Here are some great Westerns
THE LONE RANGER with Armie Hammer and Johnny Depp is being released on July 3rd . Since there are so few westerns made these days, I thought I’d spotlight some classic cowboy movies.
I know a great many B-westerns used the Native American as little more than props, but the best of the Wild West Oaters emphasized how the world thought of America: vast, and full of mystery and promise. The western hero was a person of both rugged individualism and quiet dignity, someone whose word meant more to him than his own best interests. The guys in the white hats faced formidable odds and usually defended the rights of others.
I could have made this piece all about John Wayne as his screen persona symbolized the world’s assessment of America. Indeed, the Duke, as he wass known by friends and those who wanted to be, is still seen as a Mount Rushmore identity, solid, protective and patriotic. And it's John Wayne who starred in one of the best American films ever constructed, The Searchers (1956).
Though it is understandable why many filmmakers of more recent decades would want to debunk the fable of the Old West, sadly, in their zeal to correct the fictional elaboration of the pioneer period, they often lost sight of the Western’s true nature. The Western, perhaps better than any other film genre, poignantly dramatizes not just what we are, but what we can become.
Most on my list are, shall we say, vintage. But remember, if you haven’t seen the film, it will be new to you, no matter when it was made. Go ahead, be a closet classic junkie.
THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN (1960) Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen, Eli Wallach. Derived from the Kurosawa "eastern," “The Seven Samurai,” about seven gunmen defending a poor Mexican village from bandits. Every part perfectly cast and Elmer Bernstein's music is outstanding. Filmmaker John Carpenter states in the film’s “making of” featurette, “Is it the greatest western of all time – no. Is it the most transforming western of all time – no. Is it the most fun – yes!” I must agree.
SHANE (1953) Alan Ladd, Jack Palance. A morality play set in the Old West. Great cinematography, sound, score and textbook editing highlight one of the best westerns ever made.
RIDE THE HIGH COUNTRY. This nearly flawless film depicts the ending of a way of life for two westerners, one a lawman, the other his outlaw friend. Joel McCrea, Randolph Scott. Directed by Sam Peckinpah before his films became filled with extremely violent images.
THE BIG COUNTRY (1958). Gregory Peck. Western epic about a sea captain who comes west to marry. Soon he finds himself embroiled in a range war. Great supporting cast including Jean Simmons, Charlton Heston, Charles Bickford, Carroll Baker, Chuck Connors and Burl Ives (winner, Best Supporting Actor).
STARS IN MY CROWN (1950). One of my favorite films, with Joel McCrea as an 1800s minister dealing with the problems of his church members. A gentle, episodic tale for the whole family. It is a fine example of how our daily walk can eventually affect the lives of others.
MY DARLING CLEMENTINE. Full of John Ford details and the descriptive photography of Joseph P. MacDonald, this is a first class (if highly fictional) telling of the legend of Wyatt Earp and the O.K. Corral. The style, the look, the performances from Henry Fonda, Victor Mature and Walter Brennan – who menacingly tells his cowardly son, “When ya pull a gun, kill a man,” everything about this film is exceptional. It’s a perfect film.
HONDO (1953). From Louis L’Amour’s story, Duke found the personification of his screen image in this tale of a cavalry scout who rescues, and is rescued by, a lone pioneer woman and her young son. A true classic.
RIO BRAVO (1959). Wayne did four films with Rio in the title. This is the one to see. It’s not a great film. It’s just a good western. Wayne and director Howard Hawks did the film in response to HIGH NOON. Wayne had turned that role down because he believed it put the town’s people in a bad light, portraying them all as cowards. Here, several members of the community want to help him face insurmountable odds. Dean Martin is terrific as his one-time deputy, now the town drunk. Great score, great color.
TRUE GRIT (1969). John Wayne, Kim Darby, Glen Campbell, Robert Duvall. Hampered only by Campbell's unskilled acting abilities, “True Grit” stands tall as rousing western fare. Wayne’s rugged, one-eyed Rooster Cogburn was possibly his most energetic, definitive performance and worthy of that year's Best Actor Oscar. Caution: though rated G, it contains some violence and a couple obscenities, but far tamer than the new version with Jeff Bridges. The Special Collector’s Edition contains several bonus features, including a commentary track and several features spotlighting the Duke.
THE SHOOTIST (1976) John Wayne in his last and perhaps best performance plays J.B. Books, a dying gunslinger. PG (contains a few obscenities and profanities – no misuse of God’s name by the Duke; some bloody violence). Admittedly, a gunfighter shouldn't be your idea of a role model, but I bring this film to your attention for its intelligent script. In spite of its few objectionables, it is tame compared to recent westerns. And it validates the Duke as not just an actor, but a very good actor.
John Wayne/John Ford Tribute:
STAGECOACH (1939). As John Ford’s camera introduces us to Wayne’s Ringo Kid, the filmmaker is saying John Wayne is a screen presence here to stay. And he was right. As for the film itself, nearly every other western to come would borrow from this masterpiece.
SHE WORE A YELLOW RIBBON (1949). Speaking of great color, the word glorious springs to mind with this western adventure shot in Monument Valley. Playing a retiring cavalry soldier, this is the quintessential army post film. Mr. Ford did three of them (FORT APACHE, RIO GRANDE and this one). Along with the stunning color, the cinematography is so prominent that it actually becomes a main character in the film. And actor/equestrian Ben Johnson on a horse, being chased by Indians, now that’s movies.
THE SEARCHERS. (1956) John Wayne, Jeffrey Hunter, Natalie Wood. Considered by many critics to be one of the finest films ever, it tells the story of Ethan Edwards returning home several years after the Civil War. Soon his brother's family is murdered by a Comanche raiding party who kidnap his young niece. Years later, Wayne's character rightly fears the girl is now one of the chief's wives. Will the Injun-hating Ethan kill her rather than see her become a "squaw"? In this reviewer's opinion, this is John Ford's most complex western and certainly the most majestic visually. The perfect western.
Best Western Spoof…
SUPPORT YOUR LOCAL SHERIFF. James Garner stars as a stranger with a hidden past who becomes the town law officer in this very funny western spoof. Rated G. A very funny western send-up. Also stars Walter Brennan, Jack Elam and Bruce Dern.
Oh, I know, some of your favorites didn’t make the list. Duke’s RED RIVER, Eastwood’s UNFORGIVEN, others. Tell you what. The next time Hollywood attempts to make a western, I’ll feature several that aren’t listed here. Deal?
Phil Boatwright reviews films for www.previewonline.org. He is also a regular contributor to “The World and Everything In It,” a weekly radio program from WORLD News Group.