach to how Dunson takes his territory and a Shakespearean scope. It’s a grand journey rooted in the most deep-seated of human drama. In his first screen role, Clift exudes an intense, neurotic charisma that pushed Wayne to newfound complexity on screen—the tension between generations, values, notions of masculinity and acting methods is palpable, to the film’s benefit. (For another much-discussed relationship, The Celluloid Closet makes the case for a homoerotic subtext between Clift’s character and John Ireland’s Cherry Valance.) Cinematographer Russell Harlan expertly stages such majestic set pieces as the epic stampede, and Dimitri Tiomkin’s classic score swells. Expansive, enduring filmmaking. —A.S.
Director: William A. Wellman
In discussing classic films that involve Henry Fonda as he struggles against a rash legal decision, 12 Angry Men is more than likely the film that instantly enters one’s mind. Fourteen years prior, however, Fonda starred in a significantly bleaker version of a similar story. Based on the novel of the same name by Walter Van Tilburg Clark, The Ox-Bow Incident serves as a dark voyage into the dangers of mob mentality and what happens when human emotion supplants the justice system. Fonda plays Gil Carter, an aimless traveler in the 1880s who—along with his companion Art Croft (Harry Morgan)—ends up riding into the wrong town at the wrong time. A local rancher has apparently just been murdered and the hunt is on to find those responsible—by whatever means necessary. Clocking in at a sparse 75 minutes, the film serves as a master class in dramatic escalation, with Gil and Art first joining the posse as a means of self-preservation only to watch as events mount beyond anyone’s control. Though now more than 70 years old, The Ox-Bow Incident’s portrait of a community driven to its worse self by fear and distrust is sadly more relevant than ever. —M.R.
Director: Alejandro Jodorowsky
When El Topo was first released in theaters, director-writer-actor Alejandro Jodorowsky’s acid Western immediately became a cause célèbre with cinemagoers craving the weird and outré. The movie offered up strangeness in a multitude of ways—allegoric gun battles; a leather-clad gunslinger on a quest for spiritual awareness within a barren landscape populated only with innocent outcasts and psychopaths; a lustful appropriation of the most violent aspects of the Western, particularly of the Italian variety; but at the same time an ambition to move beyond the world of taciturn gunfighters, sadism and cruelty. El Topo is a paradoxical entity. Violent and profane, it also offers up a frequently bewildering blend of mythic wisdom that breaks from any genre constraints. Jodorowsky’s cinematic oddity became one of the first true midnight movie sensations when it played New York City, and audiences were spellbound in stoned rapture with the movie’s filtering of Western- and Eastern-based spiritual ideas mixed with aggressive shock value. While its literal-minded existential theatricality and heavy-handed surrealism can alienate and fascinate in equal measure, there has never been anything quite like it. No, they don’t make ’em like this anymore … nor did they ever really. —D.H.
Director: Nicholas Ray
When you think of Western movies, you probably picture the grandeur of the American frontier: big, open expanses of land capped off with an endless blue sky, a rugged panorama rife with as much danger as opportunity. You probably don’t think of intimacy of setting. In that respect, Johnny Guitar is an anomaly of sorts in a genre that is routinely vast in its physical scope and scale: The film takes place almost exclusively in a saloon that stands just two stories high. You can chalk all of this up either to invention or, more realistically, to budgeting snafus, but Johnny Guitar’s small stature doesn’t hold it back from being a solid Western. Ever notice the homoerotic tensions that crackle between the good guys and the bad guys in Western films? Johnny Guitar plays with that by channeling the energy back and forth from Joan Crawford to Mercedes McCambridge—their characters loathe each other, but not as much as Crawford loathed McCambridge and vice versa. That little reversal is enough to make the film feel special despite being so scant. —A.C.
