Continuing on the theme of westerns, we go from early TV (Growing Up with Westerns) to the movies. There are so many good Western movies it’s hard to know where to start. So I will begin with the one that always comes to mind when I think of one with unforgettable impact.
The Shootist (1976).
A dying gunfighter comes into Carson City past telephone poles and power lines. It is the birth of a new age. The Old West and its era of wild, free, and dangerous, is fading. Facing extinction together, the gunfighter and the Old West Spirit seek a place to die, alone and with dignity. It will become their greatest challenge. The Shootist reads like a who’s who of great known stars.
John Wayne is the notorious gunfighter/lawman, J. B. Books. He wants privacy and anonymity. But that’s not going to happen. Not with his name. He can’t be hidden and he can’t hide from or outrun his past. Lauren Bacall plays what Lauren Bacall plays best — a woman who knows her own mind and is about as easy to sway as a fortified ridge. That would be Bond Rogers, who reluctantly rents a room to Books, who is dying of cancer; Ron Howard plays Bond’s teenage son, Gillam Rogers, fatherless and impressionable. Jimmy Stewart is Dr. Hostettler, who explains the ravages of cancer upon the body and mind — the indescribable pain — and advises Books to allow laudanum to ease his way. This is the last on-screen performance for both Stewart and John Wayne. Stewart had briefly come out of retirement for this cameo role, and Wayne was ill during the filming, though his cancer was in remission at the time. Stewart and Wayne were said to have had a hard time remembering their lines. When the director complained they weren’t trying hard enough, Wayne told him if he wanted it done better he should get a couple of better actors.
Hugh O’Brian (who played Wyatt Earp in the early TV series) is the fero dealer, Pulford. He’s not a good guy. Richard Boone is Mike Sweeney, who hates Books for killing his brother. Serepta (Sheree North), an old flame who has come to rekindle, is in fact only there to cash in on Books’ memoirs when the famous man dies. Harry Morgan plays Marshall Thibido, who does not like the idea of a notorious gunfighter in his cleaned-up town. When confronted with the fact of the gunfighter’s terminal illness, the marshall’s sympathy goes so far as to say, “Don’t take too long to die.”
And who better to play the undertaker, Hezekiah Beckum, than the lean and cadaverous John Carradine, hovering like a carrion crow. In fact, so many vultures are circling in this movie that the emotional pressure is palpable even as his physical pain increases. To me, John Wayne’s last role was his crowning achievement as an actor. The Shootist was nominated for several prestigious awards, and received the National Board of Review Award as one of the top ten films of 1976. (Wikipedia). It’s an unforgettable, must-see-before-you-die movie.
Others films that should be on everyone’s Western Movie Bucket List is:
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)
Starring John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart, Lee Marvin, and Vera Miles. Stewart portrays Ransom Stoddard, a peaceful, thoughtful man, brutally beaten during a stagecoach robbery. The leader of the robber gang is the town bully, Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin), who continues to victimize the helpless student of law who knows nothing of how to defend himself. Stoddard’s hope for the future is as a man who defends and upholds the law, not one who breaks it, no matter the provocation.
But for all his inner caliber, Stoddard is forced to deal with a different kind of caliber, one that shoots bullets, something he knows nothing about. Tom Doniphon (John Wayne) tries to teach Stoddard a thing or two about handling a gun before setting out for a one-sided gunfight. The movie probes the questions — What is the measure of a man? How does a man hold on to his ideals against those who have none? Is seeing believing?
A great addition to any film library, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is another of John Wayne’s finest, and Jimmy Stewart is perfect as the man torn between ideals and reality. In 2007, the film was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”. (Wikipedia).
Once Upon A Time in the West (1968)
A Spaghetti Western by Sergio Leone starring Henry Fonda, Charles Bronson, Jack Elam, and Claudia Cardinale, If you’ve never seen it, be prepared. Henry Fonda is the bad guy, and I’m here to say he does “bad” really good. Very intense. I like some Spaghetti Westerns, but, for me, they drag out too much. This one does to an extent, but stands out from the crowd. Yeah. I know. I know. Spaghetti Westerns are essential to every breathing man’s movie library. I get it. It’s a man thing.
