In honor of the cowboy movie we’re shooting this weekend, Comanche, and my continued debates with actor Rob Edwards about what a good Western is (he’s a big fan of Gunsmoke), I’ll written up a list of the Westerns I’m most fond of. Now first let me see that the movie we’re shooting this weekend is not a Western; not every movie with a cowboy in it fits in the genre. What makes a Western is something more in this director’s opinion.
It has to do with justice, a personal code in conflict in a Western environment. Most films these days that call themselves Westerns don’t have much to do with the genre at all. Anyway, here is a list of good ones:
This recent entry into the genre didn’t get the attention it deserved. Ed Harris directed a near perfect story of two justice-keepers up against a powerful landowner and a conniving woman. The movie hits to the core of male friendship in an outlaw world as Harris and Viggo Mortensen try to hold onto respect and their bond as they confront love, lust and corruption. I like the way Harris shows the truth of inner justice in Mortensen’s character. Speaking of Viggo, he fits so well in the period he looks straight out of a 19th century photograph. The ending haunts me.
Duck You Sucker
Of all the Sergio Leone movies, this is the only one I like and consider a true Western. It doesn’t have Clint Eastwood in it and most folks who’ve seen Good, Bad, and the Ugly probably haven’t heard of it. It stars James Coburn as an Irish bomb expert who has escaped from his native land for political reasons to wander Mexico. He encounters Rod Steiger as a scallywag Mexican. The two somehow join together and pair up against the army. It features a great soundtrack, some terrific action sequences, but it’s true charm lies in the friendship between these two guys and how they fight each other, but stick together.
McCabe and Mrs. Miller
The darkest Western I’ve ever seen, this Robert Altman-directed picture starring Warren Beatty is not typical of the genre in look or tone. It’s set in a world of blacks, reds and browns; it’s a murky, snow-covered West with little sunshine. The pace is slow and steady, the tone downbeat with Leonard Cohen folk songs to support it. The film is terrific. Beatty has never been better. His character’s noble struggle to set up business in this frontier town and stay an independent is straight to the heart of personal justice. His battle at the end is stripped of all Hollywood artifice. It’s one of my favorite cinematic showdowns.
My Darling Clementine
My favorite John Ford Western has changed throughout the years. The man who stood up in front of the Director’s Guild and introduced himself, “Hello, I’m John Ford. I make Westerns,” defined the genre more than any other filmmaker. I was raised on The Man who Shot Liberty Valance. I fell in love with Stagecoach in high school. It took time for me to appreciate The Searchers but it eventually worked its way to my affection. Right now, I’m quite fond of My Darling Clementine, Ford’s Wyatt Earp story. Henry Fonda plays Earp and Vic Mature does a damn good job as Doc Holliday. It features some excellent characterizations and one of the best western romances I’ve seen. Ford was a master and this might be his masterpiece.
The only movie Marlon Brando directed and boy is it good. Not perfect, but so good. A revenge story with plenty of romance, this Western has some of the best acting of the genre. Karl Malden plays a stunning villain, while Slim Pickens and Timothy Carey steal the show with dynamic character performances. Of course, it’s Brando’s movie. His manner of speech and body movement blend into the stoic cowboy with great, original results. His quiet delivery and sudden explosions make for the film’s best scenes. Unfortunately, it has never gotten the DVD treatment it deserves but picture quality aside, this is a Western worth anyone’s time.
I can’t imagine a list of Westerns without a Howard Hawks picture somewhere in the mix. And thought there’s plenty to be said about Red River, Rio Bravo is the one to talk about. Hawks’ movie is action dynamite with flawless performance from John Wayne, Dean Martin, Ricky Nelson, Angie Dickinson, and Walter Brennan. Martin is stunning as the drunk cowboy trying to get his honor back; Brennan steals every scene he’s in as the loveable, grouchy character Stumpy. The dialog is typical Hawks: fast, clever and full of bite. The characters are professionals as they always are in his films. It’s about living or dying on your best. Oh and Angie Dickinson is sexy as hell.
Budd Boetticher isn’t a common name amongst directors, except for people who really know Westerns. His movies, many forgotten, are lean, mean and as good as it gets. The Tall T is the best of them. It stars Randolph Scott and Richard Boone. These two icons face off in a tight picture that packs quite a punch. It isn’t how different they are as hero and villain but how similar that defines the movie. A scene where they exhange dreams of future lives and discover their desires aren’t too different is touching. This is a theme common to some of the best Westerns: two men, each with his own personal code, these codes collide and one must be killed. The Westerns I like aren’t about good and evil, but men who live by their own rules and sometimes die by the consequences.
Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada
Proof that the Western isn’t trapped in a specific time period, Tommy Lee Jones’ movie represents a modern entry to the genre. The story of an old cowboy who drags a border patrol cop down to Mexico to help bury the Mexican immigrant he killed, it’s one of the most touching films I’ve ever seen. Barry Pepper, a fantastic actor who should be getting lead roles more often, plays the border patrol cop with tremendous emotional weight. But it’s Jones, as director and actor, who really carries the movie. More than ever, he shows his intelligence, the perfection of his craft. I only wish he directed more often. I also wish that there were more experiments with Westerns set in modern times.
Westerns don’t belong only to the Americans and Italians. The Australians are damn good at making them too. Director Rolf de Heer made quite a unique one not long ago. It follows three white men and one native tracker as they hunt for a wanted aborigine. What makes the film so strong are the songs somber and beautiful used throughout and the way de Heer portrays violence: in drawings done in the native style. This film has already slipped through the cracks. I hope more people will watch it.