Director: Anthony Mann
You’d think an Anthony Mann film that casts James Stewart in one of the darkest roles of his career would be arresting simply for Stewart. In fairness to Jimmy, he’s absolutely fantastic here, unhinged, vengeful, and hell-bent on bringing Robert Ryan’s despicable outlaw to justice. But while Ryan isn’t Mann’s lead, he is the source of all the conflict in The Naked Spur, the crafty, devious engine who drives all of the film’s action through chicanery and deceit. He’s a lot of fun to watch, especially in comparison with Stewart, who broods as Ryan schemes. Theirs is a psychological slugfest that’s atypical of the Western’s brawnier pugilist impulses, but under Mann’s meticulous direction, seeing that battle of wits play out proves every bit as pleasurable as watching an explosive gunfight. —A.C.
Director: Andrew Dominik
Is The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford an ode to the first of its two title subjects, or a dirge about the second? Is it a loyal and authentic screenshot of history, or a folk-style retelling of historical events? Maybe it’s all of these. It’s certainly more than the sum total of the answers to the questions it poses, but above all else it’s a movie that attained near-instantaneous iconic status on its release. The film’s great achievement is its ease. You get the sense that Andrew Dominik didn’t make this movie as much as it simply flowed out of him, an anecdotal recount of a legend brought to his end by the toxic punch of hero worship and betrayal. The Assassination of Jesse James affixes intimate narrative to wide scope, as befits the commodious quality of the Western genre, and sets about getting to the promise of its name in as leisurely a fashion as possible. We know what’s coming, but the film is in no hurry to get there, and when the trigger is pulled minutes before the credits roll, the shot rings all the louder for it. —A.C.
Director: John Ford
John Ford’s lyrical and, at times, free-handed interpretation of the shootout between the Earps and the Clantons at the O.K. Corral stands as one the greatest of the old-school Hollywood Westerns to expertly explore themes of revenge, loss and the ever encroaching hand of civilization on the Western frontier. Thanks to the ongoing efforts of Old West historians, we now know that Ford’s romanticized account doesn’t bear much relation to historical truth, but it is mighty potent in poetic truth. The stately pace of life in Tombstone reflects the state of mind of the Earps, men hardened by action and dangerous situations returning to and trying to fit into a fairly calm haven. It also served as a timely allegory for soldiers returning to civilian life post World War II. The arrival of Clementine Carter (Cathy Downs) in Tombstone signifies opposing yet equally bleak meanings for Doc Holliday (Victor Mature) and Wyatt Earp (Henry Fonda). For Doc, she is a reminder of the innocence and respectability he has long left behind in his years of dissolute living. For Earp, she is a vision of the future he could have—a home, a wife, a comfortable life—but can’t bring himself to claim. The dedication of the new church with a square dance social, closely followed by the eruption of violence caused by the Earp-Clanton feud, brings the point home. Although evil has been driven out of Tombstone for now, Wyatt’s soul is still untamed. There is no way he can embrace the life of a solid, upstanding citizen. The final scene between him and Clementine leaves the door open should he heal his internal wounds and choose to return to her. —J.P.
Director: Sergio Leone
The second of Sergio Leone’s Dollars trilogy and the most underrated. It’s also the movie where the director started indulging in eccentric cinematic flourishes—intricate flashback sequences, stretched-out long takes, dabs of absurdist humor coloring scenes of violence—that would peak with his two outright masterpieces, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and Once Upon a Time in the West. Clint Eastwood and Lee Van Cleef play bounty hunters in search of a psychotic, dope-smoking bandit, played by the fantastic Gian Maria Volontè, and his gang of cutthroats. Far more complex than its predecessor, For a Few Dollars More gives Van Cleef and Volontè complicated interior lives. Watching Van Cleef and Eastwood try to outwit each other, particularly in the hat-shooting sequence, and their general cynical attitudes toward the lawless world they exist in makes for solid viewing. Other highlights: Ennio Morricone’s robust score utilizes more discordant textures; Klaus Kinski plays a hunchback(!); and Van Cleef uses an array of bizarre weaponry that would go on to influence other Italian Westerns, particularly the Sabata movies, also starring Van Cleef. —D.H.
