Top 100 Westerns
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Top 100 Westerns
(Reprinted from above link)
Here are the top 25:
25. The Naked Spur
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.
24. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
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.
23. My Darling Clementine
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.
22. For a Few Dollars More
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.
21. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
Director: George Roy Hill
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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.
20. The Wild Bunch
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.
18. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
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.
17. Winchester ’73
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.
16. Rancho Notorious
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.
14. Vera Cruz
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.
11. Ulzana’s Raid
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.
10. Rio Bravo
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.
9. Forty Guns
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.
8. The Big Gundown
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.
7. High Noon
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.
6. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance
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.
5. Once Upon a Time in the West
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.
4. Ride the High Country
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.
3. McCabe and Mrs. Miller
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.
2. Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid
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.
1. The Searchers
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.