High Noon (1952)
Black and white classic starring Gary Cooper, Grace Kelly, Harry Morgan, Lon Chaney Jr., Lee Van Cleef, and Thomas Mitchell. High Noon won four Academy Awards and four Golden Globes The town Marshall (Cooper) marries a Quaker lady (Kelly) and steps down from his lawman role just as he learns some nasty heavies are coming in on the noon train to exact revenge. The battle — for the Marshall — is not only with the killers, but with his courage, his conscience, his pacifist new bride, his deputy who holds a grudge, and the lily-livered townspeople.
The suspense builds with every loud click of the clock in the quiet town as the Marshall steps out into the street alone. You can’t beat the suspense, the acting, and the music in this one. Gary Cooper is one of my all-time favorite actors. In 1989, according to Wikipedia, High Noon was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”, and is #27 on the American Film Institute’s 2007 list of great films.
The Magnificent Seven (1960)
Starring Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson, James Coburn, Eli Wallach, Robert Vaughn, Jorge Martinez de Hoyos, Vladimir Sokolov. Although it was tepidly received by critics, the film grew in audience and appreciation over the years. The haunting score lost out in the 33rd Academy Awards only to “Exodus” The plot of the story was simple. The characterization was not.
It is the second most televised film in U.S. television history, behind only The Wizard of Oz. The film is also ranked No. 79 on the AFI’s list of American cinema’s 100 most-thrilling films. In 2013 the film was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”. (Wikipedia)
Starring Kurt Russell, Val Kilmer, Sam Elliot, Charlton Heston, Billy Bob Thornton, Bill Paxton, Powers Boothe, Jason Priestly, Billy Zane, and Robert Mitchum as the narrator. Tombstone hits the highlights of the life of the iconic Western “superstar” Wyatt Earp, whose real life was bigger than his legend. The movie includes the O.K. Corral, The Earp Vendetta Ride, The Cowboys, and other legendary figures of the West, Johnny Ringo and Doc Holliday. It depicts the life of Earp as he decides to try home and hearth and make a living as the owner of a gambling casino. But every day of his life turned out to be a toss of the dice. And even though Earp lived into his eighties, he found there were more ways than one to lose what a man holds dear.
It is amazing to me that, according to several of his life stories, Wyatt Earp not only lived a long and full life, that he not only lived through the hail of bullets, but he was never even wounded, although at times his clothing was riddled. It was as if he lived in a charmed bubble.
Although this movie is violent, it depicts a violent and bloody era. Val Kilmer was unforgettable in his role as Doc Holliday. It’s worth watching the movie just to see him wrap himself in that Southern and deadly Doc persona. Tombstone so incited a former pastor of mine (true story – his words), that when it came to the train scene he jumped up and down screaming, “Yes! Kill ’em. Kill ’em all!” And he wasn’t even a violent man, just excitable. In my opinion, Tombstone was a much better production, in both acting, action, and story, than Kevin Costner’s “Wyatt Earp”, which came out the following year.
For the Western genre it ranks number 14 in the list of highest grossing films since 1979. (Wikipedia)
Dances With Wolves (1990)
Kevin Costner directed and starred in this critically acclaimed, haunting, heartwarming, film. Combining authenticity with character were; Mary McDonnell (Stands With A Fist), a captured white woman who spoke the Lakota Indian language, but retained only a vague memory of the white man’s tongue; and Graham Greene (Kicking Bird), an American Indian actor who was born an Oneida on the Six Nations Reserve in Ontario, Canada. (Wikipedia)
Lt. Dunbar (Kevin Costner) is a Civil War veteran searching for peace. Still in the U.S. Army after convalescing from a grave wound, he is sent to the abandoned Fort Sedgwick, deep in the open frontier, by a commanding officer who has lost his mind. Determined to stay and rebuild the primitive fortifications while writing and drawing pictures in a journal, he also begins to rebuild his identity, a self that was shattered and almost finished by the war.
He ultimately builds a relationship with a small Lakota tribe who does not speak his language and Dunbar falls in love with the freedom of the vanishing wild, including a lone wolf who visits his sod dugout. One of the many powerful scenes in this film is the buffalo hunt which kept my heart in my mouth throughout its thundering moments.