Director: George Roy Hill
The top-grossing film of 1969 and four-time Oscar winner was an anachronistic wonder that poked at the stoic bravura of the traditional Western: Consider the broad buddy humor between its pitch-perfect leads, Paul Newman and Robert Redford; the poppy, Burt Bacharach-Hal David-penned score and that theme song, “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head”; and William Goldman’s wry, self-aware script. From the first sepia-saturated moments of George Roy Hill’s take on the Old West, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid rewrote history, literally: Author Goldman famously wanted to tell the story of the titular outlaws’ flight to South America but didn’t want to do sufficient research for a novel-length treatment. And thus, “Most of what follows is true,” the film winks at its start. Gorgeously shot by Conrad Hall, the film is a deftly balanced mix of reverential genre elegy and sometimes deadpan, sometimes slapstick comedy. At its heart is then box office superstar Newman and comparatively small-potatoes actor Redford, the latter taking over after Steve McQueen backed out, balking over whose name would be billed first in the credits. As the Kid’s girlfriend, Katharine Ross complicates the duo’s relationship and lends nuance to what is essentially a love story. Curiously, Butch and Sundance’s posse, the Hole in the Wall Gang, was known as the Wild Bunch in real life but was changed for the screen to avoid confusion with another Western set for release a few months prior to its own premiere. —A.S.
Director: Sam Peckinpah
“Brutal” is the word that comes to mind. Despite incalculable advances in onscreen violent special effects, 50 years still hasn’t diminished the overwhelming gut punch delivered by the orchestrated onslaught of the opening and closing set pieces. After a series of commercial failures, projects plagued by insistent studio meddling, director Sam Peckinpah wanted to make a film closer to his own artistic vision, one that depicted a more authentic view of the Old West than that supplied by the traditional Western, that focused on the outlaws, “people who lived not only by violence, but for it.” Deliver he did. The Wild Bunch is a cry in the wilderness, lambasting Hollywood’s hypocritical sanitization of the West and every Western that ever mythologized it in the first place. The heroes of the piece are low-down dirty men who claim to have a code of honor but only stick to it when circumstances suit them. Only after their options narrow, after being made a fool of by corrupt political forces, do they find a shred of dignity. Taking matters into their own hands, they plunge into a no-win shoot-out to avenge their fallen comrade, Angel, and hell, just because it’s a good day to die on their own terms and at their own choosing. If by some fluke you haven’t seen The Wild Bunch, the director’s cut is definitely the way to go. Steel yourself though. It packs a wallop. —J.P.
Director: George Stevens
Shane is another of the great Hollywood westerns and probably the most archetypal and mythical in its execution. The heroes are truly good, the villains badder than bad. It explores one of the classic Western expansion themes, cattle ranching—or the freedom and lawlessness of the open ranch—versus farming, which eventually leads to civilization and settling down in one place, bringing families and the laws of the city into play. Visually a character straight out of the Old Testament, Rufus Ryker (Emile Meyer) is a shaggy bearded cattle baron hell-bent on driving farming families from the land he considers his. A mysterious rider named Shane (Alan Ladd) arrives in the nick of time to bolster the courage of a group of homesteaders led by Joe Starrett (Van Heflin). Shane and Ryker, along with their cohorts, are relics of the past, ultimately doomed to extinction once the wives and children move in. Unlike Ryker, Shane knows this, and spells it out in their final showdown. The future of the West is in cities and communities. There is no place for lawless men like them in these new frontiers. All these years later, we know that Shane was wrong. Killing and lawlessness still abound in the cities, and big business still tramples the rights of the common man. The film is a reminder, though, that if communities band together, holding strong in faith and trusting one another, they can take back what is rightfully theirs and shape a collective destiny. —J.P.
