I can’t count the number of times people have said to me that they won't watch a Western because they just can’t sit through one of “those boring movies.” Not another stale plot of cowboys vs. Indians mêlée or range war standoff, they say. And I agree with them … I can’t sit through those either. Then I tell them there are many great Western films and shows that offer so much more. This prompted me to come up with a list that represents something better than the preconceived notion of the dusty, old genre. You know, a primer of sorts for beginners, or hardened vets. So, stand back, here’s a shot of eleven films and two TV series (in no particular order) that should ignite a powder keg of enthusiasm under any Western newbie.
Tombstone (1993): I’ve yet to find an ornery, anti-Western hombre who wasn’t converted by this retelling of the Wyatt Earp legend. All the actors own their roles, but Val Kilmer steals the show as the lawman's faithful friend, Doc Holliday. My favorite scene is when Doc diffuses a potentially deadly gunfight with nothing more than a shot glass.
A Fistful of Dollars (1964), For a Few Dollars More (1965), and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966): The Sergio Leone/Clint Eastwood “Dollars” trilogy is still influencing the way Westerns are filmed today. No wonder. The music, close-ups, and operatic storytelling are all brilliantly executed. The series has become known for establishing the Spaghetti Western. Interestingly, Fistful was based on Akira Kurosawa's 1961 film Yojimbo starring Toshiro Mifune.
The Wild Bunch (1969) A bloody, action-packed, poignant tale of the last days of several gunfighters and the honor that binds them. Each actor involved turns in a role of a lifetime playing men who have outlived their times and are painfully aware of their mortality. Directed by Sam Peckinpah who also stamped the genre with the equally fine Ride the High Country (1962) and The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970).
Jeremiah Johnson (1972): Robert Redford’s Jeremiah is soured by civilization and decides to be a mountain man in remote Utah. Based in part on Robert Bunker's book Crow Killer: The Saga of Liver-Eating Johnson and Vardis Fisher’s Mountain Man. I recently watched Jeremiah back to back with Redford’s current survival film 'All Is Lost' where he is adrift at sea. Similar themes of man versus nature and enjoyable to compare the distinguished actor at different stages of age tackling the elements.
True Grit (2010): Much has been made of which is better: Wayne’s iconic (and Academy Award winning role) 1969 version or the Coen brothers retelling. I’ll place my chips on the newer version with Hailee Steinfield’s portrayal of Mattie Ross tipping the scale between these fine films.
Once Upon a Time in the West (1968): Arguably Leone’s finest film. Henry Fonda is one bad-ass, razor-cold villain playing wonderfully against type. Charles Bronson is the man with long-simmering revenge on his mind. It is the first in Leone's “Once Upon a Time” trilogy. The other two are Once Upon a Time... the Revolution (Duck, You Sucker) and Once Upon a Time in America.
The Gunfighter (1950): A thought-provoking Western that I first discovered through the Bob Dylan song, “Brownsville Girl.” Gregory Peck plays a weary gunslinger who has grown tired of his fame and just wants to see his son. The film plays out in real time as the gunfighter hard-eyes a clock throughout the film as his past quickly catches up with him.
The Ox-Bow Incident (1943): Gang mentality and what happens to good folks who get caught up in the frenzy of a lynching. Henry Fonda and Harry Morgan play two cowboys who are dismayed by the breakdown of humanity around them and stand up against the mob. The film was adapted from the 1940 novel written by Walter Van Tilburg Clark. A sobering, topical film that was far ahead of its time.
Wanted: Dead or Alive (1958-1961): A TV series starring Steve McQueen. The King of Cool's gritty performance as bounty hunter, Josh Randall, endures. One of the few shows from the old days that is still highly watchable to discriminating younger viewers.
The Shootist (1976): Though John Wayne films are now considered your great-grandpa's Westerns, the Duke's final film where he plays a gunfighter dying of cancer (which he was in real life) is moving and a testament to why he remained a cultural icon for five decades. The opening collage of older clips pays due respect to the legendary actor.
Firefly (2002-2003): A space-Western TV series (14 episodes) that is still attracting new fans. Forget Castle, Nathan Fillion will always be Captain Mac Reynolds to me. His tongue-in-cheek performance is a cross between Eastwood’s Man with No Name and Han Solo. The movie, Serenity, followed the series a couple of years in response to the clamoring of its devoted followers.
Quigley Down Under (1990): Tom Selleck is my favorite Western actor of the past twenty-five years. Check out my earlier review of Quigley, or better yet, watch it for yourself to see why.
The Professionals (1966): Rancher J.W. Grant (Ralph Bellamy) hires four men (Lee Marvin, Burt Lancaster, Robert Ryan, and Woody Strode), all experts in their respective fields, to rescue his kidnapped wife (Claudia Cardinale) from a cowbandit (Jack Palance). The best line is when Grant calls Lancaster’s character a bastard. His reply, “Yes, Sir. In my case an accident of birth. But you, Sir, you're a self-made man.”
So those are my choices. What would you suggest? Let us know your favorite Westerns in the comments below.