Dances With Wolves won seven Academy Awards, including best picture, best score, best actor, and the Golden Globe Award for Best Motion Picture. It was selected by the Library of Congress for preservation in the United States National Film Registry. (Wikipedia)
Open Range (2003)
Starring Robert Duvall, Kevin Costner (also director and co-producer) Annette Bening, and Michael Gambon. Critics agree that the gunfight scenes in Open Range are some of the best of all time. “The action in Open Range is filmed real time, grabbing the audience and showing them that when this kind of stuff happens in real life, it happens faster than you think it would.” It is called “bullet time”, and many films tried, and failed, to get it right. The scenes were filmed in wide shots and garnered praise for their intense realism, although the movie got slapped with an R rating. (Wikipedia)
Duvall (Boss) and his trail hands, are open-range cattlemen, driving their herd cross-country, when they encounter a small town controlled by a land baron who despises open-rangers. The drovers try to keep a low profile and keep trouble at bay, but trouble seeks them out. Costner, a trail hand, again portrays a Civil War veteran tired of killing and violence. The bond between Boss (Duvall) and his hands is close and their loyalty to one another puts them in harm’s way.
I loved the relationships in this film, but especially that of Charlie (Costner), and Sue (Bening), who assists the town doctor. It is a film that is well-developed, with exciting scenes and a realistic profile of an era of blood and violence as the squeeze for land begins. Another thing I like is, that once an enemy is absolutely identified, there is no yak-yak-yak, or, let’s let him walk away to wreak more havoc and kill more innocent people. He is taken out with no more thought that killing a rattle snake – with startling and extreme prejudice.
In a breath-taking juxtaposition to the violence, there are the awesome, panoramic views. The movie was filmed on the Stoney Indian Reserve in Alberta, Canada. Trivia from Wikipedia: — This location was so far from civilization that they had to spend $40,000 to build a road to get there. — Professional wranglers handled 225 head of cattle on the set. — Costner said that if Duvall had turned down the part, he might not have made the movie at all. Duvall accepted the role immediately and Costner gave him top billing. — Duvall got bucked off a horse and broke six ribs while practicing his riding for this role. (Wikipedia)
A Man Called Horse (1970)
Richard Harris stars as Lord John Morgan, Judith Anderson as Buffalo Cow Head, Manou Tupou as Yellow Hand, Corinna Tsopei as Running Deer, Eddie Little Sky as Black Eagle, Iron Eyes Cody as the medicine man. In 1825 English aristocrat John Morgan is captured by Sioux Indians and enslaved. They call him Horse as a name of disrespect. The film is partially spoken in Sioux. Treated like the animal he is named for, Morgan struggles to survive. Dreaming of escape, he tries to put them off guard by mimicking their ways. But as he becomes more and more mired in the culture of the tribe, he comes to respect their courage and way of life, though often brutal, and sets out to earn their respect in turn. The best quote from this picture is: “In England I look up to God and royalty, and down on everyone else.” A Man Called Horse is often thought of as a precursor to Dances With Wolves. It starts slow and builds, but is well worth the time invested. Richard Harris is great.
Quigley Down Under (1990)
Quigley is the story of a marksman (Selleck) who is paid to come to Australia to shoot dingoes (types of wild dogs), only to learn that his employer (Rickman), has hired him to shoot an entirely different target – human. Aborigines. Which is where he and his sadistic boss part ways and Selleck becomes the “Spirit Warrior”, accompanied by “Crazy Cora” (San Giacomo).
Filmed entirely in Australia, the panoramic views are spectacular. I’ve already done a full review of Quigley Down Under, but had to include it in this list. Quigley is a compelling Western drama that got mixed reviews. For me, Selleck, San Giacomo, and Alan Rickman, have an on-screen presence and power that kept me riveted to the screen.See thevillagesmith.wordpress.com/?s=quigley&submit=Search
The Cowboys (1972)
Starring John Wayne, Slim Pickens, Bruce Dern, Roscoe Lee Browne, Colleen Dewhurst, and a very, very young Robert Carradine. As time approaches for his 400-mile cattle drive, Wil Anderson (John Wayne) finds his cowhands have deserted him for the gold fields. With no able-bodied men left in town, Anderson hires eleven school boys after they are tested for their horsemanship. He is impressed by an older boys’ abilities, but turns him away because of his quarrelsome nature. Soon a group of unsavory deadbeats ride up asking for work. They look anything but reliable and honest, and after catching the leader (Bruce Dern) in a lie, Anderson sends them on their way.