Director: Sergio Leone
Arguably the greatest of the Italian Westerns, but also one of the finest Westerns ever made. Leone’s penchant for turning the genre’s sacred themes and obsessions inside out goes full tilt here. Clint Eastwood and Lee Van Cleef are back for this third Dollars movie, but the addition of Eli Wallach adds a significant amount of caustic humor and even more cynicism to the mix. Set during the Civil War, though in a dry, barren landscape resembling the surreal panels of a Krazy Kat cartoon more than historical reality, Leone’s epic is the sublime, gloriously cinematic creation that he was always gunning for. Composer Ennio Morricone’s score ties it all together, particularly in the orgasmic “Ecstasy of Gold” finale. The director may have gone even more baroque with his subsequent Once Upon a Time in the West, but this is still his greatest achievement. Pop culture and the genre were never the same. —D.H.
Director: Anthony Mann
Anthony Mann and James Stewart made five Westerns together from 1950 to 1955, starting with Winchester ’73, a movie about a cowboy and his gun. The very image of the cowboy is comprised of totems that range from horse to hat, but these characters generally have very particular relationships with their armaments. A cowboy bereft of his firearm is a man robbed of his lifeline—take away the pistol and suddenly he’s all too vulnerable to harm in hostile lands. The Western canon is full of stories of chases and quests, of people on missions to hunt down either the missing or the absconded, or to make their way to a better place and a better life. Winchester ’73 falls under the former category, except that it’s all about the search for the stolen rifle of the title in addition to the search for its thief. As Stewart’s character labors to track both down, the rifle becomes a kind of plot baton, passing from one party to the next and in doing so sparking strife among undeserving and covetous men. There are bad guys aplenty in this film, but the real villain turns out to be acquisitiveness. —A.C.
Director: Fritz Lang
You know Rancho Notorious has to be pretty damn great if Mel Brooks felt comfortable using its female lead as the basis for Blazing Saddles’ Lili von Shtupp. You also know it has to be pretty damn great because it’s a Fritz Lang film, and Fritz Lang films generally tend to be high-caliber affairs. That’s as true of Rancho Notorious as most anything in Lang’s body of work, but by consequence of its creator, it’s probably better categorized as a Lang movie than as a Western. Sure, Rancho Notorious boasts all of the standard tropes and details we like about Western films—gunfights, fistfights, bank robberies, jailbreaks—but it’s also replete with the standard thematic interests you’ll find peppered across all of Lang’s productions, summed up best by the last line of the film’s introductory song: “Hate, murder, and revenge!” Lang likes inflicting endurance-level suffering on his protagonists, and Rancho Notorious, a noir-grim yarn in which a ranch hand tracks down his fiancée’s killer to an outlaw hideout disguised as a saloon, is no exception. —A.C.
Director: Clint Eastwood
Director-actor Clint Eastwood’s Oscar-winning movie is a foreboding and troubling commentary on the Western genre as a whole, but specifically on Eastwood’s long, significant involvement with them. Eastwood began his career acting in the television series Rawhide, which aired in the late 1950s through the mid-’60s. In 1963, while still a relatively unknown actor, Eastwood journeyed to Europe to work with director Sergio Leone on the so-called Dollars trilogy, becoming a genuine international movie star in the process and making his mark on the genre in ways he never would on Rawhide. From then on, the Western and Eastwood would be synonymous with each other. Eastwood’s screen persona was forged in themes of vengeance, casual cynicism and flippant violence, albeit done with an exacting flair of style and visual wit that audiences had never seen before. Ironic onscreen psychopathy had a new face, and it was devilishly handsome. Unforgiven was atonement. In the movie, Eastwood plays an ex-gunslinger brought out of retirement to avenge the horrible rape and mutilation of a townie whore. Guns are strapped on, lead unleashed, honor brutally restored. But at what cost? It’s not Eastwood’s greatest Western, but it’s an insightful, powerful and self-reflexive examination of historical violence, the onscreen romanticizing of vengeance, and the shaping of Eastwood’s cinematic persona within the genre. —D.H.
Director: Robert Aldrich
Highly influential on much of Sam Peckinpah’s work, specifically The Wild Bunch, and many of the Italian Westerns made the following decade, Robert Aldrich’s deeply cynical and pessimistic Vera Cruz is one of the most entertaining and complex of the classic American Westerns. Burt Lancaster—who worked with Aldrich on Apache and later on Ulzana’s Raid—and Gary Cooper play a bandit and a mercenary, respectively, who get involved in a little gunrunning, gold thievery and romance down Mexico way. There are multiple double-crosses between Lancaster and Cooper, and Aldrich keeps things lively while always twisting the tension further. Lancaster’s terrifying sociopathic smile doesn’t convince anyone he’s on the side of good, unlike Cooper’s stubborn insistence to remain pure above all the backstabbing … until he doesn’t any longer. Released in 1954, Vera Cruz eagerly shook off the uncomplicated romanticism that typified so much of the genre up to that point, and anticipated the bloody cinematic mayhem to come. —D.H.
Director: Sergio Corbucci
Ah, Django. Who can say no to that soundtrack? Who can pass up the grizzled mug of Franco Nero, or the filmic stylings of Sergio Corbucci? Quentin Tarantino certainly couldn’t, and thus we have Django Unchained as a delightfully violent relic of 2012 (see No. 85). More importantly, we have Django and we have Django, a righteous, coffin-dragging, gunslinging, erstwhile Union soldier wandering the United States-Mexico border who winds up caught between tattered remnants of the Confederacy and Mexican revolutionaries. Django cuts a figure of cool reserve, the kind we’ve come to associate with the Spaghetti Western’s antihero archetype; he’s out for a cause, his own cause, and he sees his cause realized through the subterfuge and manipulation favored by his forebears (A Fistful of Dollars, and by extension Yojimbo).
But as great as the character is, it’s Django’s level of violence plus Corbucci’s gifts as a craftsman that make the film indelible. If it’s tame by our standards today, then consider that Django was a new ceiling in screen bloodshed back in 1966, and rife with pissed-off political and social subtext to match. Corbucci’s pastiche of spiritual hypocrisy, unveiled rancor for the Ku Klux Klan, and contempt for glorified misogyny make for a dizzying, surreal genre experience against his mud-caked, bloodstained backdrop. Django isn’t just one of the best Spaghetti Westerns of all time. It’s one of the best Westerns of all time, period. —A.C.
Director: John Ford
And just like that, with one swift zoom shot, John Ford gave John Wayne his breakthrough role and reintroduced American audiences to the man who would become one of their most lasting movie icons. Two Johns, making it happen. Stagecoach isn’t exactly a John Wayne movie despite the fact that John Wayne is in it; this was before the days of The Searchers, of She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, of The Quiet Man, even of Hondo, movies that each helped shape Wayne’s persona and forge his screen legend bit by bit. In Stagecoach, he’s just a man with a rifle, a mission of vengeance and a soft spot for a prostitute named Dallas. Rather than the tradition of Wayne, the film belongs to the tradition of strangers on a journey; it’s about an unlikely and incongruous grouping of humans banding together to make it to a common destination. They ride a dangerous road, but Ford’s great gift as a filmmaker is his knack for making peril buoyant and entertaining, and in Stagecoach he does both effortlessly. —A.C.
Director: Robert Aldrich
Released in the thick of the revisionist Western cycle of the late 1960s and early 1970s, Robert Aldrich’s powerful and savage movie is unjustly misunderstood as a reactionary response to films like Little Big Man, Soldier Blue and others. The Apaches, led by the tenacious Ulzana (Joaquin Martinez), are ruthless warriors, though also intelligent and methodical in their war strategizing. Aldrich and screenwriter Alan Sharp envisioned the movie as an allegory of the Vietnam War, raising some knotty moral quandaries for their lead characters—a naive cavalry lieutenant (Bruce Davison) determined to end the Apache guerrilla war through understanding, and a seasoned, battle-weary scout (Burt Lancaster) who knows the situation is long past that stage. Weighing the ethics of war while being attacked will only get you killed. Trying to do the right, compassionate thing will only cause more havoc and put your troops at greater risk of death. It’s a gritty, unromantic affair and the violence is appropriately ugly and jarring. —D.H.