This movie was so different, with children braving the long, dangerous trail that taxed grown men, it couldn’t help but become a favorite to share with anybody who would watch it with me. Bruce Dern as the cruel and brutal Asa Watts will make you cringe, yell, and pound your fists. The sometimes timorous, yet manly courage of the boys as they grow skilled under Anderson’s tutelage, will break your heart. John Wayne and Browne (the cook), shepherd the little flock as best they can against overwhelming odds. It is a great movie that received criticism for portraying boys coming to manhood through violence. To me, it was about boys coming to manhood by overcoming great odds through brains and skill. In the real world, few boys in dire circumstances have the father-figure of John Wayne, who called it “the greatest experience of my life”.
The Tin Star (1957)
Starring Henry Fonda, Anthony Perkins (then a newcomer to the screen), Neville Brand, John McIntire (Wagon Train), Betsy Palmer, and Michel Ray. Henry Fonda is Morgan Hickman, a former sheriff who has become a despised bounty hunter. He is ostracized by society, forced to the life of a loner. How he has come to this pass is a secret buried deep inside and wrapped in grief, a secret that quiet, reliable, newly-elected town sheriff Ben Owens (Anthony Perkins), gently probes.
Aspiring to become the best lawman, Owens patiently but steadily wears the unforthcoming Hickman down until he agrees to teach Owens how to protect himself, his new wife, and his town. These are quietly powerful performances by Fonda and Perkins. A low-budget film, The Tin Star was nevertheless nominated for the Academy Award for Best Writing, Story, or Screenplay, It has since become a Western film classic which, at first, looks to be just a simple Western – until you look a little closer.
The Long Riders (1980)
Starring the Carradine brothers — David, Keith, and Robert as the Younger Boys. The Keach brothers — James and Stacey as Jesse and Frank James. The Quaid brothers — Dennis and Randy as the Miller brothers. The Quest brothers — Christopher and Nicholas as the Fords. There was also an appearance by Ever Carradine, Robert’s daughter, and Kalen Keach, son of James Keach portraying the son of Jesse James. And let’s not forget Pamela Reed as Belle Star as a prostitute and on-going love interest — though history says Star was never a prostitute.
I am not a fan, per se, of outlaw movies portraying the likes of Jesse James, killers who have become legends and anti-heroes to untold numbers of impressionable boys. What makes this film an exception (for adults only) is the astonishing juxtaposition of their family lives with the cavalier killing of innocent people. What’s more, director Walter Hill is bold-faced and unapologetic. He wanted to do something no other director had done, like portraying four sets of brothers by real brothers, which gave the film an even deeper realistic quality, and made viewers want to see it for that anomaly if nothing else. Hill is quoted as saying, “They were thugs, but there’s no point in making a movie about thugs, even if that was the literal truth.” (TotalFilm.com)
The gang members are shown as wild, rough men in post-Civil War days as America tries to pull together the tatters of civilization. It traces their lives from homecoming to robbing banks and trains, to their Waterloo in Northfield, Minnesota. In between, the film gives a feast of great period costumes, and men made up to look as rough as their lives, as well as the softer side of life in the form of the women who loved them. Whatever, this movie works for me. The cinematography alone was enough to draw you in, not to mention the soundtrack by Ry Cooder, which won the 1980 Best Music Award from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association.
Except for the 1950s films, these movies are not for children or the squeamish. They are violent and depict the darkest side of human nature, though in the majority of them it is a battle against evil by men with clay feet.
New generations of movie buffs may not have seen these classics, though the titles are, by now, a part of the American language. But, even if you’ve seen them all, it may be time to revisit. I have to do that occasionally. And this is, by far, a short list. So enjoy your movies.
For those of you who are Western buffs who can’t get enough of Westerns, try westernsreboot , a blog that has everything about the genre on TV, movies, books, games, etc. It is written by Chad Beharriell who teaches college courses on the Old West and the people who love it. Read the “About” by Chad for the beautiful and colorful path to his interest in Western culture and history.