Director: Howard Hawks
One of the truly great Westerns. John Wayne’s casual, seemingly effortless performance is also one of his finest, in a long career of sturdy, iconic roles. Director Howard Hawks and screenwriters Leigh Brackett and Jules Furthman designed the movie as a conscious refutation to Fred Zinnemann’s earnest, socially aware criticism of the genre (and of conservative America) in High Noon. In that movie, a marshal (played by Gary Cooper) pleads for help from the good citizens of his town to no avail, as some gunslingers come to shoot him down. Hawks and Wayne strategically play out a similar situation much differently. Wayne’s sheriff doesn’t have to ask for help when a gang of outlaws descends on the town to violently free Claude Akins from his small jail cell. A group of misfits—down-and-out alcoholic Dean Martin, pretty boy Ricky Nelson, prostitute Angie Dickinson and old codger Walter Brennan—gladly stand by Duke when he needs them the most. When the bullets fly, Wayne and his friends stand tall and steely-eyed against their foes. From its masterful opening scene—a beautifully edited, wordless sequence involving sad-sack Martin, the villainous Akins and a contemptuous yet lovingly paternalistic Duke—to its climactic action-filled showdown, Rio Bravo hits all the right notes with easy-going charm and grit. There’s even a bizarre but lovable music number. But don’t be put off by Rio Bravo’s casual, old-fashioned charm. At its core, the movie resonates profoundly as a story of true camaraderie, moral duty and what it takes to stand up to wrongdoing when the odds are against you. Rio Bravo’s emotional power echoes with each subsequent viewing. —D.H.
Director: Samuel Fuller
With its slim, hour-and-16-minute running time, you might be inclined to peg Forty Guns as lightweight, but that’s a gross mistake. Samuel Fuller’s 11th feature presents a masterclass in filmmaking from its opening sequence, in which the 40 guns of the title split ranks to ride around the carriage of the brothers Bonnell as they arrive in the town of Tombstone. The credits commence from there, and are followed up with an exquisite tracking shot set to the dulcet tones of Jidge Carroll singing “High Ridin’ Woman,” the theme song for Barbara Stanwyck’s ruthless landowner, Jessica Drummond. If you know and love Stanwyck through her work in film noir (à la Double Indemnity) or screwball comedies (à la The Lady Eve), you’ll probably love her in Forty Guns, too, where she trades sexually lit barbs with Barry Sullivan and generally acts like a badass. The film’s sheer velocity makes it a breathtaking, never jarring ride, one of Fuller’s best and easily one of the great Westerns of its era. —A.C.
Director: Sergio Sollima
One of the finest non-Leone Italian Westerns. It’s also, along with A Bullet for the General and The Great Silence, the best of the so-called Marxist Westerns. Lee Van Cleef is hired by a railroad baron to track down a Mexican outlaw, played by the seedily charismatic Tomas Milian, accused of raping a teenaged white girl. But Van Cleef’s firm belief in right and wrong and just use of corporate power are challenged once he’s on the hunt. There are some marvelously eccentric touches, e.g., wild torture sequences, and a knife vs. gun duel. Ennio Morricone’s score is one of his grandest. But what makes The Big Gundown one of the truly great Westerns is the central, complex relationship between Van Cleef’s bounty hunter and Milian’s revolutionary fugitive, and the pair’s brilliant performances. —D.H.
Director: Fred Zinnemann
One of the handful of films often touted as an archetypal Western, High Noon was actually quite atypical and possibly ahead of its time on its initial release. Director Fred Zinnemann was an unlikely candidate, a German Jew whose main exposure to the genre was through the fantasy Western novels of German writer Karl May. It was possibly the sole Western of its time to have a successful Hispanic businesswoman as one of its prominent characters. The film is often interpreted as an allegory of Hollywood blacklisting during the McCarthy era. Screenwriter Carl Foreman was accused of being a Communist sympathizer, and remained bitter about that fact for the rest of his life. None of these interesting facts would matter if High Noon weren’t a damn fine, gripping Western. Suspense builds with most of the narrative flow progressing in real time. Abandoned by his newlywed Quaker bride (Grace Kelly) and rebuffed by the townspeople, Sheriff Will Kane (Gary Cooper) grows increasingly desperate in his search to find an ally to face off against returning criminal Frank Miller. Due to arrive on the noon train, his old enemy has plans to assemble his gang in order to exact revenge on Kane for putting him away. Tight close-ups of faces, deserted city streets, empty windows, buildings and ticking clocks emphasize Kane’s locked fate and dwindling options, a technique borrowed and expanded on to exaggerated lengths by Sergio Leone. John Wayne thought the film’s themes highly un-American, and later joined forces with director Howard Hawks to film Rio Bravo as a sort of conservative riposte. The Duke was wrong. In retrospect, High Noon is a quintessential American story, expertly exploring the theme of one man, abandoned by those he considered friends, who stubbornly sets out to defy the odds by standing up for what he believes is right. —J.P.
Director: John Ford
In the hands of any director other than John Ford, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance would probably read as Western navel-gazing. This is a film that directly interrogates the themes and tropes that give the genre its identity while celebrating both at the same time. On paper that sounds self-indulgent to the point of abhorrence. In practice, at least under the mastered hand of Ford, it plays. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is one of the last great Westerns to come out of Hollywood in the genre’s classic mode, one with clearly drawn good guys and bad guys who resolve their frontier beef in the designated courtroom of their time and place: their town’s main drag. But Ford isn’t interested in boilerplate cowboys and varmints having a good old-fashioned shootout as bystanders look on like a crowd watching a tennis match. He wants to do more than pit revolver against revolver. With The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, he instead presents a clash of ideologies at the center of a changing world, all while dissecting the mythmaking that is so central to what makes Westerns so satisfying. It’s a contest between the rule of law vs. rule of arms, discourse against brute force.
You can savor the performances of James Stewart and John Wayne, co-starring alongside each other in a Western for the first time, or Lee Marvin, a man seemingly born to play ruthless and brutal heavy types; you can relish the supporting efforts by the film’s excellent secondary cast, which includes the likes of Woody Strode, John Carradine, Lee Van Cleef and Edmond O’Brien. But the names, big and small alike, all fall under the umbrella of Ford, who asserts himself as the film’s true principal with the authority of his peerless craft. —A.C.
Director: Sergio Leone
Let’s get this out of the way: Once Upon a Time in the West is as great as they come, and one of the most influential Westerns of its day. But after the film’s opening 20 minutes or so dribble by, it’s hard not to wonder how the remaining 150 will match them. Sergio Leone’s film is so deliberately paced and so unhurried in getting where it needs to that as soon as the moment passes when we first meet Charles Bronson’s harmonica-playing gunman, we feel as though we’ve already sat through an entire feature. That doesn’t sound like much of a compliment, but Leone’s talent for stretching seconds into minutes and minutes into hours is made all the more amazing by how little we feel the passage of time. Once Upon a Time in the West is truly cinematic, a wormhole that slowly transports us into its world of killers and tycoons, bandits and landowners, revenge and rightness.
There’s a reason that Leone’s masterpiece is considered one of the greatest movies ever made and not just one of the great Westerns: Once Upon a Time in the West is an enduring monument of its era, its genre and filmmaking itself. —A.C.
Director: Sam Peckinpah
This modest, low-budget Western was director Sam Peckinpah’s first great movie and a perfectly realized swan song to its two aging leads, Joel McCrea and Randolph Scott. Both actors had long, vibrant careers in the genre, but by the early 1960s their marquee luster had dimmed. Former lawman Steve Judd (McCrea) is hired to transport gold from a mining camp down the mountain to the nearest bank. He hires his old partner, Gil Westrum (Scott), and another man to be his backups. The job is dangerous and the chances for success slim, i.e., they will probably die. Things grow even tenser when McCrea discovers that his down-on-his-luck pal plans on stealing the gold himself. The script is a tightly wound action movie, but Peckinpah draws out its mythic resonance with casting, dialogue and through Lucien Ballard’s CinemaScope compositions. It was also the first movie in which the director would work out the major themes of his best movies—The Wild Bunch, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid and Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia. The times are changing, civilization has won over lawlessness, and men like our main protagonists are sad relics of that more perilous and overtly violent past. Ride the High Country expertly deals with how McCrea’s character still adheres to a code of honor, while Scott has surrendered his for fast monetary gain. It’s a theme that would only grow richer and more powerful in Peckinpah’s subsequent work. —D.H.
Director: Robert Altman
Robert Altman turns his creative powers to the Western genre, and the results are remarkable. Not only is the movie one of the finest post-classical Westerns, it’s also one of the best American movies of the 1970s and arguably Altman’s greatest work. Warren Beatty plays a saloonkeeper in love with a newly arrived British prostitute (Julie Christie). The two open up a brothel for the locals, and as profits soar, outside investors arrive to buy out Beatty’s business. He declines their offer and subsequently has to contend with assassins sent to finalize the deal and take Beatty’s business and the town by force. Altman’s usual cast of character actors all hit the right notes, and Vilmos Zsigmond’s sepia-tinged cinematography brilliantly evokes pictures of the time, dusty and hazy as if the images have been preserved within an opium dream. Leonard Cohen’s songs heighten the melancholic proceedings, tantalizing us with their lyrical insights into the inner lives of these lost souls. —D.H.
Director: Sam Peckinpah
A battered and bruised masterpiece. Despite egregious studio interference during post-production and the fact that there is no definitive cut of the movie, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid is Peckinpah’s most heartfelt, romantic, bitter and saddest of all his works. Based more on the outlaw legend than historical reality, the director and cinematographer John Coquillon infuse every frame with a profound sense of loss, as the once wild West becomes ever more tamed by the apparatus of civilization and the outlaws make way for the legalized violence of politicians, bankers and the marshals. Ranchers demand that their investments are secure and hire Garrett to convince the anarchistic Billy to flee the territories with his gang. Barbed wire stretches across the rugged landscape, foreshadowing the inevitable clomping of state-sanctioned progress. The smart thing for Billy to do is to get out of the way. But he refuses and Garrett is forced to hunt him down, their showdown resonating with a mythic emotional power. In Peckinpah’s updating of outlaw lore for the freaky counterculture 1970s, he cast Bob Dylan in a co-starring role, and the musician also composed and performed the score. The movie showcases a number of excellent character actors—Slim Pickens, Richard Jaeckel, Katy Jurado, et al.—who made their names in the genre, here in smaller, though significant, roles. A ragged, stoned, angry yet elegiac ode to the West … as it should be. —D.H.
Director: John Ford
John Ford spent much of his career wrestling with the United States’ history of vulgar treatment toward Native Americans, whether in Cheyenne Autumn or in Stagecoach. In The Searchers, he appears to pin that history to the mat, but he maintains his hold with uncertainty even as he carries out the direction of the film with brimming confidence. There are reasons and then some why Ford’s 115th feature is considered one of the best and most influential movies of all time; it is a masterclass in craftsmanship and technical wizardry, gorgeously photographed against the backdrop of Ford’s beloved Monument Valley, that has inspired creative minds ranging from Martin Scorsese to Vince Gilligan. You can’t examine the evolution of modern filmmaking, whether in America or across the globe, without considering The Searchers’ deep and abiding significance as a cinematic landmark.
To describe the film as a journey of obsession would be putting it mildly. John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards is popularly described as an Ahab type, but the truth is that Ethan is his own character. Here is a man whose need to rescue his nieces from a band of Comanche Indians does not drive him so much as it consumes him; his compulsions blend with his rage and justify casual moral atrocities. Such is the power of racism and prejudice as Ford depicts them. Both qualities invite us to act against our better natures, though it is not clear until the end whether Ethan has one—and even then, just as in the beginning, he remains an outsider, the kind of guy you just do not ask into your home. Ethan is as quintessential a Wayne character as The Searchers is a Ford film, and 60 years ago, they left an impression on cinema that is still seen throughout the medium to this very day. —A.C.